The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Case for Prudishness

James Lileks and Jeff Jarvis have a long-term colloquy on the merits of broadcast standards.
Mr. Jarvis is a steady opponent of restrictive standards, and has done some excellent primary journalism using the Freedom of Information Act to demonstrate that the FCC is allowing itself to be manipulated by very small groups of advocates for restricted content. [I am deliberately avoiding the word "censorship" because, as I will show later, it is incorrect here.]

Mr. Lileks, who watches and enjoys television and has a very young child, has volunteered to fight in the rear guard against the advance of obscenity. As Alex Whitlock would predict, he uses the slippery-slope argument:
I don’t know why people think that there’s some limit out there we’ll reach and say “okay, that much and no more,” and that limit will consist of laws that say you can only say “f*ck” six times in one prime-time broadcast show. Of course it just gets worse and worse until you find yourself in a nursing home watching the TV, and an ad comes on for “Now That’s What I Call Music #403,823,” including the smash hit “Go F*ck a Dead Man in the *ss, Bitch” and when you ask the orderly to turn it down he laughs and calls you a prude. Hey, that’s just how people talk, man.
[Mr. Whitlock's own contribution is here.]

But there is a better argument in favor of content standards for media. To begin, we note Mr. Jarvis's Rules of Engagement:
No personal attacks, hate speech, bigotry, or seven dirty words in the comments or comments will be killed along with commenters.
This is not evidence of hypocrisy. Mr. Jarvis's stated preference is for a market-based, as opposed to regulation-based, determination of potentially offensive content. With his content restrictions, he has chosen the market segment in which to position himself, just as he believes broadcast networks should be free to do.

The underlying theory -- that a market for non-obscene entertainment will prompt its emergence -- is appealing. But it rests on a questionable premise, namely that society's optimum should be the same as the market's. In fact, there are strong reasons to suppose that this is not the case.

By way of analogy, consider the regulations disseminated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These regulations distort the free market, denying employees the choice of whether to sell their own safety in exchange for a higher wage.

Nonetheless it is generally accepted that they are justified, for two reasons. One is simply that not all prospective employees can be relied upon to demand a fair price for the risk they would bear. Thus the state [or the Nanny-State, if you prefer] forbids that sort of commerce altogether.

The deeper justification of OSHA regulations is that they move the domain of competition. Employers, denied the option of trading safety for efficiency, must seek innovations to gain efficiency without sacrificing safety. These innovations might be economically inefficient in the short term [so that, in the absence of OSHA regulations, it would be cheaper to pay an employee to bear more risk], but may nonetheless evolve into economically efficient practices, especially if the cost of bodily risk continues to increase through time. [This shows how the concept of safety regulation is predicated on assumptions of progress, but space constraints prevent further exploration of this idea.]

The same reasoning applies to content restrictions in broadcast media. The first reason we showed is directly analogous to the idea that viewers and broadcasters, even with mutual consent, should not be free to negotiate the obscenity content of entertainment in the marketplace. This idea is rightly ridiculed, since individual viewers are obviously the best judges of their preferred obscenity content, so the OSHA analogy is no justification at all.

The second justification, however, is in fact far stronger in this case. Content restrictions move the domain of competition, by denying broadcasters the choice of whether to use obscenity to appeal to a given audience segment. As long as these restrictions are stable and predictable, broadcasters may be expected to respond with innovation [of a charmingly retro kind] so that they can attract, without recourse to obscenity, an audience which not only condones but arguably enjoys it. [The difficulty of this challenge varies across genres, so the mix of content would be affected. For example, large swathes of stand-up comedy rely on obscenity both for brevity of expression when precision is not needed, and for comic contrast against expectations. But this is not, in itself, a problem.] This is a desirable outcome.

Mr. Jarvis has imposed his own Rules of Engagement in order to protect the quality of discourse in discussions on his blog. The result is that people who might normally use the "seven dirty words" in normal conversation will instead have to find another way to convey their meaning. Restriction of content provides an impetus toward reasoned articulation.

In struggling to interest and entertain an audience without the blunt tool of obscenely "realistic" dialogue, creators of all kinds will be obliged to convey their meaning through "unrealistic" articulate invective. Art and entertainment are shapers, not mere mirrors, of culture; thus the level of discourse seen in mass media will be reflected in the everyday world in which you and I live. This is the case for prudishness.

Mr. Jarvis's position is that the freedom of the conversation between broadcaster and viewer is
a more important good than the elevation of discourse I hope for. This is a defensible position,
whose acceptance or rejection largely hinges on an article of faith. My own profession is that
There is no significant facet of the human condition which cannot be communicated without recourse to obscenity.
If this axiom is rejected, then restriction of content is indeed censorship. But broadcast restrictions, if they are stable and evenly enforced, cannot rightly be called censorship because they do not restrict the substance of what is communicated; the "right" to use obscenity in entertainment is not much weightier than the "right" to broadcast a TV signal on channel six-and-a-half.

This defense of speech restrictions in general is, alas, not fully sufficient to defend our own mercurial and easily manipulated system. Advocates of restrictions have largely brought this situation on themselves by hiding behind bureaucracy. They should not allow themselves to be cowed by spurious cries of censorship. A national discourse on how to raise the level of national discourse is overdue.

[Update 3 August: former blogger Obvious Troll has an amusing post on reserving profanity for when it is really needed.]