Tuesday 25 June 2013

Pornography on Radio 4

Yesterday’s edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme Analysis examined the evidence for whether pornography is harmful.

The presenter Jo Fidgen began by describing her liberal dilemma:
I have a dilemma I’d like to resolve... I’m a feminist and a liberal. I’m troubled by degrading images of women but I’m unwilling to condemn private behaviour if it’s not causing serious and direct harm. So I’m looking for hard evidence about the effects of pornography that will persuade me to come down on one side or the other.
I don’t wish to get into that argument here. The programme was a calm, deliberative examination of the issue and the latest research, and you can listen to it online and make up your own mind.

The argument I do wish to get into is how you resolve such dilemmas, and in particular the importance of rationality.

I was struck by the arguments of one protagonist on the anti-pornography side, Professor Gail Dines. Fidgen introduced Dines by explaining that “she doesn’t feel constrained by the research from invoking cause and effect”. Dines argued that the anecdotes she heard were evidence enough, and that it isn’t worth bothering even to define pornography. She dismissed any research that didn’t meet her prejudices as “junk science” and rejected the need for further research, arguing that it is merely an excuse for inaction. For anyone employed as an academic, let alone a professor, these attitudes beggar belief.

Fidgen exposed the weakness of Dines’s case:
[Dines is] a feminist, first and foremost, and it’s that ideology that underpins her search for proof that pornography is bad for women. Now I’m a feminist too, but that strikes me as a risky approach because, if it can’t be proved in a way that would persuade a neutral observer, then she’s lost the argument. I wonder if her case mightn’t be stronger if she dropped her reliance on evidence and instead argued purely on the grounds that she disapproves of the depiction of women in pornography.
That was the approach taken by Professor Roger Scruton, who opposes pornography on moral grounds and thinks that any evidence, one way or the other, is beside the point. Although as Scruton admitted, subjective moral disgust is not a basis for legal bans.

But if you are going to argue from an evidential basis rather than a purely moral standpoint, the belief that feelings trump facts, emotion trumps reason or anecdotes trump research is simply not acceptable. It takes us back to a pre-enlightenment age when behaviour was governed by superstition.

We rightly criticise UKIP and Tory MPs like Peter Bone for their gut politics based on groundless beliefs. We should show no greater tolerance for this behaviour when it crops up on the ‘progressive’ side of politics.

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