City Paper is not for tourists
Philosophical meetup group Café Philo DC met with some metaphysical controversy earlier this month when it chose its latest topic of bi-monthly discussion: “What’s Really Wrong with Bestiality, Cannibalism and Necrophilia?” The thinky social group regularly meets at Reiter’s Books, an independent bookstore specializing in scientific, professional and technical books, located at 1900 G Street NW.
Out of nearly a dozen topics put forth, participant David Sobelsohn’s suggestion won a majority vote as the next topic of discussion. But, before the irreverently titled talk was posted on the group’s website, the organization’s founder and moderator Ken Feldman quickly put the kibosh on it.
When Feldman, who resides in Rhode Island and manages the group from there, got whiff of the topic, and spoke with Reiter’s Books’ manager Daphne Gaskins, he made the unilateral decision to change the democratically elected discussion topic to the far less provocative and somewhat vague: “Is Sexual Morality Culturally Relative?”
“I had an issue with [the topic] immediately,” Feldman says. The public discussion’s intent is to “broaden philosophy and to keep it on practical issues…philosophy to everyday life,” which didn’t apply in the case of Sobelsohn’s topic. Though, he adds, “it’s not always possible to make a clear connection.”
Past topics touched on human nature, moral issues, ethics and terrorism including, “Is Romance a Necessary Illusion?” and “Can There Be Morality Without Religion?”
Cafe Philo DC is an extension of an international network of philosophical cafes, originating in Paris, France in 1992. Back then it was about “Marc Sautet and several friends who got together discussing various issues of the day…[and today] ranging from the classical to the absurd.”
Sobelsohn argues, “Frankly, most of the topics that this particular philosophy discussion group discusses are pretty bland and boring. And ‘What’s wrong with bestiality’…it’s not bland and boring; it’s pretty provocative. And I think it’s a disturbing and thought-provoking topic. It’s the kind of topic that makes you think about what it means to be human…the heart of philosophy is to discuss what’s wrong with something.”
He says the idea is wholly relevant in today’s society, citing University of Chicago scholar and author Martha Nussbaum’s recent discussion about her new book, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, which touches on the idea of disgust and how it’s permeated public opinion and legislation, at Politics and Prose. He also points to Pulitzer Prize-winner playwright Edward Albee’s “The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia,” a dark comedy that touches on bestiality, which graced the stage at Howard Community College last week.
However, Gaskins, who offers free space to the group at her bookstore, feared the safety issues in discussing a topic of that nature in her small store.
“We’re all for freedom of speech, but I didn’t want any kids hearing about it,” Gaskins says. “Sometimes customers do get offended. This is very new to us…I just wanted the topic broadened, so it just wouldn’t be on that in particular.”
In an email sent to the group, Feldman explains:
“First, while Café Philo DC encourages the discussion of intellectually provocative topics, the original phrasing of this one is so gratuitously incendiary for public dissemination that Reiter’s prefers neither to be associated with this language nor to promote it on the store’s web site as it customarily does for our meetings. Second, I also think the initial formulation of the topic could create a misimpression of Café Philo DC in the minds of some people unfamiliar with the event, perhaps require a moderator with expertise in abnormal and/or clinical psychology to insure an optimally productive discussion, and even attract the attendance of some people with serious psychological problems related to the topic’s substance.”
Despite a topic change, when the group met last Sunday, discussion of bestiality, cannibalism and necrophilia went on, says Ken Rothschild, one member who voted for the original idea. Sobelsohn was not in attendance, and has since chosen to remove himself from the group.
“We weren’t stopped by the moderator as to what we could truly talk about,” Rothschild says. “I think, again, it was more that kind of courtesy.”
Rothschild says he wishes Sobelsohn had attended in order to raise the issue of censorship and perhaps how to deal with issues of that nature in the future.
Though Rothschild was disturbed by the censorship, he says, “I don’t think it should be dismissed ho hum…but I think as I get older, I realize there’s a certain politics to life. I feel nudity should be in the society, but I realize that doesn’t always work.”
Photo by gagilas. Creative Commons Attribution License.