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Defending the Really Undefendable

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Back in 1976, economist Walter Block, now of Loyola University in New Orleans, wrote a provocative book titled Defending the Undefendable. In it he famously defended the “pimp, prostitute, scab, slumlord, libeler, moneylender, and other scapegoats in the rogues’ gallery of American society.” Now, Block was not recommending that anyone engage in those occupations or arguing that they are held by people you would want to have as neighbors. He was making the case for libertarianism, the basic premise of which he stated in his introduction: “It is illegitimate to engage in aggression against nonaggressors.”

In libertarianism, Block goes on to say, “violence is justified only for purposes of defense, or in response to prior aggression, or in retaliation against it.” Libertarianism “condemns only the initiation of violence — the use of violence against a non-violent person or his property.” He therefore concludes that “government is not justified in fining, punishing, incarcerating, imposing death penalties on people who act in an immoral manner — as long as they refrain from threatening or initiating physical violence on the persons or property of others.”

If Block’s book had been written twenty years later there is no doubt that it would have included a chapter on someone that many consider to be really undefendable — the Internet pornographer.

When the infamous Ariel Castro pled guilty a few months ago to kidnapping three Cleveland women, imprisoning them in his home for a decade, beating them, and raping them, he blamed his problems on addiction to pornography. He described himself as a sex addict and said, “I’m not a monster. I’m sick.” Yet millions of men who view Internet pornography don’t kidnap, imprison, beat, or rape young girls. Nevertheless, conservative Morgan Bennett, in a pair of articles on Internet pornography written for Public Discourse (“an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies”), calls for government censorship of Internet pornography.

In “The New Narcotic,” Bennett points out that new “neurological research has revealed that the effect of internet pornography on the human brain is just as potent — if not more so — than addictive chemical substances such as cocaine or heroin.” In “Internet Pornography & the First Amendment,” he argues that “current jurisprudence protecting pornography as ‘artistic expression’ contradicts the Founders’ understanding and the underlying purposes of the First Amendment’s protection of speech, and it fails to protect Americans from the social and personal trauma caused by pornography.”

Although pornography has been around in various forms “for most of human history,” there are three reasons that Bennett feels that Internet pornography is radically different: affordability, accessibility, and anonymity. In the scientific perspective he gives in his first article, Bennett explains that “while the addictive effects of internet pornography are similar to a combination of addictive chemical substances, internet pornography’s effects go beyond those of chemical substances.” Pornography reshapes and develops new maps in the brain. It “literally changes the physical matter within the brain so that new neurological pathways require pornographic material in order to trigger the desired reward sensation.” A pornography user has “‘unknowingly created a neurological circuit’ that makes his or her default perspective toward sexual matters ruled by the norms and expectations of pornography.” Pornography addiction surpasses drug use because of its permanence:

While substances can be metabolized out of the body, pornographic images cannot be metabolized out of the brain because pornographic images are stored in the brain’s memory. While substance abusers may cause permanent harm to their bodies or brains from drug use, the substance itself does not remain in the body after it has metabolized out of the body. But with pornography, there is no timeframe of abstinence that can erase the pornographic “reels” of images in the brain that can continue to fuel the addictive cycle.

It is not until the end of his first article that he hints at his solution to the problem of Internet pornography: “More akin to cocaine than to books or public speeches, internet pornography is not the sort of ‘speech’ the First Amendment was meant to protect from government censorship.”

In his second article, Bennett focuses on the “epidemic social harm” of Internet pornography. It is “a massive, paradigm-shifting social harm that undermines the family unit and causes abuse, life-long addictions, infidelity, and unhealthy perceptions and expectations among men, women, and children.” It “certainly qualifies as speech injurious to society’s health and moral foundations.” It also qualifies as “speech used in the course of injurious conduct” because of its “power to addict and harm those who see it.”

Bennett is careful to not focus on the morality of Internet pornography, although there is no doubt he would argue the inherent immorality of pornography in general in some other context. Saying that the government should ban an activity because it is immoral would not get him much of a hearing nowadays. It is for that reason that he cleverly focuses most of his attention on the scientific perspective and legal standpoint of Internet pornography.

I do think, however, that the author hurts his case when he makes the sensational and unproven claim that Internet pornography is “one of the greatest evils of our time” and “almost always” involves violence, rape, the exploitation of children, drugging of participants, kidnapping, sex trafficking, prostitution, forced performances, slavery, assault, or murder.

Acts of violence and coercion against women and children are real crimes of aggression that don’t need to be committed in the context of the production of Internet pornography to be considered criminal offenses punishable under existing state laws.

In his first article, Bennett implies that because the negative consequences of Internet pornography are worse than those of hard drugs, it should be illegal just as drugs are; in his second article he is not so subtle.

Bennett finds it “absolutely baffling that the underlying acts required to make internet pornography are not prosecuted by way of prostitution laws” since pornography (“prostitution with a camera”) “is almost always created by an act of prostitution (paying a human being to perform a sex act).”

Since prosecution for prostitution isn’t likely to take place, he favors “prosecution and cultural engagement” followed by government censorship of Internet pornography:

First, local, state, and federal governments should enforce the current obscenity-related laws already on the books. Nearly every state has anti-obscenity laws. The enforcement of those laws would send a message that the production and distribution of obscene material is unacceptable in a civilized society. Second, local and national groups should run billboard, TV, and internet advertising campaigns to expose the harms of internet pornography to the public.

Looking beyond those “first steps,” I would argue for the eventual enactment of new laws that would censor obscene internet pornography.

Bennett is not advocating government censorship of all pornography. He is careful to add that “censoring hardcore pornography on the internet would not affect the private viewing of pornographic material by way of a DVD or a downloaded file.” His goal is to “strip two important elements from internet pornography: its affordability and its accessibility.”

Bennett, of course, is not advocating anything new. Governments throughout history have sought to censor books, plays, movies, advertisements, radio and television broadcasts, speech, magazines, and newspapers that they considered to be obscene, subversive, immoral, harmful, or critical of government.

And he is not alone. According to a recent Baptist Press article, British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this year called online pornography a “corroding influence” on British children and “pushed for new regulations on adult content delivered online.” Petition efforts to block online pornography have been launched in Canada and India. Iceland and Saudi Arabia are also considering bans on online adult content.

Now, just consider what Bennett and other conservative advocates of Internet censorship are advocating. If the government were to censor readily accessible pornography on the Internet, it would first have to determine which websites featured adult content that was readily accessible and not just available for download or purchase on DVD. That would mean the creation of a new army of government bureaucrats to function as the purity police to certify that no new or existing website contained any readily accessible content that was obscene or sexually explicit.

And if “by 2017, access to pornography on smartphones and tablets will be available to 250 million people worldwide,” as a new study from Juniper Research, a London-area analyst of the wireless sector, asserts, government attempts to censor the Internet would be doomed to fail because of the sheer volume of content online. And as is the case with most government failures, more taxpayer money would then be expended to hire even more bureaucrats to police the Internet.

Consider also what this government job would entail. The government would be paying people to view the very online content that it wants to prohibit people from seeing.

What it all comes down to is this: Proponents of Internet censorship are saying that because the excessive viewing of pornography on the Internet may cause certain biological changes in the viewer that may have a negative impact on culture and society, government should censor Internet pornography.

The problem with that is that the very same thing could be said about the excessive consumption of Red Bull, Big Gulps, alcohol, and high-fructose corn syrup.

I don’t dispute Bennett’s claim that “brain research confirms the critical fact that pornography is a drug delivery system that has a distinct and powerful effect upon the human brain and nervous system.” In fact, I don’t dispute any of the scientific evidence about the psychological, physiological, or neurological effects of Internet pornography that he presents. And I think that libertarians who attempted to argue the contrary would be wasting their time, since it has nothing to do with the real issue.

We can even go beyond Bennett and add that the majority of Americans probably find Internet pornography to be distasteful, unnatural, disgusting, obscene, degrading to women, or immoral.

But whether Internet pornography may be addictive and cause physical and spiritual harm to those who view it is not the real issue. The real issue is simply this: Is it the proper role of government to prevent people from becoming addicted to something or causing harm to themselves? If the answer is no, then the government should not censor the Internet. But if the answer is yes, then there is no logical argument against government censorship of anything.

The libertarian defense of pornographers is a very limited one. As Block says in the introduction to his Defending the Undefendable, “It consists solely of the claim that they do not initiate physical violence against non-aggressors. Hence, according to libertarian principles, none should be visited upon them. This means only that these activities should not be punished by jail sentences or other forms of violence. It decidedly does not mean that these activities are moral, proper, or good.”

Viewing pornography should be a personal decision, not a government decision. Addiction to anything is a personal problem with a variety of remedies and treatment options. However, in a free society, government censorship is not one of them.

A government with the power to ban pornography on the Internet is a government with the power to ban anything on the Internet.

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