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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.