This is probably going to be one of the most difficult posts I’ve ever written, especially in the times we now find we’re living.
Via Paul Bernal on Twitter, this story came my way an hour or so ago. It describes how someone has been convicted of possessing cartoons of figures designed to look like children. The judge clearly considered they represented and perpetuated abuse:
Judge Tony Briggs said the pictures were manufactured, stylised, and “repulsive” to varying degrees.
He added: “This is material that clearly society and the public can well do without. Its danger is that it obviously portrays sexual activity with children, and the more it’s portrayed, the more the ill-disposed may think it’s acceptable.”
To conclude, on giving the person in question a nine-month prison sentence suspended for two years:
He said anything that encouraged child abuse, including word of mouth, drawings or artistic impressions, was to be “actively discouraged”.
I can’t disagree with the broad brush-strokes used here, having written in a similar vein on a similar subject a while ago, and to obviously similar effect:
As I pointed out recently, sexual abuse is primarily the abuse of power – and any society which criminalises the former should also be prepared to criminalise the latter. Similarly, the generation of pornography – indeed, the generation of any content which involves the exploitation of people who would not otherwise participate, were their financial, or other, circumstances different – is, above all, an analogous abuse of power.
It does make me wonder the following, however: how far as a society are we prepared to go down the route not of policing such obvious images (I assume they are manifestly repulsive from the judge’s opinion and reaction, not because I have seen them myself – perhaps we should be learning to be a little more trusting of those whose responsibility is to act on our behalf in such challenging circumstances) but, rather, of policing even our thoughts? For example: thoughts like the ones I had towards the end of my post linked to above:
A suggestion then. Not just a rant. Maybe it’s time for a new kind of content. Given that the instinct for sex is about as old as Adam and Eve’s adult teeth, has anyone considered CGI porn as a wider solution to sexual exploitation – and its corresponding abuse of power – which so many people currently find themselves affected by?
How would this work? Groups of existing sex workers could form officially-sanctioned cooperatives with the right to apply for government-funded training courses. These courses would serve to train them up in computer-generated film-making. There would, of course, be strict control over the content – a kind of Hays Code for our time. Just because the content was computer-generated wouldn’t give the creators the right to reproduce and duplicate in the virtual world the kind of abusive relationships we were aiming to eliminate in real life.
In such a way, the whole balance of power would be altered. Sex workers could find a gainful living as unexploited, and unexploiting, generators of porn; porn users would be safely educated away from the violent stuff through a plentiful, cheap and consistently benign exposure to non-violent (perhaps even government-subsidised) narrative; and, most importantly, the Internet could then be properly policed as per the canons of the code in question.
Would our judge be unhappy with thoughts such as these? Do they – might they – constitute a risk to the safety, mores and behaviours of a wider public? And am I running the risk of being guilty of incitement to future processes which lead to abuse – simply by publishing these ideas?
Maybe so. If so, perhaps a retraction would be in order.
But if not, if the matter of freedom to think is at risk here and overrides other points of view – not in the judicial sentence handed down with respect to the images under discussion but, instead, in the trend it could quite easily kickstart one day to the state ending up believing it has the right to police all our imaginings – then perhaps the following tweets’ implications do need to be evaluated:
@zebrared It’s a ‘direct harm’ vs ‘indirect harm’ argument… the law effectively assumes there’s harm from even viewing fakes.
@PaulbernalUK Yes. I see that. & there is considerable value in the approach. But it does require us to accept a policed view of society. >>
@PaulbernalUK << Prob being who decides what is policed (“fake” images which pervert) vs what is not (real-life abuse by the powerful). :-(
Which reminds me, for some reason, of those equally fake “Spitting Image” puppets – never so missed as they are today, right?
For in a way, they also constituted abuse of a considerable nature: for many, these puppets brought into irreparable disrepute an institution which at the time was still repairable. Even as, on the other hand, some might argue the abuse was merited – observing and critiquing the dreadful self-destruction of a once treasured body politic: a self-destruction which would have happened anyway, however sensitively we’d otherwise behaved.
Which begs my final question: can abuse ever be merited? What do you think, cartoon lovers?
Update to this post: some further reading has just come my way via Facebook and the Mirror. The report describes how CGI porn has indeed been created, although not with the “didactic” or “structural” aims I naively suggested. Instead, law-enforcement agencies decided a while ago (I do hope before my original blogpost) to use such technologies to detect and capture those involved in online child sex.
The story is worth your time, of course: it raises important issues around morality, possible entrapment and the pressures that policing what can be a pretty unpleasant worldwide web may pile up on those who are obliged to decide how to proceed. I’m not sure it makes any clearer the debate under discussion in my post today, though: I can’t help feeling the creeping medieval shadow of the Roman Catholic Inquisition is returning to our midst.
I’d far rather find some way of educating people out of an obsession with societally harmful sex than using the very same technologies to, perhaps, encourage them in their activities – at least until they’re ultimately caught. There really is something – at least for me in my naivete – that doesn’t quite fit with what we presumed was once a liberally supportive society.