Ian B on the Censorship of Pornography in the United Kingdom
This whole tragic mess is another example of the State addressing a problem which does not exist, though blaming the State is not quite fair as it is doing so basically under pressure from “civil society” groups- pressure groups, the media, etc- and is thus following rather than leading. Libertarians often blame “the State” as if it is an entity with an essence, whereas more often than not, it is following more identifiable groups within the rest of society.
I don’t think Dave Cameron really would have been much interested in this had he not come under colossal pressure from feminist and femiservative groups and media, screaming about mythical rape epidemics, imaginary feminist constructs like “objectification”, and the endlessly vociferous child protection lobby.
This particular ejaculation of State power arose about a year ago as a result of child protectionists ranging from the NSPCC to Netmums to the every self-promoting Claire Perry and professional state-funded hysteric Sue Berelowitz, demanding that Something Must Be Done about Sex Or Something Or Other.
It is the latest in a long tradition of miserable censorships imposed on the British population. The actual list of banned things has not been generated novel-ly for this legislation. It is simply the list of things that the BBFC don’t allow in R18 videos, applied to the internet as well. To be fair, this is at least consistent. It does not make much sense to have material legal on the internet which is illegal if purchased on DVD. The answer of course would be to liberalise the DVDs rather than censor the internet, but that is not how things are done in puritan Britain. The prudes and bowdlers have been determined to censor the internet, and they are now getting their way. This step of course only applies to British producers, but it will now be a small step to start State blocking of foreign websites that do not comply to the standard and/or submit their material to the authorities for approval.
The situation here is literally a fuss about nothing. The only response one should have to the question, “what should we do about porn?” is “nothing at all. There is no issue”. Unfortunately, many people- on both the notional left and right- do believe there is an issue, but the fact that people believe in one doesn’t mean that there is one.
To use an example, a hundred years or less ago, many people thought there was an issue with Jews. People would say, “what should we do about the Jews?” and talk about “The Jewish Question”. Of course, in Germany this ended up in a terrible situation. But the point is, that when somebody says, “what should we do about the Jews?” the only correct response is, “Nothing at all, there is no issue.” If you get drawn into the debate about whether the Jews are this or that or good or bad for society, you are damned. You will find yourself trying to defend Jews on some utilitarian basis, and so on, when in fact there is simply nothing to be discussed. The problem we have with porn – and the sex industry and sex in general – is that not enough people are prepared to say that there is no issue, because there is still this general idea that there must be some kind of issue, and some kind of policy must be decided upon, and all due to an historical legacy of hysteria about sex. Which takes us back to the origins of censorship policies.
It is worth noting that societies only generally censor that which is considered dangerous in some way. For most of history, the primary concern of censors was religion. There was very little attention paid to sexual censorship, but then it has to be said that in the age of woodcuts there wasn’t much of a porn industry. England had laws against obscenity but, until the early 19th century they were effectively dead letters, ignored by everyone including the courts. Probably the single most important figure in changing that was the vastly over-rated and far too much admired William Wilberforce.
Wilberforce is remembered in hagiography as the man who ended slavery. Which was a Good Thing. But it is worth remembering that he was not the leader of the anti-slavery movement- he was just its face in Parliament- and it was not his primary campaigning issue. His Big Thing was moral reform, and the articulation of that was his Proclamation Society, the first of the “clean up morals” societies that have been cursing our polity ever since. Its purpose was to resurrect various dead letter laws – much to the consternation of courts who were not at all interested in wasting time prosecuting people for a few smutty etchings or brothel keeping. In other words, Wilberforce and his mates were the vanguard of the sexual hysteria that would, by the later 19th century, engulf Britain and the Anglosphere. His model of Societies For The Prosecution Of Vice spread far and wide, inspiring similar efforts in the USA from the infamous Anthony Comstock, and so on.
And then, as now, it was all unnecessary.
The problem with the Victorians was that they were- at least in the ruling class- very scared people. The industrial revolution had kicked off, society was in massive and rapid flux, the parish system was in turmoil as millions moved from rural parishes to urban slums, and out from under the watchful eye of the local parson, while new and frightening philosophies- including even atheism- were becoming influential. So the Victorian worthies felt a sense of panic, a belief that society was collapsing around them (an idea we find still commonplace today) and thus the birth of so many radical “reform” movements of all kinds intended to fix things up. In particular, the sense of dislocation and turmoil was accompanied by another sense of power. New ideas in science and statistics (particularly) gave the reformers the illusion that they now had the tools to properly run society from the centre, simply by pulling imaginary levers.
Libertarians are well aware of this disastrous philosophy’s effect on economics- the awfulness of the Command Economy- but it was applied generally to society, and thus along with the ideology of the Command Economy we got the “Command Society”.
Just as the belief that the bureaucrat reckoned that he could discern, objectively, the price of bread, came the belief that he could also discern and apply the correct social (and sexual) rules to the entire population. And by the end of the C19, you’ve got these enormously powerful surges of moral reform. They were going to stop us drinking beer, smoking tobacco, and whatever sexual practices they disapproved of, which was virtually everything other than brief joyless rutting for solely procreative purposes. You could still have sex if you must, just so long as you didn’t enjoy it, which the resurgent puritans mobbing the reform movements believed upsets God. I don’t myself believe a God would create sexual pleasure if He was offended by it, but that’s just me.
I was going to type up a history of 20th century censorship- particularly the BBFC, it is a sad tale- but I’ve waffled on enough. The key point comes back to that not only is there not an issue, there never was one. If you have media technology, some of it will be sexual. Just as, whatever you do, some people will have sex for money and some will pay money for sex. Just as the economy, left to a free market, finds its own level, so the social “market” does the same. There is never any issue to address, and the myth that there is one is simply an historical legacy from crazy people like Wilberforce and the crazy women in crazy hats who comprised the first wave feminist, temperance and anti-sex movements. It is worth noting that nowadays, people who believe that Something Must Be Done about sex do not even know why they think that, if you ask them. At least the Victorians had theories of why – foolish as they were – about how sex supposedly degenerates the body and kills you, and masturbation makes you go blind, that kind of thing. Nobody believes that any more. But the grandfathered-in assumption that there is something wrong with it staggers on, two centuries after the start of the panic. None of the people implementing this nonsense would have a coherent explanation for why if they were ever forced to account for themselves. But they never are, as they inhabit the unaccountable hinterland of the third sector, pressure groups and the cranky parts of academia and do not expose themselves to challenge.
But still, let us remember, that in the world of reason and sanity, there is no issue here. And that is all there is.