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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Wikipedia Censors Itself Using Fuzzy Justifications. Bad Wikipedia!

I find it fascinating just how sexually repressed some individuals are. That’s their business, of course, and in a free and democratic society we should all have the liberty to indulge in pretty much any kind of sex we like (excepting children and animals), including the right to have no kind of sex at all. That’s your prerogative, and it’s vital to our culture as we evolve away from the horrific repressions of the 19th century and before. If not explicitly stated, then the right to have your own sex life (and everyone has a sex life, even if they don’t have sex) is a core value of a liberal western democracy (which we are, despite the protests of a vocal few to the contrary).

But part and parcel with that right comes the free availability of information – even entertainment. With the internet, you wouldn’t think that would be a problem, especially when it comes to sex – it’s fracking everywhere. Certainly, it’s quite proper to want large portions of the internet to be child-friendly and devoid of overtly sexual material – I’m all in favor of that. Our children have the right to be children. That's why there's a booming industry in internet filtering software for schools, libraries, and computers to which a child might have access, and while they might not be 100% effective, they do a pretty good job of restricting the ability of kids to casually view objectionable content. But when it comes to the public square of information sources, say, a site that specializes in raw information about every conceivable subject like Wikipedia, then going out of your way to eliminate sexuality from your pages (as one of the founders attempted to do by purging thousands of “obscene” images from the site) you are betraying a fundamental principal.

Sex is part of human culture – all human culture – as natural and essential an aspect of life as sleeping and eating. Sex is always there, lurking as a motivator or an oppressive force or an historical role or a complicating factor or a victorious conclusion. And while I understand how certain desert-born mystics, religious monopolies and self-loathing individuals may protest or deny its importance, seeking to eliminate sex – or worse, confine the practice legally and culturally to ritualistic breeding bereft of higher meaning or purpose than procreation – is outrageous in our supposedly enlightened society.

The entire idea of pornography, erotica, sex-education materials and the like is to inform and entertain us. Like Jazz music, there is within Sex the room for both serious academic study and base entertainment. Seeking to further one at the expense of the other serves neither, and is intellectually dishonest. The fact is that pornography, be it a soap opera, a romance novel, or a hardcore POV anal movie, is entertainment as well as an expression of our culture’s collective sexuality.

The key dividing line between the two seems rooted, in some minds, in whether or not the piece in question (film, novel, picture, sculpture, what have you) serves only a “prurient interest” – that is, if it has no “redeeming artistic or educational value”. That is, by necessity, a subjective judgment call, or to famously quote a certain member of the judiciary, “I don’t know if I can define ‘pornography’, but I know it when I see it!”

In other words, the apparent standard for the determination of what is “prurient” and what is “educational or artistic” (the difference between “pornography” and “erotica”) is whether or not you can masturbate to it. And that, I think we can all agree, covers a LOT of territory. I know people who whack off to pictures of boots, for instance – does that make a boot catalog pornographic? If the stated goal of erotica is to stir the erotic imagination, and masturbation is a nearly universal end-result of a freshly-stirred erotic imagination, then does it not follow that what is “prurient” and what is “education or artistic” becomes so subjective that any attempt to make that classification is intellectually dishonest?

Often the argument comes back to “community standards”, but in the global village (doesn’t that sound just so 1996?) of the internet, our community is too broad and too diverse to evolve much of a standard. Indeed, with the near-universal exceptions of kiddie porn and bestiality (and even those are subject to “gray areas” in some jurisdictions) the internet’s “community standard” is pretty much Anything Goes! And since a very healthy chunk of total internet revenues come precisely from the porno realm, it’s pretty clear to most of us that a strong plurality, if not a vast majority, of folks who use the internet and make up its community are indeed expressing their desires when it comes to such fare. The internet is not a haven for prudes – so why should the corporate sponsors of the acknowledged (if inherently flawed) piece of idealism-in-action known as Wikipedia, which prides itself on both its freedom of information and its open-source philosophy, host a myriad of “pornographic” images? That’s not just “what the people want” – it was “the people” who put it there in the first place!

Let me be quite clear: I’m not advocating allowing illegal child pornography on Wikipedia or Wikimedia. Any images which would trip the GS 2257 law (“Child Protection Act”) should rightly be removed and the information associated with them be bumped over to the FBI. But as the law stands, that’s a pretty narrow and sometimes highly subjective call to make. Underwear ads have been deemed “child pornography” in the past. And graphic images, that is, images that were created without involving children, are not covered under 2257. The noble goal of the law was to protect children without impinging unnecessarily on the rights of the greater public. As sick and distasteful as such things as say 19th century watercolors of (currently) underage children engaging in sex are, they are not illegal – and moving from “illegal” to “distasteful” or “prurient” in the editorial scope of a public forum such as Wikipedia is a dangerous slope to navigate.

It’s all too easy in the minds of some, particularly those mentioned in the beginning of this post, to conflate the two to the point where homosexuality, consensual BDSM, or even interracial sex is considered “prurient” enough to be purged. This week it’s historic 19th century watercolors of children having sex with adults, next week it will be hardcore bondage clubs or swinging lifestyle photos, the next week 18th century Japanese woodcuts of lesbian sex, and eventually the desire to conform to “mainstream American” standards in the largest intellectual free-fire zone on the planet will sap it of all its vitality – and any remaining shred of respect in the minds of the vast masturbating public.

So why the purge over at Wikipedia? Is what many have come to regard as the one honest open-source platform for universal human knowledge going to arbitrarily decide which types of sex and pornography are going to “exist” in the encyclopedia-of-record? Or is it going to relent and embrace the 21st century notions of sexuality honestly, without the taint of 19th century-colored glasses?

I know which way I’m leaning.

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