Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, January 27, 2006

A Problem of Definition

I long ago gave up reading comment threads regarding torture over on Mark Shea's blog, for the simple reason that there is one every day or two, it always exceeds 100 comments, and I'm expected to do things like working in between blogging... However, for some reason or other I broke my rule today and read the first couple dozen comments on this thread.

As per usual, the argument seemed to be falling out along the following lines:

Mark: There are some who label as America haters and traitors those of us who don't justify torture whenever King George wants it.

Opponents: We abhor what happened at Abu Graib (which wasn't government approved anyway), but we think there might be some legitimate uses of some high pressure interrogation tactics that some people might define as torture:

Mark Supporters: See, you're trying to justify torture right now. Don't say you don't know what torture it is. You can use any friggin' dictionary in the world.
After things took this usual direction, the redoubtable Zippy stepped in to say, "Yeah and we need an excruciatingly nuanced definition of pornography before we will have any idea that it is wrong too."

Now, this got me thinking. We all know what pornography is and we all know that it's wrong, right? Or do we? A priest whom I took several classes from in college (and with whom I agreed on nearly everything else) once attributed the Church's decline in the Renaissance to "a resurgence of indecent art reminiscent of the classical period". In other words, nude statues and paintings. Now, he didn't go so far as to label nude statues and paintings as pornography, but I have known less cultured people who do indeed go that distance. I would say that they are wrong, and are operating under a false definition of what pornography is.

But then, what is pornography? The trick is that pornography is both a physical thing and also an act of the will. If one looks at Botticelli's Venus on the half-shell and becomes deeply aroused, and if one then repeatedly views that painting in order to experience arousal, then one is committing the act of viewing pornography, despite the fact that one is viewing something I would say is not at all pornographic. And yet, there are some works (I shall not call them art) which would seem to be pornographic in substance in that they are so composed that the only possible appreciation one might have of them is lustful. The kind of crude, legs-spread-wide image one occasionally sees briefly on the internet when a search goes wrong (or you type in a wrong web address) can clearly have no attraction for anyone other than the viewing of those parts of a woman's anatomy.

Similarly, some films are clearly porn films, with no other purpose than to show sex and nudity. (I believe Umberto Eco once defined a porn film as any film one watches where one is impatient with any scenes that don't involve sex -- shut up and rut kind of stuff.) And yet there are other films that are made (to one extent or another) with the intent of portraying a dramatic story that at some point involves sex or nudity, and invariably people dispute whether these films are pornographic or not.

And again, the closer the film comes to being indisputably pornographic, the greater the percentage of viewers are likely to be committing the sin of lust while viewing it. It's not as if there's some giant switch that flips and suddenly the film is pornographic. When those of us more on the art-snob end of things defend a film or work of art as not being pornographic, we must at the same time admit that the great the resemblance to pornography, the larger the number of people who will be led into the sin, regardless of whether that is the purpose of the work itself.

There is an extent to which pornography is culturally dependent. If you put up a reproduction of Botticelli's Venus in Tehran, you would probably find a lot more men getting off on it than you would in New York. The question, of course, is whether this is because the men in Iran were overly open to seeing a nude in a pornographic light, or because the men in New York are desensitized. (Probably both are true.)

The problem when it comes to legislation is: although it's indisputably better for society not to be flooded with porn, passing a law that says "Production or possession of pornography is hereby made a felony" relies on a commonly understood definition of what pornography is. And yet, one could easily expect to see idiots springing up on both sides, one side claiming that classical and renaissance art is porn, and the other insisting that Hustler is art.

Aside from the people who really do want to get out the pliers and start ripping off finger nails should the need arise, I think one of the reasons that people who want to be careful and deliberative are wary of the "torture" debate is that it seems pretty clear that should someone write a law banning "torture" or even "cruel, humiliating or inhumane treatment" that an even larger can of worms would be opened by people's attempts to define (in one direction or the other) what these terms mean. To some advocates "humiliating or inhumane" can mean something as mild as allowing an Al Qaeda detainee to see women in uniform rather than full Hijab. To others on the opposite extreme, locking someone in a sweat box for 48 hours might not be "cruel" because our special forces servicemen have to go through similar experiences when training how to survive capture. Both of these positions are clearly wrong.

None of which answers the question of what new laws, if any, should be passed. But it does explain why people manage to argue about the topic so much. Lots of things that "everyone knows" are difficult to define in such a way that someone with the intent to weasel out of your definition can't do so.


Rick Lugari said...

Excellent observations, Darwin.

Nate Winchester said...

I've always loved Jonah Goldberg's porn definition:

"The one genre that has mastered the stringing together of unrelated or barely related scenes and facts without much care for the coherence of the narrative solely for the purpose of a visceral response in the audience is..."