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Posted by on Jan 22, 2013 in Aesthetics, Culture, In the news, Law, Philosophy | 6 comments

David Koch breastfeeding debacle

Here in Australia there are anti-discrimination laws that protect breastfeeding mothers from refusal of service and the like, and these are laws that I am perfectly happy with. They have a good secular basis in looking after the worldly interests of those women. If you don’t want to be confronted by the sight of breastfeeding in your own home, you have control there. But if you take on a degree of private power as the proprietor of, say, a shop, the law favours the interests of breastfeeding mothers over other people who might find the sight “offensive”. I’m good with the way that balance is struck.

However, it raises larger issues. I could imagine another jurisdiction – in fact, I’m sure there are many of them – going in precisely the opposite direction. I.e., not just forbidding discrimination against breastfeeding mothers but actually forbidding breastfeeding in public. A law like that would presumably operate on the basis of the offense principle, rather than the (John Stuart) Millian harm principle. The idea is that the law may protect people from sights, sounds, smells, etc., that do not harm them in any obvious way, such as physical pain or injury, or financial loss, but which they find psychologically repugnant.

A lot of my work in recent years has involved exploring the limits and problems of the Millian harm principle, a principle that I generally accept and consider defensible. Part of the principle is that we don’t ban things merely for offensiveness, as opposed to harmfulness in some quite strong (but difficult to define) sense.  As a matter of fact, I don’t think a sharp line can be drawn between harm and “mere” offense. For example, exposure to certain sights and smells, and especially combinations such as the sight and smell of vomit, can produce a reaction of nausea in many people. Accordingly, I do support some narrow use of the offense principle to protect people – especially people who are captive audiences – from the display of certain things that are of high emotional impact. For example, I would not want to see billboards with gory, high-impact images of exit wounds. Generally speaking, we are entitled to enact laws on such a basis where: (1) the impact is very high; (2) the impact is very widespread (i.e. most people, or at least very many people, would experience it); and (3) the positive reasons in public policy for allowing the relevant display or exposure are weak.

Of the above, (3) is important. Without it, much freedom of speech and personal expression would be denied to us because of the sensibilities of prudes, prigs, puritans, bigots, and the like.

This brings me back to breastfeeding. What kind of person suffers a high (negative) emotional impact from the sight of a woman breastfeeding? The current brouhaha in Australia follows from some remarks by a financial commentator cum football manager cum tabloid TV journalist, David Koch. I hesitate to give this person even more publicity, but in the scheme of things this is a fairly low traffic blog, so let’s talk about all this knowing that it will give little benefit to “Kochie”‘s popularity.

David Koch seems to think that there is something rude, indecorous, discourteous, etc., about a woman breastfeeding in public, so while she should be allowed to do so it should be in some kind of furtive, shamefaced, “discreet” way. At least he’s not calling for it to be banned, but it does raise the question of what is so indecorous or discourteous about a woman openly breastfeeding, even if, gasp, a breast, or even – gasp! – a nipple is on display.

It seems that Koch himself has some kind of negative emotional reaction to this, or perhaps he just thinks that other people do, and he wants their sensibilities to be protected. The downside of this is that it pressures breastfeeding women to regard an action that is surely a good thing as something socially frowned on and to be engaged in with a degree of humility and apology. Surely that goes against public policy in this area of the law and social interaction.

Beyond this, however, why all the squeamishness about certain parts of women’s bodies, such as their breasts, and about a natural and good activity (note that I am not committing the fallacy of saying that merely because it is natural it is good)? It’s about time we got beyond this way of thinking, and this way of socialising people into reacting emotionally.

It’s also about time we stopped according so much influence to intellectual lightweights like Koch, but that won’t happen soon. The guy actually does have influence, so he does actually have to be answered. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where celebrities are taken seriously, so they have to challenged.

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  • Puritanical body-shame needs combating, surely. I’m not offended by nudity of any body type, but I recognize that many (most?) people don’t feel this way. Regardless, strong negative reactions to the sight of female breasts and nipples are counterproductive if we want to foster 1) proper nutrition and 2) inclusiveness of child-rearing in public society. Those seem like proper goals for a secular state!

    Laws and/or norms which compel women to feed their children at home make our communal lives poorer, and if a rich and fair community is in the interest of the state, its laws should at least allow for public breastfeeding. I even feel comfortable suggesting the state spend monies promoting breastfeeding (regardless of whether it’s public or private) because of the health benefits.

  • A good and measured analysis as ever, Russell. I share your view that we should set the threshhold for ‘banning offence’ pretty high, and also that any offence must be offset against countervailing goods. Although there are disputes about the precise extent of benefit from breastfeeding, I doubt anyone would seriously want to argue that, here, the harm-benefit calculation is firmly on the side of – at the very least – permitting it in public, and very possibly of requiring private businesses to tolerate it on their premises.

    I also agree that we’d all be better off if we divested ourselves of some of the sillier nudity taboos. Hysterical reactions ot the sights of ‘dirty bits’ should really have been left behind in the playground. My only minor caveat is this: like it or not (and I don’t), we do in fact live in a society that promotes a particular view of female breasts. That is reflected not just in glamorous/fetishized portrayals, but also in taboos and restrictions, some of which are scarcely more logical than mandatory head-covering in some Muslim countries. (Though of course the penalties may be far less draconian.)

    All that being so, it can be understandable for some people – guys in particular – to feel a certain awkwardness around breastfeeding women. It would be unrealistic to expect them – us! – just to switch off all the other conditioning about bare breasts and nipples in a particular context. But y’know, a bit of low-level awkwardness isn’t the end of the world. And – lest it need said – that’s a very long way from providing the justification needed for any sort of ban, or even excluding or shaming.

  • DrewHardies

    I agree with your conclusion. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much of my agreement comes from something like, “Their squeamishness is silly. My squeamishness is a legitimate moral concern.”

    I’m getting particularly tripped up when I try thinking through some examples of public displays of sexuality.

    While I’m happy that there’s a taboo against sex-acts in public. However, it’s hard to come up with any (non-mitigatable) physical harms. And it seems like an opponent could take many of the pro-breast-feeding arguments (it’s a natural, healthy thing that’s unfairly stigmatized by society) and apply them directly.

    Is there a good way to distinguish between the two? And are there any examples of offence-based-harm that are really defenisble?

  • RussellBlackford

    I would have thought that offense at two people having sex in the street or on a bus, for example, would be much higher in emotional impact, much more widespread in having that high impact, and much less counteracted by other public policy considerations. Babies often have to be fed more or less when and where they want, whereas lovers usually seek privacy to express themselves without being scrutinised by others – there’s no public interest in allowing them to have sex exactly where and when they get the urge.
    That said, I do think that a lot of laws about nudity, public expressions of sexuality and sexual love, etc., are difficult to justify… and of course a lot of the laws and social mores that exist in one country (say, most parts of the US) might be very different in another (say, Germany) with no great problems where the laws and mores are less restrictive.

  • Ann

    This is the exact problem: that some struggle to see a baby feeding from a woman’s breast is not a sex act.

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  • Colin Gavaghan

    Drew, I think that’s an important point. There’s a temptation to accord weight to such considerations in such a way as to validate our own intuitions and impulses about certain things. Certainly, it’s something about which we should all be on guard.

    To take your example: I too would be made uncomfortable by sex acts in public – a bit, anyway. But I’m completely unbothered by, say, two men kissing or holding hands. Other people appear to feel strongly repulsed by such sights. Why should my comfort level be protected by law, but not those of the other people?

    Of course, I could offer reasons – concerning the differing cultural significance of those acts, say, and the adequacy of more discrete alternatives. But would that be me reasoning, or simply rationalising?

    If you haven’t already, i would strongly recommend reading Joel Feinberg’s work in this regard.