Saturday, February 16, 2008

Tolerating the Intolerable, Defending the Indefensible

The moral sense, we are learning, is as vulnerable to illusions as the other senses. It is apt to confuse morality per se with purity, status and conformity. It tends to reframe practical problems as moral crusades and thus see their solution in punitive aggression. It imposes taboos that make certain ideas indiscussible. And it has the nasty habit of always putting the self on the side of the angels.


People have shuddered at all kinds of morally irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching an untouchable, drinking from the same water fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting men. And if our ancestors' repugnance had carried the day, we never would have had autopsies, vaccinations, blood transfusions, artificial insemination, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization, all of which were denounced as immoral when they were new.
The above quotes are from Stephen Pinker's article, The Moral Instinct, published in the New York Times. Those who can't overcome their ADD long enough to read it may consider listening to an NPR radio discussion of the same thing.

Hey, didja see the fuss a couple posts ago? It never fails. Defending someone's right to produce and distribute something some folks might find offensive is, in some eyes, equivalent to defending or even endorsing the offensive thing itself.

Nevermind that the point of the original post wasn't to defend Chugworth Academy or its creator Dave Cheung but to point out an instance of "I'm-not-against-sexy-unless-I-don't-like-it" doublespeak; no, the fact that I took a stand in opposition to Lilith Ester, through some non-Euclidean geometry, became me defending a pervert, which brainfarted its way into "They might think you're a pervert too, better watch out!"

Whoooo I'm skeerdy!

Well, if nothing else, it puts me in the same company as the ACLU, or at least the ACLU as I remember it many years ago. They'd defend the rights of NAMBLA, or neo-nazis to speak their hateful stuff, and then get castigated by both the Left ("why defend Nazis when other more righteous people need help??") and the Right ("Don't criticize us for trying to censor stuff! YOU DEFEND NAZIS!").

Speaking of many years ago, I wonder if anyone else remembers Pat Robertson and his 700 Club cronies getting all worked up about a "Censored Art" show. The show featured a big range of controversial stuff from the time, such as the photos of Mapplethorpe and Serrano. This was during one of the Republican pushes to disembowel funding for the arts, particularly anything mainstream middle-class folks might get a shock over.

At the entrance to the exhibit was a quote from Adolph Hitler, pontificating about how all traces of eroticism and other badness should be removed from the arts. (I've repeated that quote and others elsewhere in my blog.) But, it never fails: On his TV show, Pat Robertson focused right on the tagline "ADOLPH HITLER" (not bothering to read or repeat the quote, either) to say, "LOOK! A QUOTE FROM HITLER! THESE FILTHY ART GUYS LIKE HITLER!"

So congratulations! Discourse has not moved all that far away from Pat Robertson's myopic crusades of a decade or more ago. The sad part is that the irony of supposed liberal-leaning folks (like feminists, for example) adopting the same kind of moral-outrage tactics commonly associated with conservatives and Christian fundamentalists seems to be lost on all but a few. You may even be reading this right this very second, thinking "how ridiculous! I'm not a right-winger!"

And you may not be, but fundamentalism isn't just for Christians anymore.

"Abortion is just wrong!"

"Homosexuality is just wrong!"

"You wimmen should get back to makin' babies and cookin' dinner like God intended!"

"I wouldn't mind Cheung's right to publish his shit (he can draw it all he wants, publishing is another thing) being taken away."

Ideology may differ, but the underlying principle is the same: "Something makes me feel upset, so I think abridging someone else's rights is justified just because my moral sense gets tweaked." You would have to be blind or intentionally self-deluding to completely miss how these things are alike, despite where they may rest on the political spectrum. Anyone who's ever spoken out for any cause they believe in, and had someone from the opposite side of the debate whip out a Bible or bring up "family values" as a reason why you should be punished for believing in your little heresies, loses just about every bit of my respect when they engage in the same sort of "I just think it's WRONG" kind of reasoning. If you don't accept someone else's moral imperative, what makes your moral imperative any more compelling? Just because it's more right? Everyone thinks that, big deal.

To quote the Times article again:

The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me -- to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car -- then I can't do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can't act as if my interests are special just because I'm me and you're not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

Working from this premise, a call to remove sexist imagery from comics, or to get Dave Cheung to stop drawing jailbait*, falls flat on its face. What sort of reciprocal deal is that? "I want you to not publish anything I find offensive! In return, I pledge to also not publish stuff I find offensive."

Yeah, that'll work.

The very first comment in my previous post about Ms. Ester says this:
Do you need porn** to have sexy? Why do you need porn poses in MAINSTREAM comics? Why not get an erotic comic, if you want that? If you never saw Jean Grey's nipple again, would she suddenly cease to be sexy? Was she not sexy in the days when such representations were less common?
But that misses the entire point of both my original post and the larger idea I've been espousing. (Plus: Jean Grey's nipple? What? Where'd that come from?) Does anyone need this or that in comics, or even "mainstream" comics? Immaterial. First off, nobody "needs" comics, period. You may want them badly, you won't die without them. Comics are entertainment, be it sloppy dumb entertainment or cleverly crafted, literate, thoughtful entertainment.

To demand that depictions you find objectionable be removed is basically calling for someone else to give up something in return for nothing but your head-nod of approval. A cheesecake-filled exploitation comic may have no value to you, but if it had no value to anybody, it wouldn't be produced, sold, bought, read.

"But, but, but," you may be saying, "the things I hate are wrong!" Just as someone else may be convinced homosexuality is wrong?

Because I am not gay, I don't really enjoy the idea of gay sex. Two guys making out does not arouse me, in fact, I get a bit of a "ew" reflex when I happen across some example of gay eroticism.

But I tolerate it. I tolerate it because I hold the belief that I don't want anyone else telling me what I can and can not find sexy, therefore I don't have a right to tell anyone else what they can or can't find sexy.

I don't like the Nazi philosophy, but I defend their right to say what they want, because I know full well that many stances I hold are objectionable to some other people, and I don't think they should have the right to suppress what I say, so what could justify me taking a stance to suppress someone else's speech, no matter how vile?

But as evidenced by the comments I got, some people still hold the idea that their likes and dislikes trump those of everyone else.

I don't want what I find sexy (whatever that is) to be taken away from me, so I don't advocate taking what others find sexy (whatever that is) away from them, and I even don't want what Dave Cheung finds sexy (whatever that is) taken away from him, not because I support what he likes, but because it's fair, it's a reciprocal arrangement.

To think otherwise, to demand that others give up what they like while you keep what you like, that's unfair.

You could even call it immoral.

* By the way: I looked it up, and the UK age of consent is 16. So assuming the Chugworth characters are that age or older, by the standards of his country of residence, any sexual activity depicted is legal, or at least as legal as anything happening with fictional imaginary drawn characters can be. "But that's not how it is elsewhere in the world!" you might whine. But isn't that pretty damn politically incorrect, the pretense that the USA or any other country should force its standards upon others?

** Really, if you seriously call what's going on in mainstream comics today "porn", you are a precious sheltered child who isn't grown-up enough to discuss comics with the adults. Oh, was that a bit condescending? Perhaps, but no more so than this "you couldn't possibly need this much sexy in comics! Why won't you let me take it away from you for your own good?" routine.


John Foley said...

Ha, describing a mainstream comic as porn! Talk about your hyperbole.

It reminds me of this story from a couple of days ago.

"So when I came in this morning, what do I find under my door but a beautifully laid out publication of porn."

Jeez, lady, really? You're actually calling the SI Swimsuit issue PORN??? The Swimsuit issue is about as sexy as the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.
The standards at TIME are really slipping.

Scott (The Mad Thinker) Anderson said...

I love this post. I'm so glad you brought up the taboo topic because I was thinking the same thing. There are plenty of good reasons for having age of consent laws that put the age at 18 or 21 or whatever. But that doesn't make thinking a 17 year old is sexy some kind of evil. At least not to me. It's like thinking about driving over the speed limit. It might be a naughty fantasy for you, but you really aren't hurting anyone by fantasizing about it.

The second thing that I was ever so happy to see was the "ew factor" thing about gay sex. How I wish more people would admit that the thing that they have trouble with about gay sex is that they think it's gross instead of having to come of off the wall reasons for hating it like that it will destroy marriage or society as a whole. If you think it's gross, more power to you. Don't do it or buy homoerotic material, but for the love of Pete, stop pretending that it hurts your marriage or will destroy Western civilization.

Anyway, great post. Even if you do find me a bit disgusting. ; )

John Foley said...

The whole "ew factor" thing reminds me of something my friend Mike (a gay man) said to me. I'm paraphrasing, obviously, but only a little.
He said:
"People are always saying that fags hate women. We don't hate women at all. We love women! We just think their vaginas are disgusting."

As far as homosexuality destroying the institution of marriage, please. Marriage doesn't need any help from teh gheyz. My friends Scott and Drew have been married for 27 years now. And every time they celebrate another anniversary I say to them "will you two please stop ruining the sanctity of marriage for the rest of us!?"

Anon, A Mouse said...

"There are plenty of good reasons for having age of consent laws that put the age at 18 or 21 or whatever. But that doesn't make thinking a 17 year old is sexy some kind of evil."

I really think that there's been an increase in the "taboo-ity" of the subject in the last decade or two, possibly due to an increasing awareness of child abuse (brought into focus by high-profile cases on TV) and the subsequent parental hammering at their kids about stranger danger, bad touching, and other perils. And awareness is good, up to a point, but I have to wonder how much lasting effect it would have on a kid growing up to tell them constantly that they always have to be scared and careful or someone's gonna snatch them up into a van and do unspeakable things.

My speculation is that a lot of kids who grew up in that field of ever-present anxiety are now more-or-less grown up and are carrying that with them, having it influence their outlook on all things, particularly anything vaguely erotic.

So nowadays the idea of sex with someone below the age of consent is on a par with live vivisection of kittens, deadly serious, always horrible... but it wasn't all that long ago that the subject was often used in JOKES, like a punchline from the movie Animal House or a routine on a Cheech & Chong record. There's bits of popular culture from years back that would cause utter firestorms of controversy if produced today. Heck, I was just thinking about "The Judas Contract" run in the Teen Titans book, and wondering how that's going to play out if they ever release the animated version they keep saying is coming...

Anonymous said...

Well, think about it. Ever since women got power in our society mens natural urges have been demonized more and more. Anon i think you are a great smart guy but you keep trying to rationalize these things. There is no point in rationalizing with women, and you are fighting a fools game.

John Foley said...

Rational Mad Man, is that you?

Anonymous said...

no i'm not him. I don't understand why he keeps this up either. Are you really saying you think there's some point rationalizing with women?

zhinxy said...

Okay, anon, I'm curious. I completely agree with you that all speech should be tolerated - and you know, run around hardcore libertarian wingnut circles as often as I do, you'd be surprised how often the people most invested in the idea of free speech are the most viciously critical of fictional works! So I hardly see those two positions as exactly inconsistent!

But before you have said to me that my position, that I do enjoy a high level of cheesecake in superhero comics myself, (And I do - The Dodsons, Adam Hughes, Ed Benes - these are a few of my favorite things) but that I sometimes feel that it's over-the-top, badly handled, and sometimes handled in a sexist way was reasonable.

So what am I, a reasonable person with criticisms of some works, or a vile creature on the road to censorship, demonizing those who like things I don't? ;)

zhinxy said...

Ha, describing a mainstream comic as porn! Talk about your hyperbole.

In most cases I agree. Frank Cho's actually just a great cheesecake artist and calling him the porn guy is pretty out there. But then, there's Greg Land, who actually has been caught tracing porn and putting superhero outfits over it. So, yeah. Comics aren't porn. Unless they're Land comics. And it really is a sad comment on the state of the industry that he gets away with that.


John Foley said...

I don't think it's fair to describe libertarians as "wingnuts." I'm pretty libertarian myself, and I'm hardly a wingnut.

zhinxy said...

I'm more libertarian than you! Well, most likely, and I actually was using it as a bit of self-deprecation ;)

John Foley said...

Gotcha, self-deprecating humor. High five!

John Foley said...

Greg Land is a whole different kind of animal. What he does isn't comic book art. I will concede that if you're just straight up tracing pictures from pornos, then you've made comics into porn.
Christ, that guy needs to be fired.

zhinxy said...

high five

*Puts down gun and copy of Atlas Shrugged, slaps back*

Christ, that guy needs to be fired.

Indeed! So, anon, this is what I'm talking about.

Is my position of "let's not have superhero comics that are drawn by the guy who traces from porn - and doesn't even draw the same girl for the same character on a consistent basis - things I actually will call sexist, though you may disagree on whether it's sexist or simply lazy" inconsistent with my position that I don't necessarily mind, and in some cases even prefer a high level of sensuality in my comic book art? Am I feeding you bullshit? I really want to know! :)

Anon, A Mouse said...


There is, I will confess, a wobbly line to walk between critiquing something and discussing its merits, and what I consider a call for censorship.

One rule of thumb is, in my opinion, when you move from a position of criticizing some work, to attempting to restrict what others can have.

Greg Land, for instance: "Man, that guy makes me sick! What a porn-tracer! He should be out of comics. I hate his work!"

Well, fine. You have an opinion, there it is.

"Not only that, we should boycott the companies and stores that carry his work and give him jobs! Drive him out!"

And that's where I kinda get leery. Because if that actually happened, it would possibly affect the ability of other people who may have no problem at all with Greg Land or his work to buy comics with Greg Land's art in them. Not only are you then making a determination of what's good and what's not for yourself, you're in a process that attempts to do it for EVERYONE.

I get even more squeamish about it when the idea is that Item X in comics actually somehow causes bad stuff to happen in real life, like Wertham claiming that the violence in comics caused juvenile delinquency, or modern arguments about how sexist material in comics supposedly causes sexism in real life. Not only have I yet to be convinced that there's any real causal effect between fiction and real acts, but framing the argument in that kind of "we must save society/won't someone think of the CHILDREN??" rationale is pretty much how the opening quote puts it, a moral crusade where no compromise can be reached, where you're either "with us" or you're some sort of kitten-eating babyraper.

To be fair, going back to the post that touched all this off, I don't remember reading anything in Lilith Ester's original review of Chugworth Academy to suggest that she, personally, was seriously in favor of sending in the stormtroopers to kick in Dave Cheung's door and shut down his webcomic (though the hyperbole of that site's reviews makes it difficult to tell sometimes). She HOPED his webcomic would die and go away, and she obviously detests Dave Cheung on a visceral level, and while I think her ire is a bit misplaced, I don't really have a problem with the bulk of her review... EXCEPT for the part where she starts out "And I'm not against sex, BUT..."

It was the people responding to my post that brought up the whole "free speech" angle to all this, and this post is a response to that.

So to sum up: I have no problem with actual, thoughtful critique, though if I think a line of criticism is unfounded, I may counter it with my own criticism. More power to critique! You won't ever see me saying nobody should ever criticize anything.

I just think the appropriate response when someone disregards your critique is to, at most, continue the critique, not work to silence the object of your critique by any means necessary...

James Meeley said...

I just think the appropriate response when someone disregards your critique is to, at most, continue the critique, not work to silence the object of your critique by any means necessary...

Hey Anon:

I just thought I'd give you and everyone here a link to a piece at Mad Thinker Scott's place, which is dealing with this subject (albeit, from a slightly different direction). I think the similiarities between these two conversations woill make for some compelling thoughts. Just go here:

Pat Powers said...

I think the feminists who are pressing for the elimination of sexy female imagery in comics are actually against normal male sexuality as expressed in comics.

Come on, most guys like to look at naked, half naked or three quarters naked women. It's well known that guys' sexual responses are visually oriented, to an extent that women's aren't. Comics are the only mainstream venue which appeals to normal guys' sexuality while ALSO including plot, characterization, that sort of thing.

There are erotic comics to be sure, and hardcore and softcore porn. But in most cases they dispense almost entirely with plot and characterization to get to the sex and nudity. My feeling is that feminists want to marginalize male sexuality by having it represtned ONLY in porn. They are willing to "give" men porn if men will give up on seeing imagery that they find strongly appealing in ANY mainstream medium.

That's why the focus on comics. It's the only mainstream venue left where male sexuality is appealed to, and which retain plot and characterization.

I think in its own way this is a sad as the guys who can't stand erotica or any porn that doesn't consist entirely of sex scenes. They're actually on the same side as the feminists, working towards a sharply bifurcated culture where sexual imagery that appeals to men is entirely the province of porn.

I don't think we should let them do it. It would be a mistake.

Anonymous said...

As someone who was sexually exploited by an older man in my teen years, I would like to kindly ask you to choke on a dick and die.