The Limits of Expression

“Our age provides many examples of the ravages of immediacy, the clearest of which is the failure of the modern mind to recognize obscenity…. The word is employed here in its original sense to describe that which should be enacted off-stage because it is unfit for public exhibition. Such actions, it must be emphasized, may have no relation to gross animal functions; they include intense suffering and humiliation, which the Greeks, with habitual perspicacity and humanity, banned from their theater.”—Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences

English philosopher Roger Scruton seems to have had Weaver’s definition of obscenity in mind when he reviewed a popular film about nuclear holocaust some years ago. The movie, he says is an example of hypocritical moralizing, in which people who claim to oppose violence “let their thoughts dwell upon the image of human suffering. That it should have been banned goes without saying” (Untimely Tracts).

The depiction of severe distress or violence is really another form of pornography. That is because expression must be proportionally related to its subject. Along those lines, Scruton considers the limits of expression and imagination.

Imagination is a form of intellectual control, which presents us with the image of unrealities in order that we should understand and feel distanced from them. In imagination we dominate; in [uncontrolled] fantasy we are dominated. Anyone who wishes to know what pornography is… ought to study the distinction.

When Dante takes his reader through the miseries of hell, what he describes is worse than any nuclear holocaust…. But Dante does not invite us to fantasise, to dwell morbidly on these images with the lustful hunger of the masochist…. We remain in control of ourselves, and although we are moved, it is with a calm and collected emotion, whose main ingredient is compassionate understanding.

Yet some argue that the relevance of art is self-defining, making the question of obscenity subjective. The answer can only be found in an ethical consideration of means and ends. Thomas Aquinas would say that the problem lies not in the activity (or the consequent pleasure) but in the intention. So it isn’t really a case of puritan fanatics wanting to monitor peoples’ bedrooms. No one faults a couple for enjoying intimacy. But we would fault them for taking that intimacy out of the bedroom and into the public square.

To sum up: the libertine does not respect privacy, and it is this “publicity” that is at the root of obscenity. Applying this standard objectively, one finds that the candid news photograph of a person grieving over a tragedy is as pornographic as a blue movie. It is because the individual has become another object of lurid interest to the voyeur, stripped naked physically or emotionally.

In conclusion, the realist will acknowledge that ethical distinctions on this or any other topic can be subtle, as when distinguishing between spanking and child abuse. But this merely proves that any moral code worth its name cannot dodge the “tough” cases. Still, some conservatives fight shy of the issue. It may be that in years past they could presume upon the residue of common decency which sheltered society from the most disgusting obscenities. Today they no longer have that luxury. I share Scruton’s conclusion. One may hotly debate the means by which society will protect itself, but not the fact that it needs protecting.

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