The Humanist Dilemma Regarding Pornography
Most people probably think of opposition to pornography as a right-wing cause grounded in religious fundamentalism or out-dated Victorian notions about sex and sexuality. What I’d like to do is to introduce you to a different anti-pornography position that is rooted in feminism. I will try to convince you that the pornography issue creates a serious ethical dilemma for humanists because it brings out a conflict between two of the basic moral tenets of humanism: a commitment to freedom of expression and a belief in the moral and civil equality of persons.
The view I’m going to discuss is espoused by Catherine MacKinnon, a lawyer and political scientist at the University of Michigan. MacKinnon maintains that pornography is not simply a form of expression, but is a political practice that constitutes a form of sex discrimination. Pornography, in her view, harms women by helping to create a social definition of women as subordinate to men, thereby preventing us from having a moral and civil status equal to men. On these grounds MacKinnon advocates the adoption of local anti-pornography ordinances that would enable women to sue for damages if they can show that a piece of pornography has harmed them.
There are two words that are conspicuously absent from the brief summary I just gave: “offense” and “censorship”. Here is why they are absent. First, the feminist anti-pornography position is based upon the premise that certain sexually explicit material harms women by making us morally and civilly subordinate to men. It is important to recognize that the harm that concerns MacKinnon has nothing to do with offense. Second, “censorship” is a word that properly applies to speech or expression. MacKinnon’s argument, as we will see, is that pornography is not exclusively speech, but is, in important respects, an action. Restricting pornography, in her view, is like restricting sexual harassment: even though sexual harassment is speech, it is regarded as discriminatory conduct. If prohibiting sexual harassment is not censorship (even though it restricts speech), then restricting pornography is not censorship.
MacKinnon’s argument that pornography is a kind of action is based on the notion that certain (though not all) sexually explicit materials themselves subordinate women. (Note that this claim differs from the more common assertion that pornography causes men to subordinate or discriminate against women.) MacKinnon supports her view by drawing analogies between certain types of pornography and various actions that involve speech. She claims that these types of pornography are similar to speech acts such as “help wanted-male” and “sleep with me and I’ll give you an A.” These utterances are regarded, both by common sense and by the law, as harmful actions rather than as forms of expression. In other words, these utterances, though instances of speech, are in and of themselves harmful. They don’t cause harm, they are harm. Pornography, MacKinnon claims, is a harm of this sort. Her argument for this contention, however, is inadequate. In attempting to support her analogies, she tends to fall back upon the more common claim that pornography causes harm to women. But this is just to conflate two logically distinct arguments.
Although MacKinnon’s argument is flawed, I believe it is still reasonable to conclude that certain pornography contributes to women’s subordinate civil and moral status by fostering sexist and misogynistic attitudes and conduct. Is this a sufficient reason for making pornography civilly actionable? In my view, no, though this is a reluctant “no.” If it is true that sexist and misogynistic speech contributes to women’s oppression, it seems rather arbitrary, to my mind, to concentrate exclusively on pornography. By targeting pornography, MacKinnon commits herself to the view that only sexually explicit misogynistic speech is so harmful to women’s status that it must be limited. This commitment, however, is generally not argued for.
–Cynthia Stark, Ph.D.
The American Dream Renewed
July is American History month, a time to read about the positive role our nation has played in human evolution. I highly recommend The American Dream Renewed, written by Edward L. Ericson, for a positive portrayal of the essence of who we are. The author, a leader of the Ethical Culture movement and humanism, says “the American nation has crossed a cultural divide, becoming in fact an incipient ‘world people’, the first major example of comprehensively global people hood to emerge in history.” In just 174 pages Ericson covers the essential historical events that have produced a nation of pluralisms: religious, political, economic and racial pluralism that makes us the template for advancing civilization. To quote the author: “Some cynics would reduce the American dream to the mindless pursuit of material goods, to the drive to ‘get ahead’ without regard for the larger human consequences. But those who know the soul of America in depth recognize this portrayal as a travesty. The secret of America lies in the yearning of the human heart for freedom, justice, and equality…They are the essence of the dream that has made America.”
On Being Human
Edward O. Wilson, Harvard Professor and winner of two Pulitzer prizes, says Homo sapiens have a physical, an intellectual, and an emotional stake in maintaining a healthy earthly environment. On page 348 of his 1992 publication “The Diversity of Life,” Wilson writes: “Human advance is determined not by reason alone but by emotions peculiar to our species, aided and tempered by reason. What makes us people and not computers is emotion. We have little grasp of our true nature, of what it is to be human and therefore where our descendants might someday wish we had directed Spaceship Earth. Our troubles, as Vercors said in You Shall Know Them, arise from the fact that we do not know what we are and cannot agree on what we want to be. The primary cause of this intellectual failure is ignorance of our origins. We did not arrive on this planet as aliens. Humanity is part of nature, a species that evolved among other species. The more closely we identify ourselves with the rest of life, the more quickly we will be able to discover the sources of human sensibility and acquire the knowledge on which an enduring ethic, a sense of preferred direction, can be built.”
I believe that education is the only lever capable of raising mankind. If we wish to make the future of the Republic glorious we must educate the children of the present. The greatest blessing conferred by our Government is the free school. In importance it rises above everything else that the Government does. In its influence it is far greater.
The schoolhouse is infinitely more important than the church, and if all the money wasted in the building of churches could be devoted to education we should become a civilized people. Of course, to the extent that churches disseminate thought they are good, and to the extent that they provoke discussion they are of value, but the real object should be to become acquainted with nature–with the conditions of happiness–to the end that man may take advantage of the forces of nature. I believe in the schools for manual training, and that every child should be taught not only to think, but to do, and that the hand should be educated with the brain. The money expended on schools is the best investment made by the Government.
The schoolhouses in New York are not sufficient. Many of them are small, dark, unventilated, and unhealthy. They should be the finest public buildings in the city. It would be far better for the Episcopalians to build a university than a cathedral. Attached to all these schoolhouses there should be grounds for the children–places for air and sun-light. They should be given the best. They are the hope of the Republic and, in my judgment, of the world.
We need far more schoolhouses than we have, and while money is being wasted in a thousand directions, thousands of children are left to be educated in the gutter. It is far cheaper to build schoolhouses than prisons, and it is much better to have scholars than convicts.
The Kindergarten system should be adopted, especially for the young; attending school is then a pleasure–the children do not run away from school, but to school. We should educate the children not simply in mind, but educate their eyes and hands, and they should be taught something that will be of use, that will help them to make a living, that will give them independence, confidence–that is to say, character.
The cost of the schools is very little, and the cost of land–giving the children, as I said before, air and light–would amount to nothing.
There is another thing: Teachers are poorly paid. Only the best should be employed, and they should be well paid. Men and women of the highest character should have charge of the children, because there is a vast deal of education in association, and it is of the utmost importance that the children should associate with real gentlemen–that is to say, with real men; with real ladies–that is to say, with real women.
Every schoolhouse should be inviting, clean, well ventilated, attractive. The surroundings should be delightful. Children forced to school, learn but little. The schoolhouse should not be a prison or the teachers turnkeys.
I believe that the common school is the bread of life, and all should be commanded to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It would have been far better to have expelled those who refused to eat.
The greatest danger to the Republic is ignorance. Intelligence is the foundation of free government.
September 7, 1890
Thoughts on the End of Life
I wish to express my appreciation to all those who have written and orally communicated their care and concern over my health. That and their comments regarding my contributions to the Chapter and humanism was most rewarding and makes my enforced absence much easier to bear.
My health has not significantly changed in the past months. The oncologist states that my lymphoma and I seem to be reaching an “accommodation” with each other, which he regards as positive. It comes down to a matter of life style, and I am presently learning how to live within the imposed limits.
On my recent 68th birthday, I received a Shambhala Pocket Classic book entitled: The Way of Myth, Talking with Joseph Campbell, by Fraser Boa. In the introduction, Boa quotes Campbell’s feelings about his place in life two years before his death (1987) which has given me inspiration and guidance. I include it because it just might help others who also find themselves in this “end of life” state. The quote reads:
“…in my own life I am now looking back and I can tell you that there’s a wonderful moment that comes when you realize, ‘I’m not striving for anything.’ What I’m doing now is not a means of achieving something later. After a certain age, there’s not a future, and suddenly the present becomes rich and it becomes a thing in itself which you are now experiencing.”
Are Humanists Sadder But Wiser?
Depression is not one of my favorite subjects to write about. Nevertheless, it is an interesting one as it relates to belief in realism and research on mental health.
Amborse Bierce, a 19th century American writer, defined a pessimist as “a person who sees the world as it is.” His witty definition fits humanists to a tee. After all, we are a pretty realistic bunch who don’t believe in illusions. But, as we shall see in this synopsis of an article (Harvard Mental Health Letter, April, 1995), there is a potential hazard in disbelief.
According to mental health professionals, facing reality can have its drawbacks. For example, studies of people who were diagnosed with depression were found to be quite realistic about themselves. They were better than average at predicting events in their lives, especially misfortunes. They were more realistic about their capacity for control. They were also found to be more accurate judges of their own social competence than non-depressive people. They were better at evaluating the impression they make on others. The one area, however, where depressed people were not very realistic was their inability to make accurate judgments about others. Depressed people are highly self-focused-concerned with their thoughts, feelings, behavior and appearance rather than with the external world, so their judgment about others could be somewhat distorted.
Non-depressed people, on the other hand, are more likely to be excessively optimistic, to overestimate themselves, and to have an exaggerated sense of their ability to control events. Their magnified optimism, elated moods, and sense of well-being are attributed to their ability to be resilient under stress. They have a greater capacity for persistence, and a decreased vulnerability to illness. In short, non-depressed people appear to be better functioning and happier because of their personal illusions.
These studies contradict common sense, and theoretical assumptions that good mental health is associated with a high capacity to perceive and test reality. If depressed people already view themselves more realistically than non-depressed people, then their thought patterns hardly need correcting by cognitive therapy. Not so, say the experts. To get out of a depressed state, there is good evidence that depressed people could use some training in how to construct illusions.
What! Ask a humanist to construct illusions? Blasphemous! On the other hand, if we are the independent, free-thinkers we claim to be, then we should be open to the suggestions of esteemed social scientists, especially if their methods work. We could learn to develop normal, healthy personal illusions, just like our religious friends, only we’d realize we were doing it; and we wouldn’t go as far as they go in constructing our illusions. Actually, I’d feel more comfortable calling them “enhanced perceptions” rather than “illusions.”
Paul Kurtz wrote a wonderful therapeutic book called Exuberance wherein he suggests all kinds of optimistic ways Humanists can approach and appreciate life, from experiencing good food to good sex. It’s a prescriptive outline for positive thinking and for enhancing our everyday life.
Another therapy for depressed people, since they are so focused on themselves, is to become more involved with helping others. It could be as simple as calling a friend, making new acquaintances, attending social gatherings, writing a letter to the editor, or becoming involved in a social cause. Good mental health requires that we see and experience life as both a private and social event. Like the ad on TV says, “Reach out and touch someone.”
If realism and depression are significantly correlated, as the mental health professionals tell us, then Humanists should be especially aware of the maladaptive features so they can develop attitudes and behaviors that will enhance their well-being. The famous clinician, Sigmund Freud, wrote of this subject in his essay, “Mourning and Melancholia.”
When in his [the depressive’s] heightened self-criticism he describes himself as petty, egoistic, dishonest, lacing in independence, one whose sole aim has been to hide the weakness of his own nature, it may be, so far as we know, that he has come pretty near to understanding himself; we only wonder why a man has to be ill before he can be accessible to a truth of this kind.