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Stuart Hampshire writes about common decencyStuart Hampshire
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Vol. 2 No. 1 · 24 January 1980

Stuart Hampshire writes about common decency

The report of the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship is a splendid state document and worthy of its difficult subject.* This reviewer may take pride in the fact that the report bears the marks of having been in part written by, and supervised by, a philosopher, the chairman of the Committee, Bernard Williams. Philosophy does many things, some plainly useful and some rather remote from common concerns: but at least it always leaves in the mind of those who have studied it an ever-ready set of warning bells, a nagging sense of intellectual insecurity, and of the ever-present danger of slipping on a banana skin of plausible rhetoric and received ideas. A principal source of pleasure in this report is the wealth of necessary distinctions drawn. Placed on permanent record here, these ought to protect us against the pollution and fog hitherto hanging around the subject of sex and violence. The level of debate has been raised, and, it can be hoped, permanently.

The first necessary distinction is between admitted evils which can be effectively controlled or lessened by the action of governments and by the law and those which cannot be so controlled, because they are too private and are out of reach. Then there is the distinction between those evils which the government and the law can check without overriding the right of individual men and women, within necessary limits, to conduct their own lives as they choose, and those which the law cannot check or control without infringing an essential freedom of choice. But what are these necessary limits on freedom?

The reports starts from John Stuart Mill’s classical discussion, in On Liberty, of the proper limits of government interference with the freedom of the individual to conduct ‘experiments in living’, if he so chooses, and it cites Mill’s equally famous stress on the evil effects of the pressure to conform and on the tyranny of majorities. It is interesting that Mill, a radical of the Left in his own time, defending unpopular causes, is now, a hundred years later, acceptable at the dead centre of conventional opinion. ‘Only if definite harm to others is caused’ is the principle that defines the limits of government interference in Mill and in the prevailing liberal orthodoxy today; it is an orthodoxy for which rational men are grateful, because it has saved us from much repression and muddle. But it does not follow that this hallowed principle, with its corollary ‘otherwise anything goes,’ is more than a stop-gap and a compromise, a convenient holding of the line until a clear and plausible theory of sexuality and violence, and of reactions to them, is established, if it ever is. Meanwhile we should be aware, as the report is, that far wider issues are involved.

Even apart from the issue of censorship and public morals, obscenity is a central problem for the philosophy of art and for general aesthetics, because it exposes the apparent incoherence of our beliefs about art’s relation to experience. First, there is a belief that art carries its own justification with it when it is successful, and that art is in this sense autonomous and independent of the moral prohibitions applicable to direct unmediated experience, because its effect upon our emotions allegedly is, and ought to be, indirect and mediated by aesthetic conventions. Secondly, there is a belief that the enjoyment of art has constantly good effects upon character and sensibility and is an indispensable part of a civilised upbringing. These two beliefs are reconciled in various philosophical theories, but there still remains the uneasy feeling that Plato and Tolstoy, who expressed their disdain of all such reconciliations, were closer to the subject-matter, just because they each plainly felt the power of art over their emotions as strongly as anyone ever has; and at the same time they had reason in their own experience to fear the moral instability, and the wildness of feeling, which the most successful and seductive art can cause and from which it may issue. In Plato’s Republic and in Tolstoy’s What is Art? the harmlessness of art, placed on a pedestal and distanced by its formal magnificence, is an idea not to be taken seriously. The detached connoisseur, who typically takes the more complacent view, probably has not felt the full emotional power of varying musical forms, and of sophisticated literary inventions, and of the magically expressive forms of painting, sculpture and architecture. No less than the lines of a human face, both the surface and the structure of a work of art may change a man’s life through his emotions, without his rational assent, and, in Plato’s view, they may subvert a republic or prefigure its decline. Good art is not tame.

Philosophical theories float about uncertainly in this region and provide no firm basis for public policy and for an agreed report: hence the appeal to Mill, which is safe ground. Even less can we expect guidance from either psychology or sociology. The report reasonably tramples on the sovereign phrase in the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, ‘tendency to deprave and corrupt’ – a phrase which emerges from many a court battle as a scarred veteran overdue for retirement. The phrase confuses a causal claim, which requires to be tested by the observations of sociologists and psychologists, and an untestable judgment of aesthetic quality, which has to be guaranteed by artists and critics long devoted to this kind of aesthetic appraisal. The report clears away this confusion of criteria and adopts a new starting-point in the distinction between private indulgence and public display. Obscenity and pornography, sensibly distinguished here, cannot reasonably be understood or controlled without some theory of sexuality, however speculative, and some account of the need – associated with sexuality – for propriety, decency and concealment.

The basic and biologically necessary and physical activities of men, sexual activity, habits of eating, and the killing of other men in war, and the killing of animals, are naturally the activities most constrained and regulated by moral prohibitions; and they are naturally elaborated and varied by customs and rituals, which serve to distinguish and characterise different societies and social groups. The rational virtues of justice and benevolence, which attract the attention of moral philosophers, are superimposed on a set of moral requirements and prohibitions embedded in a particular way of life and a particular code of manners which, like a language, marks off a social group or people and constitutes the shared identity of the group. Our so-called lower and bodily nature and needs are the most thoroughly moralised and modified by local cultures and by thought; and sexual and family relationships, and attitudes to death, are conspicuously governed by strongly felt prohibitions and also by more subtle and uncodified restraints. Outward and public observances, proprieties and decencies, surround and moralise established practices in any particular society, even though it has always been recognised that the particular practices are far from universal, and are matters of history and of convention rather than of some natural necessity. As any language needs a grammar that imposes limits on its ordering of words, and each language requires a distinctive grammar, so any society needs a set of ceremonies, prohibitions and customs which constitute the ordinary morality of that society; a set of regulations of instinctual needs, the regulations being accepted as normal, even though, and partly because, they are known to be conventional. Principles of justice and benevolence, with claims to universality, are a rational and argumentative superstructure which will often make the conventions of sexuality and family life look arbitrary and odd and even absurd: as arbitrary as the rules of grammar, spelling and pronunciation which oddly differentiate one language from another.

A solecism, a breach of the rules and rituals, produces an immediate shock, a revulsion of feeling, unless the reason for it has been rehearsed and understood. The rational cry ‘Why this prohibition’? – for example, against incest, or against public sexual displays, or against this or that unpopular perversion – causes a conflict, a turmoil of feeling, precisely in those cases where no articulated and principled answer is forthcoming: the unanswered question is still felt to be a threat to a whole way of life just because it is unanswerable. If a Pitman reformer questions English spelling, or a dress reformer asks for an explanation of neckties, we tell him: ‘There are no good reasons here in the sense of principles and generalisable reasons – just history.’ The same goes for most sexual regulations and family systems: but they are at the centre of emotional attachment to a particular way of life. They are the body of social experience, not its covering. So an attack upon them is often felt to be a profound aggression, a threat of anarchy, and a repudiation of morality in general.

This is the dilemma of rational enlightenment: that a rational man demands universal principles to justify his attitudes while at the same time recognising the second-order principle that human nature requires the governance of that nature by convention as much as by reason. Hume stressed this duality of nature and convention in morals, of calculated consequences and sentimental associations: but modern Humeans overlook it, and are apt naively to count only consequences and natural effects. The enlightened programme that we should be natural and unfettered in sexual matters comes up against the difficulty that it is our nature to be artificial in these matters, and that in our dreams, with reason dormant, we are haunted by convention and by romance. A bad Manichean tradition consigns sexuality to man’s lower nature, and then his lower nature is identified as physical and unthinking. But the shock felt when sexual fantasies and myths are publicly advertised, and no longer concealed, is the shock of private, inner thought revealed, not of dull physical facts.

This dilemma of sexual enlightenment against privacy is made more difficult by two apparently irreconcilable, even contradictory, necessities: that we should not be ignorant and misinformed about the actual variety of sexual practices and dispositions, knowable through history, art, literature, anthropology, mythology and workaday gossip, and that we should not through ignorance be carrying some pathetically narrow and impoverished idea of sexual normality, or, philosophically worse, of naturalness. As artificiality is natural to men, so is variety and deviation on all sides of the norm; and this constitutes the principal interest of the species, alongside the power to play with this happy fact in imagination. But in conflict with this need for liberation from prejudice is the natural necessity that sexual relations should be the ultimate form of intimacy, and that they should be protected, secret, veiled, recessed, never displayed or made public, even mysterious, and certainly not improved by advertisement. There is a natural and not conventional outrage at forms of display – whether in words or scenes – destructive of the sense of total intimacy which constitutes an essential value in fully-developed sexual relations. So an ingenuous world traveller from the East, perhaps a Chinese philosopher, crossing the Bosphorus into Europe, will be both disgusted and made sad by the hoardings and advertisements which he will see for the first time outside cinemas in European cities. He has been familiar since boyhood with the great ranges of erotic an in China, India, Japan and elsewhere, and he will be sad to see such abject misunderstanding of the subject and such clumsy mishandling of it. The display destroys that which it is supposed to celebrate. The erotic and the decently-concealed and private go together historically. It will seem to the Chinese philosopher that mass culture and the commercial market have destroyed the enjoyment of erotic fantasy, because the market cannot tolerate privacy and seclusion, which have been aristocratic advantages.

The report takes account, though with unavoidable brusqueness, of most of these points, except that it perhaps underestimates the drive for sexual knowledge and enlightenment, from Havelock-Ellis onwards, as a reaction to the evils of ignorance and to the stifling errors which preceded ‘permissiveness’. Its distinction between erotic art and pornography opens the way to recognising the polemical and aggressive and sadistic aspects of pornography. Pornography is always supporting a cause and making a point and on the attack, whether at its best, as in Rochester or Genet or Lenny Bruce, or at its least talented, as in Sade. There is usually a veering into sadism, and a suggestion of anger and deprivation, certainly not of exuberance and of evident love of pleasure, in a work perceived as pornography rather than as erotic.

A textbook liberal rejects any regulation that could conceivably be called censorship, and with added earnestness when sex is involved, because of the need for enlightenment. The report gives its reasons for disagreeing with the textbook, and, as it seems to me, it is in the right. The Romans attached importance to the office of aedile, whose main function was to preserve public decency. Being Romans, they no doubt thought of public decency as an aspect of a politically desirable public order, which, among other things, it evidently is. But it is much more than that. Only superficial minds fail to understand the importance of surfaces: Wilde, as always to the point in this context, said something like that. That cities and public places should be decent by the standards of the day, and not vehicles of sexual enlightenment, has the same importance as the design of the facades along a street, or the removal of rubbish. The evil of censorship consists in preventing the expression of a thought, or the communication of knowledge, or in preventing a work of the imagination being made, usually on the grounds that they are shocking or subversive. The aedile function is different, in that it does not prevent expression or creation: it sets limits on the places in which the thought can be expressed and the work displayed. In an essay republished in his Independent Essays Mr John Sparrow drew attention, some years ago, to the difference between censorship, narrowly defined, and the aedile function. Many years before, and in many of his writings, D.H. Lawrence had stressed the unalterable and deep connection between sexuality and secrecy, and the danger of sexual enlightenment being confused with an unnatural and immature promiscuity of display and self-expression, which always leaves behind a stale depression of spirits.

The public will be grateful to lose some of its freedom and to be protected from the prigs of public enlightenment (‘Anything goes anywhere’), no less than from the prigs of literary and stage censorship and the censorship of art. The only form of censorship that the report recommends, apart from many careful restrictions of public display, is the licensing of films by a Film Examining Board which would issue certificates determining who could see the film: children, youths, adults only. Having admitted to themselves that there is no adequate analysis of the actual effects of disgusting films, and that there is not likely to be, the committee members were evidently impressed by their own disgust at what they saw. The vividness of photography and of the motion picture, the lack of vividness, the inertness, of print, which is the vehicle of ideas rather than of sensations: this contrast runs through the report. It is wicked to suppress ideas, or to restrict their dissemination, except to prevent a great harm or to avert a very probable danger. But it is not certainly wicked to protect people, in a fatherly way, from encountering without warning very strong and disagreeable sensations which have unpredictable and unknown effects. Those who want to be deeply disturbed by strong sensations engendered by representations of sex and violence must actively seek their satisfactions rather than rely on the film market to supply them; and this is recommended because it is wrong that normally offensive films should be thrust upon the public. The squeamish have their rights, and the particular right not to be haunted by disagreeable images thrust upon them, and we are grateful to be warned of what we are in for when we go to the cinema. There is some abridgment of liberty here, but of a safe and sound, paternal kind.

What is the principal vice or defect of this report? Only, I think, that it wastes too much space on showing that the criterion of demonstrable or probable harm is not a sufficient, and is not even a generally usable, criterion in this field. If liberal traditions are discounted, harm is plainly the wrong starting-point, when the evils of unrestricted dissemination of pornography are in question. Under the broad and cautious concept of offensiveness, the report does finally capture the moral basis of legal restriction, and, having captured it, puts it on the borderline between aesthetic and moral judgment, narrowly defined: for offensiveness is something that is first perceived and then felt, and is not an ascertainable consequences or natural effect. If prevailing moral philosophies only allow that ascertainable consequences are morally relevant, they are inadequate as theories. Surfaces and common decencies are as important in moral sentiments, and in tolerable conditions of living, as substantial effects, and are likely to remain so. Therefore the report wisely proposes a large number of detailed restrictions on public display of normally offensive material.

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