Learning all the wrong lessons

By skepticlawyer

[I’ve brought this post over from Thoughts on Liberty, in part because I don’t know whether David Cameron’s desire to channel Ceiling CameronStephen Conroy has yet reached Australian shores. Australia is a small country – one should expect its experiences to be either ignored or misunderstood in larger countries – however, I think that this level of silliness is really quite extraordinary. This is especially the case when there is widespread transfer of political expertise between the two countries – think Lynton Crosby, for example, or Labor’s John McTernan.]

So, David Cameron wants to institute a UK-wide porn filter. This news has now reached the US. You are probably laughing at us. If so, that’s a good thing, because the proposal is laughable.

It means socially awkward Brits will now be forced to ‘opt out’ of the clean feed, thereby disclosing to their ISP or landlord that they watch porn. Europeans and Australians are willing to admit to porn use (in part because they often live in states or countries where prostitution is legal, and where they don’t just have sex shops, but sex department stores). Not so the British, who react to situations of social discomfort by curling up like a slug exposed to naked flame.

Humour aside, however, what makes this scheme particularly ludicrous is that it is a direct copy of an identical Australian proposal. In Australia, Labor’s Stephen Conroy first floated the idea, and was then rapidly forced to retreat when it became clear that it was incapable of enforcement. Australians are the world’s most brutal pragmatists: they will take your ideal to the woolshed and beat it to death with a cricket bat if it proves unworkable in practice:

[I]t’s really hard to get inside the heads of the proponents of one side of the question. In order to support the internet filter, or drug prohibition, or rent control, you have to not just hold a certain set of values, you have to be willing to spend public money based on those values even on measures that will be completely ineffective.

In Britain, however, there is still a broad strap of clueless idealism when it comes to the state’s use of laws to make us more sexually moral people. This is especially the case when at least part of the scheme is meant to tackle child porn — forgetting, of course, that child porn is already illegal. This is why Brits pointing out that Cameron’s scheme won’t work have not suggested that there may be something to be said in favour of porn.

And therein is a real problem. Cameron’s argument that the killers of schoolgirls April Jones and Tia Sharp had accessed legal pornography before moving on to images of child abuse tells us nothing: they did a lot of things before moving on to images of abuse (eating bread, for example), but that doesn’t even faintly demonstrate a causative link. Even worse for the anti-porn brigade, what evidence we have indicates porn is a substitute for rape and other sexual offences, not an incentive for them: rates of sexual violence tend to drop when porn is freely available. Finally, even if a tiny group proves incapable of distinguishing reality from fantasy, if we restrict everyone’s freedoms based on the weakest members of society and their inclinations, then no one will be left with any liberty at all.

That means that not only does ought imply can, but that even if we could institute a workable porn filter, we shouldn’t. Can does not imply ought.

Some additional things that have occurred to me since this piece went up on Friday

There seems to be a real disconnect between feminists who formulate public policy and feminists who avoid politics and otherwise just do their own thing, and it manifests as a blend of nanny-statism and utter technical incompetence. This incredible piece illustrates the extent of the problem (read the whole thing, however, it is terrifying):

Perry is, however, probably a bit more technically literate than Rhoda Grant, a member of the Scottish parliament. Grant recently asked why, if there is a watershed on TV – the 9pm break point before which adult material shouldn’t be shown, for fear of children seeing it – there can’t be one for the internet too.

The U.S. had Ted Stevens and his “series of tubes”; the United Kingdom has Perry and Grant. I think there’s a strong case for lawmakers being forced to undergo some basic training on how the internet works before they get any opportunity to try “fixing” things through new legislation.

Now I am the first person to admit that I am not good with technology, and require outside expertise in order to make it work properly. I’ve also never jumped on the online shopping bandwagon, in part because I find it difficult and counter-intuitive to use, and in part because a woman who is 6 feet tall is always going to have to try clothes and shoes on first… but even I know how unworkable these proposals are.

Unworkability aside, feminists who do gain positions of power are simply going to have to give up the nanny-statism; instead of being associated with liberation, feminism is now increasingly associated with moral policing of a type familiar to us from the worst of the anti-smoking lobby (the people behind the banning of e-cigarettes, for example) or conservative Christianity. And when feminists find themselves on the same side as conservative Christians, I think it’s fair to say that they’re not thinking hard enough about what they stand for.


  1. Posted July 28, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Dear SL,

    Oh dear, yes. The Cameron idea got an airing here, and as you suggest it was seen as nutty, and lasted less than 24 hours.

    I know you don’t like ‘climate change’ being dragged in, but because I just did a post on something very similar, I could not resist slightly adapting your first quote:

    ‘In order to support the ETS you have to not just hold a certain set of values, you have to be willing to spend public money based on those values even on measures that will be completely ineffective.’


    Once people get passionate about an idea (that something ought to be done…) success to them is getting their remedy in place, irrespective of whether or not it works. They can then move on to their next problem and next remedy.

  2. Posted July 29, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Yes, let’s classically condition the population to associate doing the wrong thing with sexual gratification. What could possibly go wrong…

  3. Will
    Posted July 29, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I agree this is a stinker. I don’t support regulating the internet due to both first principles and technological feasibility.

    Not sure I agree with all your remarks about feminism and anti-smoking, however.

    Unlike consumption of porn, smoking tobacco products are a health hazard with proven costly consequences for public health, including cancer. I generally support most of the public interventions that Australia has led, including higher pigovian taxes, bans in restaurants, plain packaging etc., which have a pretty good return on investment.

    That said, I agree that there are some in the preventive health industry who are holding back on endorsing e-cigs as a substitutionary therapy, due to health-purism about nicotine addiction. But not everyone affiliated with anti-smoking groups agrees with those people, including several senior tobacco researchers I have regular contact with. I think you’ll find they have a more harm minimisation approach which says whatever unknowns there are with e-cigs they are certainly a net win for health if there is a substitution going on. The other obstacle here isn’t lobbying but the way we already regulate nicotine as a poison. And to be fair, not all e-cigs have cartridge-style refills, and the large container do pose a health hazard, for example, if they are spilled on a hand of a child.

    As for feminists, I cannot agree that feminists can be divided into apolitical types who are more libertarian and politically-engaged who are uniformly pro-nanny-state. With respect, that’s nonsense on stilts.

  4. Posted July 29, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    There are a huge variety of feminisms, as the most casual observer of debate in this area can note. However, I cannot think of a single feminist in favour of legal prostitution and legal porn elected in any developed country. Our elected feminists are – at least as far as I can see – uniformly pro nanny-state.

    Now, if Fiona Patton (Sex Party, Australia) or Kristin Davis (Libertarian Party, New York, up against one of her former clients, Eliot Spitzer) or someone similar manages to get elected, I’ll change my view. But for the moment, it seems that politics attracts control freaks of all types.


  5. kvd
    Posted July 29, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    What actually does ‘filtered porn’ look like? Just asking, because I like my water and my coffee same. It might not be such a bad thing, to have some sort of filter to get rid of the chunky, bitter bits, no?

    [email protected], Illona Staller might fit your query. Assuming she’s some sort of feminist, I suppose. The definition seems to change most every day; to fit the cause at hand.

  6. Posted July 29, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Not sure what your comment is directed at. Porn is private and involves no other person being present. Surely a safe form of gratification and catharsis?

  7. Posted July 29, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    [email protected], sorry, being neck deep in data interface schedule spreadsheets apparently doesn’t help my communication skills.

    My point was that such schemes frame watching porn as something that normal don’t do, or something that is socially wrong. This means that anyone who does choose to watch porn will be also be conscious of the fact they are doing something that is considered abnormal or wrong. That will cause them to form a subconscious association between doing abnormal or wrong things and sexual gratification, and ultimately create a desire to engage in socially abnormal or socially wrong things. Which is more or less achieving the exact opposite of what the scheme is trying to achieve.

  8. Posted July 29, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] In that case, nice point which I like lots 🙂

  9. Mel
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    It is a standard right wing ploy to invent a moral panic to take attention away from real issues

    More than half a million Britons have resorted to using food banks to stave off hunger and destitution, the Government has been warned.

    Earlier this month, Tim Lang, a former adviser to the World Health Organisation and one of Britain’s leading food policy experts, told The Independent that he feared food banks were becoming “institutionalised” and taking Britain back to a “Dickensian” model of welfare. The Trussell Trust launched a nationwide network of food distribution centres in 2004. It feeds people referred to it by social services and other professionals such as school liaison officers, doctors or Job Centre Plus staff. It now runs 350 food banks in all areas of Britain, manned by an estimated 30,000 volunteers, with an average of three new centres opening each week.

    It is OK to starve people but it is not OK to watch titty flicks. You Tories are creepy.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *