Birch Smith, Hillsdale College, 2017
Part II: Obscenity
If the last article highlighted the need for a simpler kind of prudential reasoning – the need to consider the effectiveness and unintended consequences of a given action, and to weigh the goods actually achieved (or harmed) in the process – this article will focus on the need for a broader sort of prudential foresight when it comes to legal precedent and the potential uses or misuses of given powers. Many Christians have long advocated for censorship and government control of the kinds of speech (broadly defined) that they have considered to be immoral, corrupting to individuals and society, and generally contrary to biblical standards. They have, almost inevitably, failed to properly consider the legal, social, and philosophical consequences of their actions, and how their own actions have in large part paved the way for the sorts of threats to religious liberty they fear today.
To be fair, the history of censorship in America began long before modern Conservative Christian political activism, primarily for political or national security reasons. Censorship laws in some form, and the resulting Constitutional challenges, tended to arise in times of war or international unrest, with mixed results. Sometimes the Court allowed “exceptions” to the First Amendment, sometimes not, depending on what they viewed as necessary concessions to other aspects of the common good. After all, yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded building, or talking about classified military information during wartime, are exercises of speech that have generally bad consequences. Those actions represent a clear and present danger, and based on a hierarchical understanding of goods are almost certainly permissible restrictions of speech.
Other sorts of restrictions on speech, however, enter much more dangerous philosophical and legal territory. In modern times, these restrictions have largely come about because a
significant portion of the population, wielding a sufficient amount of political power, has believed a certain form of expression to be violations of public decency, and to be offensive. Swearing, “adult themes,” and various forms of nudity and pornography have all been targets of regulation or bans from Conservative elements of society, and Christians have often been (and still are) at the forefront of such movements.
The arguments generally offered against such censorship revolve around the right of the individual to free speech, and that it is not the proper role of the government to regulate speech that does not endanger others. Once again, while I tend to be sympathetic to such arguments, they are persuasive only to those who understand and accept their underlying assumptions about the nature of just government, and who believe that there are some things that a government may never do, no matter how much we might wish them to. The argument I intend to make is that, regardless of whether or not governments may legitimately engage in censorship, to do so for moral reasons is simply not a good idea.
...whether or not governments may legitimately engage in censorship, to do so for moral reasons is not a good idea. Click To Tweet
The first point is that the modern-day liberal appeal for regulation of speech (“this is offensive”) and the modern-day conservative appeal for regulation of speech (“this is immoral or indecent”) are, in practice, identical statements. To be sure, a claim referring to an objective standard of morality ought, in all likelihood, be afforded much greater weight than a simple appeal to one particular individual’s emotional response. The reality is that both appeals, when put into action, can be described in more formal terms as follows: an individual, in accordance with his own personal beliefs and standards, deems a given expression to be improper or inadmissible under the given circumstances, and further attempts to use some form of power available to him to eliminate said expression.
The problem, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out in reference to the confused nature of post-enlightenment moral discourse, is that in most cases the contending parties have no common, agreed-upon objective standard of reference by which to decide such questions. Further, anyone with a subjectivist moral framework is going to interpret what conservatives or Christians say as simply an equivalent subjective moral preference, not as a truth claim to be examined and validated, or invalidated, on the basis of evidence and sound reasoning. In this way our actions will often be seen as contradicting our words. We believe in the dignity and value of the human being, we say, and we also believe that what you are doing (pornography, say) is immoral and thus damaging to the dignity and value of human beings. Thus far, we have a statement that can in some sense be respected by everyone, at the very least as a personal opinion or preference about the nature of pornography – of equal status to other, differing opinions about the nature of pornography. It is when we move towards saying that, because we respect the dignity and value of the human being, we are going to tell that individual (whose dignity and value we claim to respect) what he can and cannot do because we think that his actions go counter to his own good; and when we do all of this without successfully persuading him of the truth of our claim, that we become contradictory.
What we are guilty of in our example is taking a free and rational individual with his own beliefs and, without engaging with him to the point of persuasion, treating him much like a child who does not know, and is not yet capable of understanding, why it is bad to touch a hot stove or play in the street. That is wrong, because he is not a child; he simply has a different belief. He does not share in a Christian moral framework, does not accept our underlying assumptions about the nature of things, does not adopt the Bible as an authoritative standard.
We may think we are right, we may think that we know we are right, we may even be right, but without persuading him we will have done him no good.
If censorship is not for the benefit of the individuals being censored, can we argue that it is for the benefit of society at large, and that the harm done to the individuals by restricting their freedom is acceptable in exchange for the common goods achieved. This may, on a shortsighted view, seem persuasive. After all, it is claimed, pornography and the like are immoral, bad for the people who view it and bad for the people with whom they interact. It objectifies people and dehumanizes sexual attraction, focusing it on the good of the self rather than that of the other. With these points I can agree; and yet the potential dangers of taking action are far too great.
Any time power rather than persuasion is used as an agent of social change, there is a significant chance of that power being used for other purposes, often to much greater harm than whatever good it was intended to effect. For years Christians sought to assert some measure of control over what was taught in public schools (Scopes trial, anyone?); now we complain that prayer and the Bible are excluded from schools, or that evolution is taught and creationism is excluded. We have no right to complain, because we brought into existence the level of government control and interference in the education system that is today being used against us. Where we once sought to ban or censor the types of speech we deemed offensive, now our own speech is labelled as hate speech. History has never showed us an exercise of force that has stayed within its intended bounds. Caesars will rarely decide to not cross their Rubicons.
Persuasion is the realm of truth, and the strongest argument can triumph. Click To Tweet
Persuasion is the realm of truth, and the strongest argument can triumph. Power is the realm of majorities, and the strongest side will inevitably win. If you are content to use unreasoning power against others, you must also be content when it is used against you. We have created the very mechanisms of regulation that we now fear and decry. If we are to defend liberty, we must no less defend the liberty of those with whom we most disagree. Perhaps, if we had shown ourselves consistent and relied on the truth of our arguments to achieve the goods we desired, we might not be in the position we are today. Or, even if we were, we would not sound like the hypocrites we have too often proven ourselves to be.
Latest posts by Birch Smith (see all)
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