It has been brought to my attention through my various social networks that PayPal has taken it upon itself to put pressure on distributors of erotica/porn in an effort to ban material from the ‘net which it deems offensive. As I commented to Julie Andrews’ post on the Broad Universe FaceBook page, it is difficult for me to get terribly excited over this. With the efforts of the US government to take control over the Internet and legislate the right of any corporation to summarily take down any site it deems a threat, not to mention the Right Wing’s social agenda (the mind boggles and outrage fatigue sets in), this little tempest barely stirs the cobwebs in my domestically challenged office.
However, as a philosopher, I can’t help seeing the deeper illness of which PayPal’s actions are merely a symptom: that charming bastard, Censorship. (Update: This is, BTW, much bigger than PP: see K.A. Laity’s commentary about the issue, including Mark Coker’s comments on Smashword’s embrace of the bastard.)
Now, I defy anyone to definitively distinguish porn from erotica. They are merely the dark and light ends of a seamless scale of grey. There are varieties at the dark end that I might cheerfully endorse banning, particularly those that involve small children and brutality. And that’s where the charming part of the bastard comes in. We as a society want so much to eliminate its ills that we take the obvious and easy route of banning them. Don’t approve of drugs? Gay marriage? Murder? Theft? Pornography? Filling in wetlands and building condos? Pass a law against it.
Somehow we haven’t gotten the message that this doesn’t work terribly well. Although it does provide employment and profit for vast armies of lawyers and law enforcement agents, not to mention great, swelling bags of filthy lucre for those who make it their business to work around the laws and supply the demand, which of course, legislation may have blunted but has certainly not eliminated.
Am I advocating getting rid of laws? Of course not. But let me modestly propose a far better long-term solution: Figuring out exactly what really needs controlling, and then working on the demand side. Because supply will always find a way.
Example: Gay marriage. If you look at it with the cool head of logic, adding a generous dose of understanding and compassion, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to ban it. If it violates your belief system, then don’t do it. But society has no compelling interest to prevent gay people from getting married, and some excellent reasons to permit it.
Example: Murder. Not difficult to make a case against it, or society’s interest in preventing it. Same with child abuse, cruelty to animals, robbery, etc. Why would anyone want to commit those acts? Find out the answer to that, act on the problem, solve it, and you don’t need any laws. But in the meantime, it’s prudent to keep the cops on the beat.
Those are two extreme cases. But let’s get back to PayPal and our charming bastard, censorship. Sexualized acts of brutality are highly erotic to some people, and sexual gratification is one of the most powerful drives humans possess. Some well-intentioned souls are horrified at rape, incest (implied or otherwise), and bestiality found in some erotic works. The impulse is, as with many feminists, child advocates, and other folks of noble intention, Ban It Now! Put A Stop To It! In other words, Censorship. That’s its charm; it seems a solution to a horrible evil. (One person’s horrible evil being another person’s lifestyle choice.)
The bastard asserts himself once he’s gotten his foot through the door with his charm. Who decides what should get banned? Aye, there’s the rub. PayPal? Westboro Baptist Church? Homeland Security? The Supreme Court? A little old lady from Detroit?
And, does the censorship really work? Like banning drugs, prostitution and dog fighting, those who want it will just find ways around the law. You haven’t gotten rid of it; you’ve turned it into an abscess.
I put it to you that no matter the appeal, censorship is a bastard. Letting him in the door, even in an attempt rid yourself of your worst pests, is a mistake. Before you know it, he’ll take over your house.
We have to groan, sigh, and acknowledge that the only real solution is to work from the demand side. First, decide if we really need to get rid of it. What threat does most romantic erotica pose? If it violates your beliefs (or if, like me, it just doesn’t do anything for you) than don’t read/view it. If there is no demonstrable harm to society as a whole, then society as a whole has no reason to want to prevent it.
If, however, dark and brutal erotica/porn is a demonstrable threat, as it is in the case of child pornography or the industry that hideously exploits and brutalizes women to produce its goods, then something must be done. Ask the question: Why would anyone want to view these horrors? What sickness causes someone to derive pleasure from another’s suffering? This is what desperately needs to be addressed.
As a society, we need to make compassion central to our value system. We need to care that others are hurting and take whatever steps we can to ease their suffering. We need to teach that exploitation is not okay, and that we should be judged not by our personal success, but how we treat the least among us. Wealth is not worth – wealth is something one accumulates so that one is able to do what does establish one’s worth, namely, alleviating the suffering of others and making the world a better place.
Stop sighing and groaning! It’s a monstrously huge, seemingly impossible challenge, I know. But to truly bring an end to the worst miseries of our society, it is a challenge we must doggedly, stubbornly, quixotically make our goal and keep pushing for. In the meantime, it’s prudent to keep the cops on the beat to defend us from the wretches who would do us harm.
And resist the temptation to let the Charming Bastard in the door.