Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Censor Slayer's Arsenal

(Paolo Uccello, "The Princess and the Dragon", c. 1470. Don't we all love damsels in distress?)

In Words and Attitudes, I argued that whether a statement or action is offensive doesn't really depend on the content, but on the circumstances and the intentions behind it. To most of us, this would seem like an obvious truth and not even worth mentioning, were it not for the fact that there are people out there who are unable (or unwilling) to acknowledge such differences of context. As if the very existence of such shallow minds wasn't sad enough, many of them even presume to force their daft worldviews on the rest of society. Stupidity and self-righteousness is an especially annoying combination. For some strange reason, they frequently seem to go hand in hand.

Anti-BDSM crusaders are a fine example. I never met a single one who had a real argument to make. Their entire case is based on purely subjective feelings and preferences, unwarranted claims and sloppy over-simplification. It all collapses once the facts are put on the table. Needless to say, that doesn't deter the zealots in the least - they are determined never to let facts get in the way of personal prejudices. It's a bit like arguing with a conspiracy theorist who believes that the Apollo moon landings weren't real. No matter what rational and conclusive evidence you bring forward, they just keep babbling on and on, repeating the same old lines as if they hadn't been debunked a thousand times already. So we still have debates about BDSM promoting "violence against women" and all that nonsense.

Actually, the fairy tale about kinky pictures "causing violence" is often employed as the main angle of attack, because it embellishes the anti-BDSM movement with a noble aura - the goal of preventing crime and protecting society. So let's examine it in some detail. I do this purely for my own personal amusement. I realize that I'm preaching to the converted here. The pro-censorship crowd doesn't read my blog, and even if they did, they wouldn't be convinced. But I just love to see half-baked ideas crash and burn. If they insist on repeating the same old arguments, why shouldn't we? The only (and very significant) difference is that our arguments are better.

Their claim always comes down to this, in one form or another: "Violent porn encourages violent behaviour." To start with, I don't care for the "violent porn" label. BDSM among kinky adults is consensual, therefore it isn't violence in the true sense of the word. You could use the adjective as a purely superficial description, like when we say that boxing (another consensual activity) is a "violent sport". But even that is a bit of a misnomer. At best, it means that BDSM isn't any worse than rough sports, which are perfectly legal and regarded as unobjectionable in most societies. As well as that, BDSM films aren't necessarily pornographic, but that is another story.

Let's concede the terminology for the sake of the argument. The more important point is that "violent porn" simply doesn't encourage violent behaviour. Years and years of scientific research haven't produced anything to support this sweeping generalization. It is true that such media might influence a very small number of individuals who already have a strong disposition towards violence. Proponents of censorship cite cases of rapists and sexually motivated serial killers who watched pornography and claimed that it was responsible for their actions. Even if we ignore the fact that sociopaths are habitual liars and notoriously unwilling to accept responsibility for their own actions, this poses three questions:

1) Can it be said with any certainty that they wouldn't have committed their crimes without the "aid" of pornography?

2) Why do rapists and sexually motivated killers also exist in societies where porn is not available?

3) Why does the vast majority of porn viewers never turn to violence?

So far, supporters of censorship haven't managed to address any of these questions convincingly.

Even if you believe that violent porn could have a minor, contributing influence on a small number of disturbed individuals, it doesn't justify censorship laws that would restrict the freedom of millions of law-abiding citizens who pose no threat to society. Moreover, porn isn't the only thing that might excite a sick mind. Ted Bundy, one of the worst serial killers in history, not only collected pornography, but cheerleader magazines as well - the sort that 12-year-old girls get in the mail. If you start banning things on the vague notion that a sociopath might find them arousing, there won't be any media left before too long.

If anything, the empirical evidence that exists seems to undermine the argument. Sex crimes aren't more frequent in countries where pornography is freely available than in those where it is illegal. Japan, where vicious "rape fantasy" porn is highly popular, has one of the lowest sex crime rates in the developed world - in fact, it actually decreased as porn became more widespread. So the evidence does not only fail to support that violent porn encourages violent behaviour, it points in the opposite direction.

Leaving the aforementioned doubts aside, it could be asked why pornography is singled out. Why not ban all violent media, like mainstream horror films? Why not ban boxing matches and martial arts contests while we're at it? Of course, there are people who would love to do just that. But their main obsession seems to be with erotica. Is the alleged violence the real issue here, or is it the fact that we have to endure the sight of nudity?

Usually, they counter by saying that the problem lies in the combination of violence and pornography. Horror films are fine because "they aren't produced for sexual arousal". This is a curious argument. Who can prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Eli Roth did not intend Hostel to be arousing? Anyone who has done a course on aesthetics knows that the "intentions" of an artist are very shaky ground for a theory, let alone law-making.

Moreover, what does the mindset of the artist have to do with anything? I thought we were talking about the potential influences on the viewers, and those could extend beyond what the creator intended. What if I watch Halloween and get an erection when Mike Myers kills all those girls? Let's say the writer and director didn't want that, but isn't it just as bad? Logically speaking, we would have to ban all violent media because someone, somewhere might find them sexually stimulating.

Lastly, let us ignore everything I have cited so far and concede the whole argument. Let us say, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that violent porn encourages violent behaviour and that we should get rid of it. In this case, I suggest that we also immediately ban 1) religious materials and practices, and 2) alcohol. The actions of Al-Quaeda and countless drunken fistfights, both of which occur on a daily basis, show that these things also encourage their fair share of violence. Actually, in light of the evidence, the case against them is much better than the one against pornography.

Now, you might say that only a small handful of religious people ever turn to terrorism, that this is not representative of the vast majority. But apparently, a few extreme cases are enough to make the whole thing objectionable. Just as with violent porn, right?

No, of course not. The old canard that "violent porn encourages violent behaviour" is hogwash, pure and simple. It doesn't have a leg to stand on because there is no empirical evidence. It is also highly self-contradictory because, if you actually follow the logic of the pro-censorship crowd through to the end, you come to various conclusions that they don't support. Or claim not to support - I believe that, in truth, many of them would like to outlaw horror films, for instance. Which is probably the next target if you let them get the foot in the door with pornography.

But never fear, the facts are on our side. If you suffer the misfortune of meeting a zealot, you have the arsenal. Just put the arguments on the table. It won't shut them up, of course. But it will show the undecided vanillas out there that it's the censors who are irrational and dangerous - not kinky people like us.


tigerbutt said...

Well said old boy!

And as to preaching to the choir, may we get an A-men from the Amen corner?

Ludwig for Pope!

Anonymous said...

Can't add anything to your as-always articulate breakdown of the situation. You point out all the flaws in the legislation; I only wish those with influence would read it and take it to heart.

Ludwig said...

Tigerbutt: Thank you, but I'd prefer the title and the office of Holy Roman Emperor. It's more in line with the Bavarian king motif, you know...

Niki: It's an eternal struggle between freedom and censorship, and there'll always be setbacks for our side, too. Such as yesterday, when the UK government's thought police law about "extreme images" was passed by the House of Lords.

But there will also be victories again. The opposition to the law doesn't rest, and I can only encourage everyone to keep up the fight... As I said, the facts are on our side.

As for me, I'm not a UK citizen, but I'll be celebrating if the slap in the face for Brown and Labour in the local elections is as big as everyone predicted...