Freedom of (Multi)choice

Originally published in The Daily Maverick.

A number of the self-appointed guardians of South Africa’s moral fabric have recently weighed in on DStv’s news that it is considering introducing a pay-per-view pornography channel. As previously reported by Kevin Bloom in The Daily Maverick, Taryn Hodgson of the Christian Action Network claims that the channel will fuel the “fires of sexual abuse and exploitation”, and that those who believe otherwise have “imbibed the lies of the porn industry”. Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute cites sympathetic studies (including one from a right-wing Christian organisation, and another from a high-ranking Freemason’s address during the 1989 ‘Religious Alliance against Pornography’ conference) which purport to demonstrate a connection between pornography and sexual violence. The trade union Solidarity claims that “children’s rights will be violated” by this channel, based on their own research indicating that “77% of molesters of boys and 87% of molesters of girls used pornography”.

And yes, of course there may be a correlation between pornography and sexual violence – just as they may be a correlation between hours spent on church pews and lower-back ache. But correlation does not imply causation. It’s easy to use correlation and “sciencey” language to contribute to a moral panic – but less easy (although far more useful) to demonstrate a clear causal link. Consider the words of the executive director of Helping Hand (a subsidiary of Solidarity), Danie Langner: “All those who watch pornography are not necessarily molesters, but according to experts all child molesters watch pornography.” This tells us nothing, in that all child molesters have most likely heard about Jesus too, and we don’t suspect that knowledge to have anything to do with their sexual deviance.

For every piece of bad science purporting to “prove” that pornography causes various social ills, we can find one that argues the opposite – including some that demonstrate a possible negative causal relationship between pornography and sexual violence. Clemson University economist Todd Kendall has, for example, recently argued that “pornographic websites provide a harmless way for potential predators” to satisfy their urges, resulting in a 7.3% reduction in reported rapes for every 10% increase in internet access in the US.

What this means is that the data are most likely inconclusive, and that we cannot resolve the issue by appeal to statistics that support whatever case we are trying to make. Many issues can be resolved by appeals to available data: the scientific consensus is that HIV is a (very strong) causal factor for Aids, and that smoking is a cause of cancer. We have no such scientific consensus in the matter of pornography’s link to sexual violence, and the citing of research that claims we do is an irresponsible misuse of the tools of science for the purposes of propaganda – not to mention a way of making people on the whole less thoughtful and informed about the matter than they could otherwise be.

There certainly are problematic aspects to the porn industry, as in any industry. Resolving this matter by appeals to data requires that we have evidence of the porn industry being intrinsically or necessarily harmful, rather than harmful in ways that can be limited or eliminated by robust legislation and enforcement of that legislation. A fair and intellectually responsible respondent would say that the evidence of these necessary harms is far from clear.

There are a number of simple, but ill-fated, solutions to the moral dilemma presented by pornography. It would be easy for a Christian government to conclude that human sexuality should be expressed only in the bedrooms of married couples, or for an extremely liberal government to conclude that no restrictions on the free expression of sexuality could be permitted. Unfortunately, societies are seldom completely homogenous, and neither of these solutions would satisfy all the members of a particular society. Any viable solution to the problem would have to be committed to an underlying premise or goal that is acceptable to all rational moral agents, or one that is at least more acceptable than any other premise or goal.

South Africa has such an underlying premise, namely our commitment to the various freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights. This commitment implies a rejection of moral paternalism on the part of the government, and acceptance of the premise that it is desirable to foster a climate of free expression (allowing for limitations in cases such as hate speech).
Each person, therefore, has the right to contribute in the manner of her choosing to the prevailing moral climate, so long as that contribution does not demonstrably undermine other values enshrined in our Bill of Rights. This non-paternalistic approach rests on the belief that each person should be able to exercise their right to moral independence through their choices, including their choices around what to watch on television.

Children are, of course, an exceptional case, in that they are generally not capable of acting as rational moral agents in the way that we assume adults to be. They may thus be unable to decide for themselves regarding whether or not a particular image is “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Until a child has matured to the stage where he is considered capable of making moral choices, this task is usually left to the parents, who raise the child according to their own moral standards, no matter how poorly thought-through those standards might be. These standards will often preclude the viewing and reading of pornography by children, which provides a strong case for the desirability of restricting the availability of pornography.

These restrictions are in place, and are part of DStv’s proposed plan. Not only will the channel be an opt-in service – not available unless you specifically request it – but it can also be firewalled through the existing security features on your DStv decoder. Errol Naidoo claims that this is not enough, saying that “current technological prevention measures present little challenge to an increasingly tech-savvy generation”. If Naidoo is claiming that tech-savvy children can actually hack DStv decoders to bypass the PIN-code locking, that is indeed a concern for DStv, and a loophole that it should fix. But he is more likely alluding to the fact that they understand the process for unlocking a channel, and will take note of the PIN number that a careless parent records in a non-secure way.

Irresponsible parenting is indeed a problem – in this case, as well as in cases where keys to cars and liquor cabinets are not secured properly. But we do not react to these cases by banning alcohol or cars. We instead remind parents of their responsibilities to protect their children from possible harms – real or imagined – when and where they can. Furthermore, we should guard against extreme naiveté here, and remember that these tech-savvy kids already have access to all the pornography they like via the internet, and that any pornography channel offered by DStv will result in a statistically insignificant increase in the amount of pornography available.

Anything is potentially offensive to somebody, and we cannot ban or censor everything. Restrictions on entertainment products on the grounds of offence would result in there being nothing to watch at all, in that for every demand by Hodgson or Naidoo to censor pornography, there could be a competing claim that religious programming on television should likewise be pay-per-view, in that some parents may find the moral myopia (or other aspects) of those channels equally intolerable, or potentially harmful to their child’s long-term welfare.

We often cannot be sure of the long-term consequences of any of these things, and the mere potential for causing harm presented by a particular speech-act or television channel cannot be used as justification for censoring it, as that would undermine a known good – namely our freedom to make choices. Before censoring something, we must have good reasons to suspect that it will cause harm, and we must also have good reasons to believe that any possible harm is unavoidable.

The arguments against allowing DStv to go ahead with this pornography channel are based on a belief that traditional (in this case, largely Christian) moral standards are the best ones to have. But there is a large gap between traditional morality, where sexuality is often something private and furtive, and a situation where people are openly fornicating on the street, or abusing women and children any more than they already do. It is not plausible to suggest that pornography advocates the latter, and no clear evidence demonstrates that any currently non-abusive person will be persuaded to rape as a result of exposure to pornography.

A commitment to freedom means allowing people to make their choices according to their own moral standards – no matter how offensive those standards may be to others – while making sure that those who need protection are adequately protected. DStv understands its responsibilities in this case, and has made that protection available. It now remains for parents to do their best to use that protection – not to avoid their responsibilities through blaming a straw man for the dangers that they, or their children, might be exposed to.

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