Friday, December 16, 2005

more on the difference between speech and action

One of the ways I've been avoiding grading is by engaging in a heated debate at Bitch PhD about sex work. Someone named sam has been presenting some very good arguments against legalizing prostitution, based on the lack of real autonomy of most prostitutes. But she also wants to extend this argument to cover all sex work. This strikes me as wrong. My most recent reply relates to things that I said about hate speech and the Mirecki case, so I thought I would reprint it here.


Do your comments also apply to pornography that is only text? or comic book pornography? Anime? What about pornography where the sex is only simulated? or where people simply pose nude?

I will, at least for the sake of argument, classify pornography where real people perform real sex acts as prostitution. I could see, plausibly, regulating them like prostitution. A law against paying for someone to be sexually penetrated, either on film or in person, makes sense to me.

But if you start regulating imagined or simulated sex acts, you are...well for starters you are confusing representations for reality, which is always troubling. But more importantly, you are beginning to regulate people's very thoughts and the way they express them.

There is a parallel here to the debate over hate speech. In an article I regularly assign when I teach hate speech and free speech, a proponent of hate speech regulation says that to him, words of hate aren't words, they're bullets. To this, the author of the article replies: no words are words and bullets are bullets. It is important to know the difference.

And it is. Look, the whole reason humans have this capacity for imagination is that it allows us to consider courses of action without having to do them. We can make mistakes and learn from them without actually getting ourselves or any one else getting hurt. And when i say "the whole reason" I mean that in a very concrete, evolutionary sense. That is why the capacity for imagination was selected for in our species. Now I know evolution can be a lazy and cruel designer, but in this case it did something right and good. We have a tool that lets us experience freely without the consequences of physical experience. Let's fucking honor that.

I dunno if a little paean to the imagination is what people expect here, but it seems right to me. One of the most annoying errors in reasoning, and the one that I see at work most often in seriously askew thinking is mistaking a representation of reality for reality itself.

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