[NOTE: the above headline is a statement of my opinion.]
I’ll admit, I’ve always disliked Alain de Botton. In a previous post, I’ve described him as a sanctimonious, pretentious, pseudointellectual asshole. That was based on a review of his latest book “How To Think More About Sex”. Now that he’s written a WSJ op ed amazingly titled Why Most Men Aren’t Man Enough to Handle Web Porn, I realise I was too tame. The article hits an impressive spectrum of fallacies so here’s just a selection.
The standard view is that people should be left to look at porn as much as they like, just as they should be left to buy guns, eat unhealthy foods, divorce and remarry eight times and make nothing of their talents: it’s a free country, after all.
This is the rhetoric of “I’m the maverick bravely dissenting from ‘standard’ orthodoxy.” More frightening though is how he lumps together buying guns and not making the most of your talents. There’s a difference between prohibiting something from the harm that it causes society vs trying to mitigate something harmful through public policy or education vs idly wondering what would happen if more people followed their dreams. The first two require evidence of direct harm and policy recommendations. His article doesn’t even try this. De Botton confuses nebulously believing something is bad (and idly wondering “what-if?”) with more tangible harm. Armchair speculation beats reality-based discussion if it’s literary enough, and has enough quips.
Consider pornography. Part of the problem is that it’s extremely tempting to some people, as alcohol and crack cocaine are. Commentators who don’t investigate the issue much, who might once have had a peek inside Playboy or caught a preview of a naughty film on the television channel of a hotel rest too easy that there’s no problem. But there is.
It’s hard to imagine such a cartoonish poisoning of the well, but crack cocaine it is. Though again, it’s the underlying attitude that’s more troubling. The claim is that (1) there are people so ignorant of online porn, they actually think it’s like the corner of a page from Playboy and (2) anyone who knows any more about porn MUST think there’s a problem. This is both ridiculously out of touch and begging the question. He thinks the mere fact of porn’s “ickiness” should be argument enough to get us to agree — if only people would see the horror!
A brain originally designed to cope with nothing more tempting than an occasional glimpse of a tribesperson across the savannah is lost with what’s now on offer on the net at the click of a button: when confronted with offers to participate continuously in scenarios outstripping any that could be dreamt up by the diseased mind of the Marquis de Sade.
There’s some extreme authoritarianism and puritanism (de Sade’s mind was “diseased”?) but the bigger problem is the ideas. Basically, it’s pop-evo-psych nonsense of the worst kind. How does he know our ancestral environment didn’t have more sexual stimulation than a glimpse across the savannah? He made it up. Let me spin another tale. Our Caveman AncestorsTM frequently went around naked. There was no concept of private property and hence of privacy. People were Purer and Simpler and had less hangups about using their “privates” in public, including sex. QED, our brains secretly yearn for free love. The fact that we’re not naked all the time is the cause of most of our ills. As far as just-so stories go, I think mine’s even more plausible and also happens to conform to our fantasies of prehistoric life more (unlike his solitary dude in the middle of a savannah). But that’s what happens when you don’t feel the need to tie your story to reality.
It is perhaps only people who haven’t felt the full power of sex over their logical selves who can remain uncensorious and liberally “modern” on the subject. Philosophies of sexual liberation appeal mostly to people who don’t have anything too destructive or weird that that they wish to do once they have been liberated.
Just when you thought he couldn’t poison the well any more, there ya go. As before, he just argues by assertion. It is fascinating how blind you’d have to be to ignore an entire industry of sex educators and sex-positive writers. Apparently Dan Savage is ‘liberally “modern”‘ because he’s unaware. Normally I wouldn’t speculate about the personal life of someone who wrote a bad article. Since he’s made a bald-faced assumption about the personal lives of perhaps hundreds of millions or more, all bets are off. It takes a special kind of projection to think that it’s the other side in this argument that’s naive. He certainly appears more naive than “proper” pro-repression religious conservatives, which is bizarre in itself.
Pornography, like alcohol and drugs, weakens our ability to endure the kinds of suffering that are necessary for us to direct our lives properly. In particular, it reduces our capacity to tolerate those two ambiguous goods, anxiety and boredom…The entire internet is in a sense pornographic, it is a deliverer of constant excitement which we have no innate capacity to resist, a system which leads us down paths many of which have nothing to do with our real needs.
It’s perfectly fine to lead your life based on a nebulous self-imposed existentialist secular angst. But stating such values as fact is just bizarre. And while I agree that people today aren’t bored often enough, why does he rail against porn and not (say) bookstores or the rich abundance of theatre, opera and ballet in his country of residence? Any form of recreation reduces our ability to tolerate boredom. Do I — gasp — detect a “judgement because naughty”?
Only religions still take sex very seriously, in the sense of appreciating the power of sex to turn us away from our sincerely-held priorities…The secular world reserves particular scorn for Islam’s promotion of the hijab and the burka. …Could a rational adult really change their life on account of the sighting of a pair of beguiling female knees or elbows? The secular world has no problems with bikinis and sexual provocation of all kinds because, among other reasons, it does not believe that sexuality and beauty have the potential to exert a momentous power over us.
The implied misogyny that often accompanies such arguments is now unmasked. He says “rational adult” to mean “rational heterosexual man” without a hint of self-awareness — for throughout this piece he was talking to and about men without bothering to check some stats on women’s consumption of porn. He even labels clothing he considers skimpy (female clothing, of course!) as “sexual provocation”. Apparently women are deliberately provoking men. He also completely misunderstands a basic aspect of secular democracies. If (say) we “mercifully” allow people to hold protests about offensive causes (eg. against some form of equality), it’s not because we as a society think that their message doesn’t exert a momentous power over people. It’s because those who are affected by the imagery have a range of options: counter-protest, criticise, sue, look away or do nothing.
Even if we no longer believe in a deity, a degree of repression is seemingly necessary to our species and to the adequate functioning of a half-way ordered and loving society. A portion of our libido has to be forced underground, repression was not just for the Catholics, the Muslims and the Victorians, it has to be with us for eternity. Because we have to go to work, commit ourselves to relationships, care for our children and explore our own minds, we cannot allow our sexual urges to express themselves without limit, online or otherwise; it would destroy us.
Thanks, Captain Obvious. I think people agree that if you see an attractive person on the street it’s inappropriate to start masturbating to them right there. Our apparently “permissive” society has both laws and social mores against some behaviour, some of it with good reason, some of it not. By pretending otherwise, he gets to lump anyone who’s not pearl-clutching over porn together with some hypothetical anarchists who want no mores whatsoever. I’m surprised he didn’t mention NAMBLA and sex with ducks.
De Botton has a profound misunderstanding of freedom in a secular democracy and an explicitly anti-science view. It’s not just that he fails to provide evidence. His arguments require some general feeling about what it “means” to have sexual thoughts that are reminiscent of the National Organisation for Marriage’s nebulous natural theology arguments about what it “means” to have marriage. He thinks that it’s sophisticated to wallow in the self-pity of neuroses that you’ve constructed for yourself. The genuine warts of the psych that we all have are reframed as utter helplessness in a manner more suited to a Church Father talking about human nature and The Fall. Porn then becomes an element in a morality play where the world is constantly becoming worse — but not in (god forbid!) any measurable way. The lack of concrete policy recommendations gives him room to backslide. He even does this in the article, saying he doesn’t want some dictator saying who should watch what — then what? Finally, even most conservatives have at least learned to dress their nonsense up as sex-positive. It’s refreshing to see something so direct. Thanks, Alain.
But the worst thing about this whole genre of Porn Is Bad articles is that they displace the conversations we should actually be having about porn. Oh well.