Sunday, December 30, 2012

"It's not just wrong, it's illegal."

"Buying tobacco for minors
It's not just wrong
It's illegal"

Why does this ad bother me? You're just gonna have to take my word for it that I have no desire to see (much less encourage) minors smoking. I think smoking is a filthy habit, and I don't look too kindly on the use of addictive substances that are filthy and/or a serious risk to your health (nor do I tend to rate very highly the intelligence or at least judgment of those who choose to try them). Wholly apart from the question of whether children need to be "protected" from things they [allegedly] don't understand (which is an argument of noble intention, but one that's all too easily - and often! - used for nefarious purposes, especially when it's not allowed to be countered), and ignoring even the vast and significant difference between minors who are seventeen and minors who are three, children are people and I absolutely do not want them to start smoking (now, yesterday, or in the future).

Nevertheless, this ad bugs me. Why? First, let me point out something that goes unnoticed and overlooked far too frequently. Just because you have a qualm with something (this ad, for example), does not mean you do not agree with its message. But often, the way a message is sent has alternative consequences (both intended as well as unforeseen) both parallel and also perpendicular to the message being sent. Therefore, arguing the details of the way a message is sent should not be mistaken for arguing with what the message is trying to say. Indeed, it may very well be the case that a message is having unintended consequences that work at cross-purposes to what the message is attempting to accomplish. In which case, only by attacking the message and picking apart its meaning can it be amended to affect the right kind of effect that was intended all along. Or, as in the case with this tobacco ad, it could be sending out an admirable message at the cost of compromising some other issue it was not intending to address. In either case, we cannot be too reticent to allow complaints to be lodged, even when we think they may be in bad taste.

So what compromising message is this tobacco ad sending out, if it's nothing to do with the gist of preventing kids from getting their hands on tobacco? It's this conflation by proximity of the concepts of what is right/wrong and what is legal/illegal. The latter is pretty straightforward, if not always clear on the details. A thing is either against the law or not. If it is, then it's illegal; otherwise it's safe to assume that it's legal. When we speak of of right and wrong, however, it's not always or immediately clear in what sense we mean. There is a sense that relates to society and ethics - in the way that stealing from somebody is "wrong" because it violates that person's right to property. This sense is quite well tied up with the concept of legality, and so would be somewhat redundant in the context of this ad. Instead, I think it's clear that the ad is implying (if read in reverse) that buying tobacco for minors is not only illegal (a straightforward fact), but that it is also morally wrong. As in the sense of being "just wrong", wrong in essence, wrong because a moral authority deems it so.

And it's not law's place to make that determination. Law exists to set down the rules that require society to function - namely, they govern the way people are allowed to relate to one another, to promote order and protect the equal rights of all. This is a question of ethics. Morality is something else altogether, something that answers the question "how can I lead a virtuous life?", that concerns itself with decisions people make in their own lives, not about what codes of behavior are required for society to function, but about what acts must be aspired to in order to reach a higher level of righteousness. And the answers to these questions depend on subjective beliefs. What's more, the law does not exist to punish people for leading unvirtuous lives, for committing immoral or sinful deeds, or for not living up to their altruistic, spiritual potentials. That is between a man and his god, not a man and his government. The government's rules must concern themselves with civil rights, not with the qualities of virtue.

So the ad, "buying tobacco for minors is...wrong" is not a political ad - it's a religious ad. But "buying tobacco for illegal" is the other way around. And it's dangerous when the two get mixed up, because then you have people getting confused and thinking (as too many do already) that if it's "wrong", then it is also (or else should be) illegal, and that if it's illegal, then it is "wrong". This is dangerous thinking not only because it's far from always being true, but also because it predisposes people to reject any skeptical approach toward the law (giving conservatives an undeserved advantage) and promotes a sort of blind allegiance to the authority of the state over matters of virtue. By thinking this way, you are inviting the state to issue you your spiritual beliefs. And this is not the state's job. What's more, the state that makes it their job is a corrupt one that will oppress you (the only question is, do you want to let it?). Freedom was formed on the basis of separation of church and state for a reason.

And one of the symptoms of blind allegiance is the concept of things being "just wrong". This argument leaves no room for debate. If something is wrong, it's wrong for a reason (and hopefully a good one). Nothing is just wrong. "Just wrong" is a tactic used on unquestioning, weak-willed people, to dictate a belief without allowing room for debate (usually because the belief profits someone, yet could be easily defeated if one were to apply sound reasoning to it). "It's illegal" is actually a much better argument (for critical minds) than "it's wrong" because, as I have discussed, right and wrong are subjective, but the law is not. Well, except in matters of interpretation, but there's not a whole lot of room for that in cases of buying tobacco for minors, I imagine.

So there you have it. I don't think kids should smoke (although at the end of the day, I would prefer to let them make that decision for themselves, or at the very least put it in the hands of their parents, instead of giving that decision to the state and making it a legal standard). I don't even think adults should smoke (but, again, that's their decision), so I'm not especially concerned about laws restricting the use of tobacco (other than from a basic civil rights perspective - which is important, I don't deny, but of all the fights out there to fight, there are others more pressing), but this ad bugs me because it's trying to "preach" to me about what is right and wrong, while making a statement about the law. The point of the ad is "it's illegal", but in getting there, it insists on including that "it's wrong". What if I disagree? Hmm? It's still illegal - which is why that is a better argument. It means something to me: that I'll be punished if I disobey. But this profession of wrongness encourages me to lose my respect for the law, since it doesn't reflect my beliefs. But it's not supposed to. So let's stop saying things that seem to suggest it is. In that respect, the "buying alcohol for minors could cost you" ad is a lot more honest, even if it is an excessively authoritarian response to a humiliatingly futile struggle.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Controlling Sex

It occurs to me that I just don't understand the need to control other people's lives when it comes to engaging in sex and sexual entertainment. Surely it comes from some kind of desire to enforce the way other people live their lives, particularly to promote conformity and eliminate practices that are unfamiliar or threatening to one's own experience or belief systems.

But then, aren't we a relatively enlightened, postmodern society? What happened to the basic tenets of democracy - freedom and equality? Freedom and equality demand a tolerance for diversity, and, indeed, we have concepts like freedom of speech, separation of church and state, and the like to protect the varied beliefs and opinions of the public.

So what business is it of anyone's if some people like to shoot porn for entertainment, or sell sexual favors for cash, or indulge in any of those services from a consumer perspective? I have to think about my own life sometimes, to try to put myself into the context of the rest of society. I am unusual in that I generally avoid vices - drinking and gambling and fighting and what have you - but I revel in the enjoyment of my own sexuality.

And sometimes I want to say, well, everyone has their vice, and this is just the one I choose. But then, I have to wonder, is the enjoyment of sexual entertainment really a vice? Because who does it hurt - myself included!? I avoid things that are legal, accepted, even popular - thinks like drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco - because I have the will to make a choice, and enough wisdom to recognize that those activities are very unappealing, and whatever short-term high I may get from them is not worth the long-term health risks and financial cost.

And what about sex? Surely, promiscuous sex carries health risks, but I'm not talking about engaging in promiscuous sex. I'm talking about consuming pornography, and exploring the rich and detailed realm of sexual fantasy, and being frank and curious in my sex life not with a multitude of strangers but with the few partners I trust - and then maybe talking about that sex life with a multitude of strangers who can't hurt me if they're never in sexual contact with me.

But then we have these harsh restrictions on what we can say about sex and when we can say it, and a cultural tradition of shaming people who aren't properly embarrassed about their sex organs. I respect that, like many other issues, sex is not always an appropriate topic of discussion among specific company and in certain contexts, but what I don't understand is why we have to police who does get to enjoy sex and when.

We have rules against things that hurt other people. You're not allowed to commit murder or violence against other people. You're not allowed to steal from them. You're not allowed to deceive them in issues of particular importance. These are the basic building blocks of a cooperative society. But then we have weird rules pertaining to vices that seem to stem from some kind of moral background.

This runs counter to freedom and equality and tolerance and diversity. Who says your morals are absolute, and should be used to dictate the way I run my life, when my morals differ? We have rules to govern the way people treat other people to facilitate the social order, but there's no reason to extend those rules to the way people choose to run their own lives.

If a person wants to engage in sexual intercourse (no matter how) in their private bedroom with a consenting partner (no matter who), that's their choice. If they want to film a pornography scene for the enjoyment of other people who want to watch pornography scenes, what's the problem? If they want to offer their sexual talents for a price to people who are willing to pay for that professionalism, who cares? You can live your life the way you want to, but you've got to give other people the same courtesy.

And, honestly, of all things a person could get up to - many of which are totally legal and even socially accepted, and some of which are far less 'natural' to the human experience - sex (especially voyeuristic forms of sexual entertainment which carry none of the risks of sexual contact) is not one to get all up in arms about.

And if you think the prevalence of sexual media will give people ideas about having sex that they wouldn't have got otherwise - let me tell you, mother nature has already taken care of that impulse. This is merely satisfying a curiosity that is inevitable. A curiosity for something that shouldn't be feared so much, and a curiosity that can, in significant part, be soothed by indulging in that sexual media.

Watching sex and talking about sex can get a person more interested in sex. But it's their responsibility to make good decisions about their own sexual activity. Being interested in sex did not make me any more willing to engage in risky behaviors, it just made me more keen to develop a safe situation within which I could experiment. Not everybody is that cautious, this is true, but trying to hide sex from them - an impossible task - as if thinking that if they don't see it they won't think about it - may only make them more desperate to seek it out, when having a safer alternative might have helped to sate their craving.

And, ultimately, teaching people (especially, but not limited to, young people) to make good choices about sex is the responsibility of education, however that is implemented. If it's not working, maybe that's a problem that needs to be fixed. But it is not the result of exposure to sexual media, the restriction of which runs counter to the freedom of speech.

I have seen people make poor decisions about sex without significant exposure to pornography, and yet I, who am a pornographer and an avid consumer of pornography, continue to make responsible decisions about my own sexual activity. It's high time we stop displacing the blame for people's decisions and attacking an easier target, instead of facing the issue head-on, and learning to accept some of the difficult truths in life.

It's time, also, we stop trying to control other people's lives that aren't our own, beyond the helpful practice of friendly persuasion, even if we love them and they do make bad decisions against better judgment from time to time. No peace will come from agonizing over others' bad decisions, and no justice will be served by trying to change the world so as to coerce and control the choices other people have to choose from.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Pornographer's Judgment

What worth has my opinion? My opinion is only the word of a dirty-minded pornographer. You, who don't mind the pornography, can look past it and judge the value of my taste on its own merits. But others will not give me that much consideration, and seeing the pornography, will judge me by that quality alone.

I do not want to cater to this mindset, because I do not believe they have the right of it. However, I cannot simply ignore them, either, for some of them will be people I have need of influencing in the course of my life, and others will be difficult to identify as such until it is too late. And though I might lose my respect for someone that displays intolerance, the force of their judgment still stings.

Ultimately, in the mainstream social circle, a person who judges others on the basis of sexual perversion maintains his moral integrity, because tolerance is not so highly valued as sexual purity (which is not to say sexual abstinence, necessarily, but whatever is the socially-accepted model of sexuality). If nothing else, that is something around which I'd like to influence society to change, if I can.

That I find beauty and pleasure in depictions (sometimes explicit) of human sexuality does not in any way mar the quality of my ability to determine beauty and pleasure in life and the world around me.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sodom & Gomorrah

One argument I've encountered against San Francisco's (formerly, regrettably) lax restrictions on public nudity, and its (threatened) cultural heritage of sexual liberation is the fear that it may become (or already be) a modern day Sodom or Gomorrah. I shall respond to that argument in this post.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the most infamous stories in the Bible, located in the book of Genesis. As the story goes, these cities were so wicked that God felt it necessary to utterly destroy them and all their inhabitants in a rain of fire and brimstone (classic Old Testament stuff, here).

All their inhabitants, I say - save the devout Lot, that is, who nevertheless offered up his own daughters' virginities to satiate the carnal hunger of an angry mob of Sodomites. Curiously, for all their wickedness, the mob didn't take the bait, preferring instead the angels disguised as men that Lot was harboring in his home.

After fleeing the city just moments before its destruction, Lot's wife was transformed into a pillar of salt for having the gall to look back and witness God executing his wrath on the hordes of unrepentant sinners (you know what they say about the cat and its curiosity).

Then, mistaking this act of divine vengeance for another apocalypse on the scale of Noah's Flood (apparently not being aware of God's covenant with Noah - symbolized by the rainbow - never to wipe out humanity on such a scale again), Lot's apparently not-too-bright daughters take it upon themselves to ply their father with wine until he passes out, so that they may "lie with him" in order to pass on his seed.

There's got to be some twisted moral in there about trying to control your daughter's sex life - if you value your daughter's virginity, offer it up for the taking. If she gives it to you, then it was yours all along. Actually, I include this part of the story because it makes for a deliciously perverted tale, and also because it places God's condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah on largely sexual grounds in a critical light.

There is not a lot of description about just what it is that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (and a few other nearby cities) were engaging in to warrant the brunt of God's wrath, but the two clearest interpretations involve inhospitality and homosexuality. As for the latter, we can see why the term "sodomy" has entered the popular lexicon as a euphemism for anal sex, or sometimes other 'perverted' sexual practices.

Obviously, if we interpret the Sodomites as truly wicked beings - ones that would willingly engage in the rape of nonconsenting individuals - then there's not much room for sympathy; this is exactly what people do who hold up Sodom and Gomorrah as examples of sexual perversion turned abhorrent.

But, it could also be interpreted as an example of a civilization engaged in alternative sexual mores, who are wrongfully punished by a judgmental and vindictive higher power. This is my preferred interpretation, loose though it may be, as it most properly parallels the way that religious conservatives disparage the freedom of citizens to engage in sexual practices that they don't personally condone.

This is, in fact, the perfect context within which to throw around the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah - cities which were actively condemned to destruction by God - to illustrate the perceived danger that sexual licentiousness will inevitably lead to not just sinful but criminal and abhorrent practices that must be stopped before it goes too far.

And this is, indeed, the exact context within which the example of Sodom and Gomorrah is raised in comparison to the sexual liberties that are practiced (or were, until just recently) in San Francisco. Acceptance of homosexuality? Naked people gathering in city parks? Street festivals celebrating sexual fetishism?

Surely, to a sexual conservative, this all must sound pretty frightening. Gay men in leather with their genitals exposed whipping each other while jacking off out on the streets!? Heavens! If God won't strike this city down himself, then we must act in accordance with his divine will, as set out by precedent in the Book of Genesis!

But the truth is, these are just people proudly celebrating their sexual identity. They are not raping innocent bystanders, nor are they particularly unwelcome to tourists and strangers. If they were engaging in actual criminal behavior, then neither the city board nor the neighborhoods would tolerate their festivities.

And if they were, that would be a matter for the police, to serve and protect the public in the course of upholding the laws (against ethically-based crimes like rape) that are already on the books. That this community permits public activities that other communities may deem 'morally hazardous' is irrelevant.

Who does it harm to let them celebrate? If you are offended by it, you are welcome to steer clear. If you think it pollutes the purity of the human soul, then that's your belief, and you're entitled to live your own life in accordance with it, but it is not your responsibility (nor your right) to impose those beliefs on the lives of others, like some classical missionary.

After all, doing so would violate the principles upon which a fair and just society is constructed, which is exactly what the concept of a single righteous God attempts to accomplish. Who is to say that your God is superior to any others, when you don't have any proof whatsoever (other than blind, empty faith - which your opponents may also have, by the way)?

The founders of American democracy understood this, as can be interpreted from their inclusion of the principle of free exercise of religion in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," and what is sexual morality if not an establishment of religious beliefs about purity and carnal hunger?

As a free and enlightened society, it may be our duty, by some perspectives, to prevail upon other establishments of civilization that are not so humanistically enlightened as us. But, in the process of doing so, we must be extremely careful not to presuppose the supremacy of our own moral standards over others.

Thus, if there is a situation in which someone is in need of assistance to combat an abuse of power that violates the fundamental rights of the individual, it is a just and honorable act to step in and offer a hand. But this is not the same as forcing heathens to adopt alternative standards of morality against their will.

If, for example, a group of citizens desires to establish a community (within our jurisdiction or without) that is characterized by beliefs and behaviors that some other group deem morally contentious, there is no justice in oppressing that group and denying its freedoms, for the sake of normalizing the standards of the country or the world.

Now if, by chance, some member of that community expresses distress for one reason or another, then it is justified to examine the circumstances and determine whether the group actually is engaged in criminal acts. (Which, incidentally, may well have been the purpose of the investigating angels who were visiting Lot in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Alas, their suspicions were realized.)

But so long as the people involved in any questionable practices are consenting to do so, then we have absolutely no right to intervene. Even if, perhaps, we think they are harming themselves, for ultimately, it is their choice what to do with their minds and bodies, just as it is every individual's choice whether or not to "sin". After all, even by religious arguments, it is not man's duty to pass judgment, but God's.

If we think they are being criminally misinformed ("brainwashed" in cult language), then it is prudent for us to attempt to better educate them. And if they are in danger of severe and irreparable harm, then it is only natural to expect some sort of explanation for why they are doing this. But so long as those activities are conducted only upon those who have given their express consent, then the ultimate choice is theirs.

But San Francisco is no secretive cult, and even the consensual BDSM practices you might witness during the Folsom Street Fair are becoming mainstream, thanks to the recent popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. When people complain about the sexual liberties in San Francisco, it's never about acts that are legitimately crimes - like people being raped, robbed, and attacked.

No, it's always framed in terms of decency and perversion. I think those prudes are terrified - that in any place in this country, perverts might have the courage to take to the streets in broad daylight. Well, if you ask me, I think we're due for another sexual revolution.