December 05, 2005

Point-by-point response to 'On Pornography'

I received an extensive response to my last post on pornography. I have copied and pasted it here for the reader who may not have an account with blogs4God. My next post will be my pushbacks, clarifications, and a honing of the argument.

Submitted by Fletch on Fri, 2005-12-02 06:00.

Before I argue these points I want to say that I am an artist and I live in the cognitive realm of aesthetics (one of the points being argued here). I also believe pornography to be harmful. I am not here defending porn, I just don’t think that the arguments being made are very good ones. Also, as you will see I have avoided any ad hominem attacks and I would appreciate the curacy being returned in kind. Finally, I apologize for the lengthy comment. But I felt that to do justice to the post such a long comment was required. I have quoted the points in the order they were made followed by my responses. There are places where I have used the names of thinkers and theologians, unfortunately university was a long time ago and I may have mixed individuals up. For that I apologize. You could make the effort to point those mistakes out, but I would only assume you are doing so because you are unable to argue the points in and of themselves. You said at the beginning of the post that you wished to strengthen your argument. This very long comment is merely an attempt to aid you in that effort. Please take it in that spirit.

“First, reality exists--that is, there is an existence that is real in which we find ourselves. While this has been a subject of great debate in the last century among philosophers, I'm making this assumption because I think it is the best conclusion of all options of which I'm aware.”

I am not sure why this is a necessary assumption. If one were to assume that reality as you are implying does not exist pornography could still be seen as harmful For example, let us just say for the sake of argument that what we all perceive as reality is really just a dream that I am having. You don’t really exist outside of that dream. My persona does not exist outside of that dream. Neither does this blog, nor anything else for that matter. In this dream world that we are in the destructiveness of pornography is manifested in broken homes, child molestation, spousal abuse, and so on. According to the constructs of this dream world there is harm done, even if it is only harm done in the dream. One might say that because it is only “dream world” harm and it is not “real” it is not evil because the evil was not done to real families, children and spouses, but that does not matter. For us in our non real dream world we still experience the harm, therefore the harm done is an evil. I am reminded of a story about Mark Twain, and I don’t remember the exact details so forgive me. Twain had some kind of business arrangement with a solipsist. Apparently Twain was late on his payment to the solipsist who subsequently sued him for the cash. Twains quip is brilliant. He remarked that the man sued him for “a very real check.” The point being that even if someone does not believe that reality exists that person still behaves as if actions have consequences.

“Second, good is good, meaning that if something has the quality of goodness, it is desirable objectively. This hinges on the first assumption and establishes an objective measuring stick of what is good regardless of what might be one's distorted desires.”

Well, first, good theology teaches us that we don’t desire what is good. We desire what is evil, that is what total depravity is all about. If you don’t agree go ask John Calvin, John Edwards, and Jesus. Second, you contradict yourself here. First you say that “if something has the quality of goodness, it is desirable objectively” then you say that “establishes an objective measuring stick of what is good regardless of what might be one’s distorted desires.” So you affirm that desires can be distorted. Yet, you would also have us use our desire for what is good as a measuring stick for what is objectively good. But then how can we have simultaneously distorted desires and still know with any kind of certainty that what we think of as objectively good and worthy of desire isn’t just another result of our distorted desires. Perhaps a better approach would be to use a standard that transcends us and our desires. Why not base the standard upon what God (who is beyond us) desires? This will not float with someone who does not believe in God but you stated above that you are seeking an argument for the Christian, not the person who does not believe in the Christian God. Further, it is a good thing that Plato or Socrates isn’t reading this, they would have us all in knots trying to explain to him how good could be absolutely defined, or known, or could be intrinsic to anything. Let alone define beauty. What is more the great Augustine wouldn’t be so bold as to proclaim that goodness or evil reside in anything corporal. He would argue that God is the standard of what is good, and that evil is the absence of good.

“Third, that which exists, as intended, is good, including sexuality and beauty. This is largely the conclusion one must make unless one is caught in believing in a malevolent deity or is otherwise stuck in cycles of speculation”

You don’t have to be a follower of Mani to think that “that which exists, as intended” is not by necessity good. But because this is has been the consensus of 2000 years of “orthodox” Christian theology I will concede your point. More importantly however I would be careful to distinguish between sexuality as a human social behavior and beauty as an esthetic. You seem to imply that sexuality is in the same realm as beauty, but the truth is not so. You are mixing categories. Further, there are many “sexualities” one of which you are trying to argue is not good, that is pornography. And how would one be “stuck in cycles of speculation?”

“Fourth, art bridges artist and viewer by providing a lens through which an artist can point to something aesthetically pleasing. If one assumes one through three, it is obvious that beauty has an objective quality. I like to think of it as a web that has a lot of room in it for movement depending on one's preferences, yet the web represents that which is within the range of the beautiful. If something falls outside the boundary of the web, it is no longer objectively beautiful, although it might cause feelings of pleasure for some.”

Your premise that art “bridges artist and viewer by providing a lens through which an artist can point to something aesthetically pleasing.” Is a very narrow definition of art. What about simply as a means of expression? I am a photographer and poet and I have no such intentions of bridging anything, or providing any kind of lens. It is simply a means of catharsis. For others it is a means of expression, and many other things for many other artists. And if I were to concede the point, then there is still the issue of what is “aesthetically pleasing.” One must assume based on how you phrased the statement that you mean what the artist finds to be “aesthetically pleasing” yet there are many expressions of art that you would not find aesthetically pleasing because you would say they are pornographic. No two people find themselves in total agreement on what is aesthetically pleasing. That is why there is often so much controversy surrounding art. Many today find Van Gough’s work to be aesthetically pleasing, yet when he was alive no one appreciated his work. So who is correct in their conclusion about the pleasing nature of his art? His contemporaries who found him cluttered and his work ugly, or those who today appreciate his work?

“Fifth, pornography titillates a viewer via one's sexual nature. This is virtually impossible to deny.

Ok, there is much here. First, there are many things that you or I might find titillating that isn’t porn. Your syllogism is as follows: Porn titillates. All things that titillate are pornography. Therefore, if someone is titillated by something it is no longer art and must be pornography. Yet there are many things that are both art and titillating. The problem is that there are as many ways for the human “sexual nature” to be titillated as there are humans. There are dudes who are “titillated” (can’t we just drop that word and say turned on?) by shoes. Yet for some the designing of shoes is an expression of art. So are shoes pornography? You see, you are still trying to make objects exist as intrinsically good or evil as opposed to the use of the objects.”

“I've heard it said that pornography is really about power (an arguable point) and is not in fact associated with sexuality at all (an unreasonable point).”

You say that you have “heard it said that pornography is really about power (an arguable point) and is not in fact associated with sexuality at all (an unreasonable point).” But you see, you have given away the game here! That is the very grounds we should be making our stand. Pornography IS about power and not sexuality as God intended. The thing about sexuality is that it is an expression. In paradise (and I wasn’t there so I can only assume from reading Genesis) Adam and Eve’s sexuality was an expression of their communion. A physical expression of a spiritual reality. And after the fall that is the goal of married sexuality. With pornography the dude sitting in front of a screen or looking at the magazine viewing pornographic images wields power over the individuals he/she is viewing. Their humanity is taken from them and they become objects of his/her control. He/she is expressing that need for power through sexuality. That is basic to our understanding of sexual predators, that they seek power through sex, not sex in and of itself. Was it Foucault who based much of his work on this premise? I do not follow his conclusions but I would agree that sexuality often is an expression of power.

“I would argue that one cannot be privy to nudity and not have one's sexual nature touched.”

As to your argument that “one cannot be privy to nudity and not have one’s sexual nature touched” well I would disagree. Michelangelo’s David is nude and he doesn’t do anything for me. When I was studying at university for a degree in Sports Medicine I saw a lot of naked bodies. I don’t think I was ever “touched.” Perhaps there were times when I was struck by the beauty of the athletic form (male and female) - how fearfully and wonderfully we are made - that I was moved to worship God. It was all very clinical and the mindset was to see the possibilities for strength and agility that we all posses as humans, and I often my peers who did not assent to God‘s existence had to give me the point that if we are the result of random mutation and happy coincidence then how happy and how amazing the coincidence must be.

Certainly, one has the choice to engage the sexual connection, but even in cases where one does not choose to do so, it is usually because it is not a desirable sexual connection, proving my point.

How exactly does this prove your point? What exactly is your point here? If one “does not choose to [engage the sexual connection], it is usually because it is not a desirable sexual connection.” By engage the sexual connection I have to assume you mean let oneself indulge fantasy in one’s mind and/or act on the fantasy. But if it is not a “desirable sexual connection” then there is no sexual connection because one is not “titillated.” If you mean that one doesn’t act on the sexual connection then how does that prove your point that “one cannot be privy to nudity and not have one's sexual nature touched?” Are you expanding your sylogism to not only say that “Porn titillates. All things that titillate are pornography. Therefore, if someone is titillated by something it is no longer art and must be pornography.” AND that “everyone who is “privy” to nudity has their “sexual nature touched” but they don’t act on it because nudity is titillating?”

Sixth, sexuality is inherently tied to personhood, even resulting in the creation of another person. This last assumption can be seen most evidently in the ways that self-labeled homosexuals take disapproval of homosexuality as an attack on their very personhood. Given these assumptions, the argument goes something like this. Because sexuality is tied to personhood, engaging the sexual nature of another requires respect for another's personhood.

How does that follow?

To respect another's personhood, one must love another selflessly, creating a wall around space in which one might be free to be. Commitment to another's well-being (that is, wanting another to be all that one was intended to be) is required to love selflessly.

So are you hear going to argue that we are capable of “selfless” love? Augustine and Edwards and Lewis would take issue with that. There is always the taint of self interest in every human activity. And your statement equating well-being with being “all that one was intended to be” is more American and Transcendental than Christian. Love to others as defined by Jesus is to seek the good of the other, not the potential. It is to not only to seek to not to harm, but to protect. When Jesus says that to love your neighbor is to love them as yourself he is in part saying to protect the other from ourselves. At the heart of loving self is to protect oneself. Therefore to love your neighbor as yourself you must protect your neighbor, in particular from your own self interests. That assumes that by nature we are self interested. That is why even our best intentions must be redeemed by Christ because they are tainted with self interest.

Anything engaging one's sexuality apart from that commitment is actually violating one's personhood, cracking one's eikon (per Scot McKnight).

Why not just say that to play at sex is to play with emotions because sex and emotion are linked and to play with someone’s emotions is to violate the command to love them. But how does this apply to pornography for the Christian? Are Christians breaking into the porn industry much as they have the music and publishing and bumper sticker industry? It might be better to finish this thought by pointing out that by viewing pornography the Christian is consenting to an industry that dehumanizes women.

Pornography, even if not intended for pure titillation (such as in some of the soft-core pornography readily available that blends beauty with sexuality and might be considered art), still does so apart from a commitment to the viewer as intended. Therefore, any imagery that titillates results in the wounding of an individual's personhood.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that there are many things that are intended for good but are used for evil, or because of human fallen nature become perverted. And there are many things that many would not find titillating that the few do find titillating (remember the shoes) so are those things therefore wounding of an individuals personhood? Should we do away with glossy ads of shoes? What about leather, should my friends who ride Harleys only were canvas because there are individuals who are turned on by the sight of leather because they are unintentionally wounding that individuals personhood? Where does it stop? Veils? Burkas? Or is there a point at which the responsibility is on the individual? Yes, that may be very subjective, but there are many things Christians affirm that are subjective. Only God determine what is objectively good or evil and he has given us a very short list (compared to the ones we come up with).

It's not a knock-out argument, but it at least puts forth some semblence of rational thought to the idea that pornography is harmful. Of course, this line of thought falls apart if you make the assumptions of the enemy's system. Within that view, desiring another's best includes the destruction of beauty, and thus, pornography is embraced, especially because it violates one's personhood, which in the end is really an attack on the glory of God by via His imagers.

Oh, but you don’t have to make any of your arguments to prove that porn is harmful Our society or “the enemy” as you put it already assumes the harmful nature of porn. It is against the law to let a minor view it. Almost every week Opra or “Dr” Phil has some poor soul who’s life was destroyed by porn. And you cannot make the case that “within [the] enemy’s system desiring another’s best includes the destruction of beauty.” So are all people who are not Christians and therefore who don’t hold to your “view” of the world in the enemy’s system? If so are they incapable of protecting beauty? And must you assume that on the premise that because they are in the “enemy’s system” that they “embrace” pornography “especially because it violates one’s personhood?” Could it be that those who are not Christians are just like us? That they like us value the beauty of the person and would seek to protect it, though they falters at points? Could it be possible that the general population isn’t much different in that there are individuals with in both groups that struggle with porn not because they wish to, or think it is ok to “violate one’s personhood” but because they like Christians are broken and sinful and in need of healing?

You said that you are attempting to put your thinking into terms that someone my possibly see that a Christian might have reasons for their beliefs. Long gone are the days when the Christian could assume that his/her listener shared the same presuppositions concerning goodness, beauty, and truth. If we are to demonstrate our reasons for what we believe we must speak the same language and not assume many of the points that you have made here. We must attempt to argue using our listeners own assumptions about reality. And I think that an argument contra porn can and should be made in such away. However to me it seems you are attempting to argue from categories that a person who does not follow Christ doesn’t even recognize.

Again, as I said above, please take these comments as intended. That is, as an effort to help you clarify your argument, not as an attack. They were intended as an aid. I hope you have read them in that spirit.


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Point-by-point response to 'On Pornography'