January 22, 1995 – ACLU Biennial Conference, New York City
You know, I want to speak to you today about the creative imagination and censorship and why censorship is such a dire threat to creative people. But first I want to define some terms. I think that one of the reasons that we are embroiled in this tremendous argument about censorship and where we are vis-a-vis censorship, the so-called Communications Decency Act that is being floated in the Congress of the United States, is because we live in a time when we have a very diverse population.
And interesting enough, calls for censorship always increase when the population is extremely diverse and different standards prevail. This is almost a given: When you have an elitist or traditional society in which everybody agrees about who gets access to stuff, you don’t have calls for censorship. They only occur in a society in which there are many different groups struggling for a place and trying to figure out whose word goes.
So it’s very interesting. It’s almost a product of the diversity of our society that we have these new calls for censorship. And I think, although it seems very depressing some days to open the paper and see so many of the things that we’ve fought for going down the drain, it’s in a way a symbol of how much we have reached people, that there should be a worry about pornography on the internet, too free an expression of ideas and so on. So maybe there is a little bit of hope here.
Forty years ago Margaret Mead, who wrote beautifully about so many things that were not in her anthropological purview, supposedly said that censorship would always increase in a pluralistic democracy as each group warred with the other, trying to figure out who had the right to be on top and who had the right to say what other people could speak about.
I think we live in a time where the freedom to publish sexually oriented material is increasingly coming under attack. Large publishing conglomerates increasingly control all means of communication and the forces of cultural reaction are becoming extremely well organized. The brief cultural glasnost that we enjoyed in the sixties is already beginning to seem quaint. And when you think about this century and you think that it’s the century that started with The Wasteland, with Prufrock, with Ulysses, and with great fights to liberate literature, which came to fruition just about 1962 when the Supreme Court liberated Tropic of Cancer.
And then, in the sixties, a time that we all remember, probably well, there was a moment when literature all over the world was changed by the release of Tropic of Cancer. Suddenly authors didn’t have to shut the bedroom door when they wrote about sexuality. Suddenly, the tremendous force and passion of sexuality inspired the whole culture and created a kind of exuberance that went to other areas as well.
But that period of time was extremely narrow. I would say 20 years, 25 years. And then there was a tremendous desire for censorship again. And we come to the end of the century, and we seem to be back in 1895. It seems that we have made a complete circle.
And now the calls for censorship are coming not just from the right, but also from the left. They are coming distressingly from feminists, members of my own movement, who believe, some of them, like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, that there is no danger in their joining forces with the forces of reaction. For example, Andrea Dworkin and Kitty McKinnon joined the Meese Commission in 1986, which was very strange.
So there are feminists who are saying: We don’t care about the First Amendment; the First Amendment is sentimental; the First Amendment is foolish; the First Amendment is romantic and Rousseauish. We don’t need that, a higher good is protecting women and protecting women against rape and protecting women against being denigrated in print, in pictures, on the internet and so on.
Well, let’s look at that and what that has really accomplished in the last few years. Basically what it has accomplished, is it has given guys like Dole, like Gramm, a new vocabulary. And it’s given people like Pat Robertson a new vocabulary. Instead of having to say now they are for censorship, because they want to keep all women barefoot and pregnant in Christ, they can now say: We are protecting women against denigration and abuse. And the reason that we want the Communications Decency Act is in order to protect women.
In other words, they have taken the vocabulary that Dworkin and McKinnon have given them and they’ve used it to drape their old barefoot and pregnant ideas. So they’ve become very much harder to counter. All those same old farts, the alter kockers in the Congress who sat there when Anita Hill was being pilloried and tormented, and who didn’t understand anything, who didn’t get it, they are getting up and saying: We are protecting women against denigration and abuse.
So basically, what Dworkin and McKinnon have done for the evangelical right, is that they’ve given them a new dialect that they can use to cloak their very, very ancient ideas. And that’s even more terrifying, I think, than anything else that they’ve done and they seem not to understand that they’ve done this.
I’m not so interested in talking to you about why it’s important to have free sexual expression in society, because I think probably many of us here agree with that. But I want to talk about why people are so interested in censoring expression when there are so many other problems in our society that need addressing.
I think that people become hysterical about expression when they feel out of control: They cannot stop rape. Children are raised in a way that they are not parented, they are not educated, they are not given values, there are too many of them, they are too poor, they are too ill, they are too hungry. Instead of addressing these problems in society, problems that come from overpopulation, problems that come from the breakdown of the family, problems that come from the severe inequity of financial access between races, between rich and poor, instead of addressing these questions, which are the real questions, it’s easier to address expression and censorship. It’s easier to get up and rave about how our society is being corrupted by pornographic images on the internet. Much easier to talk about that than it is to talk about the fact that there is inequality economically and that because there is inequality economically, we have people who are not socialized to be part of our society, and we don’t know what to do about that problem, so let’s talk about censorship and expression.
It is absolutely a red herring. It is total bullshit. It is like arresting prostitutes instead of Johns.
Do you remember last year there was a mayor, I believe it was in Miami, who decided that she was going to have the names of the Johns who frequented prostitutes read on television and printed in the newspaper? And I thought, what a sensible idea. Rather than arresting these women whose financial lack of access has put them in this profession, which is the only way they can make money, instead, expose the guys who are using the prostitutes. Don’t criminalize these poor women.
It never lasted very long. It spread to a couple of other cities, but basically it didn’t last very long. And we have a perfectly analogous situation, for example, in the whole debate about pornography. If criminal acts are perpetrated when pornography is made, if a child is injured, if a woman is drugged and raped during the making of a pornographic film, why not arrest these guys for rape or for child molestation. We have plenty of laws on the books that protect against rape and child molestation.
But, no, that would mean that we were going to come down on organized crime, which basically profits from pornography, and that’s too hard. Perhaps it’s too hard because organized crime basically contributes to the PAC funds of the people in the Congress. Who knows why? Maybe it’s too hard to do that. Better to jump on expression and say that free expression is causing these problems.
So look at the underside of the problem. Look at this great debate that we’ve been having about censorship, free expression, the internet. It’s not really about that. It’s not really about whether it’s good or bad to have Tropic of Cancer out there so people can read it. It is not really about any of the things that it claims to be about.
What it is really about is that people do not know how to stop the Mafia from selling pornography in which children are abused, or they don’t want to do it because they profit in some way from it.
And so instead of going to the root of the problem, instead of exposing the Johns, basically it’s much much easier to beat up on a bunch of fuzzy minded liberals who want to make little distinctions about what is right and what is wrong, i.e. us.
And we play right into their tendency to smokescreen the real problems, because as members of the left we’re more interested in fighting each other than in fighting our real enemies. We love to fight each other. We love to make subtle distinctions and argue with each other.
And I think that we better really look at what’s going on in our culture and we better look at who profits from pornography. And we better look at the laws that we already have and which ones are enforced and which ones aren’t. And we better stop letting them make it an issue of censorship versus free speech, because really it’s not about that. It’s about economics at the bottom. It’s about the fact that women and children are the lowest priority in this society. It’s about the fact that women and children’s rights are cut first. It’s about the fact that our teenage daughters can’t walk on the streets without danger of being raped. It’s about a total social breakdown and it has absolutely nothing to do with expression, that is a smokescreen.
And suddenly, after having these endless conversations on TV with all kinds of people from Phyllis Schafley to Claire Short — the shadow minister of labor, in England, who is calling for censorship of pornography because it’s a wonderful way for her to get elected — it suddenly occurred to me that this is not the issue at all. And I would ask you, as my colleagues, to please address the basic issue.
Rather than arguing with the people who would censor, about whether or not this is censorship. I would look at the root causes. I would look at the root causes of why people participate in pornography. I would look at the inequalities, the economic inequalities that underlie the system and I would address those and not be jollied into this whole argument about censorship. Because the truth is that anybody’s political agenda, if it is not your own, is obscene.
And basically censorship, once it gets on the books, is always used in that way, to politically harass the dissenter. The reason I remain a First Amendment fundamentalist, is because I understand as a feminist, as a Jew, as a woman, as a woman who has been battered for expressing herself freely in all her books, I understand the First Amendment protects the minority, protects the dissenter, protects the woman, protects the witch.
Basically, I understand that unless you have a government of laws, rather than a government of people, you cannot protect dissent. And I understand, as a woman who probably would have been burned in the marketplace for witchcraft only about 200 years ago, that I need the First Amendment more than anybody does. And that even if I am repelled by child pornography or Bob Guccione’s productions, that I have to protect those things, because essentially it’s in my self-interest to do so.
So those are the terms of the debate, the way I would define it now, and I would really invite your questions.
Copyright 1995 by Erica Jong. All rights reserved.