ThoughtStorms Wiki

(ReadWith) ThePersonalIsTheoryLaden

I started thinking about this recently, after reading a couple of interesting essays.

First there were a couple of short pieces by MichaelMoorcock on AndreaDworkin, and second, an interview with RaeLangton on Feminism and Pornography in a collection called New British Philosophy. (

The first triggered the following thoughts

Free Speech and Harm

1) Feminist critics of pornography are right, pornography is causally implicated in harm done to women.

2) But this does not make pornography a special case. Most of the problems of FreedomOfSpeech are in cases where the speech is causally implicated in some harm. This goes for hate speech against minorities, licentious speech which undermines virtue etc.

3) So, the defense of free speech cannot be grounded on the presumption that the speech isn't causally harmful.

Hmmm. By inclination I'm becoming more of a fan of Free Speech. But how should this defence work?

Well, actually perhaps I ought to go read things properly :

Beyond Harm

Rae Langton doesn't use the harm argument. She borrows from Ronald Dworkin an idea about speech. She says Pornography distorts our understanding of language in such a way that women's speech is itself damaged by the existence of pornography. For example, a women's power to say "no" to sex is undermined by a pornography defined norm where "no" means "yes".

Here freedom of speech is weighed against freedom of speech.

An interesting problem.

One subject that the interview goes further into : how you assess the degree of influence on the nature of language that something like pornography has. And this is considered as a notion of "authority". Porn's authority is inferred from its empirical effect on people's understanding. But Rae Langton has admitted to moving on to looking at porn's damage through this causal effect on language without having to appeal to the concept of authority.

What do I think about this?

One worry here is that this argument sounds like it could get seriously out of control. Maybe atheist comedians damage the capacity of Christians to speak about God because their jokes? Where does we draw the boundary? Don't we all have a slight causal push on the centre of gravity of the meanings of words every time we use language?

In which case no one can have the right to demand that language be "left alone" for their personal use. All engagement in language involves stepping into a flux of meaning at one's own risk.

But don't we have some right to some protection from language being turned into an instrument of malice against us?

Possibly. But this returns us to the question of harm. We can't have the right to language being left alone merely because changing it interferes with our capacity to speak, and if we appeal to interferes by causing harm we are back in the discussion of harm.

(See also : ThePyramidOfHate)

An interesting example of how information is non-monotonic. This woman's domain name has been "rebranded" by Penguin using it as the title of a highly promoted book.

The meaning of the name has changed. (See also WikiIsLikeLanguage)

OTOH ... this from the great weblog of DanielDavies :

  • Real world experiments you can do ... Make friends with a clinical psychologist at your local secure hospital facility. Then suggest to him that you're a "free speech absolutist", and that in order to make a statement about how much of a free speech absolutist you are, you're going to buy a subscription to Playboy for all of his patients who have been incarcerated for sex offences. Take two steps backward, place the index finger of your right hand on the point of your chin, roll your eyes upward, bat the eyelids and say "do you think that would be a good idea?" Or if that seems like too much trouble, just write a bollock-awful autopilot screed on your weblog about how you and your friends never raped anyone, so anyone who even thinks about a connection between pornography and sex offences is just a MacDworkinite prude who wants to paint out the nudes in Rembrandt.*

NoamChomsky's critique:

"Now, freedom of speech is available today in the United States mostly as a negative freedom – meaning, nobody stops you. But it's not availble as a positive freedom, because as you say, access to the channels of communication is highly skewed in our society, it's distributed roughly in accordance with power, which obviously is highly unequal. Okay, what's the way of overcoming that? One way of overcoming it – which is, say, the CatharineMacKinnon [feminist legal scholar] way – is to give the people in power even more power: give the people in power even more power, so they can use it even more inequitably. In other words, don't change the power structure, just put through some laws prohibiting speech and let the power structure enforce them. That means, give more power to the people who have power, and let them use it the way they feel like using it – that's exactly what it means. And they'll stop the speech they want to stop. Alright, that's one way, The other way is to try to change the distribution of power in the society, but not to attack the freedom of speech.

"My own view is that you should save the negative freedoms, defend strongly the negative freedoms, but then try to make them positive freedoms. If the goal is to achieve positive freedom, it doesn't help to destroy negative freedom – like, giving the state the power to determine what people can say does not improve the position of people who are now powerless. And those are really the only choices you have."*


"As to the obligation to the victims, sure – but that's a matter of building up and extending the positive freedoms. In fact, here's a case where I think the left is off on really marginal issues. Take the question of pornography: I mean, undoubtedly women suffer from pornography, but in terms of people suffering from speech in the world, that's hardly even a speck. People suffer a lot more from the teaching of free-trade economics in colleges – huge numbers of people in the Third World are dying because of the stuff that's taught in American economics departments, I'm talking about tens of millions. That's harm. Should we therefore pass a law that says that the government ought to decide what you teach in economics departments? Absolutely not, then it would just get worse. They'd force everybody to teach this stuff."*

Contrast :

See also :

CategoryPolitics, CategoryFeminism