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Posted by on Jan 29, 2013 in Books, Culture, Debate, Law, Philosophy, Politics | 9 comments

Waldron on pornography

One of the oddities about The Harm in Hate Speech by Jeremy Waldron is the author’s attempt to support his case by drawing an analogy with the regulation of pornography. This actually weakens the book, at least for me – and I imagine that many readers would feel the same way.

Waldron’s argument for suppressing at least some hate speech is that this kind of speech is group libel. Just as ordinary libel can destroy the reputations of individuals, and thus damage them as social beings, limiting their ability to participate in society, so hate speech can destroy the reputations of all the individuals in the impugned group, to the point where they are no longer regarded as equal participants in the society. In the extreme, some hate speech can convey the message that people in a certain category are unwelcome in the society, appropriate victims for subordination and exploitation, or even sub-human vermin who should be exterminated.

Such speech, says Waldron, is not acceptable in the public square. I’ll probably return to this in later posts – it has problems, but I am not totally out of sympathy with it. Again, I touched on some of this years ago when I wrote a piece on hate speech for Quadrant magazine.

Waldron draws on the highly controversial writings of Catherine MacKinnon to illustrate his point. MacKinnon sees pornography as conveying similar attitudes about women. By “sexualising” women in the way it does, it presents women as appropriate victims for all sorts of subordination and even as sub-human. Thus, the state has an interest in suppressing pornography or at least producing systems of hostile regulation of pornographic speech.

The problem here is that Waldron is attempting to defend a controversial thesis (about the regulation of hate speech) by appealing to an even more controversial thesis (about the regulation of pornography). Perhaps it will be convincing to some people who are already hostile to pornography and believe that public policy should share their hostility, but many of us reading The Harm in Hate Speech will tend to think more along the lines of: If this is the sort of argument Waldron needs to run, he is in real trouble.

Of course, the state does suppress the public display of many images that involve nudity or explicit sexuality. I doubt, though, that the historical basis for this has much to do with the perception of such images as hate speech against women, portraying women as unwelcome in the society, as appropriate victims, or as sub-human (and in the extreme as needing to be exterminated). There could, indeed, be some pornographic images that convey those outrageous messages. But the historical hostility to nudity and explicit sexuality in public has more to do with enforcement of Christian morality (including ideas of “shame”, “sin”, and so on) and, in contemporary times, simply a sense that these things cause somewhat high-impact offence to many people.

I’m not defending this – much of the regulation concerned should probably be repealed or at least softened. But this is surely the real basis for legislative attempts to desexualise public spaces.

More troublingly, Waldron seems to be buying into the extreme thesis that “sexualising” women itself demeans them. Presumably the same would apply to “sexualising”men. But this idea of sexualisation (as a bad thing) always trades on a vagueness about what it is to “sexualise” someone or something.

If someone or something that we normally regard as not sexual is portrayed as sexually arousing, or as an appropriate participant or element in sexual activity, that may or may not be a problem. It is a problem, I take it, if children (whom we like to think of as not sexual beings) are portrayed as sexually arousing and/or as appropriate participants in sexual activity, thus normalising pedophilia. But if adult human beings are portrayed as sexually arousing or as appropriate participants in sexual activity, there is not obviously a problem at all – we are sexual beings, and the fact that a particular person is seen as sexually attractive, as sexually arousing, as someone you might like to have sex with, etc., in no way entails that she is not also competent, cognitively equal to others, a respected citizen, a person of good character, etc. It in no way entails that she is unwelcome in the society, someone who deserves to be subordinated or exploited, or someone who is sub-human and deserves to be exterminated. Likewise, no such thing is said about other people who in some way resemble her.

Think where this could lead. Are we going to claim that every time someone dresses in such a way as to attempt to be sexually attractive to others that they are thereby engaging in a form of hate speech against themselves and others like them? Is wearing sexy clothes theefore a moral and political wrong? Why not, on the theory under discussion?

This would very quickly lead us to a Talibanesque society.

In the ultimate, some pornographic images might be analogous to hate speech and therefore problematic. There might even be a good basis for laws prohibiting some kinds of pornography. But you can’t start at the other end, suggesting that there is something problematic about pornography… and then use an analogy with this as an argument against hate speech.

  • Spot on, Russell. (Though it’s probably some kind of heresy for me to take sides against my own Faculty’s patron saint!)

    I suspect that our current regulation of ‘pornography’ has precious little to do with an aversion to ‘sexualising’ women. Overtly sexual images of women adorn the covers of glossy magazines displayed in supermarkets, to choose just one example. Typically, these will be images of the woman alone, displaying her body for an invisible audience, sparsely clad but with ‘naughty bits’ just about covered. If there’s any concern about ‘sexualisation’,* I guess it would be there. But not only are such images not banned, they aren’t even regulated in the sense of being confined to licensed outlets or sold only to adults.

    Meanwhile, images of adult men and women having sex together are heavily regulated, despite the fact that they seem – to me at least – to avoid some of the concerns about depicting women in particular as objects to be paraded before men. All of which suggests that it’s the degree of explicitness, rather than the tone of the material, that will dictate the law’s response.

    * I’m far from convinced that showing some women in sexually provocative poses/costumes really does communicate a message that all women are sexually available all the time, at least to minimally sane people. But insofar as such concerns have a solid basis, such depictions of women would seem like the sort of thing that we should be concerned about.

  • Ronlawhouston

    I haven’t read the book, but I do agree with you on the weakness of the pornography argument. However, I do confess that I may be biased by my views which are probably pretty much diametrically opposed to Waldron’s.

  • Charles Sullivan

    “But the historical hostility to nudity and explicit sexuality in public
    has more to do with enforcement of Christian morality (including ideas
    of “shame”, “sin”, and so on) and, in contemporary times, simply a sense
    that these things cause somewhat high-impact offence to many people.”

    I would argue that it’s women as property that’s ultimately behind Christian morality, not “shame, sin, and so on.”

    And sadly, pornography is so common denominator that too much of it involves humiliating people (e.g., facials, rape-fantasies, mom/boy, dad/girl, daughter deserves it hard, etc). Have you examined the state of free online pornography at all recently? Or are you sitting in a philosopher’s proverbial chair?

  • RussellBlackford

    Believe it or not, Charles, I’m not actually very interested in looking at anything you and I would probably classify as pornography, so you might say that I’m sitting in a philosopher’s armchair. Guilty!

    Then again, I’ve checked out enough popular porn images and videos in the past to make sure that I know what I’m talking about, at least to an extent, and yes some of it does strike me as demeaning or nasty or whatever. Hey, I even think that a lot of the images in comics are demeaning, as I’ve blogged about in the past.

    On the other hand, some of the material I’ve seen does not strike me as demeaning at all, though it’s also not interesting to me. And even the material that I positively dislike may have some kind of value – I think it would be simplistic to compare it to racist hate propaganda. Some of what you described sounds “kinky” in off-putting (to me) ways, but not much more than that. I do object to “facials” and I tend to think that those images actually do tend to reflect and reproduce (as it were, sorry) or perpetuate callous attitudes toward women.

    Then again there’s also a helluva lot of stuff around that maybe you don’t even think of pornography, but it would certainly be regarded as such by many other folks. E.g. the sorts of magazine covers Colin is talking about, ordinary nude or near-nude photos of models and celebrities, relatively innocuous home-made videos, etc.

    I’m not sure whether you’re just making an observation about the low artistic value, and perhaps bad moral values, in a lot of current pornography or whether you’re supporting anti-porn legislation. Would you like to clarify that before we take the discussion further?

  • Colin Gavaghan

    Charles, I’m willing to raise my hand and say that, yes, I’ve looked at online pornography – a tiny, tiny fraction of what’s there, but enough to recognise what you describe. However, I’d probably be a bit more nuanced about the categories you describe. I don’t think there’s anything wrong per se with people exploring these sorts of ‘transgressive’ sex acts or relationships within the context of a fantasy. In fact, from my (limited and vicarious) experience, I’d say that the BDSM community is a lot more concerned with respect, consent and boundaries than a good deal of the ‘mainstream’, and that is reflected in some (though by no means all) BDSM porn.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen a fair amount of fairly ‘regular’ sex acts accompanied by the most staggeringly misogynist captions. With apologies to those with delicate sensibilities (or just a modicum of taste), why does footage of two people having apparently mutually gratifying sex merit a caption like ‘bitch/slut destroyed/punished by monster cock’?

    Now, whether such captions are causative of harmful attitudes to women, or merely reflective of them, is an argument that we could have until the proverbial cows come home. But either way, I welcome the day when we can browse sexually explicit content without encountering such evident and frankly sickening displays of hatred.

  • Arcus80

    “why does footage of two people having apparently mutually gratifying sex merit a caption like ‘bitch/slut destroyed/punished by monster cock’?”

    My immediate assumptions are that these are merely marketing gimmicks (exaggeration) and that a majority of people – at least a majority among those who watch online porn – are aroused by what’s essentially dirty talk. Ad the first point there is just such a wealth of choices that extreme language is required to receive attention, so there is a self-selection of extreme (in a literary sense) titles to receive an extreme amount (in a statistical sense) of views. Re the second point, what was the most selling book last year again..?

  • Vic

    Seems to be marketing gimmicks, since those movies appear several times under different titles. Many scenes seem to be sold once as “casual”, then sister/brother, then daddy/little, then “cheating wife”, then ” girlfriend”, “my daughter’s friend”, “the new neighbour”, then “boss/employee”, then “husband/babysitter” etc. no matter the actual age difference and appearence of the, well, “actors”. If income is gained merely by number of clicks, this kind of “google bombing” probably results in higher revenue.

    Regardless of that, what raised my red flags whan I heard about the anti-porn movement was in connection with gay porn. Two men having sex, now where’s the misogyny one might wonder? No problem: The theory is that the “receiving” man takes the place of a woman (so, whoever is actually getting a facial, you can be sure the victim is womanhood, even if no woman is in the movie).

    Since I find the view that homosexual men are treated as “proxy women” or secretly have the wish to be women or that “dominant” gay men treat their partners like women rather problematic, I distance myself from these positions entirely. Frankly, the water from THAT well is a bit too bitter. >insert taste of sperm joke here<

  • Dave Kendall

    I think you make a good point about where this line of thinking regarding “sexualisation” could logically lead.

    It’s something that struck me while following a feminist campaign to close down strip clubs and sex shops in the UK. A response to women who argued for their right to engage in that line of work was that their choices are outweighed by the welfare of women as a whole. The claim was that their choices “sexualise” all women, encouraging men to see women as objects, and making men more likely to rape.

    The hate speech comparison also came up in that discussion. Although in this case the fact that there are extant hate speech laws in the UK was used to support the idea that harmful behaviour should be legislated against too.

    If that’s accepted as reasonable then it’s hard to see where the line should be drawn. How much flesh does a woman dancing in a regular nightclub have to show before she too is “sexualising” herself, and needs to be stopped to protect other women?

  • Charles Sullivan

    Sorry, to depart for so long (The thread is probably pointless at this point).

    I”m conflicted about this issue. I’m not in favour of making pornography illegal. Still, I think that from the POV of the pornographic employee, just as with prostitutes throughout history, there is economic pressure exerted.

    I’m all for the kink (in principle) of consenting adults, so yes, Colin, whatever the BDSM community likes is fine…

    But I want to know if people are harmed by being in pornography. Do 16 year old boys know the difference between their own sexuality and the bad (morally and aesthetically) pornography from which they learn about sexuality?

    Back in the old days we had magazines. Nowadays we have, for example, a category of pornography called “daughters hatefucked by daddy”.

    If that’s someone’s fantasy, and they are adults (and hopefully not father and daughter), then I have no problem.

    But I have a hard time believing that if “brother forces sister (step-sister, mother, granny )” porn (quite popular, actually) is considered normal that it’s a good thing. Anybody forces anybody is wrong ethically, yet I even think there’s room for “forced” fantasies acted out among consenting adults.

    My point is that there may be social harm caused in the society, even as we hold firm to our individual rights.

    The whole history of women and girls as being discardable, and worth less than men does not help the cause of pornography. If there’s a better way to do it let’s at least pay these employees what a doctor or lawyer would get paid.