Freedom of expression often walks a fine line with offensive and hateful acts. When the form of expression is permanent ink on your body numerous conflicts of rights and repercussions can emerge. The story of Byron Winder is one where an expression of opinion had lasting effects. Winder was a skinhead gang member who tattooed his entire body, including his head and face, with hateful white supremacist images. After his change in opinion and reform to get out of the white power way of life Winder was left with tattoos that no longer showed his true feelings and only brought about perceptions of him as a menace. He was automatically judged from his appearance and shunned by society. His willingness to endure the long and excruciatingly painful process to remove the tattoos shows his commitment to his reform, but it can also be interpreted as a result of society’s negative reaction to his portrayal of past opinions.
We have read several pieces on protection of freedom of expression. Mill’s aim was to protect the voices of the minority from oppression of larger groups. Winder’s opinions were of a small minority, and perceived by the majority as harsh, hateful and ultimately wrong. Did he have the right to express this opinion and be protected? Personally I don’t think he could be stopped from putting these tattoos on his body, but he certainly should have had to suffer the consequences that resulted. His expressions of opinion crossed the line into hate speech. Not only were his opinions hate speech, they were a permanent mark of hate. While it may be said not to judge a book by its cover, this cover revealed the contents (though previous) of the book and offended many.
We have also discussed in class issues of identity. Winder put these tattoos on his body at a time in his life when he was creating an identity of himself as a white supremacist. Should he be punished for this identity he created? I feel as though he defined this identity for himself, which he had a right to do, but because of the severity and racist brutality of his created identity society had the right to form an opinion. What about the identity of the groups Winder was hateful towards? Their identity was compromised by his hate and in my opinion they have every right to resent the way he presented himself.
After Winder spent time in jail he changed his opinions, but the marks remained. He found it difficult to obtain a steady job or to be seen as the loving father he was. Once he decided to change he made a commitment to endure whatever was necessary to remove the tattoos. I commend Winder on his ideological and physical change. How do you feel about what he endured? Was it worth it for him to go through such immense pain to change the way he was perceived? Should he have had to?
Was it right for Winder to be treated like an outcast because of his tattoos? Where do we draw the line between what is considered a person’s expression of ideas and opinions and what is considered offensive and hateful language and action? This is more than an issue of body art it, is an issue of the repercussions sometimes faced by expressions of personal opinions and the outward representation of identity.