The discussion we present this month grew out of Paul Goodman’s article, “Pornography, Art & Censorship,” which appeared in the March COMMENTARY. Richard Lichtman, who here takes issue with Mr. Goodman, is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Kansas City in Missouri. A reply by Goodman follows.
Mr. Lichtman writes:
Paul Goodman has made what seems to me a dangerous defense of freedom in the area of pornography. It is not that he goes too far; he does not go far enough, and he gives, in part, the wrong reasons for traveling at all. Mill noted in the introduction to On Liberty that previous social reform had been concerned to alter the standards by which individual experience had been controlled, but that it had failed to ask the basic question—the right of society to any control over the individual. Mr. Goodman is engaged in the first kind of social reform, though on a much higher level than anything we are commonly used to. He has the eye of the social engineer, and his first concern is to replace the current corruption of sexual morality with a climate that is more humane. I do not wish to question his evaluation; but merely to note that his suggestions suffer from the same deficiency that has plagued social reformers from Plato to Lenin—an insufficient respect for the right of men to alter through their own decisions the social structures that control their lives.
Mr. Goodman seems to argue for an increase of freedom in the area of sexual communication, but two fundamental questions persist: (1) What does Mr. Goodman mean by freedom? and (2) What is his justification” for the freedom he wishes to defend? The first question is important because social philosophers as non-democratic as the Catholic right and the Communist left have argued that their own highly regimented systems are in perfect harmony with freedom. This has been accomplished by redefining “freedom” to fit the structure of controls. We shall return to this matter in a moment, but let us consider briefly the crucial problem of justification. The defense of freedom is far from irrelevant, for whether it is supported merely as a means to further values or as itself a constituent of that form of human existence which is intrinsically good is a question of the first importance. Mill began his defense of freedom as a means to the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but was soon led to complain against the growing conformity of his times that “individual spontaneity is hardly recognized by the common modes of thinking as having any intrinsic worth, or deserving any regard on its own account. The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they now are . . . cannot comprehend why these ways should not be good enough for everybody.” Mill’s position undergoes a radical change and comes now to accept freedom, not as a means, but as “deserving regard on its own account”; for he is forced to admit that the general satisfaction is compatible with the absence of freedom, and that in this dilemma his prior commitment is to freedom. Mr. Goodman defends freedom as a means to an improved sexual ethic, but when he finds himself with a conflict of values, he sacrifices freedom to sexual reform.
Mr. Goodman’s main contention is that when the court fixes the label “obscene” on material that stimulates sexual desire, it acts to corrupt that desire and to create the need for the debased pornography it suppresses. This contention seems to me to be valid and significant. But what does Mr. Goodman propose as an alternative? If his concern had been with freedom, he might have maintained that the First Amendment protects freedom of sexual expression as it protects freedom in political or religious communication, and that the proper limits in this area are set by precisely the same standards applicable to other areas of human conviction—whether the material in question constitutes a clear and present danger against crucial values that society has the right to protect by law. Instead, he argues for a redefinition of pornography with the clear implication that the “undesirable” variety be eliminated. “I have been arguing in this essay that not only is there innocent and useful pornography that ought not to be censored, but that the method of censorship helps create the very kind of harmful pornography that we should like to see checked.” Mr. Goodman is not so much opposed to censorship as he is opposed to censorship of the wrong kind. He claims only the right that every opponent of free self-determination has claimed, the right to eliminate what is “harmful” and to defend what is “useful.”
How is the good pornography distinguished from the bad? Not simply by the fact that it stimulates sexual desire, for Mr. Goodman defines the duty of the court “to call not obscene whatever tends to joy, love, and liveliness, including the stirring of lustful impulses and thoughts.” But what precisely does the phrase “joy, love, and liveliness” mean? Mr. Goodman goes on to consider two aspects of the kind of pornography he would like to see eliminated—“its mere sexuality or ‘lust,’ devoid of any further human contact, drama, or meaning; and its very frequent sado-masochism.”
As a paradigm case for “mere sexuality” he considers a man who engages in sexual intercourse in a state of complete emotional detachment, and suggests that the behavior is to be explained by the secret hatred borne by this man for himself in the presence of an act which he really finds degrading. But why should the act of pure sexual intercourse be degrading? Because such isolated sexuality is a “disowning of the sexuality of those we love” and as such constitutes a neurotic artifact which society has the right to censor. Let us overlook the problem of whether Mr. Goodman falls into his own trap and degrades the sexual impulse by branding its unalloyed manifestation as evil. Let us ask rather what is “lust in isolation”? Does such lust mean sexuality devoid of literally all other aspects of human experience—devoid of feelings of potency, human contact, and mutual acceptance? If this is what the phrase intends, it is not clear that any such thing could be experienced or understood by men. Something more than mere sexuality—no matter how rudimentary this something might be—is required among human beings in view of the fact that none of them is merely sexual. Mr. Goodman is forced to admit this much, for his explanation of the prior act of self-hate is that the individual regards his own mere sexuality as degrading. But this would be impossible if he were not engaged in more than the mere act of sexuality itself. But if mere sexuality is impossible, how much more is required to justify sexual experience? Is love required? I can imagine nothing more disastrous than arming the censor with this weapon. What is love? What degree of positive feeling between human beings justifies intercourse? Shall we require a test of love before we permit individuals the right of intercourse in this culture? If not, why shall we censor material that leads to such a state? Does “joy” justify intercourse? Literature is filled with examples of people joyously engaged in sexuality devoid of love. Should such literature be eliminated? Do Lady Chatterley and Mellors love each other? A strong case could be made that the relation between them is little but sexual involvement. Is their experience permeated by joy and life? The description of Constance’s passion and orgasm—the wax melting before the flame—suggests that what she seeks is not human contact with Mellors or the source of life, but her own self-extinction. Shall we eliminate the book on these grounds? The Supreme Court has noted that the first requirement of due process by law is that a prohibition cannot be stated in language so ambiguous “that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning.”
Does the reference to sado-masochism—the identification of sexuality with punishment—fare any better? Mr. Goodman refers to the plays of Tennessee Williams as instances in this regard. Does he wish to censor such plays? What shall we do with a good part of the world’s religious literature—St. Paul’s views on sexual love, for example—that so equates sexuality with punishment and pain? Mr. Goodman never raises the crucial question of freedom—the right of men to interpretations of sexual experience opposed to his own. However much I believe Mr. Goodman’s views of sex correct and Paul’s incorrect, I believe more firmly that unless men are able to choose between these alternatives, powerfully expressed, they have no significant freedom in this area of their existence, and have to that extent surrendered the essential constituent of their full humanity.
Contending that he has differentiated the moral quality of various kinds of pornography, and can make a rating of “useful, indifferent, damaging,” Mr. Goodman faces the question of how to improve the first and eliminate the second. In this regard he makes three suggestions so injurious to the democratic process that it is difficult to believe he is their author.
First, he dissents from the view of Judge Murtagh that such matters be left to a person’s conscience by noting that it is “because moral problems are so publicly important that they must be ongoingly decided by the whole public.” What shall we say of the convictions of political radicals, atheists, economic reactionaries, or philosophical skeptics? Since these are matters that touch the heart of the existing order shall they too be decided by the public as a whole? Shall not every matter of conviction and expression be determined by the public as a whole—which shall thereby be constituted as a national Star Chamber to eliminate whatever individual belief does not meet its conception of the public good? The First Amendment is infinitely wiser than Mr. Goodman on this point, for it recognizes that no social policy can ultimately further the public good if it grants to the public the authority to control the convictions of human beings.
Second, Mr. Goodman suggests that the courts recognize the stirring of sexual desire and “somehow strengthen[ed] the requirement of a provable social or human utility.” The effect of such a suggestion is to reverse all the laborious work of the courts in regard to the notion of clear and present danger—a doctrine which holds that the burden of proof is on the opponent of freedom. Mr. Goodman’s doctrine holds not that freedom is privileged, as the defendant in a capital crime is privileged until proved guilty, but that each instance of expression touching upon public concern is to be justified by its social utility. It is difficult to conceive of a more reactionary view in regard to free conviction. Who is to decide if a view is useful? By what criterion? Will deciding on the usefulness of a view require deciding on its truth? How is this to be decided? Why must a view be proved useful to be held at all? Aren’t individuals freely entitled to their own confusions so long as they do not prevent others from holding convictions of their own? One feels again the hand of the social engineer—concerned to determine the public morality, but insufficiently appreciative of the prior requirement of self-determination.
The last suggestion is the most difficult to comprehend. For after holding that in principle anything regarding sexual experience might be exhibited, Mr. Goodman notes that “the aim is to establish a principled general policy. The states and localities could continue to enforce whatever censorship they please, so long as they do not risk a national suit and are content to do without some of the national culture.” This suggestion is based on Mr. Goodman’s prior analysis of “structured permissiveness” in regard to child rearing, a doctrine which approves of a firm structure of morals and the freedom to experiment. The difficulty with the analogy between child rearing and social rearing is that societies are not children to be reared by some pedagogical expert, but communities of adults, and that societies are not individual persons at all, but collections of persons. It is notable that Mr. Goodman does here what Plato does—he splits the functions of the individual into separate functions. The enlightened policy is assigned to the national culture, and the right to censor and to be much “more restrictive and self-defensive” is granted to local communities. But since men live in local communities, receive mail from local post offices, see movies at local theaters, and purchase books at local stores, the effect of Mr. Goodman’s suggestion is to place the actual fabric of their lives under local control. Nor will the phrase about “national suits” protect us here, for if communities are really to be given local control, how could they possibly conflict with national culture at all? One feels that a hectic attempt is being made to save freedom after assuring its destruction.
The elimination of free sexual expression is doubly destructive. It corrupts the sexual impulse by branding it obscene, and it corrupts men by destroying their sexual responsibility. Mr. Goodman sees the first evil, but in not seeing the second he commits himself to a policy more injurious than the condition he wishes to destroy.
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Mr. Goodman replies:
Mr. Lichtman raises a vital issue that I am glad to discuss. Unfortunately, I must first waste time in clearing up an extraordinary failure of communication between us. I am startled to find that I, a community anarchist who believes that coercive sovereign power is always a poor expedient, not only in cases of censorship but of police actions against any crimes, am read by Mr. Lichtman as asking for the coercive suppression of low-grade pornography, and of wanting to enforce sexual reform! Perhaps I take my libertarian position so much for granted that I fail to express it; perhaps Mr. Lichtman does not read closely. It is no matter. Let me make my position clear.
He says, “When Goodman finds himself with a conflict of values, he sacrifices freedom to sexual reform.” First, in this area I find no such conflict, and I would even assume that there could not be one, since I am convinced that organism-self-regulation works out best. But second, if there were such a conflict, I should, with suffering, affirm both horns of the dilemma and try to bull it through, since both freedom and organic health are, to me, absolute goods. Mr. Lichtman further attributes to me the notion that “society has the right to censor” neurotic artifacts like loveless lust; or again, when I speak of the “harmful pornography” that we should like to see checked, he concludes that “Mr. Goodman is not so much opposed to censorship as he is opposed to censorship of the wrong kind.” By this misreading I am baffled. Surely I make clear at sufficient length, including pages of future-thinking, that we must drop all censorship of pornography, to the inevitable extreme of Hollywood and Madison Avenue’s cashing in on full sexual scenes; my hope being that this will soon diminish the pornographic atmosphere. Likewise, when I proceed to make a rough rating of useful, indifferent, and damaging pornography and say that “the social question is how to improve the first and eliminate the last,” I immediately go on to say, “Police courts and administrative officers, however, and even jury courts and high courts, are hardly the right forum for important and subtle moral debates.” Is this not clear? The paragraph ends with my ritual slam at J. Edgar Hoover, saying, “One of the few things that is demonstrable is that ignorant suppression is wrong”; and the burden of my entire argument has been that in this field all suppression is ignorant, has unthought-of effects. I say several times, “We must un-do repression.”
I need not give other examples. We have here an extraordinary misreading not of occasional sentences but of whole trains of argument. The question then is: How can a liberal reader, not malicious, and importantly in agreement with me, so misread my argument? This brings me to the vital issue that is interesting to discuss. What, these days, does it mean to be “liberal”?
Mr. Lichtman asks what I mean by freedom and what is my justification for the freedom I mean to defend. In my opinion, we must understand freedom in a very positive sense: it is the condition of initiating activity. Apart from this pregnant meaning, mere freedom from interference is both trivial and in fact cannot be substantially protected. For even while persons feel themselves inviolate in their bodies, their rights, their families, etc., they are effectually hemmed in, imposed on, and their resources for action pre-empted. Soon, formally free, they are powerless and enslaved. (In my opinion we are hastening rapidly into an American fascism-of-the-majority of just this kind; a couple of bad reverses and the brutality of it will appear.) The justification for freedom is that initiation is essential for any high-grade human behavior. Only free action has grace and force. Certainly there is a difference between a juridical person with “freedom under law” and a child with freedom to grow in a structure of parental morals and culture; but I do not think that Mr. Lichtman understands that there is a difference between a juridical person and a man, growing in his community and in history. Our rights as juridical persons, that make society our own as citizens and give us dignity, must be continually fought for by free growing and initiation; otherwise they are empty. This is why some of us are anarchists; we do not put our faith in princes and constitutions. As anarchists, we affirm the Bill of Rights because it is one of our historical achievements, basic to proceeding further. By proceeding to further initiation—including free sexual expression—we shall also defend the Bill of Rights. Unless we proceed further, we shall degenerate to mere “society,” a collection of persons without the community of human beings.
Let us consider the history. I submit that in the heroic age of the liberal philosophy, gradually extending over religion, science, economics, and politics, from the 16th through the 18th centuries, liberals were saying pretty much what I have been saying. Freedom meant freedom to enterprise, to bear witness, to initiate and govern. It was not for self-protection that liberal rights were wrested from church and crown, but to achieve something. By the time we come to Mill in the middle of the 19th century, “liberal” thought has begun to sour a good deal. Consider the clause, “The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they now are. . . .” It is just this that liberals of the great age would resolutely have refused; the majority would have to learn to be dissatisfied and move. Is it mysterious what has occurred? The bourgeois carriers of freedom, who had once found freedom utilitarian, now no longer were finding it utilitarian; they were not hankering for fundamental changes. Mill clings to the great tradition, but with a genteel pessimism.
By the time we come to Mr. Lichtman, however, the “liberal” tradition has undergone a catastrophe. For now we are in the age of organized affluence, of automatic technology, feudal monopoly, and symbolic democracy; and the universally prevalent ideology is that Nothing Can Be Done. Therefore, naturally, “freedom” no longer has anything to do with ongoing initiation; it has become the protection of cowering individuals. Such freedom leads to fascism.
I fear that this is why Mr. Lichtman misreads me. When I make the simple remark that certain sexual behavior is neurotic or base, that certain literature stinks, and that—by the relevant processes of medicine, education, and wise policy and leadership—we obviously ought to cure it or eliminate it, he at once construes this to mean that people are to be compelled! The thought that the quality of life is improvable, which was the dogma of liberalism, is now felt by the cowering individual as a threat of tyranny! And perhaps strangest of all, when I propose that the best way of diminishing undesirable pornography is to do nothing about it, this is called social engineering! That is why, since the 19th century, some of us liberals have chosen to call ourselves anarchists.
Let me come, then, to my three dreadful suggestions “so injurious to the democratic process” that it is difficult to believe I am their author.
First, I point out that sexual morals are not private. Would Mr. Lichtman seriously deny this, when family, courting, friendship, education, and culture are essentially involved? Neither are they matters for police and laws. But they are, I say, the concern of “the manifold mind of all the institutions of society, skirmishing and experimenting, to figure them out and invent right solutions.” In this context, I include the high court as a body of the learned, the nearest we come to a committee of the Lords. This interaction of institutions, often conflictful, but aiming at agreement and not power, is what I mean by community; and anyone who knows my work will recognize this application as typical. Certainly it is not democratic, if by democratic is meant counting noses. The essence of modern liberalism is that it polarizes the powerful state and the “protected” individual. The essence of our community philosophy is that it tries in every way to strengthen every kind of humanly manageable institution and association in between, so that problems can be conflict-fully worked out. Another correspondent, Mr. Friedell [“Letters to the Editor,” July], objected to me here that “institutions are merely tools of society.” Not at all. Institutions comprise society; it is they that carry the indefinitely complex meanings that no individual can know by himself; but every man acts in numerous institutions. I fail to see how this is giving “the public the authority to control convictions,” except insofar as any institution can, for its own purposes, exclude and boycott you. Get together your own group.
Mr. Lichtman’s second complaint is better made, for my own language is erroneous and allows the implication that I ask the court to decide in general on provable social utility. I agree that this would be disastrous. But my vague sentence was explicitly aimed at the TV networks—“as would be a reasonable requirement for TV stations, for instance, since they use the public channels.” My thought is that they ought to prove a public service for the public franchise. This is a matter of licensing, not censorship. Whenever anything pre-empts resources or forces itself on attention, like a billboard, it ought to prove utility. Any other policy denies freedom to everybody else.
My third tyrannical proposal is for local option to censor or not as it pleases, so long as there is a national policy of free culture and encouragement of the sexual revolution. My critic finds my aim hard to understand. Let me make several points. (1) For me, almost always the principle of decentralized power is overriding and should be fostered. My reasoning is simply de Tocqueville’s: “A democracy without provincial institutions has no security against the excesses of despotism. How can a populace unaccustomed to freedom in small concerns learn to use it temperately in great affairs?” (2) At present, however, I have no doubt that a vast majority of the population is prejudiced, whether we think of the readers of the New York Daily News or of the usually appalling small-town press. And indeed, my guess is that the influence of Kennedy and family will be to strengthen this FBI mentality. But there is hope that the high courts might make wiser choices that provide the possibility of humane culture; this is why I ask for a “principled general policy.” I have no objection to analogizing this to my “structured permissiveness for children,” since that is indeed the situation. Frankly, as an intellectual I think the best safeguard is still to be able to go elsewhere, and local option increases the chances of this. (3) Finally, I am after very far-reaching changes; they are revolutionary. Yet such can occur, prudently and lastingly, only by changes in people in their localities. So the brake and the buffer of local option seem to me excellent, however trying, so long as there is a general drift in the right direction.