For those of you that may not have heard about this case, it involves a federal obscenity prosecution over “stories that involved the kidnapping, torture, sexual molestation and murder of children nine years and younger.” You can read more about the case here.
At the heart of this issue is “can mere words depicting fictitious events be somehow harmful enough to justify not only their prohibition, but the prosecution and possible incarceration of the author, in a free society where unpopular speech is constitutionally protected?”
Having said that, it’s important to remember that obscenity, including depictions of children being sexually abused designed to appeal to the prurient interest, are not in any way legally considered “protected speech” nor are First Amendment rights something that non-Americans enjoy. But back to the issue:
Can words be harmful? Anyone that has ever had an argument with a loved one knows just how harmful words can be, so theoretical rants about “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me” are just that – rants. Words can indeed be quite harmful, especially when slung as a weapon by a master of language.
Can words be influential? In this context, the question is “is it reasonable to believe that someone that is exposed to another’s expression will somehow act on the content of that expression?” God, I hope so, it’s how I pay my bills…
This then leads to the danger of the written word: that some subjects and / or depictions, if acted upon, could produce results so horrific that society can not afford to tolerate these subjects and / or depictions. But can words alone produce these results?
Words are expressions of thought and the word “expression” is used to extend the intent of the First Amendment to cover other forms of creative expression, including images, such as paintings, photos and videos.
And here lies the rub: if you can stretch this meaning to cover expressions not based upon words – and do so in order to classify those expressions to be the same type of “material” in a legal sense, as words, in order to gain First Amendment protections – then you have to also accept the reverse of this process: that “words” are the same type of “material” (or “expression”) as are paintings, photos and videos. Thus, if the subjects and / or depictions in a painting, photo or video could be deemed obscene, then those same subjects and / or depictions in a textual medium can also be deemed obscene.
So I guess we’ve already answered the question of “Can the written word be obscene?” – And that answer is a resounding “YES!”
This of course leads us to a discussion of “what is and what isn’t obscene?” which is too much to get into right now; but something to consider is “who decides?” to which I’ll say “society.” While the practical mechanics of the process may leave you thinking that this is untrue and that it’s “special interest groups, NOT ‘society’” that decides these issues, I’ll keep my statement as is.
Since society decides these issues – decisions that change over time and circumstance – and since society has an obligation to protect itself (often from itself), this leads back to the censorship of material that if acted upon could have horrific results.
There, I’ve used the “c” word.
At this point, I’m sure that some reader’s thought processes have gone off on a tangent, with naively idealistic notions that censorship is never justified. Indeed, when I read about “censorship” on the boards these days, it often stems from European Bush-haters trying to mock America as no longer being “the land of the free.” Of course, this vocal audience tends to portray that feeling in context of porn. But what about other material?
If we remove the issue of our livelihoods (porn) from the discussion and move on to other subject matter that could be perceived as “harmful” – does your attitude change?
In a thread on this subject being discussed on another board, a poster trying to justify his position that expression was harmless asked “How many people become Nazis after watching a World War II documentary?” I picked up on this and replied to it, because it goes straight to the core of this discussion.
One of the most brilliant pieces of filmmaking ever released is “Triumph of the Will,” a documentary by Leni Riefenstahl showcasing the 1934 Nazi Party Congress held in Nuremberg, Germany. I say “brilliant” based not only upon the cutting edge technology employed to produce it, with masterful use of the interplay of shadow and light in this work in black and white, but because of its landmark position as a piece of propaganda – a tool that may be commonplace now, but was historic in its day and infinitely better executed than an American propaganda piece from the same period, “Reefer Madness.”
“Reefer Madness” attempted to be a very serious look at a very serious social problem – the rapidly growing use of marijuana in America during the 1930’s – but its message was so poorly conveyed as to be hilariously “campy” by today’s standards, and is now watched by countless ‘stoners’ whenever it makes a late-night television appearance.
“Triumph of the Will,” on the other hand, attempted to showcase all that was virtuous in the modern world. It depicted the utmost in wholesomeness and encouraged viewers to work together for the common good and a brighter future. You will rarely ever see it on television, however, late-night or otherwise… The film portrays National Socialism, and its leader, Adolf Hitler, in such a glorious light that thousands – perhaps even millions of viewers – became card-carrying Nazis after watching this documentary; a process that continues even today, whenever this film is shown.
While their grandfathers may have seen – and been powerfully swayed by – this movie, the same Europeans that criticize the American “thought police” for being “so backward as to call words a crime” will likely never get to see this film, as it’s my understanding that showing or possessing a copy of it is illegal throughout Europe, due to the power and seductiveness of the message expressed therein. The same holds true for Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. You can see and own “Triumph of the Will” and Mein Kampf in America, however.
Society, then, depending on its perspective, can consider expression that exalts idealism and working for the greater good as being “harmful” or even “obscene” and as such, seek to protect itself from the "dangerous results" that being exposed to this expression can produce.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not criticizing Europeans here – heck, I’m only one generation removed from ‘the boat’ myself – but I am trying to illustrate that society’s perspective depends on where the representatives of that society are located and where they are in context of their history; but this leads us into community standards and me realizing that this is all too ‘heavy’ for a sunny Saturday morning.
The upshot of all of this is that words can be considered obscene – the bigger question is “what is obscenity, and if its definition changes depending on time and place, should it even be an issue?” Your freedom of expression hinges on the answer.