Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The costs of censorship

Too risqué for SA?

My friends are freedom of expression junkies and have been very active lately promoting the cause. It seems that despite many gains for free speech since the demise of apartheid, hysterical thought police are on the ascendancy once more.

Mark Oppenheimer has written a piece for Media Online ('Censorship rears its ugly head'). The article unpacks the implications of the draconian Film and Publications Act and the recent censure of the controversial, but critically acclaimed Argentine movie, XXY. It seems that authorities in South Africa have taken it upon themselves to determine what we can and cannot watch on our screens and are using the worryingly high levels of child abuse in the country to drive their agenda.

The award-winning film concerns a teen hermaphrodite who grapples with his/her sexuality and engages in sexual acts with another minor in an apparently graphic and explicit manner (I haven't seen the film - obviously).

The catch, according to Mark, is that the woman in the lead role is not actually 15-years-old like her character, but a consenting-age adult of 22. Hence, the child nudity and intercourse is a fictional representation and no actual children are involved. Mark argues that the Film and Publication Board (FPB) are suppressing an idea rather than protecting children as they claim to be doing. The recent legislation, he says, is confusing virtual child pornography - which he argues is harmless - with the real thing.

Please note: Mr. Oppenheimer is not promoting sex with children, but rather saying that the classification system is too broad and that the FPB are confusing resistance to child abuse with intellectual coercion. Where I disagree with him is when he says that virtual, life-like images of child intercourse would actually entice paedophiles away from real children by giving them a vent for their desire. This may be true, but I am concerned that there is a risk that such material could normalise or legitimise the practice.

But that is a separate issue. The real concern is that regular censorship could spread into other areas, such as discussions around race, religion and political belief as it did in the past.

A hat-tip to Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment for his little post 'Censorship is bad' which links to the 10 most challenged books in history, a great Time magazine retrospective on book-banning which features many works of enduring artistic quality.

Something I didn't know about Mike is that his favourite novel is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Personally, I found Nabokov's book disturbing and repugnant, but it gave me a unique insight into the mind of a paedophile and the psychological complexities of such a condition. I am therefore grateful that it eventually escaped the censors and I had a chance to read it. If we care about stopping child abuse then we need to know what motivates perpetrators in the first place and a text like Lolita serves such a purpose - however uncomfortable reading it makes us feel. Under the current definition outlined by the Film and Publications Act, such a text could be proscribed.

Stanley Kubrick's 'Lolita' (1962)

Literature and other works of philosophical or intellectual inquiry are meant to challenge society's norms and values. We should therefore allow artists, authors, journalists, researchers and scientists - everyone in fact - the maximum amount of latitude to pursue those ideas. We do ourselves a serious disservice if we dismiss topics as taboo rather than confronting them head-on. J.S. Mill best highlighted the absurdity of censorship and how it can obstruct a better understanding of our world in his 1859 essay, On Liberty:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

There is one caveat: the freedom described above can be limited when the material in question leads to others' rights being violated or amounts to a direct incitement to cause harm. For instance, an actual video of children being raped or an instruction manual on how to seduce unsuspecting kids will undoubtedly lead to children being physically and emotionally damaged and stripped of their dignity. Such material can be justifiably censored. Lolita, despite its sexual predilections, cannot.

That said, I'm not sure that Patrick Madden's apologia for paedophilia passes the litmus test. He claims that paedophiles are a misrepresented class of untouchables (forgive the phrase) whose desires are founded on genuine affection for children; a condition no more perverse than any other sexual preferences:

"What is almost certainly true is that an individual's sexual orientation is not chosen by that individual, but rather is formed during childhood entirely without the individual's knowledge or consent. Whether someone is attracted to men, women, children, animals or plants is not a choice.

Therefore, people may not be held morally accountable for their preferences; only for their actions. An inclination to paedophilia is not abhorrent, nor should it be a crime. A hatred of paedophiles is the moral equivalent of a hatred of homosexuals, just more fashionable."

This to me amounts to a dangerous moral relativism that denies the agency available to molesters about the harmful consequences of their actions (by claiming that they are the victims of an arbitrarily determined social construct). I feel that Patrick understates the powerlessness of being a child when confronted with the will of an adult and also overstates the ability of children to adequately consent. The equivalence of homosexuality with paedophilia is a false one; a straw man. You wouldn't tell gays that their feelings are wrong, and Patrick uses that sentiment to say the same for paedophiles.

The fact that children play "doctor-doctor" does not mean that they want to engage in sex with grown-ups. Children are inquisitive about all sorts of things that may be harmful to them, such as swallowing poison, and there are many instances when they should be protected from making decisions that could hurt them. Patrick's argument that we are disempowering children by protecting them is flimsy.

Again, I am on a tangent. Although I find Patrick's arguments distasteful and invalid, this is different to actually wanting to stop him from expressing his views. I might not agree with Mr. Madden's treatise, and I will certainly do my best to reason with the man, but I have no problem with him posting his views on Asylury, his blog. This is an important distinction that we often fail to make - between arguing against somebody, and wanting to shut them up.

Many might say that the well-being of our children is far too important to risk on a marginal issue like free speech. Actually, the topic is the best example of how our emotional responses can suffocate an essential component of democratic life - of allowing the maximum amount of free expression consistent with the liberty of others.


  1. Good post, Dave. Two things: to be clear, I also found Lolita disturbing but it's my favorite novel because it's a masterful study of obsession and because the prose is simply sublime.

    Secondly, I'm not sure you're understanding Patrick's argument properly. He says

    "Therefore, people may not be held morally accountable for their preferences; only for their actions."

    and then you say...

    "This to me amounts to a dangerous moral relativism that denies the agency available to molesters about the harmful consequences of their actions."

    Patrick clearly thinks the act of molestation is abhorrent and should be punished, his point is the desire itself - being sexually attracted to children - oughtn't be a crime. And I agree with him - to the extent that people cannot determine their own sexual orientation, we cannot blame them for it. Just like we cannot blame someone for having black hair, or being gay, or being born in Russia, we can't blame a paedophile for being attracted to children.

    (Again, we can and should severely punish sex with minors - i.e. the act of molestation. We cannot, however, punish people for having the sexual preference if they didn't choose it. In other words, punish the act, not the desire...)

  2. (By the way, I'm not defending Patrick's argument or his conclusions in general. I just think he's right about the specific point about blaming people for their desires)

  3. Much respect for your forthrightness in disagreeing with me! Well done. Also, as always, I like your article a lot.


    When it comes to it, I'm silent on whether paedophiles' desires are founded on genuine affection for children. I'd guess probably some (and often a great deal of) affection is involved. Sometimes real love. But it might just be ordinary lust. No problem.

    My mention of 'doctor doctor' was only meant to illustrate that children also are sexual creatures. It wasn't meant as a premise for the conclusion that children want sex with adults. Nevertheless, some children do want to engage in sex with adults, as in the case I cited in which the judgement dismissed the child's desires.

    As regards the equivalence of homosexuality and paedophilia, I used that with respect to the urges involved. As you say, you wouldn't tell a gay man his urges are wrong. I still hold that you shouldn't tell a paedophile his urges are wrong either. They arose naturally, and he had no choice over them. Whether the expression of that urge is wrong or not is a different matter (the orthodox church would corroborate with respect to homosexuality: hate the sin, love the sinner).

    I think you're missing the precise letter, and some of the spirit, of my post, perhaps due to a more or less reflexiv disgust of paedophilia. (Of course, your opposition to it may also be considered and rational. And any emotional component of the disgust is by no means invalid.) The majority of Poles - probably humans - have the same reaction!

    Personally, I don't have a pro-paedo bent. I just want to clarify whether society's widespread, largely reflexive and by this stage fashionable disgust with paedophiles (which leads to the of people who've been damned by causes beyond their control) has its ultimate foundation in reason or in dogma. I suspect it's at least partially mired in the latter.

  4. *ahem*

    posthumous edit to the last paragraph:

    ...which leads to the hatred and damage of people who've been damned by causes beyond their control...

  5. Mike

    On your first point, I think it is evident that you enjoyed 'Lolita' for literary reasons only - I didn't mean to imply otherwise. I echo your sentiments about the book being a fascinating examination of obsession, although I did find Nabokov's prose style a tad trying at times. A brilliant pyschological exposition though.

    On the second point, I concede that I am confusing Patrick's argument a little. Thinking the dirty thought should not in itself be punishable and that is entirely different to committing an act of molestation which should justifiably be met with harsh punishment.

    However, that does not immunize the thought itself from criticism. If someone were a racist and kept their racism inside their own heads that wouldn't make their thinking any less morally dubious.

    To continue the analogy, making hateful racist remarks to people's faces would be cause for bringing punitive measures against the person for discriminatory language or hate speech. Obviously we couldn't prosecute everyone who secretly held racist beliefs (especially in this country, that would be quite an administrative task!) but we should still try to correct this type of thinking wherever possible. Ditto for paedophiles.

    Regardless of the origin of the idea - be it socialized or biologically engendered - as humans we have a duty to reflect on our impulses and try to curtail them if there is a possibility that these impulses might lead to harm. But I will admit that some paedophiles will not be able to do so. As long as they don't touch the kids i'm happy.

  6. Hmmm... interesting point. I'm not sure I buy your analogy though. Racism, quite clearly, is a matter of belief whereas paedophilia seems to be something different. Remember the distinction Rawls et. al. make between choices and circumstances? Well, being a paedophile seems to me like a circumstance not a choice. That is, it's more like having brown eyes, being born in Russia or suffering from a congenital defect than it is like voting for the ANC, cheating on your husband or moving to Thailand.

    While being a racist is certainly causally affected by circumstances, it's abundantly clear people can, by an act of will, stop being racists. (After a period of education). And it seems just like a homosexual cannot by an act of will stop being attracted to the same sex (as opposed to acting on those desires), so a paedophile cannot simply choose to change his sexual preferences.

    Of course, this entire discussion is predicated on a bunch of empirical questions concerning the origins of paedophilia which I venture none of us have really read up on extensively. However, assuming paedophilia is a (or like a) sexual orientation, I think my take is appropriate.

  7. I, for one, would never cheat on my husband.