Monday, September 24, 2012

Markets, and also Media Influences on Thought

This post is about Pornography. But I've learned better than to put that in the post title, or it attracts all kinds of comments which then have to be deleted for the sake of decency.

My Feminist Theory course has been discussing pornography, and the reading assignment last week was a well-structured examination of the issues that Catherine MacKinnon raised in the mid-1980s. The pornosphere was so different then, though, that my students had a hard time understanding what the debate was about.

Their obtuseness didn't just seem a result of different experiences with porn than the easy access to Playboy and little else that was a feature of life before the internet. Their premises about cultural influence seemed markedly different from mine and from those of the textbook chapter we read. Most of the students weren't disagreeing with MacKinnon's point. Beyond disagreement, there seemed to be a failure of comprehension. Some of the sticking points:

1. MacKinnon and other feminists started by formulating a definition of porn that differed from the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court's definition uses criteria such as 'obscenity,' 'prurience,' and 'community standards,' the feminists don't mind materials that are sexually explicit or unusual ("kinky"). Their problem is with violence and with acts and attitudes which are dehumanizing. My students' response was that "you can't change a definition--just look it up in the dictionary." What's going on here? A failure to understand philosophical methods? A failure to see the role of law in changing culture? A failure to accept that culture can change and be changed, that it's not simply given? I don't have a sense of the reason for the strenuous opposition to MacKinnon's move of using a term ("porn") to specify a category different from the category the term usually specifies.

2. Once they understood that MacKinnon was only talking about a subset of porn, the students' response was "don't watch what you don't like." And also, "if enough people like her want more sex-positive porn, then the market will respond." Thus, all culture and all means of controlling culture were reduced to markets. And furthermore, there was the unstated belief that markets are responsive and can't (or shouldn't) be controlled.

3. Finally, the majority of the class resisted the idea at the heart of MacKinnon's critique--that the content of porn could shape how people think about sexual possibilities. That is, though they agreed that many young people look to porn as a form of sex ed, they disagreed that porn influenced how people think about what's appropriate or inappropriate behavior in sexual relationships. Further, there seemed to be general disagreement with the statement that media affect how people think. Instead, they believe that viewers exercise free choice in what they watch, and they only choose to watch things that reflect what they already think. There was strong resistance to the idea that what you watch can change your perception of the world.


Jason Hills said...

Those are all interesting, and sadly, familiar points.

I note that students reject most notions of authority, the authority of reason being no exception. But then they invoke them at odd times, e.g., appealing to the dictionary. I wonder if market mechanisms have become the new authority, though we know it to be a somewhat vacuous one.

So many things that would have been considered scandalous sex-wise when I was in high school (the mid-90s) are now so commonplace that it would be almost scandalous to think things would be otherwise. Our culture and media culture appears to have become progressively more pornographied (in the negative objectifying sense) such that, perhaps per your point, that younger generations are not capable of recognizing it as such. The frame of reference has shifted, and if one does not admit that such shift is possible, perhaps the situation of your students, then they are blind to all those issues.

I'm now living in Texas, which is the most pornographied state I've been in.

Dan Hicks said...

It might be unfair for me to simply blame both aspects of #2 and #3 on economics and the role it's taken in our society since Milton Friedman. But I'm going to do so anyways.

In many respects, libertarianism seems to have become a widely-held "default view" in our society. If there's a conflict between individual freedom (even of the no-reasons-required, "I have a right to do this because I want to" variety) and any other value, the presumption seems to be that we should go with individual freedom and need very good reasons to go with the other value. In addition, there's the presumption that a minimally-regulated market is the best way to solve any given problem.

While the first presumption is pretty common among libertarians, the second point is something that, in the twentieth century, we only get with Friedman and his intellectual descendants. Even Friedrich Hayek and Friedman's forerunners at Chicago thought that the government needed to regulate the market to do things like prevent monopolies from forming.

And, of course, orthodox economists still assume that individual's preferences are exogenous -- that our desires are simply given, not influenced in an important way by advertising or consumption.