The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. - H.L. Mencken
Oppressions always start with those nobody is willing to defend. Historically, that usually meant some unpopular ethnic or religious minority, or else whores or some other group who upset the prevailing mores of the time and place. But since all law is built on precedent, it is only a matter of time before the same maltreatment is extended to successively larger and more broadly-defined groups. As I expressed it in “Give Them an Inch”:
…if we don’t speak up for the rights of minorities, even small and unpopular minorities, the precedent set by their maltreatment will be expanded by slow stages until it encompasses everyone but the rulers themselves. But it’s clear that most don’t grasp that truth fully enough to actually do anything about it; instead they say, “Oh, but surely that doesn’t apply to sex offenders, or terrorists, or illegal aliens,” or whatever other unpopular group they consider beneath basic human decency. And then the number of groups so treated, and the scope of each group, expands…
Three examples of the principle came to my attention in November; each involves a violation of the rights of some odious character, and as a result few were willing to point out that horrible precedents were being set; in fact, in each case there were those who cheered and celebrated the infringement, completely oblivious to how the precedent might eventually affect them. We’ll start with the mildest example:
Singapore’s government has blocked access to the popular adultery website Ashley Madison…ahead of the company’s planned launch of a portal for the city-state. The Media Development Authority, which regulates the Internet, said…it has blocked access to the Canada-based website because it is in “flagrant disregard of our family values and public morality”…Thousands of Singaporeans, including a Cabinet minister, have expressed outrage and urged the government to block the website…
Long-time readers know that I have no love for Ashley Madison; its marketing is repulsive, its business ethics are nonexistent and its fake “press releases” are infuriating. But Singapore did not censor it because it’s a massive fraud designed to bilk men out of their money, but because a lot of noisy prudes demanded it. In Singapore, as in the UK and US, the moralistic minority often attempts to impose its views on the rest of society, and politicians listen; but while internet censorship may start with loathsome online businesses like Ashley Madison or “revenge porn” sites, it isn’t long before it extends to anything some politician dislikes. And the only way to stop it is before the camel gets more than a nose under the tent.
The next example is in a way less serious, because the company voluntarily withdrew the controversial product due to the bad publicity:
A Chinese website is under fire for selling disturbingly life-like child-size, sex dolls…an advocacy group…called Dining for Dignity…[pressured] DHgate…into removing the item…[with a petition reading] “This…is fueling human sex trafficking, pedophilia, violent rape, and more.”
Yes, it’s creepy…and it’s a piece of plastic. It is not a human being, or any kind of living creature; it is an inanimate object without any feelings. Apparently, Dining for Dignity believes in sympathetic magic and imagines that if a man uses one of these nasty things for gratification, somehow a real child elsewhere in the world will be magically raped. Furthermore, the notion that such an object can “fuel” a sexual kink implies that adult people’s kinks are malleable and can be created or amplified by a sexual stimulus of the applicable type; this is exactly the same as the fallacy that having gay friends will cause a man to “turn gay”. A man who is not sexually attracted to prepubescent girls cannot be “turned into” a pedophile by a doll, child porn or anything else; the idea that he could is deeply misandrous. Furthermore, the belief that pedophiles’ desires can be made to vanish by repressing them is based in the same view of “voluntary sexuality” that leads to religious-based “pray the gay away” brainwashing programs: once the precedent is established that people with a kink can simply be ordered not to feel that way, the fallacious principle can be applied to everyone. The last case is similar, but has more far-reaching implications:
A phenomena [sic] known as Webcam Child Sex Tourism–adults logging into sex-chat rooms with minors in developing countries–is on the rise. It is estimated that tens of thousands of adults currently prey on children this way each day, and the number keeps growing according to international researchers…a team of coders, animators, and researchers announced they had created a…computer-generated 10-year-old girl named Sweetie, intended to catch predators in the act. In just 10 weeks this bit of CGI wizardry and software caught 1,000 predators. But…Sweetie is not a 10-year-old girl–no matter what she looks like. She’s not even a “she.” Sweetie is an “it.” And it’s code…
Though the author of this article uncritically accepts the typical moral panic claims (the panic-object is always “on the rise”, involves “tens of thousands” or more, and must be “fought” with extraordinary – and often extralegal – means), he at least recognizes the deep ethical problems with luring a person into doing something and then arresting him for it (a situation that used to be called “entrapment”). “Sweetie” is even less capable of being a “victim” than a piece of plastic, since it has no physical existence; it is merely a set of algorithms, instructions to a computer. Furthermore, if these men can be considered guilty of “exploiting” an imaginary child, by that same token the entrapment team is equally guilty of “pimping” that same imaginary child, and of making imaginary child porn. Now, do I believe that these men were blameless angels who were talked into doing something extremely nasty they would never have done otherwise? Hell, no; I think they’re scoundrels who were caught doing something that they had done before and will again. But when we allow the cops (or in this case, privately-funded vigilantes) to make accusations based entirely on what a person might have done, with no actual victim, we open the door to the entire panoply of abuses which have accompanied the various “wars” on consensual behavior for which modern society will be as harshly judged by our descendants as we judge our ancestors for allowing slavery. And the wholesale erosion of civil rights deriving from those “wars” affects not only the unpopular folks they target, but every citizen living under the governments which conduct them.
(This essay previously appeared in Cliterati on January 5th; I have modified it slightly to fit the format of this blog.)