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A letter to the Editor opposing censorship, published in Quadrant, October 1989, p.2

I refer to the column Unseasonable Thoughts - II, 'A Case for Censorship' in the August 1989 issue of Quadrant. I would like to take issue with a number of the points.

I must confess to never having read D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Indeed I read nothing written by Mr Lawrence since Sons and Lovers, which left me feeling far more disturbed than any blatantly pornographic or violent video or book. Nevertheless, the question remains: where does one draw the line between pornographic 'quality' literature which is acceptable and that which is not? Is there some point at which a sexual intensity in artwork pushes it beyond the pale? Who determines that point?

Polanski's Macbeth was my first experience of a truly explicitly violent film. Should it banned because of the violence or does the quality and effectiveness of the film out-weigh this, giving it a right to exist? Can it be compromised, cut the explicit scenes and merely hint at the violence? Surely, that very explicitness is one of the contributing factors to the movie's effectiveness. I find it difficult to accept that a picture of a Macbeth's head on a spike is somehow more immoral than talk of it (unless, of course, it was a real person's head). It may be more stomach-turning, but in my view to judge a moral issue by the criterion of the steadiness of one's gut is a surrender of humanity, a return to the instinctive reactions of animals.

Of course, the viewer may resolve never to view a Polanski film again because of it's personal effect, but this is a long way short of agitating for the film to be banned.

Who picks the non-philistine judges who can make such a difficult value-judgement. Can literary or artistic quality be measured objectively? If not, then it is simply a matter of drawing a line somewhere based upon arbitrary aesthetic considerations.

I am a little surprised that the reason for the division between 'snuff' movies and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre should be a mystery. 'Snuff' movies involve murder. Massacre only involves the depiction of murder. Sexual abuse of children is a crime in all jurisdictions in Australia and against all modern standards of morality. Allowing movies showing this abuse would surely encourage the abuse of future child 'stars'. This may not be the reason for the position of the line in the minds of the governments which have made the rules, but it is sufficient for me.

Many other possible reasons could be behind 'the rise of terrible crimes': continuing economic gloom, changes in educational methods and syllabuses, alterations in law enforcement methods, abolition of the death penalty, increased marital break-ups assisted by the Family Law Act 1975, and any number of others that do not occur to me, but may to you. Claiming a simple 'causal' relationship in the absence of evidence seems similar to blaming the sins of the world on Capitalism - there is the superficial attractiveness of simplistic reasoning, but it ignores the facts to the contrary. I wonder how many of your readers have been exposed to violent or sexually explicit material. I further wonder how many of those that have been are responsible for terrible crimes.

Take me, for example. I should say that I am no model of moral uprightness, but neither have I robbed any banks, raped any women or molested any children. I have been exposed to pornography and violent movies. Am I addicted? I think not. It is some years since I last saw anything pornographic, despite some degree of titillation on previous occasions. I have little doubt that I would be again titillated should I be exposed to it again. However I feel no urge to seek it out. And if I did, so what? I suffer an unfortunate addiction to things sweet, a habit I am finding more difficult to shed than nicotine which I successfully achieved only last year. My addiction hurts only me, and I refuse to surrender responsibility for my own actions.

Unless you disagree with my diagnosis, here is at least one person who appears not to have been harmed by pornography. Can this be contrasted with a person who has been adversely affected by pornography?

Concerning coherent liberal principles. I doubt that there are any liberal principles, let alone coherent ones. For a cause to have clear principles they must be enunciated and accepted by at least some adherents to the cause. Clearly the word 'liberal' cannot be regarded as a tag for a homogenous group; it is as liable to misunderstanding as 'Multiculturalism', a sin or virtue depending upon the definition you impute to it.

Instead I rely on the broader libertarian principle: a government should not make rules to restrict a person's freedom unless the particular freedom to be restricted can be proven to harm others. In my view, the onus of proof must always be on those seeking to restrict, to ban, to deprive.

© 1989 - Stephen Dawson