Pornography and Censorship: Is There a Middle Ground?
I’m not a massive fan of bureaucracy and government regulation; but there are limits to non-interventionism, all the same. If you are entirely against interventionism, you are an anarchist. I don’t say that as personal criticism, I’m merely pointing out the logical conclusion of an absolutist prejudice against intervention.
I don’t even use the word ‘prejudice’ in the customary, highly critical sense. More in the Burkean sense (i.e. as Edmund Burke famously noted, having preconceptions or fixed ideas is not bad, in itself).
So on the one hand, as the saying goes, it is the mark of a cultivated person to be able to entertain a proposition, a statement, an idea, without rejecting it; but on the other hand, this certainly doesn’t mean that everything is up for grabs.
Ultimately, I don’t think it is possible to give an equally good justification for every idea, conviction or value you hold to and affirm. Prejudices, in the non-negative sense of the word, are like the poor; they are ever with us. What really counts is how one actually engages with such.
So, is it OK to have an absolutist prejudice against interventionism? I’m afraid that’s not the main topic of this essay, so I’m going to have to leave it aside for now.
I myself am a small “l” libertarian, i.e. someone with a strong emotional attachment to freedom, a kind of libertarian disposition (as distinct from possessing some kind of pre-packaged, rigid, dogmatically ideological libertarian agenda and philosophy). And as such, I will say that I am always skeptical, to varying degrees, of government interventionism; but I am certainly not anti-interventionist all the time.
Thus, I merely raise this dilemma, not in order to present the last word on this debate, but to make clear my own prejudice which I would characterise as a general mood, tone, style, and disposition of skepticism against interventionism rather than an absolute and unqualified bias against it.
So, where does that lead me with the current debate on pornography regulation in the UK?
The UK government have reduced an AgeID system for pornography access. The Digital Economy Act of 2018 is behind this new measure. From now on, pornography users will have to provide some personal data.
There are a couple of red flags here.
First of all, the abuse of data is a very real risk; not just in terms of intrusive marketing or other private-sphere misdemeanours, but also as part of a broader culture of data abuse on the part of the government.
Secondly: while we are on the topic of data abuse, the UK government have a very poor record in terms of privacy.
The Conservative Party are the self-appointed defenders of individual liberty in the UK; but, like the Liberal Party of Malcolm Turnbull (Australia), or the Republican Party (USA), the rhetoric outpaces the reality; hence the hideous Snooper’s Charter, which has recently hit certain legal difficulties… “Sad!”
So, both in terms of its actual immediate and short-term effects (private and public sector abuse) and its long term effects in terms of precedent-setting, and of further legitimising a culture of interventionism, I can definitely see limitations and problems.
However, I believe that these problems are only one aspect of the question. I want to bring in a very important conceptual distinction between two schools, as it were, of libertarianism.
Here, I’m not just dealing with ideas, but (again) two kinds of sensibilities, or emotional and conative tendencies (“Conative” meaning “relating to the will”).
Every time you exert your will and passion, this is a “conative phenomenon.” In other words, it’s not just about the intellectual side, but also your temperament, your spirit, your heart, your soul.
What are these two tendencies?
There are really two kinds of libertarians, broadly speaking: grounded libertarians and rootless libertarians.
Grounded libertarians understand that liberty didn’t come out of nowhere. It is the result a long succession of hard and mercilessly trying tribulations and struggles.
Moses, Elijah, The Maccabees, the early Christians, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, the Quakers, Benedict de Spinoza, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Servetus, the Suffragettes, the sisters of Seneca Falls, Harriet Beecher Stowe, W. E. B. Dubois, Voltaire, Theodor Herzl, Eugene Debs, Stonewall, Quilliam Foundation, Kang Youwei and the Qing Dynasty reformers, Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Malala Yousafzai, Kenneth Kaunda…
None of these people were able to rest on the laurels of past victories. For every generation, as the saying goes, the fight for freedom must be won anew.
Grounded libertarians, at their best, will not be cultural chauvinists; but they will certainly value the cultivation of a basic, rock-bottom consensus of legal, moral, social and perhaps (within reason) religious values and convictions. The free marketplace of ideas is one thing; but “celebrating” a rootless and undisciplined “diversity” of ideas, not so much!
Freedom does not come out nowhere. What arose in history can disappear in history too, and this is an inviolable law. Freedom herself may be eternal, as also are her beloved and chosen ones; but the laws, customs, institutions and norms that guard, guide, and encourage her are not.
By contrast with grounded libertarians, rootless libertarians tend to treat freedom as given and as a permanent fixture; all that is needed is to build on the freedom that has already been established, or even to continue pushing the boundaries further and further.
Freedom is your divine right, so why bother about pettifogging cares and anxieties, regarding social order, legal precedent, morality, and other things that are just self-serving talking points from the government and all those other guys that are just trying to break your balls?
Fuck those guys! Porn, Prostitution, and P-Dogs are all you need.
Oh and don’t forget love.
The more love, the better!
I will not be shy of my bias, here. I do believe that rootless libertarianism is a negative and destructive tendency, and represents the supplanting of traditional, classical liberal values with postmodern nihilism.
Grounded libertarians support the freedom of the individual; but only contingent upon recognising the freedom and well-being of other stakeholders. Freedom that is absolute is nothing more or less than inner slavery.
But having said all this, what might a grounded libertarian have to say in favour of the recent laws?
First of all, this law probably will help to help protect children and young people from porn. Secondly, it will probably disincentivise and discourage adults from getting sucked into abusive, degrading and inegalitarian habits that may inhibit their inner freedom. Isn’t inner freedom every bit as important as outer freedom?
If you’re not free on the inside, how can you ever hope to be free on the outside?
Now although I am a grounded libertarian, I would certainly agree with rootless libertarians that one must always have serious reservations about banning, as such a gesture must undoubtedly appear to be the heady cliff-edge of a terrible slippery slope. However, it is surely to be hoped that making porn less easy and convenient to access will carry less risks of setting a disturbing and unsettling legal and political precedent; at least in comparison with an outright ban.
Fortunately, as of now (early 2017), I can’t imagine how the measures proposed here could have an analogue with any other forms of contentious speech, such as “Indi-media,” critical blogging or controversial art. What would that even look like?
So, I do hope that the new measures, while very far from ideal, can be considered an entertainable trade-off. I.e. one which is hopefully substantially healthier, or at least substantially less unhealthy, than an outright pornography ban; at least in terms of the perennial risk of setting an illicit precedent in law and in political culture, custom and convention.
So as you can see, I do believe there is less risk of a slippery slope here, than with a straightforward policy of censorship.
I really cannot picture how a negative precedent could come from this. It seems highly unlikely that, in the future, people who want to read contentious ideas, or stream controversial films, are going to have to surrender their personal data, of course, when it comes to tyranny you can never say never!
But I think that all looks pretty fanciful right now. Of course, I could always be wrong about this. But then, as Hegel rightly says: The owl of Minerva flies at night.
In other words, nobody knows exactly what the future holds.
All I would say is this: By all means let’s be critical of the abuse of data, and various attempts by the government to control and restrict and skew access to ‘speech’ (in the broadest possible sense of the word).
But let’s be truly discriminating and discerning at the same time. Where do you stand on this issue?
And here’s another question for you, are you a grounded libertarian, or a rootless libertarian? These are both some very important questions for us all to ponder.
* Jonathan Ferguson is freelance journalism includes, but is not limited to, his two guest blogs: at Times of Israel, he presumtuously aspires to be an honest broker on the Israel/Palestine issue, while at Sputnik, he has a nice salty mug of McCarthyite tears, with a few Far Center Fauxlib vanilla sprinkles for extra sweetness. He has zero love for Humanity and has no regard whatsoever for the National Interest. And like you, he has just about enough good sense to know that all this ‘callous indifference and nihilism’ of his as far removed from actual ‘selfishness’ as you could possibly ever get.