Brigid Brophy
Brigid Brophy

The Longford Threat to Freedom
Brigid Brophy *

I do not believe that the authors, subsidisers, publishers and distributors of The Longford Report ought to be put in prison for three years.

    This is the point on which I, and the other protestors at this meeting, differ from the Longford Committee. I do not believe that the mere fact that a book offends me is a sufficient reason to punish its authors and to deprive my 55 million fellow-citizens of the right to choose for themselves whether to read the book or to avoid it.

    Like the far more extensive 1970 Report of the U.S. Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, The Longford Report finds that there is no firm evidence that pornography causes society any harm whatsoever. This conclusion is endorsed by such experiments as have been done, of which there is a résumé at the end of the book. The only positive correlation which this material might suggest to an impartial reader is that there may be a link between an experimenter's surname and the subject he chooses to research into. Three of the names that are particularly prominent in the field of assessing the effects of showing people pornographic films and so on are Mann, Propper and Amoroso.
That is, however, the only funny thing in The Longford Report. The rest of it is absurd without being funny.

    Admitting that, on the evidence, pornography causes no social harm, The Longford Report decides to over-ride the evidence. One of its pretexts for doing so is its assertion that pornography is addictive. That assertion is, of course, a guess. My own guess is that for every person who becomes addicted, there are two who, having allowed themselves to read pornography without feeling guilt, having satisfied their curiosity and having found that pornography does them no large harm and no large good either, move on to types of books or films that are less repetitive and predictable. However, even supposing that the Longford Committee had guessed right, it is still totally unreasonable to suppress something merely because it is addictive, when the addiction itself causes no harm to anyone. Many people have observed that there is a great danger of addiction, especially in the case of young people, to whom we owe a particular responsibility, if a person once starts collecting stamps. Chess is even more notoriously addictive. But the Longford Committee doesn't specifically propose to ban either chess or stamp-collecting. Either the Committee is irresponsible or it doesn't in fact believe its own argument.

    The other pretext on which the Report chooses to over-ride the evidence is an argument that goes like this: although pornographic books /don't/ influence social behaviour, they must influence social behaviour because other types of book influence social behaviour. This is a very popular trap for placing in the path of people who, like myself, are both notoriously in favour of tolerance and notoriously literate. If, the argument runs, you think pornographic reading-matter has no influence, then you must think that no reading-matter has any influence; you must think that manufacturers are wasting their money when they publish advertisements, and you must think you are wasting your own time when you write books.

    This familiar and empty-headed item of rhetoric is echoed by The Longford Report, which emphasises particularly the bit about advertising. “If,” it says, “what men read and view has no effect whatever on them, then why do industry and commerce spend millions of pounds each year in advertising... ?”

    Because this argument is so popular it's worth looking into. Evidently, the Longford Committee didn't bother its tiny communal head with distinguishing what various types of reading-matter, including advertisements, are trying to influence people to do.

    Most advertising isn't trying to persuade you to buy, say, chocolate. It's persuading you to buy X's chocolate rather than Y's chocolate. If you are ignorant of the fact there is such a thing as chocolate, the advertisement may persuade you to try it. But if you don't like the taste; the advertisement hasn't a hope of persuading you to go on spending your money on it. The advertisement assumes that you are going to buy something in any case — some sort of snack at the least. Then it tries to persuade you to buy not an apple, not a packet of toffees, not Y's chocolate, not Z's chocolate but X's chocolate.

    If an advertisement influences you, that's what it will influence you to do. If pornography influences you, it will influence you to masturbate. I think it might sway your brand-loyalty about the type of fantasy you use as an accompaniment: it might persuade you to try the effect of a cast of thousands in oriental slave costume, rather than whatever your usual stand-by may be. I think it might persuade you to masturbate this week rather than next week. But because the act to which it tends to influence people is masturbation, there are very reasonable grounds for saying that pornography is the least harmful of all types of reading-matter. Masturbation is one of the very few human activities that absolutely cannot do any harm to anyone. By comparison, buying chocolate is perilous. Masturbation comes with the guarantee that it cannot damage your budget or your figure or your teeth or your digestion.

    When you consider the influence a book may have, it is sensible to consider what it may influence a person to do. Pornography, if it influences him at all, influences him towards a guaranteed harmless activity. But what about The Longford Report? I don't think it will inspire many people to masturbate. To my mind it is an. immeasurably more harmful book than all the pornography in the world, because it is trying to influence its readers to discount the evidence, to set aside reason, and to elevate their own personal prejudices into the law of the land.

    Our present obscenity law requires the prosecution to prove that an accused hook is likely to deprave and corrupt someone. The Longford Report agrees with the liberals that this is nonsense. No credible case of a person depraved and corrupted by pornography has ever been produced in a witness box. Occasionally someone stands up in the witness box and claims to have been depraved and corrupted. But juries look at the square and respectable person concerned and find it easier to think that the witness is lying or mistaken than that he truly is corrupted.

    To liberals, the message of the absurdity of our present obscenity law is clear: if you can't demonstrate corruption in a court of law, it's none of the law's business; since pornography does no harm to society, society should leave it alone. But the response of the Longford Committee is: if we can't get pornography on reasonable grounds, let's get it on unreasonable grounds.

    So the Report proposes to scrap the present law and substitute a law whereby a book will be suppressed if it offends people. You no longer have to give reasons for being offended, you no longer have to try to show some harm that might result: it is enough that you feel offended. The Longford Report proposes that the accused person should no longer be allowed to defend himself by pleading that his book is for the public good.

    The wording of the legislation which The Longford Report proposes is that a work shall be obscene “if its effect, taken as a whole, is to outrage contemporary standards of decency or humanity accepted by the public at large.”

    Whether “the public at large” means all the public, a majority of the public or just a noticeable section of the public I don't know and nobody can know. The bit about “the public at large” is in fact meaningless, because no provision is made for each prosecution to be accompanied by an opinion poll. A juror or magistrate has no more means than I have of knowing what standards are held by the public at large. The Longford law would either ask juries and magistrates to guess the emotions of 55 million other people or ask them to forget other people totally and simply register whether they personally feel outraged — and if they do that's sufficient cause to suppress 55 million people's right to read the book and decide for themselves whether or not they're outraged.

    The standards of decency and humanity that may, under the proposed Longford legislation, be outraged are pretty elastic things. The Committee expressly says that the subject-matter of the “obscene” books it wants to suppress is not confined to sex, and that what its proposed legislation calls “indecent” material is not limited to material about sex, violence and the abuse of drugs. In other words, it is proposing legislation that could suppress anything: provided it outraged someone. The proposed legislation is in fact a complete instrument for prosecuting and suppressing heresy, whether political heresy or religious.

    I specifically mention religious heresy, because parts of the Report are quite open in discounting every point of view except that of the Christian minority among our citizens. The seven signatories of the sub-committee report on broadcasting, for instance, set their hands to the explicit statement that in the field of pornography “the Christian's insights into the nature of reality are the only valid ones.”

    If I had to name one book that grossly outraged “contemporary standards of humanity accepted by the public at large,” 1 would pick the obvious example: The Origin of Species. The standards of humanity accepted in 1859 were totally outraged by the notion that humanity shared an ancestor with the monkeys. The Longford legislation would have forbidden Darwin to plead that his work was for the public good and would have suppressed the book. Moreover, the book would still not be available now, because, not having been available in the meantime, it wouldn't have been able to persuade the public to adjust their standards of outrage in the light of reason.

    Most original thought and much original art proceed by outraging previously accepted standards. The Longford legislation would wipe out our cultural future — and much of the past, whose works are often outrageous by present-day standards. The Report mentions someone's complaint that the use of the female body in recent furnishing design is degrading to women. Can it mean those witty and frighteningly sardonic tables by Allen Jones where the table-top rests on the effigy of a kneeling woman? Or does it mean (in The Longford Report it's hard to guess what's meant by “recent”) the surrealist furniture of the Twenties and Thirties? Anyway, the Longford legislation would presumably ban all those 20th-century works — together with all the ancient Greek architecture (and the 18th century imitations of it) where figures of women are degradingly used to hold up the walls.

    The Longford legislation is a prescription for replacing the permissive society by a stagnant society. A society that is not free to be outraged is not free to change. If the legislation were adopted, it would be the most repressive and retrogressive act undertaken in a democratic community since Socrates was condemned to death on two charges that might have come from The Longford Report: that he introduced unorthodox gods, and that he corrupted the young. Socrates outraged every standard his contemporaries accepted. He did it by applying his beautiful intelligence to the exercise of reason. His contemporaries were unable to stand up to him in rational argument. So they suppressed him.

    The authors of The Longford Report admit that pornography harms no one. All the same they maintain that pornography is, in itself, evil. This evilness turns out, on examination, to consist of the fact that some people feel outraged that other people get pleasure from books and performances about sex. At one point the Report says that pornography is “evil in its darkest form.” This seems an excessive description of other people's literary and theatrical taste. Perhaps the Longford Committee hasn't heard of those forms of evil that actually do harm people. And if the description of the supposed evil is excessive, so, is the proposed remedy, which is nothing less than an elastic and all-enveloping intellectual totalitarianism. This committee of theocrats, paranoiacs, simpletons and puritans doesn't like a certain type of entertainment. In order to stop it, they propose to stop culture. Their epitaph is to be found in the works of a poet whom, as David Tribe has remarked, they would quickly suppress: “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

This talk was given at Conway Hall, London, on 3 October 1972. It was printed in a 1972 pamphlet of the National Secular Society, whose current address is 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL, England.  The NSS's website is:

* Brigid Brophy (1929-1995) was a major novelist, feminist, pacifist, animal rights advocate, atheist, vegetarian, and socialist. She was an Advisor to the Gay Humanist Group.

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