KCAC Forum Magazine Jan/Feb 1988
by David Perkins
In 1982, I published a special issue of Chouteau Review entitled Photographs. The cover of that special issue was a striking nude by Kansas City photographer Richard Loftis. The photograph apparently struck some people in the wrong place, however because several booksellers refused to sell the book. What’s more, an elderly woman who saw it on display remarked to me, “That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.”
I dredge up this ancient incident to illustrate my own acquaintance with prudery, aesthetic poverty, and the will to censor and to make it clear that when I find fault with many of those who argue against anti-pornography forces, I do not so so without a personal understanding of what’s at stake.
It’s often been remarked that even the most righteous of combatants can, in the heat of battle, take on the worst characteristics of their opponents. It seems to me that this is exactly what has happened in the arguments being made by artists and political liberals to counter anti-pornography forces. This was especially evident, I believe, in opposition to the recent campaign here in Kansas City, waged by Stand Together Opposing Pornography (STOP). Defenders of free speech – in the arts and in ordinary life – are slipping into a kind of reverse absolutism we have so long struggled against. The First Amendment has become a fetish. Like 19th Century fundamentalists, we have set our flag on an absolute, and have closed our eyes to real life contingency, qualification, and exception. In defense of our right way to say the truth, we have slipped into a line of argument that betrays the truth. Fearful of being censored, we have abandoned our sense.
This is what I mean. In argument after argument against the STOP campaign, we were warned that STOP represented censorship, that censorship is an unamerican abridgement of our fundamental right to free expression and that STOP and groups like it, must be opposed. Superficially attractive, this argument is really and insupportable muddle.
To begin with, of course, STOP is promoting censorship. That is, it is seeking to place a control on certain speech acts. However, this effort is not in the least unamerican, or unusual. The Supreme Court has already held that obscenity is not protected speech. In addition, speech is controlled in many other ways. Libel and slander, for instance are against the law. So are threats. So is false advertising. Our speech, like our other public behavior, has never been absolutely free in this society. Indeed, it can rightly be said that “free society” is a contradiction in terms. All societies are based upon a set of proscriptive behaviors. We can alter those proscriptions, but we cannot wholly eliminate them; and only the most romantic adolescent would suggest that we do.
One can see immediately, then, that the STOP campaign is not all that extraordinary. On the contrary, it is strikingly similar to efforts by other individuals who have sought to proscribe general behavior. For instance, some individuals want to force everyone to wear seatbelts. Other individuals want corporations to control their pollution (to exact measurement) and to pay a fair minimum wage (in someone else’s judgement). Other individuals want the state to appropriate general tax revenues to support the arts.
In fact, every one of these efforts to proscribe the behavior of others has been successful (and many more besides). And every one of these efforts, I am sure, is generally supported by the artists and political liberals who have argued so emotionally, in the STOP case, against “authoritarian zealotry,” against any abridgement of their natural right to absolute freedom.
There is a corollary to the argument against proscription, selectively applied, that is equally illegitimate. That argument goes like this: If we allow the censorship of admittedly disgusting violent sexual pornography, we will “open the door” to censorship of other speech as well. The fault with this argument is plain: There is no legislative case in which it cannot be invoked. We cannot require fair employment laws for women or fair housing laws for blacks, because that will lead to even greater restrictions on our “personal freedoms.” As students of political history are well aware, this line of argument has been used for decades by reactionary opponents of liberal social legislations; and for years this argument has been denounced as empty. But if this argument was wrong for reactionaries then, it’s wrong for liberals and artists now.
There is one final illegitimate argument used by anti-STOP forces. That is, it was suggested again and again that STOP’s insistence upon a link between pornography and sex crimes was hysterical and irrational. But this simply isn’t true. In fact, the hour-long television show I saw on the issue was surprisingly professional. In it, STOP presented the thesis that pornography can lead to criminal behavior. it then supported this thesis with documented examples. One can argue that this evidence is anecdotal, or insufficient, but it cannot be said that it is hysterical or unreasonable. Plainly, nearly everyone in education or in the arts believes that representation, exhortation and repetition can alter a person’s values, consciousness and behavior. The claim of STOP is simply an elaboration of this generally accepted idea. STOP may be wrong, but evidence, not illegitimate argument, is needed to prove it.
My point here is simple and cautionary. The arguments for control of pornography are not wholly fanatical, or are they totally without merit; and individuals in the arts and in the liberal community are wrong to insist they are, and doubly wrong to employ illegitimate arguments to support themselves. The woman who pronounced the cover of Photographs to be “ugly” was no hysterical quack, but a pathetic creature crippled by a lifetime of confusing moral precepts and lowbrow aesthetics. She needs sympathy and education, not facile abuse or unsupported argument.
Good art, like good politics, is in the details. A large part of our art is in the way we do it; likewise, a large part of our liberty is in the care we take to defend it. Serious writers and artists are defined by their will to make distinctions, by their ability to tell on thing from another. Such individuals have nothing to gain from broadaxe and ultimately fraudulent arguments against real and serious concerns about pornography, however defined. A serious issue demands a serious debate. Of course the other side needs to do better. But so do we.