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
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... ?”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
“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
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.
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.
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
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: http://www.secularism.org.uk/
* 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.