When moral arguments are tied to power, careers are ruined — in both directions
Won’t someone think of the pornographers? Salon.com is lamenting thousands of tragic job losses in the porn industry as a consequence of Pornhub’s recent cleanup. Who, sighs progressive pro-porn sociologist Angela Jones, “is speaking for the hundreds of thousands of pornographers whose economic livelihoods have been served upon an altar for penance?”
Jones decries the ‘anti-porn lobby’ as a front organisation for the religious right, but in truth it spans left and right, comprising feminists, sex industry survivors and ordinary men and women as well as people of faith. All these groups view self-expression as one value to balance against numerous other moral harms inflicted by the proliferation and normalisation of porn.
“This is not a zero-sum game, even if the politically savvy master illusionists in the anti-porn lobby want you to believe it is”, Jones asserts. Ostensibly her concern is for the economically precarious sex workers struggling to make a living, and for the free speech of groups whose ‘self-expression’ is being brutally stifled by Big Religion. While sex trafficking is of course bad, she says, “censorship is not the answer.”
Except, of course, in a contest between mutually incompatible moral norms, it absolutely is a zero-sum game. There is no reconciling the perspectives of porn advocates and socially conservative porn abolitionists in any abstract ‘marketplace of ideas’. The only remotely effective way of settling an irreconcilable difference of public values is, in fact, censorship.
And indeed this technique has been used to great effect in recent years, by a networked and confident vanguard of progressive moral entrepreneurs who seek to inflict reputational, political and economic damage on any individual or institution that violates their preferred moral norms. Recent examples are too numerous to list but include (in the US) the defenestration of the New York Times’ comment editor for publishing an article calling for the military to suppress BLM protests, and (in the UK) the recent dropping of Julie Burchill by publisher Hachette after she called the Prophet Mohammed a ‘paedophile’.
Having noticed progressives’ facility with this approach, the anti-porn lobby has accepted a reality which still seems to elude many opponents of the progressive juggernaut: that winning the argument is futile unless you also have power. That is, the best arguments in the world are meaningless until you can use them to inflict — as David Hines put it recently — ‘actual material damage’ on your opponents.
But decrying the apparent progressive hypocrisy of ‘censorship bad except when it serves me’ achieves nothing. Better to recognise the terms on which this contest for control of moral norms is actually being fought. Those on both left and right with reservations about the emerging moral consensus are waking up to the reality that it’s not enough to win the argument; you have to win the arm-wrestle, and that means having your ‘side’ in leadership roles.
So, one prediction for 2021 (which I hope will be better than 2020, for all of us). The intensifying contest over who controls public moral norms will reflect this dawning realisation, and migrate accordingly from an increasingly disorderly ‘marketplace of ideas’ to the boards of public institutions.