Censorship, pornography and divine swan-on-human action



The UK Prime Minister has declared that Internet service providers should by default block access to pornography, and that some “horrific” internet search terms to be “blacklisted” on the major search engines, not bringing up any search results. The main motivation of the speech appears to be that access to pornography is “corroding childhood” by having children inadvertently seeing images or visiting websites their parents do not want them to see. There is no shortage of critics, both anti-censorship groups, anti surveillance groups, technology groups and people concerned with actual harm-reduction. There are two central problems: defining pornography, and finding its harms.

Defining pornography for computers

Justice Potter Stewart famous “I know it when I see it” does not work for automatic filtering, since we need to transfer that elusive human knowledge into software – a diffuse understanding that is also bound by culture, knowledge and time. Past attempts have failed in various problematic ways: as Cory Doctorow recounts, the standards are often erratic and cannot avoid overblocking legitimate content:

\”In 2003, the Electronic Frontier Foundation tested the censorware used by US schools to see how many of the most highly-ranked documents on concepts from the national school curriculum were blocked by the school’s own censorware. They discovered that 75-85% of these sites were incorrectly classified. That percentage went way, way up when it came to sensitive subjects such as sexuality, reproductive health, and breast cancer.

This is not just a problem for schoolchildren in the US. A few months back I found access to Neatorama, a geeky blog/online shop, blocked on the Oxford airport bus wifi. A message told me that the site had been tagged as pornographic – the reason might have been a link to another site or a picture regarded as unsuitable by someone. It also seems likely that sites with “adult” in the metadata – for example liquor, underwear or spoof religion sites – might be blocked despite being non-pornographic. The problem with blocking lists is that it is often hard to get off them, especially since the blocked site might be outside the UK and not themselves actively pursuing it, and the groups maintaining them often lack accountability.

Filters will also fail at blocking unwanted content, and it is enough that a few percent gets through to have more than enough interesting conversation starters in the family. Junior is likely to be technologically savvy, so if he or she wants to see something online there will be a far greater chance that they figure out a way. Cameron’s filter seems to be presupposed on the idea that children are innocently surfing around and then accidentally encounter problematic content. Anybody who has overheard schoolyard discussions know that children systematically (and often surprisingly cautiously) explore the stuff they know adults do not want them to see. While an opt-in filter might reduce some accidental encounters with unsuitable material it is unlikely to stop the deliberate encounters – children are fairly good at corroding their own childhood.

Defining pornography for humans (?)

But even with full human knowledge it is hard to draw sensible borders. Wikipedia got censored in the UK a few years back because of an image of an album cover. World.edu got thrown off the Google Adsense system because we had references to sex! Yet one can make a strong arguments that the controversial image should not be banned.

The new rules make possession of images depicting rape illegal. It seems likely that Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina will not be illegal, just because one can argue it is art… but one can make a case that it was and is deliberately erotic art, possibly even glorifying rape. But what about the images in found in the erotic parts of the furry fandom? Here amateur (and a few professional) artists – a fair number underage themselves – create images of anthropomorphic animals and humans engaged in every sexual activity conceivable, as outrageous as you want (daring readers might want to check, NSFW). Some images are clearly rape, some entirely dependent on context or imagination (one should expect rough sex between cat-humans, right?). Given UK rules against zoophilia imagery no doubt many are already illegal, but the sheer fluidity of the community provides an endless number of bizarre borderline cases – is it bestiality if it is centaur-on-centaur? werewolf (a transformed human) and a human? elves and orcs? And does it matter that many of the images could not possibly happen in the real world?

My point is that most of this material would likely be regarded as straightforwardly pornographic and many of the images illegal pornography. But many of the creators clearly think they are creating art. Erotic art, yes, but art nevertheless. A small fraction probably will be regarded as art by future generations, just as we today regard Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan art rather than bestiality (or will the National Gallery soon run into problems? Or Wikipedia, for that matter?) The problem here is that the cultural capital of fine art shields it from the same criticism that is leveled at the outsider art. The same process is likely to be applied to much other online content: content on established sites will not be judged or censored as harshly as content on independent sites, something that will unfairly entrench power relationships.

However, the art vs. pornography issue also helps us get closer to the burning question of what pornography is. I think few would disagree that the Michelangelo painting has qualities beyond most avian-on-human pictures online. Bellini’s sculpture is not just flesh and rape. But first an excursion into the philosophy of pornography.

Defining pornography for philosophers

Michael C. Rea writes in his readable What Is Pornography? (Noûs 35:1 (2001) 118-145)

\”The definitions of ‘pornography’ currently found in the literature fall roughly into six different categories: (i) those that define ‘pornography’ as the sale of sex for profit, (ii) those that define it as a form of bad art, (iii) those that define it as portraying men or women as, as only, or only as sexual beings or sexual objects, (iv) those that define it as a form of obscenity, (v) those that define it as a form of or contributor to! oppression, and (vi) those that define it as material that is intended to produce or has the effect of producing sexual arousal.

He finds fault in all these definitions and suggests his own, fairly involved, one. An important aspect of his definition is that it is independent of the thing itself: being pornography is not an intrinsic property of something (or supervening on it), but rather how it is reasonably expected to be used or treated by its intended audience. Most of us are not aroused by shoes, but we can likely recognize fetish shoe porn when we see it. Even the shoe catalog becomes pornographic when we know it is intended for the fetishist.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contributes a number of extra definitions. The one thread running through all of these definitions appear to be the words “sexual arousal” – whatever pornography is, it has something to do with sex.

What are the harms?

If pornography was just “something to do with sex” there would certainly have been some interest in the topic, but enough people are convinced that there is something harmful going on to justify normative and practical steps against it – like monitoring and censoring people’s Internet usage.

I am not going to try to review the debate here. I just lazily point towards the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia article about pornography and censorship. Instead I am going to attempt an argument for a way pornography is harmful, and why sex is largely irrelevant.

Broad-sense pornography

As I mentioned above, there is more to Bellini and Michelangelo than causing sexual arousal. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was argued back in the day to have the literary merit in order to avoid being banned. I think most people have the intuition that if something is not just causing sexual arousal, then it is not pornographic (at least if it has enough cultural capital so we can claim it has artistic merit or is of public interest with a straight face). In a sense it reflect Rea’s definition: you can imagine somebody reading the book for non-sexual reasons. Of course, there is always someone writing erudite film criticism of the Breed Me Raw series of gay pornography, but we have reasonable expectations of what the intended use is…

In an excellent essay Richard Starr points out:

\”When broken down, what pornographic films do is take the most arousing parts of regular films (i.e. the sex scenes) and have those parts comprise the main content. In other words, it’s all meat and potatoes. We want the good stuff, and we don’t have time to eat the veggies.

Now, think about where else the concept applies: where else do they isolate the meat and potatoes? Quite literally, it’s done at McDonald’s. Fast food is food porn. A trip to your local burger chain is masturbation for your taste buds. We love certain tastes; salt, sugar, protein – and that’s all you get in your greasy, brown paper bag.

There is also mental porn (epitomized by TED: a fast barrage of intriguing ideas from remarkable people), musical porn, journalism porn, violence porn, and so on. These are stimuli intended to give us pleasure through our various desires.

Pornography in this broad sense pleasurably stimulates one desire without satisfying any others: we get sexually aroused by sexual pornography and have our appetite whetted by food pornography, yet there is very little stimulation of other parts of our minds. It is like drinking sugar water: there is only sweetness, no other flavor.

What is bad about it? Most philosophers can rattle off the standard answers from centuries of discussions of happiness. Aristotelians would argue that true happiness comes from living a whole, virtuous life – and with moderation, the very antithesis of pornography. Mill brings in higher and lower pleasures; pornography most easily stimulates lower pleasures (still, we should consider that there is likely philosophy porn out there – arguments that only reward the philosophical impulses, yet have no other relevance). Kant would argue that pleasure is defined as a feeling that arises on the achievement of a purpose, yet pornography is something that leaves us passive and without having achieved anything.

Pornography as simplified desires

My own take on it, coming from neuroscience and learning theory, is that things that produce pleasure typically are habit-forming. In the same context, we are more likely to do the thing that led to pleasure last time. When desires are triggered our behavior shifts towards fulfilling them – we can still think of other things when hungry, but we are much better at thinking about solving the hunger problem. So from this perspective we are to some extent hi-jacked by pornography in general to pursue it. Note that I do not agree with people claiming pornography is inherently addictive: people are very different in how they respond to even highly addictive drugs, and I do think we are over-using the term addiction for many states that are just high desire states: we have free will, we just conveniently blame things on our ‘addictions’ (if somebody say they had no choice, it typically means they did have a choice, they just did not take it).

Pornography in this broad sense makes us simpler: we can activate desires and get rewards for them without connecting them to any other desires, rewards or abilities. If I cook a meal I will have to use some skill and may well be rewarded by understanding some aspect of chemistry or literature as I ponder what is happening, and the taste will (hopefully!) be complex and worth remembering. While if I go to a fast food restaurant I will get a desire, fulfill it, and have an experience nearly identical to the last time (and the one before that). Broad sense pornography turns our lives into separate compartments, while living a rich life involves having connections between different parts of life: that dinner might have been part of a seduction attempt, but also curiosity about a recipe and a desire to shape the world to a small extent. Many desires, both high and low, play together to produce something we would call authentic.

People have been making pornography since time immemorial. The difference today is that we can get plenty of high quality pornography easily and cheaply. If I want to see something that arouses me maximally I can get it fairly easily, no matter what the domain is. The problem here is that the rapid feedback increases the habit-forming effect (fast feedback makes it easier for the basal ganglia to figure out what actions led to the eventual reward), but also creates the expectation that a reward will be available very soon. In short, we are training ourselves for instant gratification. This, and the simplifying effect, is the big harm as I see it.

Bullet-biting time

OK, so given that I think there is something bad about broad-sense pornography, do I think we should censor it?

First, note that my notion of broad-sense pornography is largely decoupled from sex. Food porn might actually be harming many, many more lives than sexual pornography. If we want to help people we should probably spend even more effort on food porn.

Censoring the Internet for fast food or cooking TV shows that just leave us drooling doesn’t sound as plausible as censoring for sex. Censorship to handle violence pornography has more political traction here in the EU, yet it seems fairly crazy to many Americans. Again issues of cultural capital, tradition and Realpolitik trump what might be right. In fact, given the people who wish to implement censorship and their ability to wield it, as a tool it might seriously miss what is right even when wielded with the best of intentions.

The deeper problem is that there is no natural boundary between broad-sense porn and non-porn; it is far hazier than even the traditional sexual pornography boundary. Sometimes McDonald’s can be turned into fine dining.

The harms are also diffuse and individual: some people are unaffected, while others succumb, all for individual reasons. I do think self-reinforcing instant gratification might be a risky attractor state for technological civilizations that might indeed trap many into a short-termist mindset, contributing to the great silence in the sky. But that just means there are fewer long-term oriented individuals around and that they have less support to cause real progress, not that all long-term ability disappears completely. In short, I do think there is harm, but it doesn’t reach the existential level that could motivate almost any intervention. Nor do I think the harm is large enough to justify using Mill’s harm principle to intervene: people should be allowed to live unhealthy and uninteresting lives if they so choose, as long as they do not harm others. And the harm due to broad-sense pornography is rarely intentional or undiluted. Meanwhile we know about the very real harms of censorship and surveillance, and how they can easily be extended from protecting us from harm to protect the Powers That Be from challenge.

OK, no censorship. All that analysis above to no use? Not exactly.

It is a problem of systemic risk of misaligned desire: censorship is not going to remove the desires themselves, and they are going to drive people to seek out or create whatever pornography they want. In a free society it will not be possible to stop them unless we give up freedom of speech and creative work. But while the desires are going to be there, whether they express themselves in simplistic habits or interesting, authentic forms is open to manipulation. We should aim at turning them virtuous, in a sense.

So, nudging people to better decisions is all right, then? Maybe. The censorship proposal seems to be built on the nudge idea that if one makes accessing pornography a hassle fewer people will be accessing it (and, more traditionally, by making some images illegal people will think twice before downloading them). This is unlikely to affect more than the marginal people, those who could go either way. The staunch moralists will be happy their children will be unable to see filth they would never themselves look at, and their children will presumably figure out ways of looking at the filth if they want to see it. As a nudge it is unlikely to be strong.

Maybe what we need is a positive nudge instead. Make it rewarding to make pornography with more complexity? In many ways the furry community is a neat example: the infrastructure is not just a dirty image producing machine, but an active online social community with its own norms, aesthetic discussions, and lifestyle experiments (and, as no doubt community members will clearly point out in regards to my treatment of them, the vast majority of activity is entirely non-sexual). There is plenty of complexity and indeed authenticity there. The fact that so much online pornography appears to be user-created should make would-be censors consider what role it plays: it is not just about sex. Getting people more involved in creating/manipulating their own desires together might be much healthier for society than trying to channel them all in one direction.

There might be some pornography that is harmful in itself, but the worst extremes are likely either signs of people potentially in need of treatment, or actual results of harm (as in child pornography). Censoring child pornography is not as important as stopping the harmful production; censoring of ordinary pornography better be motivated by actual harms we can all agree are harms and serious, not just a diffuse yuck reaction or a wish that “something must be done”.