In short, the fact that speech impacts on us, the fact it can potentially shift attitudes and transform thinking - the fact, in a nutshell, that it’s the singular means through which ideas, both good and bad, are communicated between human beings - is the very reason it should never be interfered with by the state. For that would be to invite the state to determine not simply what we can say or depict but more fundamentally which ideas, which thoughts, it is acceptable for us to hold. Listening to Strossen make this ‘speech-impacts-on-us-and-that’s-why-it-must-remain-free’ argument against censorship, animatedly and convincingly, it strikes me that it is the polar opposite of what mainstream British feminists currently say.
Strossen is that rarest of things (well, rare over here in Britain, at least) – a civil libertarian who genuinely, and with no small amount of passion, believes in liberty; a feminist who is devoted to the ideal of freedom of speech.
She was president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from 1991 to 2008, the first woman (and youngest person, then aged 40) to head that historic, liberty-loving outfit. Never afraid of having hard arguments about freedom of speech, of defending even the lowest, foulest, most hateful forms of expression from the blue pen of officialdom or moralists, Strossen published her book Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women’s Rights in 1992. It’s a feminist classic, a firebrand defence not only of absolute freedom of speech, including for pornographers, but also of the central idea of the early feminist movement that had received a serious battering at the hands of the new ‘victim feminism’ in the 1980s – namely that women are more than robust enough to be able to deal with public life, with the free exchange of ideas, arguments and filth, without needing the state-as-chaperone to cover their eyes or block their ears.
The ACLU is really, really serious about freedom of speech. It is guided by the words spoken by the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr in 1929 – that we must defend freedom not only ‘for those who agree with us’, but also ‘freedom for the thought that we hate’. To that end, it has defended the right of American Nazis to march through a predominantly Jewish town (Skokie, Illinois). It has defended the right of the Ku Klux Klan to burn crosses (a form of political speech, it argued). Such is its commitment to defending free speech for everyone, from the trendy to the terrible, that in 2003, during Strossen’s presidency, it was brilliantly parodied in an Onion article headlined: ‘ACLU Defends Nazis’ Right To Burn Down ACLU Headquarters.’
UK prime minister David Cameron, cheered on by feminist campaigners, is currently seeking to make it a crime to look at ‘rape porn’ (consensually made films that simulate rape) on the internet. His justification is that such material ‘poisons’ people’s minds, especially young people’s, and also ‘normalises sexual violence’. Feminists go even further than chaperone Cam, arguing that everything from the much-feared rape porn to more ‘normal’ porn to the very soft nudity of the Sun’s Page 3 to raunchy pop videos can ‘normalise’ hatred of women, creating a ‘conducive context for violence against women’. Strossen is not impressed by these arguments, which isn’t surprising – she slayed them all expertly more than 20 years ago.
‘There is absolutely no consensus that you can show any causal connection between even the most sustained exposure to the most violent, misogynistic porn and actual violence against women’, she says. Yes, the expression of an idea can, and often does, influence how people think and even whether or not they hate some thing or some group – but, says Strossen, the notion that the expression of an idea alone could be responsible for another individual’s decision to commit an act of violence, over and above that individual’s ‘childhood upbringing, his psyche, and so many other factors’, is just not substantiated by the evidence.
But then comes her killer argument, which cuts down to size all those feminists trying desperately to patch together various bits of evidence to try to prove that violent porn does cause violence: even if it could be shown that a piece of porn did cause an act of violence, still it should not be censored, she says. ‘Even if [some expression] was the ultimate trigger-point, [a] causal factor in a particular act of violence, that could not justify censoring it’, she says. ‘Because on that standard, just about everything would be censored, starting with the Bible. Look at the Crusades and other acts - “The Bible made me do it”. Or consider the copycat crimes that have been based on Crime and Punishment or popular movies. Should we ban those works, too?’
It goes without saying (I hope) that Strossen doesn’t defend violent, misogynistic porn because she likes it. Indeed, she refers to ‘speech that I hate, which conveys hatred towards or prejudice against particular individuals… but while I might hate what you say, I still defend your right to say it’. Rather, she defends such material from censorship for two clear, highly principled reasons: because to her, freedom of speech means firstly the right of people to express themselves and their ideas as they see fit, and secondly the right of everyone else to hear those ideas and decide for themselves whether or not they are valuable.
‘These things are mutually reinforcing’, she says. ‘Freedom of speech protects the right of any would-be speaker to choose his or her message and the right of willing audience members to have access to that message. When we are talking about adults, there should be no restrictions on the basis of “dangerous ideas”.’ She challenges the idea that censoring misogynistic material can help to boost women’s standing in society. In fact, such censorship can actually be ‘counterproductive in terms of the goal of increasing equality’, because ‘we can only effectively counter sexist or racist attitudes if they are out in the open, right?’. Supressing hateful speech merely pushes hatefulness underground, she says, weakening our ability (and our right) to have a reckoning with such backward outlooks: ‘The goal of equality is undermined by repressing expression.’
Strossen is concerned about how supposedly progressive, feminist-sounding wars on porn and other sexist material both let violent men off the hook and treat women as wimps who need to be protected from certain words and imagery. It’s a form of victim-blaming, she says, where the porn actress, for having the temerity to star in a depraved movie, is effectively held responsible for unleashing male viewers’ latent violent tendencies.
‘It gives rise to the excuse among rapists that “Porn made me do it”’, she says. She points out that in America there have been actual convicted rapists who, when appealing their sentences, have quoted from the works of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon, the two main anti-porn feminists whom Strossen did battle with in the 1980s and 90s. ‘They said, “These feminists are saying it’s not my fault, it’s pornography that made me do it”’, says Strossen. So, ironically, she says, feminists have helped resurrect the old, foul idea that women are to blame for rape – only where in the past ‘the old cliché was that [the victim’s] skirt was too tight or too short’, today ‘it’s the porn actress, who stars in these films, who is said to drive men to do it’.
Alongside unwittingly helping rapists – by allowing them to dodge ultimate responsibility for their actions – feminist arguments against sexual material also degrade women, says Strossen, effectively treating them as children. ‘[They] compare men to beasts, and then women are described in very infantilising terms’, she says. Whether it’s feminist-influenced officials seeking to ban porn in order to protect women from a ‘climate’ of sexual violence, or anti-Page 3 campaigners seeking to preserve women’s self-esteem, or student union officials banning Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ on the basis that female students find it offensive, Strossen says ‘how patronising and paternalistic and demeaning and degrading these censorship advocates’ view of women is!’. Women are seen as ‘needing to be protected from certain images’, she says, and in her view feminism, if it was about anything, was about challenging the idea that women ‘were weak and needed to be looked after’.
‘It really comes down to an anti-sex attitude, the idea that sex is inherently degrading to women’, she says. ‘It isn’t’, she adds.
People in Britain who call themselves progressive could learn a great deal from Strossen. Not just feminists, but our so-called civil libertarians and anti-censorship campaigners, too. In the course of our chat Strossen tells me she doesn’t believe there should be ‘any libel statutes at all’ – why can’t a group like Index on Censorship take such a clear-cut abolitionist stance in relation to England’s archaic libel laws? In relation to press freedom – and the mauling it’s currently getting in Britain – she says there should be no laws regulating the press. The proposals here to have a statute-backed regulator of the press would be ‘deemed unconstitutional in a heartbeat’ in the US, she says, because of the First Amendment forbidding government from making any law that restricts press freedom. ‘Is the press perfect? Of course not! Do they lie? Of course! Do they defame? Of course! But I think of what Thomas Jefferson said – that if I could have government without a press or press without a government, I’d much rather have press without a government.’ Now why didn’t civil libertarians in Britain make that radical Jeffersonian argument against the Leveson Inquiry and against Cameron’s rapping of the tabloids’ naughty knuckles? Instead, amazingly, Shami Chakrabarti, the head of our supposed equivalent of the ACLU, Liberty, actually sat on the Leveson panel.
Strossen thinks the instinct to try to muzzle the hateful or the wrong is particularly strange today, because the ‘advent of the internet’ means ‘it’s not just the Rupert Murdochs of the world’ who can speak – so can ‘individual bloggers or YouTube posters, and things go viral, and it really is very close to that ideal of a free press imagined in [America’s] revolutionary era’. ‘Let a zillion voices bloom!’, she says. And if one of those voices offends or upsets you? Argue against it. Critique it. Ridicule it. Just don’t be a wimp and ask the state to kill it.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
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