Censorship, pornography and divine swan-on-human action

The 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 groupstechnology 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. 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”.

 

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8 Responses to Censorship, pornography and divine swan-on-human action

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    “In short, we are training ourselves for instant gratification. This, and the simplifying effect, is the big harm as I see it.”

    You haven’t really explained why this should be seen as a bad thing. Sexual desire is arguably a primitive and unedifying aspect of our nature. Many people see it as being of no value beyond the gratification of urges strong enough to bother responding to, and doing that quickly and with a minimum of fuss (and minimum risk of having more important aspects one’s life compromised by those primitive urges) is surely both convenient and ethically desirable. Pornography treats sexual desire as a trivial urge that can be quickly, easily and harmlessly satisfied, and I would argue that’s a sensible and healthy attitude.

    Pornography involving children or animals is already illegal in most places. It’s the responsibility of parents and others in control of children to ensure that they are unable to view adult porn. Having the state censor the internet on this sort of scale is not technically feasible, and there’s something quite mad about the whole idea of banning adult culture in order to protect children from experiencing it.

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      No doubt we have some drives that it is best to just satisfy with a minimum of fuss: there is likely not much of a point in achieving excellence in toilet use beyond the initial toilet training. Spending time on excellence there is less valuable than spending time on excellence in other areas of life. I guess the areas we want to optimize are those that are expansive: those that can be used in many situations, that can permeate our lives and matter for important life goals. So in this regard pornography might indeed be a valuable instrument for not wasting too much time on sex. Defenders of relationships would of course point out that there are many important positive effects of being two about the sex, but that is not always possible or practical.

      Banning adult culture in order to protect children is indeed mad: many of the most disturbing things to children are the things that seem to relate to them and their world where the adults refuse to explain what is going on. This includes plenty of news. And since censorship increases the saliency of whatever is censored, it might have the reverse effect on children.

  • Jeremy says:

    “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.”

    More importantly, many people (such as yourself) may miss what is ‘right’ and what makes a good life generally i.e. do you even really know where you are aiming? There is an extraordinary understanding of what constitutes the good life in this article. I’m envious of your understanding! Censorship should not be implemented because people get the good life question wrong, often. Harm, as you have nebulously defined it is not even close to our understanding of what harm constitutes a justified restriction on our liberty. Moreover I can’t understand how the current adult generation (or some therein) seem to find pornography ‘bad’ – however defined – for an individual. In 10 years time I can say with reasonable certainty almost all your 20/30 year old male doctors, lawyers and politicians will have watched pornography – most regularly. I think people fail to understand its ubiquity. This is understandable because nobody readily admits to watching pornography but any claim that it is harmful has to be matched against the more self-evident observation that a large majority of the young modern population (male generally) are very normal people, but almost all of them watch pornography.

    An insightful article nonetheless. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks!

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      Thank you!

      I think having humility about what constitutes a good life is a very strong motivation for tolerance of other people and their liberty. Given that we can – and likely are – wrong about many important things we should be very careful about encoding our limited understanding in rigid codes.

  • Michael J Freeman says:

    “Opting in” to Trouble

    By Michael J Freeman

    There is no commercial child pornography for sale through Google the most popular browser and the vast majority of it is never sold only given in peer to peer exchange for those who have a curiosity or a compulsion for watching it.
    Mr Cameron has first passed a Draconian censorship bill with an option to opt in to watch “porn,” legal porn that is made by professionals in the entertainment market where erotica is the biggest search inquiry to unblock your computer in order to watch imagery that is legally available in its country of origin including the UK, USA and EC
    Then at the same time the Eton old boy, the toff, who is hardly represents the people, drives in the thin edge of the wedge and bans “simulated rape” when he knows that rape is a real crime of violence and not some actress getting paid to recreate a scenario; one that the experts tell us is one of women’s common fantasies. Fantasies remain fantasies especially when a filmmaker creates a “rape scene” which everyone knows is acted and only an idiot would think bore any resemblance to reality…Politically correct lefty liberals repeating right wing propaganda will parrot that it demeans women because the common fantasy is that women invite rape and dress like “sluts” which is derogatory term for women who like men see nothing wrong in having a one night stand or a threesome.
    The decadent society that Mrs Thatcher warned us about is already here as the seeds of the Sixties revolution take root in youth. “Drugs and sex and rock n’ roll” Ian Drury sang and a singer who sings like that should never go to an upper class doctor because he has already been classified as a corrupter of youth like Michael Jackson and Socrates before him. Girls give head on first dates and watch porn with their mates or of themselves and “sext” it to their boyfriends. So if sexting “indecent” pictures of your tits is a crime why isn’t showing them to him in real life?
    Cameron has banning “simulated rape,” a term that is inherently contradictive and one wonders what he will choose to ban next? Perhaps it will be actresses dressing in school uniforms because it is easy to say that he is “protecting children again.”
    I think that this law will have the opposite effect of protecting children because firstly it will create an unregulated black market in material that is freely available in most Western democracies and secondly because fantasists deprived of subject related films might be tempted to act them out instead of masturbating. Does he realize that the illegal sex shops in Soho turnover will escalate? And the owners can just pop over to Europe, say Amsterdam, buy all the latest American “teen” films, take them back to England and pirate them. That’s what will happen because you can’t prohibit a popular commodity called “pornography” where one man’s porn is another’s erotic art.
    Modern pornography was first legalised in Denmark 1972 after a five year experiment pioneered by Dr Berl Kutchinski of the Danish Bureau of Forensic Science that proved offences of violence against women including the most common rape fell an enormous 80 per cent and that’s why the rest of the democracies legalized it. It follows that if censorship was imposed that rates of rape would increase. “Ah but porn is different now harder” they will complain. That’s false because Color Climax in Europe and Max Hardcore did it all thirty or more years ago and the films are there to prove it.
    The word “pornography” is not mentioned in English Law but we have the OPA (Obscene Publications Act) that Cameron should be using against the makers of material that he thinks is dangerous. If his lawyers can get a jury to agree that any film was likely to deprave and corrupt then punish the maker but he has to be careful here because what is art or obscene depends on the attitude of creator towards other humans. For the politically correct it is the man’s attitude towards women that ignores the fact the actress in the films where rape fantasy was depicted experienced an orgasms. The BDSM genre has earned a lot of money and demand is so popular that successful filmmaker doesn’t sell the movies anymore but lives on the advertising royalties when the films is put uploaded to the web for viewers to download free and there are hundreds of titles to choose from with new ones being made daily…
    Let the people decide what is obscene instead of blocking material that at present is legal to the public who in the future will have to get permission to watch acted out rape scenes on their computers. This opt in law is nothing but an artificial device for state censorship that will allow all those “horrified” genteel Christian matrons like Clare Short who steered this illiberal bill through Parliament to decide what they think people should see.
    Britain is the laughing stock in the world because of its prurient attitude towards sex and “English” is now a jargon word among sex workers along with Greek and French and if a client says that he wants English they get the cane and the whip out; so many members of the conservative party having been exposed red in the cheeks by the old News of the World, the Sun and the Mirror !
    Cameron thinks that he will win votes and implement a law that will inevitably and deliberately be misused by the government to block websites that they want to censor. It might just backfire on him as he does not realise the consequences of banning the most popular form of adult entertainment.
    Recreational sex is part of our private lives and the sexual imagery we look at is part of this private sex life that may include carrying out scenes in Sixty Shades of Grey! An American woman divorced her husband on the grounds that he refused to act out scenes in the book and called her a pervert! If Cameron is going to ban associated SM imagery, on the same logic, he might as well ban naughty sex and only allow the missionary position with lights out, in case children find out what is going on in their parent’s bedroom and be corrupted!
    Fifty Shades of Grey written by a woman E L James has frightened Cameron’s ruling class into realizing that the world’s selling book was symbolic of another coming moral revolution by people angry at the fact that the gap between the rich and the impoverished the poor and working class was now enormous and the Lords were chuckling as they really lorded it over us.
    Children usually start getting interested in finding out about sex at puberty. Most children’s sex education is sadly lacking because of repressed parent’s embarrassment of teaching their children about it. A teacher at my son’s school rolls a protective on a banana when perhaps it would be more educative and less damaging, if illegal, for the child to discover all the things embarrassed adults do in secret for himself.
    Pornography is the biggest arbiter of social change and contemporary sexual mores now have changed dramatically since the Sixties because of it. Girls dress like porn stars as do icons like famous singers who are so overtly sexual that Rihanna, Madonna, Britney Spears to name a few will soon come under Cameron’s scrutiny as a danger to children.
    As Clare said the other day when the ladies of the conservative party were having afternoon tea and pastries. “We will have to do something about those singers because they show too much of their bits and pieces and when my daughter starts to move in time to the music and do all that pelvic grinding with inappropriate self touching…they are such a nuisance and it so embarrassing…”

  • Jim Hawtree says:

    You gave little attention to one of the most active areas of censorship, which is the censorship of nudity. To ban images of the nipples and genitals by covering them is an absurdity, but it is pursued vigorously, especially with regard to entertainment from Japan to the USA; it seems that the Japanese are far more casual about the undraped body. This is natural because they are inhabitants of an island archipelago where fishing occupied a large percentage of their time, and ‘Speedo’ swimsuits were not available historically. Therefore, after WWII, they were surprised at the prudishness of Americans who made a big fuss over lack of swimwear at their beaches. It never entered their minds that an appropriate lack of clothing for swimming was a problem; they are very fastidious regarding appropriate dress for every situation — or so they thought. Their large anime industry had the USA as a potential market, so they attempted to not offend Americans when possible. According to one producer of entertainment, Japanese artists were warned that Americans would not buy movies, photos or hand-drawn images that showed pubic hair; so they continued to produce entertainment that occasionally displayed full frontal nudity as before, but they made sure that no pubic hair was shown. It never occurred to them, apparently, that it wasn’t the hair but the pubic area that greatly bothered Americans. Because of their culture, they were utterly unclear on the concept (possibly some considered it fair game to mock this odd obsession of America).

    Supposedly the reason for this prudishness in the USA, is because of the Puritan/Protestant heritage, which in turn implies that this is based on biblical grounds. Some censors admit this. However, I did some research on the source document (i.e. especially Genesis 2 and 3). Perhaps these religiously inclined censors think that Adam and Eve were kicked out the garden of Eden for skinny-dipping or for nude sunbathing. But actually, the Creator likes nudity and requires it for some official occasions. He had his prophet Isaiah be naked and barefoot for three years; and when the the first high priest Aaron ordained his two sons into the priesthood, they were told to go to the top of a hill. In front of all Israel, Aaron removed his vestments which may not be worn with underclothes, and put them on one then another of his sons; this required all three to be fully nude in front of the entire nation. Major religions do not follow this precedent; they don’t even obey the command to remove shoes when entering a place of worship or prayer (Exodus 3:5).

    As for Adam and Eve, they were naked and not ashamed at the end of Genesis 2. But after they broke a commandment and decided to not relent, they became ashamed of their nakedness. This is where censorship began. Covering up sex and nudity is furthering the practices and goals of the serpent, a.k.a. Satan who tempted them. Just as those who further the practices and goals of conservation are conservationists, those who further the practices and goals of covering up sex and nudity, are therefore Satanists. I try to keep an open mind and be accepting towards all branches of religion and irreligion, but I’d prefer that proponents of censorship acknowledge its religious origin, whether they consider the biblical account as reality, or as myth; e,g, Passover has Jewish roots, Christmas is Christian, and censorship is Satanic. Let’s be honest about it.

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      When I wrote the post, I considered mentioning the Lenny Bruce quote that in the US breasts are taboo unless they are covered with blood: violent imagery is far more OK than sexual imagery. In Sweden dominance imagery seems to be far more controversial than sexual imagery. And so on.

      The arbitrary origins of different taboo hangups do show that claims that censorship is necessary for inherently moral reasons are problematic. One can still argue that there are good reasons, even ethical reasons, to uphold some community standards, but arguments based on that a particular imagery category is inherently bad better be universalist (it ought to be bad everywhere, in every time and culture) and willing to look at evidence from cultures that do not see the category as taboo: if it isn’t harmful there, then the moral claim might be in trouble.

      One interesting development since I wrote the post was the apparent discovery that the opt-in system might be intended to be category specific (see https://www.openrightsgroup.org/blog/2013/sleepwalking-into-censorship ) This of course puts a lie to the whole harm reduction argument, since it is hard to argue that all the categories are harmful (esoteric material?!) Rather, this would be evidence that it is more about giving parents (and the government) more control over what domains are accessed based on the values they hold rather than any inherent moral or non-moral harms.

  • Jim Hawtree says:

    You’re right about how “harm reduction” by censorship does not hold up as a “universalist” principle. But other things are universal; e.g. refraining from murder, acting equitably towards strangers as well as towards neighbors; etc.; and I mean the acts themselves, not discussion groups about them. A government that tries to censor sites about alcohol or esoterica or violence, etc. is exceeding its bounds, and that dearly annoys me, even when done by “choice architecture”, which seems to be a disingenuously innocent-sounding synonym for manipulation by propaganda.

    Granted, we humans are not as rational as we would like to think we are, and we can be nudged into making one decision over another simply by the manner of presentation, without overt deception. That’s manipulation, but not obviously illegal. I don’t know how we could get around that; I suppose there’s a caveat emptor in the marketplace of ideas. But, the beauty of the internet is that unfair coercion or lies will be quickly pointed out, and it will no longer be covert. But when a government exerts filtering of content, that’s a different story. Those who are excluded, cannot be reached by sending an email to the government; they will have no idea that the government has denied them access to information. That seems unfair, because filtering of content can be self-serving to the political interests of the government officials doing the filtering; this is abuse of power, in my humble opinion.

    (However, there is one issue in the realm of ethics and religion that is more important by orders of magnitude, and no one is aware of it. We’re dealing ineffectively with a source of misinformation that began centuries ago, that is exerting a strong and detrimental influence on us today. It is a strongly corrupting influence, yet most think it is harmless. I’ll have to describe this later.)

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