Sunday, October 10, 2010

Confuscius and Censorship (and Pornography)

Wondering what the link is between censorship and Confucius (and pornography)?  It's the rectification of names.

One of the first and most basic arguments Confucius made was in favor of the rectification of names:  calling a duck a duck.  He said it's impossible for us to live together with any hope of peace and mutual respect if you call something a duck while I call it a milkshake (not his words).  We have to agree on definitions before any real communication can take place.  A dictionary is a good place to seek out mutually agreed-upon definitions.

Peace and mutual respect fall apart when they hit the censorship wall, the division point where one party insists they know what's best for everyone else (to which I always say, "Excuse me, but I'll think for myself.")  There are plenty of examples of book censorship to choose from, but I'm all riled up right now about an art exhibit.

We had an incident last week where there were protests outside a local art museum (in Loveland CO) because of an allegedly pornographic depiction of Jesus Christ with a priest.  The artist intended the piece as a comment on the Catholic Church's problem with sexual abuse of children.  The overwhelming majority of those protesting the artwork had not viewed it.  I had not viewed it, and now no one can -- a crazed woman truck driver took a crowbar to the exhibit.  Fortunately no one was injured.  The protesters scattered on the four winds after the destruction.  Wherever they blew off to, I hope they feel as responsible as I believe they are.

But to get back to Confucius (and pornography); you can't call something pornography without it meeting the definition.  Well, okay, you can, but you shouldn't, if we're going to carry on a conversation.

You can't have pornography without intending to cause sexual arousal.  [From Black's Law Dictionary, 8th edition:  pornography, n. Material (such as writings, photographs, or movies) depicting sexual activity or erotic behavior in a way that is designed to arouse sexual excitement.]  No one reported becoming sexually aroused by the exhibit.  In fact, the protesters appeared uniformly disgusted and angered (by what most of them hadn't actually seen).  I'll give them points for imagination, I guess.  The creator of the artwork neither intended to, nor succeeded in causing arousal.

It was not pornography.

Maybe some of the viewers didn't like it, thought it was disgusting, against their religious beliefs, not quite the right color, discomfiting, poorly executed, etc.  Fine.  But that's not pornographic.  And I'll make up my own mind, thank you very much.

I'm ashamed that the day after the report of the attack appeared in my local paper, the comment section was full of people gushing about how happy they were that this abomination had finally been removed from their sight, expressing smug indignation that it wasn't done earlier, some remarking that they would have liked to have been there to help swing the crowbar.

What did these people bring to their viewing of the exhibit that caused them to react the way they did?  The exhibit was just something to look at -- what they took away from it was up to them.  Are their closely held beliefs built on such a shaky foundation that one single image threatened those beliefs?  Maybe so.  Do they also think that everyone who shares those beliefs needs protection as well?  What about those of us who don't share them?

More to the point, how could the majority who protested without even viewing the exhibit make up their own minds?  They didn't.  They accepted someone else's opinion (who may not have seen the artwork either).

We can't have a conversation about art or books (or anything else) if people are content to act on received opinion alone.  Art and literature are supposed to make people think, but they don't work for those unwilling or unable to do so for themselves.

And even so many years after Confucius, one of the first steps toward peace and mutual respect remains the rectification of names.


  1. Many people look down on romance novels without ever having read one. "Oh. You write "those" kinds of books." People say romance novels are akin to pornography because they have sex scenes and they can be arousing. But romance focuses on emotion. The goal is to get the reader to feel and experience what the characters are feeling and experiencing. And sometimes characters get aroused. Does that mean romance novels are pornography?

  2. Before I wrote this post I would have said "No." Now my answer has to be more nuanced (and informed).

    If the intention is to engender sexual arousal, then yes, in a way, romance is pornography. But (and this is a big but) in romance, both women and men are portrayed in an (idealized and) positive light. In pornography the woman is portrayed negatively -- as victim (or if she does these things by choice, then at least as someone I'd prefer not to associate with). However you want to class the man's portrayal, I'd have to say I'd rather not meet him either.

    There's a lot of discussion out there about romance / pornography. The romance genre covers a range of writing, from Christian romance to women's erotica. It seems like we need another word or two to handle the range properly. Pornography would seem to rightfully encompass works that are centered on sex, and I see romance as centered on the emotions of loving.

    To be clear on one thing at least: no, I don't consider you a pornographer. You are a storyteller about romance, and it is both fair and realistic that the field of romance includes sex as one of its many components.