Stifling Charles Murray

Since I’ve been concerned with the status of speech on university campuses, I started looking into the actual speakers who have received the most flak. I’ve been familiar with Milo Yiannopolous for quite a while, and there’s really nothing to comment on there. Ann Coulter is nothing unique. Charles Murray, however, does prove an interesting case; with professional credentials, connections to indicate his in-group status, and the high-profile articles written to counter him, his utter condemnation is a little more peculiar.

I haven’t had time to read The Bell Curve, but I did tune into the podcast with Sam Harris and some of the counterarguments online. Based on the two hour conversation alone, Murray seems honest, well-informed and humble. His field is a controversial one, and so one should expect these qualities. His field is also an academic one with empirical and statistical methods, and for that very reason alone, without an extensive treatment the general population is going to lag behind in comprehension. Lots of the viewpoints Murray espouses are not so easily countered or adopted without background knowledge in psychometrics, and so most of the audience for Waking Up probably walked away with a predestined opinion.

When I listened to the episode, knowing beforehand only that Murray had been subject to endless criticism and condemnation on campus and in research (e.g. by Stephen Jay Gould), I was surprised by how lucid he sounded. The man seems far from a white nationalistracist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist; instead, he presents himself as interested in the same concerns as those on the left (his findings, he says, indicate the need for a basic income. He also supports gay marriage). Sam Harris is also constantly derided, often for his criticism of Islam, and after hosting Murray received some of the same ugly labels. One critique of the podcast is that Harris was too charitable and unquestioning on Murray’s presentation, and I can agree with that, but that may have been because Harris was already familiar with his work. (Also, around the hour-fifteen mark, Murray launches into a domain Harris is clearly less comfortable with, and Harris does explore his guest’s views a little more critically — though it could be said, not enough.)

The experience, for me, made concrete a maxim often championed by defenders of speech. Inaccurately attaching our most powerful labels of evil — fascism, racism, sexism, Nazism, supremacy — means that when faced with the real thing, we will be powerless. Placing genuine bigots and totalitarians in the same word pool as controversial scientists is a bad move for critique. I listened to Murray and thought: so this is the big bad wolf? These are the opinions of the man orthodoxy has eschewed? The man could be wrong about everything, as the internet says, but he does not seem to be motivated by something other than obtaining the facts. If he is wrong, by God, let us challenge his and Herrnstein’s methods and underlying assumptions; let us not push this into a dark corner of human thought it does not fit in with. Some well-established professors writing for Vox say Murray argues from insufficient evidence and this debate ought to be over with already (having gone on since 1994); but they explicitly advocate calling out incorrect ideas rather than stifling them by violent protests.

That is indeed the way to go, because not only did I experience the solidification of the above maxim, but by the end of the interview I was experiencing a curiosity that could easily turn morbid. I imagine it is even stronger for younger people tuning in to Harris. The thought arises, “If this is ‘forbidden knowledge’ — this reasonable, ostensibly well-grounded argument — then what else is there? What else do our global intellectuals call pseudoscience that might be true? If the community labels this racist, what other things do they label racist which are not?” We need to be able to trust each other to keep labels in check. Is it too much of a slippery slope to fear that, once people discover Murray is not a racist, they will seek out other less savory iconoclasts who have also been dubbed white supremacists, looking for what knowledge they might have?

Yiannopolous presents no arguments. Murray does: shutting him down without confrontation only creates an allure of forbidden knowledge, leading those explorers who find Murray digestible to trust established scientific facts less and less. I am not versed in cognitive studies enough to come to an opinion on who is right in this matter; it’s only clear that Charles Murray is arguing from what he thinks is scientifically-validated information. Placing his research into the same domain as David Duke’s ramblings can only lead the curious into an unpleasant trap when they realize their intellectual elders lied to them.

Speech in academic philosophy: Rebecca Tuvel on Rachel Dolezal

A few days ago, controversy exploded in the world of academic philosophy as a new article, published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, earned itself a letter calling for retraction by over eight hundred scholars on the basis that its availability “causes harm.”

Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism,” argues that the same sort of theoretical support used to justify transgender issues entails, logically, support of the concept of transracialism. Tuvel details Rachel Dolezal’s claims, as a woman “presenting as a black woman for some years [though] her parents are in fact white” (Tuvel, 263). She posits sensible criteria that seem essential to a “successful identity transformation”: self-identification and the willingness of society to accept an identification. Then, she covers literature from biology, neuroscience, and critical race and feminist theory, to ultimately present the idea that, potentially, a concept of racial identity could turn on those criteria rather than notions like ancestry due to exclusionary concerns, a “normativity problem” (274).

The paper is about what our acceptance entails. Although it is entirely about furthering tolerance, the treatment of Tuvel online has been egregious. Some of it can be found on Twitter. One of the most extreme takes, by Nora Berenstain (archived here), outright accuses Tuvel of violence. In a response, Tuvel says she has received hate mail, but that few online have actually dealt with the questions of her article. Brian Leiter even offered to set up a fundraising endeavor if Tuvel decides to seek legal reparation for the defamation circulating online, as it could causes issues with her professorship. Hypatireleased a statement apologizing for the article, saying now they understand it was “unacceptable.”

Why was the feminist philosophy community so upset?

Daily Nous, a philosophy blog, has outlined the reasons the writers of the open letter gave for retracting Tuvel’s essay, and the shortcomings and incoherence of those reasons. Upon reading her essay, one finds that Tuvel is empathetic to trans causes, is entrenched in critical and queer literature, and genuinely only wants to explore some philosophical issues raised by Dolezal’s claims. Some of her offenses, according to Berenstain and the open letter, were deadnaming (using a transgender person’s previous name), using terminology like “transgenderism,” discussing biological sex, and not citing sources by black authors.

These particular misdeeds ran the gamut on social media. The open letter accused Tuvel of some academic concerns like mischaracterization and unpopular vocabulary. Twitter was more concerned with focusing on Tuvel as a “cishetero white wom[an refusing] to listen to cis black women and trans folks,” committing “cis white bullshit.” Noah Berlatsky wrote a shallow criticism that spends most of its time discussing how the article will be used against transpeople, and the other large bulk on Tuvel’s ignorance of history — as if history is somehow relevant to the logical consequences of a few philosophical commitments. He, again, fails to engage with it academically. It’s true that Tuvel could have incorporated more work on trans history; it’s also true that it in no way effects her basic argument.

Some responses revealed the ideological reasons for opposing Tuvel’s research. Dianna E. Anderson writes, “my problem as a philosophy undergrad… [was that] philosophy seems to separate itself out into a moral vacuum where every question is ‘just asking’ … there has to be a moral framework guiding which questions you’re asking and why … that’s why I grounded my higher education in Women’s Studies, where moral parameters are drawn around questions.” Incidentally, this is one of the two reasons the Church censored Galileo: first, it thought Galileo to be factually inaccurate; second, it had a boundary — theology of the Bible — past which speculation could not take place; cosmological and astronomical theorizing were not to transgress this line. Anderson commits herself to Women’s Studies as a place where stifling zones are set up; dogmas that may not be passed. (Funny enough, the first reason the Church employed censorship has not been picked up by Tuvel’s opposition.)

The non-scholarly attacks on Tuvel don’t hold water, which a short turn to the essay reveals. Daily Nous covered most of those points, and NY Mag addressed, again, the extent to which the criticisms avoided a critical look at the actual arguments contained within. Tuvel is not a transmisogynist. For some people outside of feminist academic philosophy, she would probably even seem like a caricature of an “ultra-leftist.” The attacks on her are antithetical to academic humility: among them ad hominems, appeals to authority, slippery slopes and strawmen. The academic environment necessary for such an unscholarly attack on a philosopher for not being aligned enough with the contemporary orthodoxy — and that is all it seems to boil down to — is very unnerving to those acquainted with the historical censorship of ideas. (Incidentally, Hypatia is named for Hypatia of Alexandria — a female Greek philosopher murdered for inciting controversy. The irony seems to be lost on everyone.)

The reasons given in the open letter to retract the article seem to merit, at most, a slight semantic revision. The scholars, among them Judith Butler, instead want a full apology and censorship. So then, what remains is to ask about the environment of philosophy that enabled this. Hypatia identifies itself as a “forum for cutting-edge work in feminist philosophy” … it also states that “feminist philosophy arises out of diverse traditions and methods within philosophy,” and commits to engage and uplift diversity within the field. Diversity in a continental philosophy journal might mean pluralistic methodology, e.g., hermeneutics, phenomenology, deconstrucion, dialectics, etc. Here, instead, the emphasis is on diversity of identity, which is seen as the foundation of “lived experience” (per the apology), which, it is conferred, provides access to enriched understanding.

Viewpoints from identities outside the mean are given an authority justified by conditions of their birth, rather than the authority of sound argumentation. What is important is some sort of status possessed. There’s an analogue available from another field in humanities: F. A. Hayek was opposed to the Nobel Prize in economics on the argument that no economist should be given so much power: the award “confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess… the influence of an economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.” In essence, the argument becomes lost; the audience awards merit and attention based on something other than good reasons. In the case of Hypatia‘s readership, the audience seems to award attention based on identity.

It is, however, truly naïve to think the history of philosophy is the prevailing of logic over fallacy; that schools become popular because of their intrinsic validity, that logos always triumphs over our other baser means of evaluation. All sorts of humanistic factors, like creativity, freshness, propaganda, aesthetic appeal and explanatory power serve to elevate certain philosophies or cosmologies over others — these are the insights of important 20th century philosophers like Thomas Kuhn. This multiplicity of influences, however, doesn’t mean that reason as a guiding principle should be explicitly subsumed under the authority of influences like pathos or ethos, or skin color.

“In Defense of Transracialism” used argument to attempt to unravel some ongoing mysteries about gender and race. Tuvel approached the question of transracialism from a commitment to other philosophical commitments about gender and sexual identification. It was a question about what follows from our beliefs. Per Plato, philosophy begins in wonder: the critical endeavor to evaluate even our most cherished opinions, explore the incomprehensible world, and examine what incongruities appear in our web of belief.

Because of this, her essay was decisively feminist, in that it examined natural consequences of feminist theory while retaining some basic tenets (like the validity of transpeople, and, maybe, racial social constructivism). Combined with her level of analysis, there’s no question that it could only belong to a feminist philosophy journal.

Her article was criticized not for failing to reach sufficient level of rigor in analysis, but for alleged insensitivity in dealing with touchy subjects. Imagine if Frank Jackson had never published his thought experiment on Mary’s Room, about the experience of the color red, for fear of offending the colorblind. Or if Descartes never released his Meditations, for fear the wax example would offend vegans that don’t eat honey.

In fact, returning to the 17th century, the Tuvel situation is reminiscent of Descartes’ reluctance to publish on the heliocentric universe, after the Inquisition’s treatment of Galileo a few years earlier. When professors in the academic philosophy community, like Nora Berenstain, condemned Rebecca Tuvel for “discursive violence” for publishing an article, and called for retraction rather than debate, it aligns Tuvel with Hypatia of Alexandria, Boethius, von Hochheim, Galileo, Łyszczyński and others as victims of orthodoxical demands for acculturation and censorship in their honest pursuit of advancing understanding.

Berenstain would have been better to react as Tolosani did against Copernicus, attempting to use philosophy and scientific data to dismantle the latter’s controversial viewpoints. Instead, Tuvel’s apparent lack of citations for black or trans authors (though there are plenty of nonwhite philosophers — Quayshawn Spencer, Charles Mills, Meena Krishnamurthy, Esa Diaz-Leon (detailed here) — who have entertained the idea that Dolezal could be transracial) was like a crime to a community not concerned with analysis, as analytic philosophy is supposed to be, but a bizarre appeal toward identitarian ethos. Tuvel says “Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they ‘dignify’ the article.”

By acquiescing to the complaint, Hypatia has allowed for the possibility of a “chilling effect” on speech in academia: authors may self-censor to fit orthodoxy or risk the hate mail and potential threats to tenure Rebecca Tuvel now faces. This is disastrous for the institution of knowledge and a culture that used to be centered around expression. In the words of Greg Lukianoff, free speech is a cultural value, not just something on the Bill of Rights. “Free speech is the antithesis of violence”: it was created, as an innovation, so that we wouldn’t need the threat of force to settle issues.

Tuvel’s conclusion — “that society should accept such an individual’s decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual’s decision to change sex” (275) — is not violent, nor are her premises or methodology. Censorship in philosophy mirrors censorship on campuses: much like protestors disrupted Charles Murray without engaging with his research (and possibly completely misunderstanding it), philosophers chastised Tuvel for minor semantic offenses or lack of adherence to certain trends; each offender expressed heterodoxy where only homogeneity was desired.

The path of philosophy, from Plato to Putnam, has always been controversial. Race and gender, multicultural studies professors always declare, are exceedingly difficult to talk about: therefore, they are perfect fodder for philosophical exploration. To deal with these concepts, one does not have to be black, white, male, female, cis, trans or non-binary — one must only desire honest discovery, and proceed with argument in a way that is open to debate. The last established orthodoxy in philosophy was Stalin’s enforcement of dialectical materialism in the Soviet Union, when laws of statistics, Einstein’s theories of relativity, evolutionary biology and non-Pavlovian psychology were dismissed as pseudoscience. In a free society, the best way to deal with unfamiliar opinions is to debate them, not to call for censorship.

There are only two ways an argument can be wrong: the premises are false, or the conclusion does not follow. The attacks on Tuvel showed an unwillingness to examine either. Without willingness to argue, philosophy — and clarification on these important, mysterious issues — will suffer.

Vulvæ in pornography and culture

I was in a discussion recently on the effects of “porn culture” on young boys and girls. I went back and forth a bit with a debater, until she mentioned the rising rates of labiaplasty, prima facie caused by women’s lack of confidence in their own external genitals after watching pornography (which, according to everyone, is a massive, growing, all-pervasive industry).

Labiaplasty, surgery on the vulva to trim or cut away the labia minora (such that they protrude less than the labia majora) or the clitoral hood, is, indeed, on the rise in the West; it can also lead to complications including pain and infection. The number of girls under eighteen that paid for labiaplasty almost doubled between 2014 and 2015, and the number continues to grow.

Insecurity is a leading factor in many women’s decision to pursue the surgery. Patient satisfaction post-op is about 95%. Labiaplasty improves confidence and happiness and can lead to a healthier sex life. Costs are about $4000 – 5000, which is not terribly expensive for a life-altering operation.

However, the logistics alone are deceiving. Plastic surgery is a relatively young field with ever-improving techniques. To attribute the rise in labiaplasty immediately to the effects of an increasingly pornographic culture is disingenuous. There are other factors, and an analysis of labiaplasty patients shows that 32% of women undergoing the surgery did so for functional impairment, 31% for combined functional impairment and aesthetic improvement, and 37% for aesthetic improvement alone. That is a majority of surgeries for achieving or improving upon physical function. Of course, if you’re thinking of getting a surgery to improve a malfunctioning organ and it comes with visually pleasing benefit as well, you might incorporate this a little into your selection process – thus, it is reasonable to assume that many of the patients in the dual percentage were focused primarily on physical function, with visuals as an afterthought. The authors of the study found that “the majority of patients undergoing reduction of the labia minora do so for functional reasons with minimal outside influences affecting their decision for treatment.” This is an inconvenient conclusion if you want to argue that porn culture is causing these surgeries.

There’s also, as always, much more to the story. Female porn stars have what might be called “tidy” mons pubes, in terms of pubic hair and the conspicuousness of labia. These “designer vaginas” don’t accurately represent the general, mammalian populace of people with vaginas. Yet, as noted by Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College, the reason porn actresses in Australia maintain such kept labia is not male, female or porn-producer preference, but rating boards (which are government bodies). Soft-core porn, in Australia, can only show “discreet genital detail,” which rules out fleshy, extrusive labia. The labia minora is considered “too offensive” for soft-core. Similar distinctions apply elsewhere. In Germany, for instance, one must be at least 16 years old to purchase soft-core material and 18 to buy hardcore; the distinction falls along multiple lines some of which dictate how extrusive the labia are. In Australia, often airbrushers at porn mags apply digital labiaplasty to “heal” vulvas to an acceptable “single crease.”

One of the feminist authors I’ve linked makes the point clear by comparison: what if porn classificatory boards determined the testicles were too explicit? What if the scrotum had to be airbrushed out in order for men’s genitals to appear in soft-core?

Daisy Buchanan at the Guardian observes another reason women are seeking aesthetic “improvement” to their natural organs: the seductive exhibitionism of pornography is not confined to hardcore adult films anymore, it’s everywhere – at music awards, during celebrity photoshoots, in casual advertisements, whatever.

This point could be worded in one of two ways: society is hyper-sexualized, or, our culture is sexually liberated. The second, more optimistic one, symbolizes a social maturity into sexual autonomy. Buchanan exaggerates by claiming we’re “as likely” to see a vulva on a music channel as on a pornographic website, but nonetheless, sex has become a more tolerable phenomenon for more and more people. The labiaplasty rate can be disparaged as a coercive instrument for young women to meet societal standards, or, it can be lauded as the growth of opportunity for women with functional problems and their willingness (and increased ability to afford) to shape their body how they want it.

As detailed previously on Notes on Liberty (here and here), the stifling force of 20th and 21st century censorship has been obsessed with pornography and female pleasure. For those who view labiaplasty as a disturbing, sexist phenomenon, one place to start would be rating boards, often managed by the government.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Smuggling Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs out of the USSR
  2. Are memes disrupting American politics? So asks a Leftist
  3. The 4th Amendment, policing, and pedagogy
  4. At least the end of the War on Drugs is nigh
  5. A new (old) strategy for a polycentric world (but why not federation?)
  6. A simple map of Brazil and its states

Pornography, virtual reality and censorship [II]: puritanism and videogames

[Continuing from my last post, noting that feminists have not behaved monolithically toward pornography, and statistics have not provided any justifiable inference from violent pornography to violent crime.]

Most feminists would align, however, in a condemnation of violent pornography, even if they do not attempt to use legal coercion to restrict it. It has been particularly controversial when material becomes first-person, or even playable. And thus pornography, and violent pornography, often makes an intersection with the videogame industry. To name one infamous example, RapeLay, a role-playing game from a company in Yokohama, Japan, allows the player to assault a defenseless mother and her two children. Some critics argued that the videogame breached the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, agreed to by the United Nations.

New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn called RapeLay a “rape simulator.” Commenting on the game and other controversies, an IGN journalist added: “For many, videogames are nothing but simulators. They are literal replications, and, as such, should be cause for the same kind of alarm the real life equivalents would inspire.” Is this the same motive for consumers though – that of, essentially, practice? On the piratebay download link for RapeLay, a top commenter “slask777” writes: “I highly approve of this for two reasons, [sic] the first is that it’s a slap in the face of every prude and alarmist idiot out there and second, it’s a healthy outlet for the rape fantasy, which is more common than most people believe.”

I suspect that much of the appreciation for videogames is due to their simplicity, to be eventually supplemented by mild and mostly innocent addiction. Then – not to put too much faith in slask777’s psychological credentials – I suspect as well that violent videogames serve a “channeling” function, allowing some instinctual energies to exert themselves in a harmless environment and release some psychological tension. Perhaps the “rape fantasy” is not shared by the majority of the populace, but judging by the comments on the torrent site, the audience for this game cannot be confined to stereotypical images of basement N.E.E.Ts. (Studies of the occupations of internet trolls confirm as well the difficulty of pinning down an image for anonymous internet users). There was even an informative, civil discussion of reproductive anatomy on page one of the torrent site. Following this theory of channeling, we might find similar uses for virtual realities: nonreal locations to perform socially unacceptable acts. Locations for people with genuine sexual or sadistic pathologies, to release their desires and blow off steam without harming other people. The entire premise is empathetic.

Of course, throughout history, any activity which has the possibly of harmlessly releasing what could be described as primordial man, the “reptilian” side, the repressed id, or whatnot, has faced violent opposition from culture, religion, criminal law and various romantic-familial-social apparatuses. Here, we can already expect that, fitting into the category of “recreational and individuational,” virtual reality technologies will face a cultural blowback. RapeLay is an extreme example of both violence and sexuality in videogames: the high-profile protest it received could be expected. (Pornography has even been to the Supreme Court a few times (1957, ’64, ’89). In a separate case, Justice Alito, commenting on RapeLay, wrote that it “appears that there is no antisocial theme too base for some in the videogame industry to exploit.”) This moral outrage, however, is not simply content-based, but medium-based, and flows directly from the extant condescension and distrust toward videogames and pornography.

The simple fact that disparate ideological camps agree on, and compatible groups disagree on, the effects and what to do about pornography and videogames could be seen as demonstrative of the issue’s complexity; in fact, this implies that the nature of opinion on this is fundamental and dogmatic. The opinion provides the starting point for selectively filtering research. There are two logical theories concerning these violent media: the desensitization argument, and the cathartic/channeling argument. Puritans and rebels enter the debate with their argumentative powers already assigned, and the evidence becomes less important.

Before evidence that might contradict either primitive position on pornography interferes, many people have already formed their condescension and distrust. The desensitization theory is particularly attractive due on the most publicly-understood thesis of cognitive-behavioral psychology: mental conditioning. Thus when violence or abusive language is used as a male advance in adult videos and games, and women are depicted as acquiescing rather than fighting back, boys must internalize this as reality. Of course, media itself has no interest in depicting legitimate representations of reality; it is inherently irreal, and it would be naïve to expect pornography directors to operate differently. This irreality I think is poorly understood, and thus the “replicator” argument as adopted by the IGN reporter becomes the most common sentiment for people that find pornography affronting to their morals and are also disinterested in research or empirical data. Glenn Beck, commenting on the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, said “there is no distinction between reality and a game anymore.”* He went on to say that promiscuity is at an all-time high, especially with high school students, when the number of sexual partners for young people is at a generational low. The seemingly a priori nature of a negative pornographic effect allows woefully out-of-touch rhetoric to dominate the conversation, appealing also to the emotional repulsion we may experience when considering violent porn. It encourages a simplifying effect to the debate as well. Again, were it simply true that nations with heavy pornography traffic face more frequent sexual violence (as a result of psychological conditioning, etc.), we would expect countries like Japan to be facing an epidemic – especially given the infamous content of Japanese porn (spread across online pornography, role-playing games and manga). Yet, among industrialized nations, Japan has a relatively low rape frequency. The rape ratio of a nation cannot be guessed simply from the size or content of its pornography industry.

Across the board, the verdict is simply still out, as most criminologists, sociologists and psychologists agree. There are innumerable religious and secular institutions committed to proving the evils of pornography, but contrasting them are studies that demonstrate that, alongside the arrival of internet porn, (1) sexual irresponsibility has declined, (2) teen sex has declined (with millennials having less sex than any other group), (3) divorce has declined, and – contrary to all the hysteria, contrary to all the hubbub – (4) violent crime and particularly rape has declined. Even with these statistics, and of course compelling arguments might be made against any and all research projects (one such counterargument is here), violent efforts are made to enforce legal restrictions – that is something that will probably persist indefinitely.

I first became interested in debating pornography with the explosion of “Porn Kills Love” merchandise that became popular half a decade ago. The evidence has never aligned itself with either side; if anything, to this day it points very positively toward a full acquittal. Yet, young and old alike champion the causticity of pornography toward “society,” the family, women, children, and love itself (even as marriage therapists unanimously recommend pornography for marriage problems). Religion has an intrinsic interest in prohibiting pleasurable Earthly activities, but the ostensible puritanism of these opposing opinions is not present in any religiously-identifiable way for a great number of the hooplaers. So an atheistic condemnation of pornography goes unexplained. One might suppose that, lacking the ability to get pleasure (out of disbelief) from a figure-headed faith (which sparks some of the indignation behind New Atheism), people move to destroy others’ opportunities for pleasure out of egalitarianism, and this amounts to similar levels of spiritual zeal. Traces of sexist paternalism are to be found as well, e.g. “it’s immoral to watch a woman sell her body for money,” and through these slogans Willis’ accusation of moral authoritarianism becomes evident. Thus the attitudes which have always striven to tighten the lid on freedom and individual spirituality – puritanism, paternalism, misogyny, envy, etc. – align magnificently with opposing pornography, soft-core or otherwise.

*I try to avoid discussion of GamerGate or anti-GG, but it is almost impossible when discussing videogames and lunatics. Recently, commenting on Deus Ex‘ options for gameplay, which allow the player to make decisions for themselves, Jonathan McIntosh described all games as expressing political statements, and that the option should not even be given to the player to make moral decisions about murder, etc. It’s immoral that there is a choice to kill, was his conclusion. He’s right about all games expressing political statements. But he’s a fucking idiot for his latter statement.

[In my next post I’ll conclude with an investigation into the importance of virtual reality technology and the effect it will have on society.]

Pornography, virtual reality and censorship [I]: presidents and feminism

Oculus Rift, recently purchased by Facebook and partnered with Samsung, and HTC Vive, manufactured by HTC with Valve technology, have lead the 2010 wave in developing virtual reality headsets. These technologies, innovative by today’s standards but primitive by science fiction’s, mark the beginning of a completely differently-structured society. They also mark a starting point for a new debate about privacy, the social affects of videogames, and especially censorship in media.

Virtual reality (in its not-too-distant actuality) offers an opportunity to behave outside of social norms in an environment that is phenomenologically the real world. The only comparable experience for humankind thus far is lucid dreaming, for which the rewards are less intense and the journey less traversible than the quick promises of virtual reality machines. One inevitable development for these machines is violent, sexually explicit experiences, available for cheap and accessible 24/7. To see how VR might be received, the closest industries to analyze are the videogame and pornography industries.

Interestingly, pornography has a very liberal history, in comparison to other “societal ills,” like drugs. (One of my favorite observations, indicative of the fluctuation of moral outlooks on sexuality, is the fact that rimjobs used to be a form of punishment in 17th-century Europe. I move for us to institute this as a contemporary alternative to capital punishment.) Erotica dates back to ancient cultures – notably, the Kama Sutra, hardcore by today’s standards, is still a staple of contemporary sexual experimentation – and today’s perversions were common themes: bestiality, pedophilia, etc., although pornography with an emphasis on violence might be a more modern trend. This isn’t to ignore, however, the roles typically played by women in ancient Western folklore and mythology, which are degrading by today’s feminist standards.

The case could be made that today’s censorial views on pornography come from a far more malevolent or oppressive stance toward women than two millennia ago. The free expression pornographic media once enjoyed was severely impacted over the 20th century. Only two years ago, a plethora of activities were banned from pornography in the United Kingdom. Reacting to the legislation, commentators were quick to criticize what was seen as policy that was specifically anti-female pleasure. Female ejaculation, fisting, face-sitting, and many forms of spanking or role-play were among the restrictions. There are puritanical, “moral outrage” elements to the restriction, but many noticed the absurdity of banning face-sitting: said one producer, “Why ban face-sitting? What’s so dangerous about it? … Its power is symbolic: woman on top, unattainable.” (There has been well-intended censorship as well. Los Angeles county passed Measure B in 2012 to require condom use during any pornographic scene with anal or vaginal contact, to combat the spread of venereal disease.)

Nowadays, there are plenty of porn directors that have learned to focus on both male and female pleasure, and reintroduced artistic merit to their directions. Erika Lust is one example. With the equalizing force gaining momentum in porn, it’s curious what the vehement, persistent condemnation springs from, when its not focused exclusively on abusive sex scenes. In addition, the negative effects of pornography’s presence in society are still being debated. Just the other day, a study which lead to headlines like “Porn doubles the risk of divorce” and “porn signifies a death knell for marriage” was criticized by Reason magazine for failing to address important underlying factors that more plausibly contribute to both pornography consumption and an unhappy marriage leading to divorce. There seems to be an obsession on behalf of the great majority of the public in assigning pornography to some sort of social harm.

Research on photographic pornography’s effect on society began early and aggressively. The Meese Report (1986), commissioned by Reagan and still frequently cited by anti-pornography advocates, determined pornography to be detrimental to society and family relations, and especially for women and children. Arguments built on similar reports attempt to connect sexually explicit material with rapes and domestic violence, alleging that the desensitization to rough sex carries over from the fictional world into the real one. Henry E. Hudson, the Chairman of the Meese Commission, alleged that pornography “appears to impact adversely on the family concept and its value to society.” The Meese Report, however, has been challenged numerous times for bias and irrational jumping to conclusions, and is not taken seriously as a body of research any longer. One criticism by writer, citing the traditionalist narrative embedded in the research, Pat Califia states that the report “holds out the hope that by using draconian measures against pornography we can turn America into a rerun of Leave It to Beaver.

Indeed, Edwin Meese, the Attorney General appointed to conduct the report, earlier withheld a grant of $625,000 to The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1985, after receiving a letter from 24 (mostly Republican) Congress members who claimed the coalition supported “liberal, anti-family activism”; was “pro-lesbian, pro-abortion … radical feminist” … with “different views on marriage and sexuality than those of the traditional Judeo-Christian values.” Ronald Reagan’s daughter Maureen called the Attorney General’s decision to withhold the grant “patently absurd.” The Coalition’s stated mission is to understand the impact of domestic violence and hold abusers accountable.

The United States’ Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, preceding the Meese Report and commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon, was unable to find evidence of any direct harm caused by pornography. (Although Nixon, despite the evidence under his administration, believed porn corrupted civilization.) It is curious that a new federal study was requested only sixteen years after the first extensive one, but maybe not too unusual given the growth of porn with technology (from adult stores and newsstands to unlimited free online access; the internet just celebrated its quarter-centennial birthday); also not too unusual given the absurd and expensive studies already undertaken by the federal government. It is also worth pointing out that pornography, though often connected by Republicans to feminism, is a divisive issue within 20th century and contemporary feminism: some thinkers, like Andrea Dworkin, condemned it as intrinsically anti-women; others feminists like Ellen Willis argued for pornography as liberating and its suppression as moral authoritarianism. The debate along lines of sexuality, online or otherwise, culminated in the feminist “sex wars,” with groups like Feminists Against Censorship and Women Against Pornography popping up. Thus, the debate is open across every ideological camp, and support of pornography is neither necessarily liberal nor necessarily feminist.

[In the next post, I discuss violent pornography’s cross-media transformation into videogames, more sociological research and the general point, and insecurity, of prohibitory measures.]

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The Criminalization of Curiosity
  2. Britain needs Christianity – just ask Alan Partridge
  3. Libertarians have nowhere to turn
  4. In light of ongoing events in Poland, this October piece by Dr Stocker here at NOL is worth reading again
  5. The West in the Arab world, between ennui and ecstasy