Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

Philosophical Approaches to Pornography, Free Speech, and CMC

Cyberspace as Plato's Republic: or, why this special issue?

by Charles Ess

In the emerging domains of cyberspace, ever increasing numbers of men, women, and children discover new forms of communication and community. As is well-documented, email, with its pseudo-anonymity acting as a blinder to the usual social cues of status, gender, etc, works as a kind of social amplifier--first, in a positive way, as users find new audiences who share their interests and beliefs. Untrammeled by ordinary social contexts, they experience new freedoms of expression and discussion.

But the social amplifier works negatively as well--in the forms of increased aggression and the exploration of speech ordinarily taboo, such as hate speech, racist speech, "snuff" pornography, etc.

Given this amplification effect of CMC, our familiar debates regarding freedom of speech vs. pornography take on heightened significance: the extremes of speech in CMC are more extreme, and these extremes evoke more extreme calls for limits on speech.

But the extremes may be useful. In The Republic, in order to determine the nature of justice in the psyche ("soul" in more of a rationalist rather than religious sense), Plato suggested the strategy of examining the city as an analogue of the psyche: because of its size, the city is easier to examine--and the results of the examination can then be applied analogically to the psyche as its smaller counterpart. Similarly, examining the debates over freedom of speech and its possible limits in the more extreme environment of cyberspace may shed helpful light on that debate in the non-electronic domains of our lives.

Moreover, because cyberspace is a new domain, the laws that might govern behavior there have yet to take shape. So these debates, and our participation in these debates as a discourse community, are crucial if we are to have a significant role in shaping and regulating our own community.

Finally, if, as proponents and enthusiasts predict, cyberspace will become our primary medium for communication and commerce in an Information Age, our current debates over freedom of speech and its possible limits--and our proposed resolutions to these debates--may be foundational for shaping what promises to be our new common spaces.

In fact, as I discuss in my essay, these debates are a central way in which communities shape themselves and are a central feature of democratic communities as I understand them. My hope is that by --carefully reading and thinking about the essays in this special issue of CMC Magazine, you can contribute to these debates using a philosophical approach--and thereby add to the democratic promise of CMC itself.

I very much wish to thank CMC Magazine editors, John December and Kevin Hunt, for their encouragement in this effort to bring philosophical perspectives to bear on a crucial topic--and for their help and technical expertise in developing especially the hypertextual dimensions of these essays.

Charles Ess ( is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department, Drury College. He received an EDUCOM award for his work with IRIS Intermedia as well as awards for outstanding teaching. His most recent publications include "Reading Adam and Eve: Re-Visions of the Myth of Woman's Subordination to Man," in Marie Fortune and Carol J. Adams, eds. Violence against Women and Children: A Theological Sourcebook in the Christian Tradition (New York: Continuum Press, 1995), 92-120. He is also editor of Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996).

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