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Posted by on Feb 18, 2013 in Culture, In the news, Law, Politics | 5 comments

Iceland’s illiberal agenda

This (rather tendentious) article in The Guardian discusses the current initiatives in Iceland to ban certain kinds of online pornography. Before I go any further, let me remind readers that my position on pornography is that I am not against banning or severely regulating specific kinds of pornography if they can 1. be defined (reasonably) clearly and so be (reasonably) fenced off from the wider area of erotic literature and art, 2. be shown to cause ordinary harms in a way sufficiently inevitable, substantial, etc., to justify upstream laws – i.e. laws against activities that are relatively remote in the chain of causation from whatever ordinary harm eventuates.

That is the position on pornography that I sketch in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, and I discuss it in an earlier post here at the Hellfire Club. Although I see great value in erotic literature and art, I am not such a free speech absolutist that I’m going to defend the legality of all forms of pornography even if a strong case can be made against specific forms (a case based on the ways Millian liberals will assess upstream laws in general).

The problem for anti-porn campaigners is that nothing like a strong case based on 1. and 2. in the first paragraph above has ever been made out. Yes… anecdotally, pornography may indirectly do harm to some people on some occasions by conveying misleading information to others. But that is far from being something that we’d normally see as enough to justify an upstream ban on any conduct. Many forms of communication would be in trouble if we thought that were enough (including religious teachings; much op.ed. material, and even supposedly “straight journalism”; and perhaps the majority of “nice” erotic material aimed largely at a female audience). In the end, I might be critical of a lot of individual pornographic items on aesthetic and even moral grounds, but the case for legal prohibition is weak because the evidence for ordinary harms so serious and likely, etc., as to require an upstream ban is just not there.

Notice the weakness of the research relied on in the Guardian article – for a start, it includes the execrable Gail Dines (who is not only a highly biased researcher, but also a nasty piece of work judging by the way she managed to piss off prominent Australian feminists like Leslie Cannold when she visited here a couple of years ago). It also includes mere speculation by Tim Jones, quoted as if it amounts to evidence.

Once again, I will support severe regulation of certain more extreme forms of pornography if the case is ever made out (including the case that we can draft workable laws… and I don’t demand that these laws provide an unreasonably bright line). It’s troubling, however, that Iceland has apparently introduced severe regulation of hardcopy pornography, has banned strip shows (where is the evidence that that was necessary on grounds that any Millian liberal would find acceptable?), and has banned prostitution (admittedly in the supposedly woman-friendly way that makes only the client, and not the prostitute, guilty of a crime). When you add this up, it looks like an illiberal and anti-sex agenda is being pursued in Iceland.

Given the very problematic case for any of these initiatives, we appear to be faced with a position where emotional reactions to stripping, prostitution, and pornography are being rationalised on new, supposedly liberal, secular, and feminist grounds. That is always a danger – if reasons based on religion and traditional morality cannot be relied on to ban widely disliked activities, new reasons will be contrived, even if the actual case is weak. Unfortunately, this entails that even highly secular countries such as Iceland cannot be trusted to be particularly more liberal, on balance, than religious countries like the United States.

Admittedly, Iceland may be more liberal about, say, social nudity (the American attitude to nudity, as with the notorious Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction incident, seems bizarre). But here we see Iceland steadily pursuing an illiberal agenda relating to sex work and freedom of expression. You can’t assume that secularism in a country’s population will solve all problems of moralism, anti-sex attitudes, and a general wish by governments and electorates to interfere with people’s lives.