Pornography, Self-Government, and the ‘Res Publica’
Americans must be baffled by the British Prime Minister. David Cameron, who describes himself as a “liberal conservative,” has spent the past year crusading to legalize gay marriage. But now he has announced that his next crusade will be against the “corroding influence” of online pornography.
“Many children are viewing internet pornography at a very early age, and the nature of that pornography is so extreme that it is distorting their view of sex and relationships,” he argues. Among the raft of proposals announced, access to pornography will be banned on public Wi-Fi networks, and every home will have a family-friendly filter which blocks pornography on all devices by default, though customers will be able to override the default block if they can verify they are over 18. Simulated “rape porn” will also be outlawed.
Perhaps even more baffling to Americans, aside from the objections of a few die-hard left-libertarian journalists and “web freedom” campaigners, Cameron’s proposals are not the subject of any real ideological controversy. The left-wing Labour Party – the UK’s second largest party – has called for even stricter measures, dubbing online porn “a modern-day form of pollution,” and Cameron’s rape porn ban will in fact only require the closing of a loophole in legislation introduced by the last Labour government. When one considers that Labour has the highest number of female lawmakers, it isn’t surprising that they don’t necessarily take the same relaxed attitude as some American progressives, who have made the absurd claim that to outlaw rape porn would be to send the message to a woman that “her sexuality is something about which she should feel afraid and ashamed.” Even Kafka couldn’t have made it up.
The most scathing criticism of Cameron has actually come from the American Right, and provides an interesting insight into some of the key errors of the increasingly popular libertarian brand of conservatism.
Charles Cooke at the National Review speaks for many conservatives when he accuses Cameron of a “power grab,” and of trying to abridge British liberties. Given that Justice Power Stewart, in the famous obscenity case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, conceded that he could “never succeed in intelligibly” defining obscenity, how can we expect the British government to do so? It is not a case, Cooke argues, of defending rape porn or indeed any kind of porn, but of defending “the liberty of consenting adults,” and the “spectacularly successful Internet,” whose success is based on the fact that it is “unregulated, decentralized, and ultimately backed up by the American First Amendment.”
Cooke hopes that there is “nobody who will resent” Cameron’s tough new measures to combat child pornography, which he has coupled to his crackdown on legal porn. But why not? Cooke supports the policing of child pornography by the state, yet it is no easier to define child pornography than it is to define “violent” or “extreme” pornography. Laws cover not only images of actual child sex crimes, but any depiction of anyone who is or appears to be a minor, depicted in an “indecent” manner – a term that is difficult to define, and which many artists have publicly decried precisely as an abridgement of their liberty. The fact is, there is no logical reason why someone who defends the “liberty” of adults to watch a rape porn flick with an 18-year old in it, should suddenly be willing to fight tooth-and-nail to abridge that liberty when it involves a 17 ½-year old. Libertarian-style conservatives who support the current laws surrounding child pornography simply aren’t willing to follow their morally bankrupt philosophy through to its rotten conclusion. And indeed, we should be thankful they aren’t.
All societies have had some form of restriction on obscenity, and it is always difficult to define exactly what falls inside and outside of the restricted categories. Things like this are hard, and require us to actually think carefully for once. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, tells us that “civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.” But even Catholics who want a legal ban on all pornography still have to define what it is, since they don’t want to send Botticelli’s Venus up in flames. No-one, apart from those who defend the legalization of all porn including child porn (and no-one is defending that), gets out of this debate without having to engage their brain, just by mouthing some slogan about “liberty.”
That said, Britain is a more censorious society than the United States. Doesn’t the American cultural emphasis on the importance of liberty justify the assumption that laws should be as relaxed as possible when it comes to something like pornography?
Not necessarily, when that emphasis on liberty is understood in its proper context. The Founding Fathers were largely small “r” republicans (not to be confused with the big “R” republicanism of the modern Republican Party) and founded America as a republic, in contrast to monarchical and authoritarian European states. “The fundamental elements of republicanism, today as in classical Greece and Rome,” Richard Dagger tells us, “are publicity and self-government.”
These two are inherently connected. Small “r” republicans believe that government is a res publica, a “public affair” of citizens who govern themselves, and not the responsibility of one person (monarchy) or class (aristocracy). Classical republicans are concerned with liberty, but because their ideal of self-government can only be realized in a state of liberty from both imperium (arbitrary state power) and dominium (the arbitrary power of some private persons over others), and not because individual freedom is believed to be sacrosanct.
In a properly constituted republic – precisely because government is something that we as a people do to ourselves – laws cannot be envisaged as an imposition by the state on the body politic, as if the government were merely an external force. Ironically, the libertarian, who insists on seeing the citizen as merely a subject of an overbearing state instead of a participant in the political community, actually reverts to classical monarchism in its most base form.
Although the UK is not technically a republic, Cameron’s recent announcement has come after several years of national public discussion in Britain about how to protect the sexual innocence of children growing up in the internet age. This discussion has been fuelled by several brutal sexual killings in which the killers had become obsessed with violent pornography, and an increasing incidence of child-on-child sex abuse cases, in which children act out scenes from porn on other youngsters. A recent report found that, in the last three years alone, 5,028 sexual offences in which the abuser was under 18 were recorded by British police. The youngest abuser reported was only 5 years old; too young even to be held criminally responsible.
The reason the government’s proposals have not proved particularly controversial, therefore, is because they are just a reflection of the consensus that has developed out of the public conversation the people of Britain have been having about how they wish to govern themselves. If we really want to frame the question in terms of “abridging liberty” (which is probably not the best way to see it anyway), then it is best described as a social agreement to mutually abridge liberties for the sake of the common good, not as a leviathan state “censoring” the freedom of its helpless, powerless subjects.
Personal immunity from social coercion is not a first-order concern of classical republicanism. Whereas classical liberals emphasize freedom from the law, classical republicans emphasize freedom by means of the law. That is, the laws which we as a people decide upon should be the kind of laws that help shape us into the sort of people capable of governing ourselves. All societies have to reckon with the power of human sexual desire, not only to unite and integrate people, but, if misdirected, to corrode and destroy them. When this corrosion reaches the kind of proportions it has today, it can hardly be described as just a “personal” problem. Across the West, pornography is now much harder to avoid than it is to access. Is allowing the next generation to grow up with almost unfettered access to limitless depictions of every kind of sexual perversion likely to reproduce a body politic capable of self-government? Or is it likely to produce a confused, depressed, violent generation, addicted not merely to sensuality, but to depravity? A people who are not capable of governing themselves cannot govern themselves, and are therefore ripe for being tyrannized.