Editorial: Subversion, Dissent, Immodesty, Candor and the Like


We like to think that American culture is more supportive of free speech than any other society. With respect to many legal doctrines, it is certainly true today that American law is more supportive of dissent and critical and possibly enticing speech than is European law, and we all know that many totalitarian and religious societies do not permit dissent at all.


The United States has had its own share of shameful disrespect of free speech. On at least two occasions, late in the 18th Century and then during World War I, major sedition laws, probably unconstitutional by today’s standards, were passed and enforced. For example, in 1798 Congress passed The Sedition Act that went beyond libel and would punish “malicious writings” that brought the government “into contempt or disrepute”; during World War I, criticisms of the military draft could be punished.


What is it about dissent, anyway? If leaders fear criticism, then their moral claim to authority is certainly in question. But, in various political systems, political leaders will respond that they must maintain order and discipline in a troubled world filled with enemies, and by clamping down on dissent they can take care of people better.


What strikes me is a parallel between concerns over political sedition and the more sensitive areas of sexual “subversion.” Back up all the way to bare bones ideas of our culture and consider modesty (or “indecent exposure”) laws. Why do most societies prohibit nudity in public? After all, nudity could be construed as a kind of “speech”? Probably the most important reason for minimal physical public modesty is to protect “normal” sexual interest within the family or at least in private. Certain matters need to be kept out of sight most of the time so that, at the appropriate moment, they may really be enjoyed, especially for socially productive purposes (like family and children). Part of this is protecting minors so that they will be able to grow up and enjoy (“normal”) sexual function in a “constructive” manner.


This concept gets to be extended into all kinds of areas regarding movies, television, print, and Internet media: specifically, pornography. That is seen as harmful partly because it holds up certain sexual fantasies that ordinary people, committed to marriages or trying to become committed in the future, must compete with. So, for example, we have our movie MPAA rating system, a similar system for television, and indecency fines against broadcast networks. We also have constitutional battles over several laws regarding censorship on the Internet, such as COPA (the Child Online Protection Act of 1998), against which I am one of the litigants. Some kinds of content (child pornography) are illegal for more legitimate reasons—because actual abuse is involved in producing the material.


But the biggest battle of all seems to be much more subtle. Some material is objectionable to some people because of subject matter itself. Many people have difficulty understanding the distinction between pornography (which involved explicit displays) and adult subject matter (which is more a matter of psychological candor). Advertisers, for example, sometimes will not allow their ads to be displayed on sites with adult subject matter, and may mistakenly think that the material is pornographic. A similar issue exists with violence in media. There may be legitimate objections to violent television shows, movies and video games. Yet the subject matter of crime itself (such as the whimsical attitude that director Alfred Hitchcock showed for murder) is often seen by some people as destructive and anti-social.


Subject matter concerns come up with respect to sexual orientation.  While it sounds facile to cast homosexual orientation as immutable for political purposes (and there may be some scientific justification for that view), it is much more interesting to go into the underlying psychological motivations—having to do with socialization, unchosen family responsibility, gender roles, power, body image, worthiness, competitiveness, deservedness.  I have done this in my books and websites, and present writings that have a lot of candor. Some people may be concerned over the idea that I can post such subject matter in a public space, easily indexed by search engines, where developing minors may find it.


One problem in education is developing a sense of context and critical thinking. There is a lot of legitimate material that is presented to minors in a staged fashion, so that they have the opportunity to learn context. Parents even start out with little white lies (“the stork”, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus). Later, potentially controversial literature (like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which putatively deals with underage sexual issues in today’s context) is presented in a protected classroom setting where certain social contexts can be carefully explained. 


Generally, we think of the accumulation of cultural and scientific knowledge as good. On my sites, I have posted much of this and developed my own style for “connecting the dots.”  But various kinds of subject matter have differing kinds of disruptive potential. In my case, although I do not have pornography or violence, I have included personal material that sometimes displays a degree of psychological candor that some would see as “self-exposing” (at least in a speculative or Socratic sense) and perturbing to others. This gets to be filtered down to a general discomfort with the level of controversy that I relish. Many cultures do not tolerate questioning of religious precepts, because the constant distraction would, in the views of some leaders, prevent the reassurance of faith that people need. Of course, the real motive of these leaders may be protecting their own power base (as with the Vatican and simony a few centuries ago when faced with Martin Luther).  Questioning old “superstitions” and development of science (a willingness to unravel areas ranging from astronomy and physics to biological genetic evolution or perhaps even “intelligent design”) has certainly raised the standard of living and lifespan for many people, but sometimes at costs to others. Sometimes specific kinds of scientific knowledge can be enormously disruptive. As demonstrated in the film Copenhagen, Heisenberg and Bohr had to contemplate the possible catastrophic effects of publishing their findings and letting them fall into the hands of enemies (Hitler). Sometimes knowledge is dangerous to particular people in certain medical circumstances, such as in taking a test for Huntington’s Chorea. Material on terrorism, when published by “amateurs,” may provide vital insights to the public and links for law enforcement, but could give potential enemies “ideas” to go after specific marks.  Material on sexuality (particularly its psychological roots as in polarity theories) is certainly good for diversity, tolerance, and fighting discrimination; yet some people (often economically and culturally disadvantaged by the history that preceded their own lives) find its availability disruptive to their own ability to function in an already established social hierarchy. There is nothing clear cut about any of this. Two decades ago, even, much of this material was relatively contained within certain social strata; today, with the Internet, everything is “reconciled” and any information can affect anyone else. So there is the potentiality to object to material that implies an eventual destructive or anti-social outcome, even when on an immediate level it sounds persuasive.


So, in this backdrop, I put up “all that personal stuff” in a website and let the search engines roll, trolling my connections. It is dangerous, and yet it is necessary. We often hear these days that employers are starting to check what job applicants have put up on the Internet (on social networking sites and personal blogs), and that practice is certainly double edged. A person, with good intentions may attract attention from the wrong places, and that could even affect others associated with the person (family, coworkers). The latter observation is particularly relevant when there are a lot of external political problems generating potential enemies – specifically, war; in such an environment, social cohesion and public solidarity become a lot more important to survival; an asymmetric expression can be met with asymmetric hostility. (I could provide an extreme example: if a white person in the South in the 1960s helped African Americans register to vote, there could be retributions against the person's family -- parents and siblings as well as children.)  Speech can itself be objectively legitimate, but cause others to draw disturbing conclusions about the speaker and his associations, and we're just beginning to come to grips with this. That’s one big reason why there can be limits on individual expressiveness in such an interconnected world. More likely, though, is the practical effect that people have on their immediate surroundings, as in the workplace; a persons public expressions can come to be perceived as part of their “clothing,” capable of generating emotional reactions, for which responsibility needs to be taken. One possible answer to all of this could be a public moral sense that everyone should “pay their dues” in personal relations and charity before becoming outspoken. Yet that solution would prevent many people (me) from fighting for themselves and lead debate in the hands of special interests and lobbyists who reduce things to the lowest common denominators.


Am I "subversive"? I don't know; but if I put the kind of characters who populate soap operas on edge, I am doing what needs to be done, knocking some artificial props away. The ethics of unraveling all of what we know and making it available presents problems more subtle than we could have imagined even ten years ago.


©Copyright 2006 by Bill Boushka


Copenhagen movie review; Smallville discussion (beginning)


Wikipedia on the Sedition Acts    text of Sedition Act


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