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Clarifying the conversation

| Monday, November 12, 2018

A flurry of arguments and letters to the editor have been thrown around since Notre Dame students published a proposal to limit Wi-Fi access to pornography on campus. For all their diversity, all seem to agree on one thing — dialogue. Since this is the one thing both sides can agree on, and since I, a signer of the proposal, have an interest in maintaining this conversation, I have tried to find and highlight the best arguments against the filter, to problematize the parts of the conversation I find most important for a potential filter.

I will not mention the weaker arguments. It has been suggested that the porn filter will restrict academic work. But this argument seems to turn the dialogue away from a porn filter and toward the sorts of academic work surreptitiously engaged on this campus. Equally distracting is an opinion of such unanimity that it is approaching the status of fact — the filter will not succeed in stopping porn. This is a misrepresentation of the proposal, which is not trying to effect a porn-Prohibition. It is a proposal to the administration of Notre Dame to be a moral leader in sexual health. The interesting question, then: Is a porn filter, all its insufficiencies notwithstanding, conducive to sexual health?

One of the strongest cautions to supporting the filter is the particular moral flavor that a “ban” can acquire on a Catholic campus. There is such a thing as a Catholic discontent who sees his moral commitments on the one hand, and his immoral culture on the other, and gets frustrated that the two have so little resemblance. He is tempted to question his faith or to feel alienated from his own culture. This leads some to a ressentiment, whereby he keeps his faith and avoids alienation by labeling some unholy cultural expression “evil,” categorically. If the filter is an expression of this fear-driven Catholicism, we should all oppose it.

I don’t think the proposal is carrying this sort of acerbic, reactionary moral spite. Its claims are humble. Its proposal is modest. On the other hand, it may appear superlatively immodest to put moral concerns — especially those that we cannot agree upon — into the regulating hands of a University administration. When internet rights are so vital an organ of political freedom around the world, and with a history filled to the brim with abuse of power, how can we put a matter of conscience into any governing body besides ourselves?

I think that a slippery slope argument here is beside the point. We are not helpless citizens of a militarized government. We choose to come to Notre Dame every semester. We are so committed to the good we think we will get from this school that we are willing to pay for it, or work for it, just so we can exist within its boundaries. The very real slippery slope that is not often recognized is the one that starts in a culture that streamlines the simulation of sex; a culture that claims that whatever you feel, given this x-rated content, is “who you are.” Shouldn’t we be more concerned with these claims and practices? There is a slippery slope, and I think the filter aims to walk back up it.

Finally, some have questioned the causal link between pornography consumption and sexual abuse. I have taken for granted that a male habit of flattening the woman to a screen and instrumentalizing her experience for pleasure could affirm cultural trends no one wants to affirm. However, I admit that I can imagine a society in which the porn industry is regulated and non-abusive, all actors are willful, and viewers know the difference between a film and a real person. If such a porn practice is possible, porn ceases to be about protecting women, and is isolated to the sheer moral quality of watching pornographic material.

If that is the case, our arguments, for and against the filter, need not revolve around the issue of protecting women. Everybody wants to protect women. But some use it as a stalking horse for their own moral commitments. I would like to see the conversation fix on this specific issue: Is there a decent way to watch pornography?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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