Saturday, August 23, 2008

A look at pornography and censorship

Photographs of nude teenagers that prompted police to close a gallery exhibit, of work by Bill Henson in Sydney sparked an obscenity investigation. The exhibition was cleared by censors as non-pornographic. (Collection of news stories)

However an art magazine followed up with a protest that featured nude photos of a six-year-old girl posing in adult jewellery. Again no charges were pursued.

Intrepid, redheaded blogger D.K. Raed never forgets a thing, least of all a potentially saucy story. Some time back I referred to an event in my early political life to illustrate a point, the event related to a view on censorship and I promised to get back to it. So here, D.K. is a different sort of post for me, a personal reflection; and probably a disappointment for you.

Genesis of censorship views

Still short of my teen years I had tired of the limitations of the children’s library and nervously ventured into the hallowed adult version. From that first visit I fell in love – twice. The range of books, real books covering a vast new world for me, laid out in serious dark wood shelves and mysterious nooks and crannies was immediately welcoming.

Yes, love at first sight, and both ways it seems to me, as I was made to feel right at home in this new setting. Partly that was the second love affair – platonic I might add; what would I know at that time about any other kind? She was the ageless librarian, owlish glasses, long straight hair and long straight tweed skirt; the very embodiment of the rich intellectual content of the library.

At first she guided me through the actual contents of the library, learning my tastes then expanding them. He husband, I was told, was an international airline pilot, and often bought banned books into the country. She urged me to read one of these, The Ginger Man by J P Donleavy.

That book had the desired effect of launching me into a love of literature, as well as my love of non-fiction. But I still haven’t worked out why the book was ever banned. Sure the story portrayed stark realism as well as dark humour, but all in proper context. It certainly didn’t trigger any unseemly pubescent dreams.

Champion anti-censor

A few years later, when in my mid teens I’d become politically involved the censorship issue again reared its ugly had. This time it wasn’t gritty sexuality the authorities feared, but Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. I expect it was only the ban which inspired every young person worth there salt to get hold of a copy, the LRB itself wasn’t very inspiring.

Then came along a relatively young Minister for Customs, the man responsible for censorship. After years of conservatism Don Chipp, like a shining knight, rode in and hacked the banned book list to shreds. Even D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley's Lover became required reading, though I’m still not sure why. It really has very little appeal to the rebellious teen.

A little power

Still later, into the early 1970’s I had graduated from political foot soldier to minor power broker. The party describes itself as ‘broad church’ and extended from my mildly leftish position to the conservative Christian right. It was this latter group who again dragged me into the censorship debate.

My support, among many others, was sought to push through policy to drive essentially very mild pornography off newsagent’s display stands. I had a young family, and it was considered proper that I should protect them. My problem is that I was opposed to censorship, and I still am.

My argument has not really changed from that time – censorship and other prohibitions not only don’t work, they actually drive illicit markets. The best advertising a book, film or play can get is the prudes screaming for banning. It is about choice, even wrong choice; but it is also about understanding the social dynamics before trying to control them.

I would always argue that the most efficacious social policies generally require a fair measure of effort. I don’t profess to understand the artistic value of the photographs in those news items leading this post; I personally find the images disturbing. But I can choose not to go to that particular gallery or pick up that art magazine.

Find the cause first

The argument of any deleterious effect thy might have on others is speculative. I know it is, because for years I’ve argued that if pro-censorship people were serious they would fund studies to understand why people need/want pornography; which is to my mind in the eye or reaction of individual viewers, not a blanket threat.

In the end there is no concrete, objective social measure of what constitutes a social threat, what constitutes dangerous pornography. Social values change continually. I’m assured women’s shopping catalogues can be regarded as mild porn, and we are aware tat an innocent pic of a child can become dangerous in the hands or eyes of some.

The arguments aren’t going away, and the all pervasive internet will make its management all the more difficult. So surely it is time to focus on the hard work aspects, launch the range of studies needed to define the dangerous triggers and the reasons they are triggers. The words and images are not the danger, the reactions they cause are what we should be understanding.


D.K. Raed said...

This is certainly NOT a disappointment! It is a very well thought out, reasoned approach on a tricky subject.

I also have strong objections to censorship, believing that as long as the consumer can avoid it, it is their choice whether to indulge & should remain so. There are times & places where the images are not avoidable, but I guess that's where the subjective definition of truly offensive comes into play. Is it really is all in the eye/mind of the beholder?

I don't think so. Pornography encompasses a wide swath & some of it does cross the line. Would it be censorship to ban porn utilizing subjects incapable of giving consent? especially children, since they are below the age of consent ... they should never be featured or used pornographically.

ps, great library description! I remember well when I moved out of the children's section. For me, that meant finally reading Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc, authors assumed to be beyond a child's comprehension. But never the LRB! (hmmmm, maybe THAT is porn? just kidding!)

Cart said...

DK, I’ve toyed with the ‘exploitation of the vulnerable’ issue. It is very real, but still subject to shifting social mores. The fact is human society is exploitative, and most of us vulnerable in some regard. But I think we’ve already gone too far in imposing so-called ‘protections’ without understanding the full dynamic, including the likelihood of future changes of perception.
In fact I feel many driving the impositions are as much social bullies as those they are trying to control. It is hardly surprising prohibitions are driven by ‘power’ people. The very need for power and control speaks of personal insecurities.
But for all the prohibitions imposed on us life goes on as always, and evil and good prevail alike.

That library (those old libraries) still haunt my memories. But I recall, not long after being introduced to these treasures, discovering on my own works by Robert Graves – I Claudius & etc. I have to say they were more sexually explicit than anything else I read at the time, and far more intellectually instructive and exciting.

D.K. Raed said...

nope Cart, for me it doesn't matter about shifting social mores. there is still an age of consent implicit in every human society I know of. I don't need to know the full dynamic to know that children and nonconsenting adults, and to be all inclusive, ALL animals, should never be used in pornography.

But as you say, there are prohibition people whose personal agenda is more about power than protecting children, etc. And of course, they give definitions that are subjective. This is why it is so tricky.

Certainly a family environment, by its very nature, is more in charge of how their children will perceive as pornography than the state. Very tricky!

ps, love I, Claudius! wow, those romans were sure uninhibited. did it make for a healthier society? aaah, tricky, again.

Cart said...

Sorry, I didn't mean to imply children or other vulnerable people shouldn't be protected. It should be a priority.
But as you well know laws to protect children and agencies around the world charged with their protection are notoriously ineffective.
As you suggest, it should come back to families, but they often harbour attackers.
Communities are increasingly failing to play their traditional role, so it's difficult to know where the effective protection might realistically come from.

D.K. Raed said...

I knew you didn't ... just wanted to make it clear.

It might be relevant to point out that some of the earliest human carvings would be considered pornographic today. Not to mention, the earliest recorded human writing, once it gets beyond basic accounting of wheat sheaves for the king, has an element of explicitness that churchgoers today would probably faint over.

D.K. Raed said...

***** CNN, CSPAN, AP are all confirming breaking news right now: Biden is Obama's Veep pick. Secret Service guys are surrounding him, so it must be official.

Cart said...

I guess they know what they are doing...

abi said...

Interesting post, Cart. Yes, "tricky" is right. Off the top, using a 6-year-old in nude "art" photos is exploitive at best. But could it be art? Well, yes. But is it exploitive of the child nonetheless? Yes. But...

Yikes. To quote a future US president, this is way above my pay grade.

Cart said...

Ali, one of my problems, looking at the long line of prosecutions around the world, is that people who support a strong moral line are generally the same group turning up as transgressors.
Not saying they are actually activists, but from that broad range of thinking.
The problems seem to be deeply entrenched in society and psychometrics. THe fact is, we a have a society where the foxes are in charge of the hn house.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Cart
This is an excellent post with interesting insightful comments.

Maybe you can even apply for a position to become a part time member of the independent statutory body which represents the Australian community on classifiactions. (From G, (general) to X (restricted).

To attempt to answer some questions philosophically is no mean feat. The only logical course I feel I can take is to examine current thinking in relation to its influence under post modernism and the relativist philosophies which have negated the idea of being with its moral responsibilities.

It has become fashionable to be dismissive of facts and empirical evidence (particularly sociology which has been hijacked by post modernism) as we equate the human condition to the existentialists idea that whatever values we have in life are what we create and their can be no room for the transcended or intuitive in giving rise to what is right and wrong.

Hence the argument of pornography is one that relates to freedom, a freedom to return to mans primordial and pre civilized state where sexual expression can be reduced to its physical dominant expression and pleasure devoid of intimacy.

But our waiting rooms are becoming full of those seeking treatment for this approach, craving intimacy, for without imtimacey humanity is dead. Our being was always more than its existentialist state barring mental impairment. Our conscience and intuitiveness are the foundations of humanity which tell us what is right and what is wrong, but you have to be prepared to listen.

Are we going to carry on and not address the growing influence of pornography and its known warping effect away from intimacy ?

I quote from Jean- Paul Sartre ambiguous phrase-‘Condemned to be free’.

Best wishes

Cart said...

“apply for a position to become a part time member” Thanks Lindsay, but I’ll pass on that one. On the philosophical approach; fine for perhaps understanding the dynamic, but it seems very uneven in practice.
I suspect those titans of pre-history, John Howard, George Bush, et al, tend to be dismissive of facts and empirical evidence as well. Broaden the debate here beyond perceptions of sexuality, recalling my mention of Mao’s LRB.
Societies proud of their free speech have happily proscribed books, in very recent times, they believe include political and/or security risks. This, notwithstanding, and information included in most of those books is freely accessible on the web.
A recent report is of Random House backing of publishing The Jewel of Medina, an historical novel about the Prophet Mohammed's second and youngest wife, Aisha. The reason cited is that it might offend Muslims. Strangely Muslims have led the protest against the publisher’s self censorship. Article
The protesters might cite philosophically argument, I doubt Rupert Murdoch and his minions understand anything beyond next months bottom line. Perhaps the argument there is much censorship is truly ill-informed and/or uninformed.

lindsaylobe said...

That is indeed the point I was attemting to make.

It began with the postmodern period directly after WW2 that led to the existentialist movement and post modernism. It is rooted in the idea that all there is to humanity is what we make of it and create within our society. There can only be relativity; no need for critiques or for the lessons learnt from history. It hold the view history cannot contribute anything other than the warped and twisted view we learn from those who attempted to intrepid it from their own biased viewpoint.

How can we argue with one who refuses to acknowledge any argument must have roots or empirical data or logic but rather vehemently asserts its relevance can be based upon its modern consumer driven agenda and its only responsibility is to satisfy that agenda ?.

This is a form of censorship to shape the agenda towards the emotions of fear and ignorance and in some respects it has succeeded.

We are all philosophers although many do not wish to acknowldge that fact and the responsibilities of our freewill which represents our humanity,

Our choices will affect all of us in our respective communities. The reference you gave was a good example.

Best wishes

Praguetwin said...

Well, just to chime in, this issue is quite a big one here in the Czech Republic. This is one of the few places where users of child pornography are not criminally liable. However, this legal protection has made it very hard for authorities to break up child pornography rings.

One of the problems with legalization of vice in small areas is the concentration that occurs in those areas. Needle park in Switzerland comes to mind. As does the roving packs of early-teen male prostitutes in Prague's main train station and the wolf-like German middle-aged men who come for a weekend or so to delight in delicate young flesh at discount prices.

Indeed, you make a good point of it starting with family, but who will protect those with no family, and those whose own family (as was recently the case here) are the exploiters?

Food for thought.

Cart said...

You are quite right Lindsay and there seem a host of ways of viewing the same issue. At times the academic approach concerns me because it is so dependant on critical analysis and intellectual integrity something the general punter knows little about. However the approach is instructive, if requiring some translation.

PT I certainly don’t advocate legalization of reprehensible behavior, but two difficulties arise:
Who makes the judgment and how do they make it? What are the criteria? What can be considered reprehensible over time?
Next, you can’t legislate morality. Legal restraint, historically, just means behaviour becomes less obvious, it doesn’t go away.
It seems, as fraught as the approach is, the only effective remedy, once we decide the guidelines, is to create strong social expectations of behaviour. But society can even swing on that in a short space of time.