Obscenity, libel and censorship in the age of the internet
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
In a US obscenity case back in 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in an opinion that hard-core pornography was hard to define but, "I know it when I see it." (He later regretted having written it and was convinced it would be on his tombstone - indeed, it was mentioned in most of the obits when he died in 1985.)
Indeed, if you consider all the hot-button words artists use, have aimed at them or bandy about, many fall into the vague and personal realm of "I know it when I see it" (IKIWISI): obscenity, pornography, erotica, slander, libel, racism, sexism, homophobia...
Let me give you my reasons for thinking about these things this week in particular:
- I was listen to audiobooks while walking and this week my book was It by Stephen King. In one Chapter, after a group of 12-13-year olds have lived through a brutal ordeal, the only little girl in the group wants to cement their friendship by having sex with the six others, one at a time. The sexual encounters are described in fairly graphic detail. (Add to my list of buzzwords above: "graphic".) I went onto Facebook and asked if one could get away with writing such a scene today. I got one answer: "No". So WE know it when we see it, but Stephen King, his editors and readers in the early '80s did not.
- Mike Daisey, the solo performer has gotten into a lot of trouble because he went onto the radio and claimed his show, The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, was composed of facts. It wasn't. In dozens of articles, Tweets and Facebook postings that followed I read words and phrases, all of which challenged the "IKIWISI" philosophy: dramatic truth, artistic truth, lie, fact, fib, composite, theatre, journalism, artistic license, artistic freedom.
- Michael Healey's play, Proud, passed over by Tarragon, was given a public reading this week at Passe Muraille. It clearly is a fiction - and a satirical one at that - about a real public figure who is, however, never named. It would seem to be legally "covered" but a lot of people suggest it is "libel" because, IKIWISI.
- I was re-reading (on my iPad), Lord of The Rings. With a touch of my finger on a proper noun, I can immediately bring up a Google image of that character or place as it was presented in the Peter Jackson movie. Éomer, for instance - what does he look like? Google. Ah! Him! (Played by Karl Urban, BTW.) Except one of the images I found for Éomir was an utterly realistic and lovingly rendered picture (photo?) of Éomir having sex with Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen). IKIWISI: Fakes. I don't remember seeing that in my Director's Cut DVD box set. (And believe me: I'd remember!) (BTW: there were hundreds of other pictures at that web site of hobbit/hobbit, elf/human, dwarf/hobbit sex as well).
The double-edged sword of new technology has fallen down on all of us. The same technology that allows us to see - instantly - full-colour HD film of a man sexually servicing a shih tzu (or, harking back a few paragraphs, a little girl servicing six little boys), now also brings us - in metaphorical instant full-colour HD - offhand remarks made on Facebook, ill-advised Tweets (or as politicians have found Tweet-photos), claims made about the truthfulness of untruths, chapters of books written 30 years ago, legal advice that is half-baked...INFO INFO INFO and (of course) OPINIONS OPINIONS OPINIONS. Even as we are more advised and informed, we are also more ill-advised and ill-informed.
So reality shifts. The fabricated becomes real. Some (ill-informed) see Lord of The Rings as a big, hairy homoerotic potboiler, Daisey becomes a villain/artistic martyr, Healey a libeller/bard, King a kiddie-pornographer/fabulist, Zimmerman a murderer/protector-of-his-ground, Santorum a fascist/Believer.
I love that there is so much more debate on so many more things and that we liberals and leftists can form viewpoints that are clearer and more anchored in reality. But there is also a lot of noise and we must work harder than ever to cut a clear soundscape out of it.
Because stupidity...I hope IKIWISI.