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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.