Public Porn

The two most common responses I have heard to protests against pornography are these: a) it doesn’t hurt anybody and b) what they (the consumers of pornography) do in the privacy of their homes is nobody’s business. The New York Times this morning ran a story called, “He’s Watching That, In Public?”  You can see the whole article here.  There aren’t any pictures in the article, but I have added a few that I liked, as you see.

The best place to begin is the experience of Dawn Hawkins, executive director of a group called Morality in Media.  She was on a plane several months ago and noticed that the man in the row in front of her was engrossed in the images on his iPad.  These were images of naked women whipping each other.

He was consuming pornography “in public.”  What is public?  Let’s imagine that he was looking at these pictures on cards the size of playing cards and holding them discretely in his lap so that only he could see them.  That’s “public” in the sense that he is doing his viewing in a public place, but it is not “public” in the sense that it couldn’t be dealt with simply by not paying attention to it.  It is not different in kind, it seems to me, that his reading a pornographic novel.  On the other hand, let’s imagine that he was viewing these erotic flagellants on a 15 inch computer screen.  It’s going to take some effort “not to notice” for people in the periphery of the viewing area.  For the person in the next seat or in the several seats behind him, no effort is going to be enough.  I think that is “public” in another sense.

There are people who are going to want to treat this story as if pornography were wrong and should be prevented or punished.  I don’t know quite how I feel about pornography as a moral matter because I don’t really know (see option a, above) how directly people are affected by it.  I am going to treat it as an offense against one’s “fellows.”

One’s fellow what?  Well, in the San Francisco library people have been using the library computers to access pornography.  If this is a violation, it is a violation of their “fellow patrons.”  The library responded by putting plastic hoods over the monitors so only the person using the computer can see what is on the screen.

On the road in New Jersey, we are talking about one’s fellow travelers.[1]  State Senator Anthony Bucco has introduced a bill that would ban porno on seat-back DVD players.  These players are oriented so that other drivers could plausibly be distracted by them.  The people in what I called “the viewing area” on the plane are fellow travelers as well.

At the Café Ponte in San Francisco, where customers come to surf the web, they would be fellow diners (companion is the Latin version of that) and compotadors if they drank anything.[2]  Bruce Ponte, the owner, says “This is an internet café.  People come here to surf.  Am I supposed to do something about that?”

Let’s imagine that I have established that the public viewing of pornography—I have defined “public” as a viewing that can be avoided by one’s fellows only by heroic effort—as a bad thing.  What to do?  Dawn Hawkins complained about the fan of erotic flagellation on her place and was told by the flight attendant that he was powerless to force the man to stop.  That might be literally true—“forcing him”—but it seems reasonable that he was not powerless to ask him to stop.  The Association of Flight Attendants says that its members want to avoid offending passengers or playing the role of censors.  I’ll bet they do.  But if one of the people on the plane is doing something offensive, then people are being offended and the flight attendants are going to have to choose a course of action.

Starbucks, which always seems to find a way to manage these things, says it does not censor the use of its Wi-Fi, but it does reserve the right to ask someone not to view material that might offend patrons or employees.  That seems like a good approach to me, but let’s looks at one that is a lot better.

Lewis Goldberg, 42, a partner in an investor relations firm in New York, occasionally watches shows like “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones” on his iPad when he works out at the gym. But he fast-forwards through sexual or particularly violent scenes.  “There’s a woman jogging behind me on the treadmill and I don’t want her to fall off,” he said. “I’m bringing my media into a public space, and it’s part of my responsibility in a civil society.”

That’s the approach the most sense to me.  It doesn’t ask why Goldberg is watching shows in public that have sexual or particularly violent scenes.[3]  It focuses on his sense that he has a responsibility to others and it gives as an instance one way he enact that responsibility.   And this is what conservatives always say.  If we have people of sensitivity and social responsibility, “fixers” will not have to be called in: not the library or the airlines and certainly not the legislator.  I’d have to say that in this case, it is the conservative stand on managing what “public” means that makes most sense to me.

 


[1] This is perhaps the most nearly innocuous use of “fellow traveler” I have ever seen.  When I was growing up, it was a very substantial political charge.

[2] I made than one up, but you have to admit it is plausible since potare = to drink and com- means “together.”  Companion uses the same prefix and substitutes panis = bread for the focus of the action.

[3] It is worth our while to pause to note which of those terms was thought to require the emphasis on an adverb.  Some societies, it seems likely, would have said violent or particularly sexual” instead.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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