Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* Philosophical Approaches to Pornography, Free Speech, and CMC, by Charles Ess

The Essays on Philosophical Perspectives on Pornography, Free Speech, and the Internet.

We begin with Douglas Birsch's essay, "Sexually Explicit Materials and the Internet." Birsch articulates important background information for all our essays--e.g., in his sections Sexually Explicit Materials on the Internet; Obscene Material: A Definition; Obscenity and the Internet; What is Pornography; Pornography and the Law. He then takes up the work of philosopher Alan Gewirth to argue for basic rights. Birsch agrees with feminists--most notably, Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin--who argue that pornography harms women in several ways. For Birsch, these harms violate the basic human rights he has established--ultimately, the rights to basic well- being, life, and liberty. Under a human rights view, then, restrictions on pornography are justified.

Robert Cavalier directly challenges the position established by Birsch. Cavalier points out that the links between pornography and harm are not as clear and direct as MacKinnon and others argue. Moreover, Cavalier raises the question posed by other feminists: instead of protecting women from harm, proposed censorship of pornography can work to impose only one definition of female sexuality on both women and men, and limit the freedom of speech crucial to the feminist project of exploring and developing women's own notions of sexuality and intimacy apart from the influence and control of men and male notions of sexuality. Cavalier points us to John Dewey's notion of "social intelligence," an open forum of free communication, as the domain in which we should seek resolution to these debates. Appropriately exploiting the medium of CMC--Cavalier directly invites us to continue our conversations on these issues on the World Wide Web.

Susan Dwyer observes that the debate between free speech proponents and those calling for censorship of some materials largely rely on efforts to predict the consequences of untrammeled speech. But such consequences are notoriously hard to predict. Dwyer points out other difficulties with the debate insofar as it turns on such consequentialist approaches--and thereby points us to more fundamental issues: by focusing on consequences, both sides fail to fully appreciate what is at stake for both sides of the debate--namely, the nature of freedom and its relation to equality. Dwyer's observations should help both sides rethink their positions, as well as help us recognize the connection between this debate and larger issues of equality in an emerging information culture.

Wes Cooper's essay takes the discussion of pornography and free speech to an obviously political level: when may a MOO "wizard" boot players from a MOO? In ethical terms: what rights do our cyberspace characters have? Cooper develops a rich understanding of natural rights theory, ranging from Thomas Hobbes and John Locke through the contemporary libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick. He then applies this understanding to one of the most notorious cases of violation in cyberspace-- namely, the "virtual rape" of one MOO character by another in 1993. Cooper points out that rights do not yet exist on the Net. But he argues that we will need to construct rights, especially in the face of a new kind of psychological harm--"cyberharm"-- which is experienced as online extensions of our identity become ever more normal elements of our identity.

In my essay, I seek to establish a third way out of the apparent dilemma between unrestricted free speech and egregious censorship. To do so, I begin by observing that "censorship" is not the only form of limit on speech: on the contrary, we accept and recognize a variety of limits, including the limits imposed on us by the basic requirements of language and rhetoric. I argue that self-chosen limits--chosen as means to the end of greater communication with others--do not constitute censorship. I then examine contrasting notions of freedom and democracy, arguing for a positive freedom and communitarian and pluralistic conceptions of democracy, as articulated in both "traditional" democratic theorists and the contemporary philosopher Juergen Habermas. Next, drawing on the work of linguist Susan Herring, I summarize recent findings regarding gender and communication styles on the Net. These findings, conjoined with Habermasian guidelines for democratic communication, argue for self-chosen limits on speech--chosen as means towards greater communication between men and women, and thereby as means towards realizing the promises of equality and democracy we like to make for CMC environments. --

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