Sunday, February 11, 2018
In the New York Times, Ross Douthat has a column that argues straightforwardly that we should "ban" hard-core pornography. Although the Supreme Court's precedents allow, in theory, governments to ban "obscene" material (see, e.g., Miller v. California), it seems to be the view that, practically speaking -- because of the ubiquity of and ease of accessing online pornography -- pornography is both unregulated and unregulatable (by the government).
My view of the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee tends to be the maximalist, old-school ACLU-type libertarian position -- i.e., the government may almost never regulate expression because of its content or because of the "viewpoint" it expresses. I hold this view not because I think it is compelled by the First (or the Fourteenth) Amendment's original public meaning but because, all things considered, I think it is "worth it" to endure offensive, misguided, foolish, and even dangerous speech rather than to trust officials with the task of identifying and policing, in a consistent and unbiased way, a line between speech that is permitted and speech that is not.
I admit, though, that I'm not entirely comfortable with this view (and not only because, again, it seems hard to square with what I understand to be the original meaning of "the freedom of speech"). Sometimes, those who hold this view justify it on the asserted ground that "sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me." Obviously, this is not true. Speech does cause "harms," to others, to the community, and to the moral ecosystem. What's more, there is no reason to think that these harms are distributed in an equitable way or, say, borne by those who benefit the most from a libertarian speech regime. Still, my well-grounded confidence that the power to regulate speech would be abused -- e.g., that rules against "hate speech" or "unsafe speech" or "harassment" will be used to suppress "conservative", "traditional", or otherwise insufficiently right-side-of-history views on various matters -- makes me reluctant to depart from the near-absolutist position.
And yet: Pornography is harmful -- and Douthat identifies some of these harms -- and it is immoral (despite what some woke and liberated sophisticates want to tell us) to produce or to consume it. The scathing piece that Douthat wrote after Hugh Hefner's death, responding to some of the ridiculous posthumous accolades, was spot on. (He was "a pornographer and chauvinist who got rich on masturbation, consumerism and the exploitation of women, aged into a leering grotesque in a captain’s hat, and died a pack rat in a decaying manse where porn blared during his pathetic orgies.") It's increasingly difficult for me not to agree that it should be regulated more than it is -- certainly, it should be marginalized, shamed, and disapproved more than it is -- and that meaningful lines between Pornhub and, say, The Rosy Crucifixion would not be as elusive as my fellow near-absolutists warn.
At the very least: Shouldn't every Catholic university employ (in ways consistent with researchers' academic freedom) filters and the like to at least complicate their undergraduates' dorm-room access to material that, the Church has always known and the world is increasingly appreciated, undermines their development, relationships, and flourishing?