Sunday, July 6, 2008

Lowest Common Denominator Legislation of Morality

I recommend that anyone interested in the Bill Henson controversy watch the SBS Insight show “The Naked Eye”.

It included some interesting points about the availability of images on the internet and the extent to which they can be misused by paedophiles or “freaks” (whatever that term is supposed to mean).

Access on the Internet

The suggestion is that, because an image can be widely accessed on the internet, any freedom that we might allow the image in an artistic context (e.g., if shown in an art gallery) should not extend beyond the gallery to the internet.

In other words, where the image is displayed should affect the extent of the freedom to display it.

Classification of Materials

There is an element of this argument in the system that classifies materials for publication or exhibition.

The rating of the material is designed to prevent the exposure of inappropriate material to children and offence to people who might not wish to be exposed to the material against their will.

The Lowest Common Denominator

However, it is another argument to say that nobody should be able to access the material, because somebody considered to be inappropriate (e.g., a “freak”) might be able to access it on the internet.

I don't think it is fair to ban something because of how a paedophile or "freak" will use (or misuse) it.

This limits freedom in society to the level appropriate to a freak.

It reduces everybody to the level of the lowest common denominator.

The risk that a freak might get their hands on something should not be a relevant consideration in framing a Law with respect to an activity that can be engaged by anyone in the community (freak or not) otherwise within the Law.

A work of art can be appreciated without breaking the Law.

The fact that a paedophile might use it for some criminal purpose does not change the intrinsic nature of the work of art.

The Hammer Analogy

It is like saying that, because a thief can use a hammer to break and enter a home, hammers should be banned.

The point is that there is nothing intrinsically illegal about a hammer.

It is the use of the hammer (not the production or possession of the hammer) which should be the focus of any law designed to minimise theft.

Criminals use mobile phones to arrange criminal activity.

That doesn’t mean that phones should be banned.

Just because a freak eats a breakfast cereal, doesn’t mean that we should be prohibited from eating it.

The Gun Analogy

I can imagine this sort of argument for prohibition being a reason to ban guns.

A work of art has many possible uses. However, a gun is a weapon. It has limited intrinsic uses.

You can't actually use a gun except to kill, injure or shoot somebody or something.

This is the only purpose of a gun.

There is a much more direct causal connection between a gun and a crime.

Yet we don't totally prohibit guns. We only regulate them, arguably in an ineffective way that still allows guns to be used to kill or injure innocent people.

Access to Pornography

There is nothing intrinsically pornographic about nudity.

Pornography is defined in terms of the purpose of production of the material or the consumption of it.

A work of art is not treated as pornographic, unless it is designed to be pornographic.

The fact that some freaks might use the art or images for pornographic purposes shouldn't restrict the freedom of the rest of society to appreciate the work aesthetically.

How anyone accesses the material is irrelevant, if it is not intrinsically pornographic or illegal.

Save Us from the Meddling Puritans

I try not to read Andrew Bolt.

But when I do, I usually feel like I'm witnessing some sort of freak show.

This morning's missive in the Brisbane Sunday Mail got me reading because of the heading (reproduced as the title to this post).

I wondered whether Andrew had had a vision and suddenly turned into a supporter of Bill Henson.

Firstly, let me state my admiration for whoever conjured up the heading. It's not clear whether it was Andrew personally, it was probably some copy editor.

When I tried to find the article online, all I could find is the same article under the heading "Big Brother turns wowser" and "Return of the wowser".

It's obvious (and obvious why) I didn't feel inspired to use any of these as my title!

Reading beyond the heading, I discovered more and more evidence of Andrew's libertarian credentials.

Let me quote him:

  • A new breed of puritans is upon us and growing far too puffed up themselves. It’s increasingly urgent they be resisted.
  • Who unleashed these salon Stalinists? ... Who let them loose to flog us sinners into living lives more holy, by their grim creed?
  • Never have I seen so many preachers so keen to bully others for their own “good”.
  • From which circle of hell did all these finger-waggers spring?
  • Consider what plans they’ve already unveiled to cramp your life and set it to their stern order.
  • So drunk on bans are these people..
  • This isn’t meant to save a planet but to impose someone’s joy-killing morality.
  • It’s not just a madness confined to Australia, of course. The [new breed of Puritans] in every English-speaking land is now indulging its inner totalitarian.
  • It’s a Mein Kampf for meddlers - a defence of for-your-own-good bullying that is startling in its contempt for our right to decide for ourselves not just how to live, but even what to eat.
Can you understand why I thought Andrew had turned?
He was using the very same language that everyone frustrated by censorship, Puritanism and wowserism uses.
He was asserting the right of the individual against the State and those who would use it to legislate Morality.
What value was he seeking to protect? What economic, social or cultural activity was so fundamentally important that the State should not be able to interfere with it, that the activity should be above the Law?
Could he have been talking about Art? Could he finally see a nude body without thinking sex?
No, Andrew emerged from his study this week to defend the right to smoke cigarettes!
I don't really care what rights Andrew wants to defend. That's his right.
It just amazes me that he can't see any irony in these cultural debates:
When there's a right or value or activity that he wants to protect, his opponents are Politically Correct Wowsers and Puritans.
When there's an activity he disagrees with, the full force of the Law should be applied to prohibit and punish it.
Ultimately, he is saying that "what I think is and should be the Law".
He is only a libertarian when his own views prevail.
He is not libertarian enough to leave others to their views.
Ultimately, he is just as tempted by totalitarianism as the social and cultural adversaries in his morality tales.
He is not really "laissez faire" at all. He is more "regardez-moi".