Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

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Déjà vu. Goldsmiths 2015, University of Michigan 1992

In Feminism, Freedom of Expression, From the Vaults, History, Students on February 7, 2015 at 6:24 PM

 This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on February 3rd 2015, 9:00 am

I was struck by a sense of déjà vu when reading Sarah’s post about the cancelling of Kate Smurthwaite’s comedy show at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her post should be read before what I copy below, an extract from a 1992 edition of the New York Times. When will we progress?

New York Times, November 13, 1992, p.B16

Furor on Exhibit at Law School Splits Feminists

Are pornography and prostitution more dangerous than censorship?


The closing of an art exhibit on prostitution two weeks ago has plunged the University of Michigan law school in Ann Arbor into an angry debate about free speech, feminism, pornography and censorship.

Legally, the issue is whether students at the school violated the First Amendment guarantee of free speech by removing from the exhibit a two-hour videotape featuring works about prostitution by five artists, including two former prostitutes.

But politically, the fracas is the latest and most virulent outbreak of tensions between two camps of feminists: those who seek to suppress pornography and prostitution, arguing that they incite sexual violence and violate women’s civil rights, and those who say the anti-pornography, anti-prostitution movement is a form of censorship that limits women’s sexuality and free-speech rights.

…the furor occurred at the University of Michigan, whose law faculty includes Catharine A. MacKinnon, a leader in the fight against pornography…. Carol Jacobsen, the Detroit artist who put together the art exhibit at the request of [Michigan Journal of Gender & Law] staff, has been an outspoken critic of Ms. MacKinnon’s anti-pornography efforts…. Her exhibit… included her own video interviews with Detroit prostitutes, who are referred to as “sex workers” by conference organisers.

When the conference began, she also installed a two-hour videotape featuring five works, including one by Veronica Vera, a former prostitute. Ms. Vera’s work included footage from sex films and a brief clip of her testifying against an anti-pornography measure before a United States Senate committee.

The next morning, that videotape was removed by a group of law students from the journal staff…..“We really didn’t think of it as a censorship issue, but as a safety issue, because two of our speakers said that based on their experience at other events, the tape would be a threat to their safety,” said Bryan Wells, one of the students. “….Seven of us from the journal made the decision to remove the tape, and while I regret that it made people unhappy, I don’t regret the decision.”

Ms. MacKinnon, who stressed that she was not involved in the decision to pull the video, said she supported the students’ action….she said… “If these materials are pornography – and I haven’t seen them so I can’t say – it is not a question of their offensiveness, but of safety and equality for women. Showing pornography sets women up for harassment and rape.” ….

Ms. MacKinnon sees the furor as an attempt to smear her and another speaker at the conference, Andrea Dworkin, a New York writer who has been her ally in years of efforts against pornography.

“My real view, so far as this pertains to me, is that this is a witchhunt by First Amendment fundamentalists who are persecuting and blacklisting dissidents like Andrea Dworkin and myself as arts censors,” said Ms. MacKinnon. “I don’t see it as a fight within feminism but a fight between those who wish to end male supremacy and those who wish to do better under it.”

Civil libertarians say the events illustrate the extremism of Ms. MacKinnon’s views, and how easily they can be used to censor women’s free expression.

“It’s hard to articulate how damaging the femino-censors can be, but this is a perfect example of how the MacKinnon crusade hurts women,” said Marjorie Heins, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Arts Censorship Project. Censorship of sexually explicit material is not in women’s interest. It’s also unconstitutional. Michigan is a state school, and when any government institution removes an art exhibit or book because it expresses ideas some people find offensive, there’s a First Amendment problem.” ….

Several of the students who organized the conference said it has been impossible to get both viewpoints.

“We had a problem as soon as we invited speakers, because some of the key anti-prostitution people accepted on the condition that they wouldn’t speak if there were people from the other side there,” said Lisa Lodin, one of the students who organised the conference. “…Part of the reason we wanted Carol Jacobsen’s exhibit so much was to show the other side, without confrontation.”

Ms. Lodin and several other students said they were so discouraged by the turn of events that they had begun to reexamine their attitude toward feminism.

“This is not women uniting to solve problems,” Ms. Lodin said. “This is just women fighting against each other.”


Free Speech on Campus: Winning the Debate

In Freedom of Expression, Philosophy, Students on February 2, 2015 at 9:20 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally published at Harry’s Place on January 28th 2015, 9:16 am

In order to win the hearts and minds of the campus censors, their sympathisers, and the waverers, it is not going to be enough to win the political debate: the philosophical debate also has to be won. Appropriating a term used in a different context by Sophal Ear, the Standard Total Academic View (STAV) on free speech has to be defeated on its own terms. And that STAV is against free speech.

Philosophy courses, women’s studies courses, gender studies courses, and other courses are recommending academic books, many of which are well argued, that promote either legislative restrictions on free speech or civil remedies by allowing those deemed “harmed” by racist speech or pornography to be able to sue for damages.

To mention a few important STAV writers, the late Joel Feinberg wanted offence to others to be restricted by the law. He formulated his “offense principle” as follows:

It is always a good reason in support of a proposed criminal prohibition that it would probably be an effective way of preventing serious offense (as opposed to injury of harm) to persons other than the actor, and that it is probably a necessary means to that end.

Feinberg summed up his own formulation more succinctly: “the prevention of offensive conduct is properly the state’s business.”

Jeremy Waldron is another STAV writer. He makes an appeal to political liberals by invoking the highly regarded twentieth century liberal philosopher,John Rawls. Rawls imagined a “well-ordered” society “in which everyone accepts, and knows that everyone else accepts, the very same principles of justice.” He declared that in such a society “the coercive powers of government are to some degree necessary for the stability of social cooperation.” Waldron accepts that Rawls would have opposed laws that restrict free speech. Nevertheless, he uses what he calls a Rawlsian framework and asks “What does a well-ordered society look like?” He believes it is one where the “public good” that people have their dignity assured exists.

Contra Feinberg, Waldron does not think that offence to others should be legally proscribed. In what he accepts is a difference with a “fine line” he believes that laws that restrict attacks on dignity can be justified. He states:

…not dignity in the sense of any particular level of honor or esteem (or self-esteem), but dignity in the sense of a person’s basic entitlement to be regarded as a member of society in good standing, as someone whose membership of a minority group does not disqualify him or her from social interaction. That is what hate speech attacks, and that is what laws suppressing hate speech laws aim to protect.

One of the most prominent STAV writers in favour of restricting speech, whose arguments need defeating, is Cambridge University’s Rae Langton. In 2013 Langton was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Last year readers of Prospect magazine voted her the eighteenth most important thinker in the world. And this year she will deliver the prestigious John Locke lectures at Oxford University.  In one of her own books, in numerous articles, in online recorded conversations, in various colloquia, and in her submission to the Leveson Inquiry, Langton has banged her drum against pornography and hate speech.

Langton has drawn on the work of Catharine MacKinnon, a law professor and anti-pornography campaigner, and fused it with an argument used in a different context by the late J.L. Austin, the Oxford philosopher noted for his work onspeech acts. By doing so she argues that “certain speech acts can subordinate certain social groups, when they unjustly rank a group as inferior, deprive them of powers and rights, and legitimate discrimination against them.” In herargument, pornography both subordinates and silences women. By subordinating women it “presents a conflict between pornographers’ right to liberty and women’s right to equality.” By silencing women a conflict is created “within liberty itself, between pornographers’ right to speak and women’s.” It is a convoluted argument but she has a number of acolytes marching to her beat.

It is not enough to simply cite the American First Amendment or harp on about the importance of free speech. Winning the debate against those that use the STAV mantra requires more than that because doing so does not effectively respond to someone referring to perlocutionary and illocutionary speech acts. To properly win the debate, one has to demolish the arguments of the would be censors. The debate has to be won on their terms.