Fascism, Baise Moi And Freedom Of Expression
29 May 2002
Libertarianz spokesman, Scott Wilson, is adamant that the temporary restriction orders imposed on the films Baise-Moi, Visitor Q, and Bully, is the work of “book burning jackbooted busybodies”. It is unfortunate that one associated with a political movement which, to its credit, takes its philosophy seriously, should thus play the ball rather than the man, against those who raise genuine concerns over the likelihood of injury to the “public good” of such films, via the lawful process of classification appeal that is open to any NZ citizen under the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993 (“the Act”).
Is Scott Wilson aware this same process of appeal was used by gay-rights activist Mr Calum Bennachie and his unnamed Human Rights Group (Wellington) supporters to seek a review of the R18 classification of the two Christian videos dealing with gay rights and AIDS? Mr Bennachie’s appeal to the Film and Literature Board of Review was successful and both videos were banned. This “triumph” was cause for celebration for many in the gay community, including gay rights activist Craig Young. We understand that Lindsay Perrigo, to his credit, publicly opposed this banning of these opinion pieces which have no pornographic content. Mr Hastings, by contrast, deputy president of the Board at the time, supported the ban.
Living Word Distributors unsuccessfully appealed the ban to the High Court in 1999 but on appeal to the Court of Appeal in 2000 won their case in a unanimous decision. The Court remitted the matter back to the Board and nine months later the Board classified the videos as “unrestricted”. Mr Hastings has been highly critical of the Court of Appeal’s decision to quash the banning order and has argued that it has undermined his role as Censor.
The Court of Appeal determined that the banning order imposed against the Living Word videos involved serious errors in law on the part of the High Court. However, to call it a fascist action for the High Court to uphold the ban and for the Board to have imposed it in the first place, could be to indulge in smear tactics of the kind used by Wilson against SPCS. He would be justified quite rightly to criticise such tactics if he were to find them being indulged in by radical feminists.
Only last month Mr Bill Hastings and his team of censors banned a video called “Daydreams”. The April List of Decisions record that it was banned because it contains a “trailer” featuring material that is degrading and dehumanising to women. SPCS applauds this decision as in line with the proper application of the law. The Office of Film and Literature regularly bans a small percentage of the hundreds of publications it classifies every few months.
Mr Scott Wilson states:
“There is not the slightest indication that SPCS believes in anything but authoritarianism. In defending authoritarianism, SPCS can be said to have, at least, fascist tendencies. How else can one describe the interference with the individual liberties of people who have not initiated force against others? Using a fascist law to uphold your ideas, through the state initiating force, is fascist.”
Such reasoning is inadequate. In a hyperbole Wilson proclaims the Classification Act “fascist law” (presumably because it interferes with individual “rights” to freely access “objectionable” publications) and then accuses SPCS, on the basis that it has used this “fascist law” to try and correct a perceived error in law (the classification of three films), as being “fascist”.
It appears Wilson has failed to recognise that he has indulged in inadequate and somewhat circular reasoning. He accepts one inadequate definition of fascism, namely a “system of extreme right wing or authoritarian views” without acknowledging that it is a political system that relies on a disregard for the rule of law to brutally enforce its viewpoint. He then defines “authoritarian” inadequately as a “(person) favouring obedience to authority as opposed to individual liberty”. He then labels the Act as “fascist” because it is “authoritarian” and the Society “fascist” because it relies on a “fascist” law to get the state to enforce law.
His definition of “authoritarian” is one that suits a narrow agenda. It unfairly assumes as ‘fact’ the view that individual liberty cannot be expressed where laws limiting some aspects of personal freedom of expression are in force. However, the vast majority of people in the democratic free world accept that the two concepts are not always antithetical. They can exist alongside one another in such a way so as to reinforce and enhance the power of the other, or they may exist as a “necessary evil” to prevent a greater evil.
There is risk in a dogma which places ultimate value in the “rights” and “needs” of individuals to the detriment and even exclusion of the “rights” and “needs” of society based on a recognised need to preserve and uphold the “common good”. Such a view fails to recognise that the “rights” of individuals are often derived in part from one’s relationship within society. “Rights” claimed by an individual in any legal sense imply that others or another have/has obligations in relation to a given individual claiming those rights.
Such a dogma defines any law that imposes limitations on the “freedoms of expression” of individuals for the greater “good” as evidence of “fascist tendencies”. Furthermore, any individual or group like SPCS seeking to uphold such laws is similarly labelled “fascist”. This fails to take account of the fact that one individual’s “rights”, when exercised, often limit or negate the “rights” of others. Noise control bylaws, speeding restrictions on public roads, safety requirements for private swimming pools and other measures would be junked in a ‘paradise’ where a cult of individual freedom could form a mirror image of the distortions imposed by a cloying Nanny State.
This philosophy fails to take sufficient account of the human propensity to evil, which is an undeniable fact of history. The ‘evil’, imaginary or real, of limited restrictions via good law can be justified given the real evil (or injury to “public good”) that results from the absence of good law. In a free and democratic society such laws are constructed with public input and with serious consideration given to the public good.
One should not assert “rights” from an essentially self-serving motivation. Those who do may be essentially troubled by the removal of their rights to freedoms to do what they want. This may be a partially valid concern. In contrast, those who have little in common with the such a position are often or generally driven by altruistic concerns, derided as altruism may be by Left and Right alike. They are motivated by the quest to gain rights for the disadvantaged in order to help empower such people to make choices that enhance their way of life, improve their education and gain access to medical assistance. This is what motivated the Christian activist William Wilberforce to abolish slavery. This is what motivated the modern Christian missionary and charitable movements that have sought to help the downtrodden and disadvantaged.
The need for society to protect the very young from corrupting influences and the means to do so can be codified in law, as in our present censorship laws, without an overly authoritarian approach. Censorship descriptive notes informing film patrons of potentially offensive material in restricted films, can serve the “public good” without being draconian measures indicative of a totalitarian state.
The “rights” of individuals to view simulated “snuff videos” (involving explicit depictions of rapes followed by the murder of the victims), “gang-bang” videos (involving multiple partners), films depicting simulated gang rapes and sexual torture, and other degrading material, in public theatres and homes, should be heralded more loudly if people truly believe in this cause. However, we suggest that any attempt to force this approach to censorship on the country, (i.e. non-censorship) would be ill-advised as it would not be a vote-winner. Since such persons believe that “the enforcement of the existing law is fascist”, how do they propose to impose or administer their new ‘law’ of non-compliance should they ever get power? . It will be an open slather season. However, unless they are seeking to be labelled “fascists” by their own supporters, it would be very unwise for over zealous attempts to be made to try and impose non-compliance using any form of law enforcement.
Such a doctrine of “freedom of expression” is so extreme that they oppose all “interference with the individual liberties of people who have not initiated force against others”. Well, what about the policy of Scott Wilson’s party to ban the “initiation of force or fraud”, a policy directed against fraudsters and (presumably) those who wish to exercise the “right” to print counterfeit money? (The Free Radical, Issue 27, Editorial Policy). One might have expected that their “rights” should not be interfered with, as they have not used force to achieve their ends. Fraud and the creation of counterfeit are activities that could be viewed as giving a needful outlet for the creative juices. Surely only fascists would seek to curtail such activities by force! And what about the forcible seizure of property by state debt collecting agencies? Where individuals have entered into contracts and failed to fulfil their duties in terms of finance repayment (on loans), has the state got the right to infringe their freedoms by seizing property by force? It is thus evident that there are circumstances where the imposition of laws is endorsed, but where the element of force is not explicit.
Liberarianz pose the big question
Scott Wilson finishes his critique of SPCS by asking the question:
“If it is legal to perform all the activities actually taking place in those films, why should it be illegal to have a camera filming the performance of those activities and to show the recording to others?”
First, Wilson is misguided in assuming that it is legal to perform all the activities shown. Murder and rape were not legal last time one looked. Further, it is incorrect to assume all participants in so-called “simulated consensual sex acts” involving depictions of “sexual violence or sexual coercion”, sex with corpses, (necrophilia), “degrading and dehumanising sex acts” involving human excrement and urine and other similar material, actually involve consenting adults and consenting young persons. The level of exploitation, subtle coercion and criminal activity associated with the production of pornography is well documented. The late “Deep Throat” porn actress Linda Lovelace, for example, has documented a particularly sad story. Prostitution, drug taking, blackmail and pornography are known bedfellows. The anguish shown on the faces of some participants in some hard-core pornography has been used as a basis for such material being ruled objectionable. Investigations by the vice departments of the police and other agencies overseas have time and time again revealed that coercion and exploitation of vulnerable women and young persons is rife in the porn industry. Turning a blind eye to such exploitation is an injustice on the part of lawmakers to the very real needs of victims.
Second, Wilson’s position is based on a values system which is flawed. For him all acts between adults that are consented to by participants can be recorded and replayed to anyone who chooses to view it in a public theatre. However, there are plenty of consensual acts, both good and bad, which would not be suitable to be treated thus. There are plenty of private activities which, although lawful, and in many cases impeccably moral as well, should remain private. One might have expected that a libertarian perspective, alert against intrusions on the privacy of the individual by prying and invasive agencies, would appreciate this. Acts of bestiality could, by Wilson’s logic, be portrayed on television and in films as viable forms of artistic expression. They could be viewed by mature high school students as part of an enlightened evolutionary biology course seeking to ‘prove’ our evolutionary origins from dogs or primates. These examples are absurd, but scarcely less so than the actuality of exhibit items in major galleries over recent times. The fact is that there are numerous acts committed by adults that degrade humanity and by their very depiction serve to desensitise people to the abhorrence of such acts; and tend to legitimise them as supposedly part of the rich tapestry of life. Sexual violation can be explicitly portrayed in a way that reduces the violent element and presents it as an arousing art form.
Third, Wilson fails to recognise that degrading acts committed against members of one sex serve to inculcate negative stereotypes and injurious attitudes towards all members of the sex. For example, when women are presented as mere genital orifices open for constant abuse by men seeking sexual satisfaction, women in general are degraded. The Classification Office recognises this injury and has banned videos and films containing such material. This is recognition that the greater good of the sex is worthy of protection in the face of an evil generated by degrading images. Wilson and his colleagues have done sterling service in rightly exorcising the totalitarian tendencies of radical feminism and political correctness. They should now likewise exorcise their fear that the argument just presented is a concession to these philosophies, for respect for women is in fact highly politically incorrect, and springs from sources deeper and nobler than the shallow and faddish ideologies of our times.
Fourth, a cult of freedom insists on a particular moral (or value) system while seeking to treat all traditional moral considerations as null and void. Its “value” system is the cult of “individual rights” which elevates this notion of ultimate value above all others. Theists, consisting of the vast majority of humanity, on the other hand, elevate the transcendent values associated with Deity as primary. They are either right or wrong in this, and since the overwhelming majority of mankind which has held such a position for millennia includes those recognised by common assent to be the wisest and noblest of men, an error in this would mean that man would be fundamentally and fatally unintelligent. Were this the case, it is difficult to see how he could suddenly have transcended this fatal flaw. Human values are therefore viewed by theists as derived from and secondary to divine ones. The concept of “public good”, for the theist, draws on the transcendent values witnessed to and reflected in man as a derived being. Moral relativism is as fickle as the shifting sand, but a cult of oneself is too narrow to cogently oppose it and rapidly breaks down in selfishness and narcissism.
Finally, it is not the task of SPCS to justify present laws on censorship. It seeks to work within the present law and lobby for change if it is seen to be deficient. It does not seek to impose its viewpoint using force but rather to win favour for its ideas based on the presentation of rational argument, thorough research and common-sense. Its appeal is to the hearts and minds of all New Zealanders who sincerely seek for a decent society where the rights and freedoms of the individual are truly upheld and the greater “good” of society is defended and protected via good law.
Simone Weil (1907-1943), the famous French religious thinker and philosopher, is one of many highly respected scholars worldwide who have presented a coherent case for a very limited form of censorship with respect to the exchange of ideas and opinions, but the need for rigorous censorship when it comes to the public presentation of ‘in-your-face’ offensive publications that are likely to be injurious to the public good.
She held that “unlimited freedom of expression for every sort of opinion, without the least restriction or reserve, is an absolute need on the part of the intelligence. It follows from this that it is a need of the soul, for when intelligence is ill-at-ease the whole soul is sick.”…
…On the other hand, publications destined to influence what is called opinion, that is to say the conduct of life, constitute acts and ought to be subjected to the same restrictions as all acts. In other words, they should not cause unlawful harm of any kind to any human being and above all, should never contain any denial, explicit or implicit, of the eternal obligations towards the human being, once these obligations have been solemnly recognized by law…
…Likewise repression could be exercised against the press, radio broadcasts, or anything of a similar kind, not only for offences against moral principles publicly recognized, but also for baseness of tone and thought, bad taste, vulgarity, or a subtly corrupting moral atmosphere. This sort of expression could take place without in any way infringing on freedom of expression…”
Translating such views into the New Zealand context would mean no or minimal censorship for the Living Word opinion piece videos while cracking down hard on actual pornography.
This is the very same viewpoint shared by the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards Inc. As Society president Rev. Gordon Dempsey has stated:
“Our view on censorship is not a bigoted view held by a narrow-minded fundamentalist group, but rather one shared by the majority of New Zealanders. The Society has a right in a free and democratic society such as ours, to pitch its viewpoint into the ‘marketplace of ideas’ and seek to influence the landscape carved out via the interaction of divergent ideas.”
Contrary to the bald assertions of Mr Wilson, SPCS does have a fundamental regard for the principle of freedom of speech. Few New Zealanders are aware of the gravity of the crushing of this principle in the total banning of the Christian opinion-piece videos in the Living Word case. Fewer still understand the grave dangers posed by the unrepentant banners in their attempts to introduce “hate speech” codes to systematically stifle dissent. The brute force Wilson accuses the Society of using to secure an interim restriction order on the three films Baise Moi, Visitor Q and Bully is mild by comparison. A brief breathing space has been won. The decision may well go the other way yet, with massive free publicity for a trend-setting piece of pornography. We may be wrong; our initiatives may backfire. It does happen.
SPCS used the due process of the law and the film festival organiser, Mr Anthony Timpson, and film distributors were entitled to present their case on the issue. In the High Court, Mr John Cox, the lawyer representing Mr Timpson, failed to address any point of law raised by the SPCS lawyer Mr Peter McKenzie QC dealing with the substantive case against the Board’s decision. Instead he focused almost exclusively on trying to secure his client’s claimed “rights” for an undertaking on the part of the Society to cover any loses incurred following the imposition of a restriction order.
Long live the rights of individuals to freedom of expression tempered by respect for others and the need for social responsibility.