Recently I’ve been trying to locate items that I would consider horrid enough to ban the same way a conservative would upon seeing something that offends him. However, when I attempt arguments for why I would want a possible item banned, my “banning” arguments inevitably collapse into illegal or immoral ones (not necessarily the same): that is, what I want banned is essentially that which is bad enough to require intervention by the law. For example, I would ban adverts that paid actors to torture animals to death. But animal cruelty is already a crime. Indeed, ‘banning’ such an advert is an insulting way to treat such an act, since banning only means pushing it away from the public eye, not getting rid of the actual problem. *
The collapse of my “banning” arguments into criminal charges happens every time I try find an item that would force me to react as conservative Christians do to, say, angels abandoning their Heavenly status because of an average man, who happens to smell nice (one wonders what happens when the odour disappears). I have been so far unsuccessful in my search for such an item. I have vaguely considered the existence of shows like Jersey Shore to perhaps being the closest thing.
What we must notice is that items people want banned usually straddle the line between disgusting and criminal – that is, they are horrid enough for people to evoke outrage but not so horrid that they are crimes. After all, if they were crimes, banning would, as I said, be an obvious ineffective way to treat the ‘problem’. No one thinks just banning child pornography is enough: there are active police units that hunt down people involved in the manufacture of child pornography. So, items that are banned or that people want banned straddle this continuum of disgust and crime.
However, what we must notice then is that banning seems almost entirely driven by emotion: in most cases, outrage (though anger, painful reminders, like Nazism in Germany, and so on, might be other emotions though I think ‘outrage’ is an umbrella term that could encapsulate all these).
As I’ve said, the item must live between “disgust”, which evokes outrage, and “crime”, which of course can do the same. But for us to even start considering whether it ought to be banned, it must be launched into our public awareness via an emotional spasm by the knee-jerks of, usually, conservatives. This is, mostly, fine – they are utilising their freedom of expression. The problem is that those who launch the item into our awareness via emotion think emotion is sufficient to sustain their ‘argument’: that is, because I am outraged over an advert, my outrage is sufficient reason to have it banned. But your personal feelings on a matter are (almost) never good enough to make a coherent argument, since someone else could easily claim (just as strongly) opposing feelings leading to the opposite conclusion. You might feel very strongly that an advert depicting angels should be banned because it causes you outrage, whereas I like looking at beautiful women and feel more of such an advert should be on television.
In many instances, I think, most of us (who do have more important things to do than keep tabs on angelic feelings) will usually dismiss the items that people want banned as not worth our time. But as with most things that exist in the media, it’s not actually about majority opinion even if that opinion is well-founded. It’s about who can yell the loudest and tell the best story (the basis, foundation and evidence for the story is irrelevant to its marketability). The problem recently has been that organisations like ASA begin to think like many in the media: that because it’s said so loudly, it must be ‘true’.
But we ought not to listen to outrage since, as I highlighted, what causes great outrage in some might cause great admiration in others. Both are feelings that can arise from the same subject matter and, if so, it means we require alternate measures of deciding whether an item should be banned. This is, basically, what science is about, since we know our feelings and intuitions are horrible ways to engage with reality. Thus we require reasoned arguments – that is arguments that can made by anyone, with no basis on feelings – and – where possible – evidence. The reason why we cured polio and smallpox is directly related to this worldview. To put it simply, this scientific approach is the best because it works. Base intuitive feelings don’t.
We are not trying to cure diseases here, but the point remains: What is the best way to approach a topic? The point behind making a reasonable argument is that it can be seen from any angle to be coherent and sound. This in itself is already hard to do, since you could be incredibly persuasive and eloquent, but merely be spinning sophistry which are bad arguments strutting in very sexy, palatable garb. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to rid yourself of personal bias – you could easily overlook what is a good argument since it disagrees with your entrenched view of a subject. Yet, what helps is engaging openly with the topic and being willing to reasonably assess most arguments presented – especially and including your own.
This might be the best way since it allows for everyone to put their arguments on the same footing: that is, without spurious emotional jibes to carry it through. But it doesn’t happen when it comes to discussions of getting things banned since, by definition, emotions are the basis for the item being even considered for banning. This conflicts with a reasoned discussion since it immediately begins with emotions. What are we supposed to do with conflicting emotions except agree that people have them, then put them aside before engaging in reasonable discussion. But then, as soon as we do that, what’s the point since outrage is the, um, reason behind the entire discussion in the first place!
This does not mean emotions should be rubbished or viewed as, by definition, worthy of dismissal. Emotions matters in specific circumstances and could effect many things. For example, emotions are a central focus of bioethics, since the way doctors handle themselves toward families and patients is an an important factor in the ethics of clinical engagement. There is plenty of evidence, from homeopathy ironically, which indicates the power of placebo from having specific bedside manners compared to having, basically, none. Notice though that even here evidence is being used to support the claim that emotions matter. This tells us that emotions and reasonable argument – and indeed evidence – are not mutually exclusive.
Note however that it simply indicates that we ought to be cautious about beginning an argument or discussions with emotion. Even here, however, there might be good reasons for your outrage. This may sound contradictory but it is not: Many people were outraged by the apartheid government’s treatment of black people. We can offer good reasons for this outrage. However, making a good argument for your outrage is separate to whether something should be banned. It seems if you can offer good reasons for your outrage, you could probably also find, simultaneously, good reasons to – not just ban – but perhaps indicate the moral (and perhaps legal) wrong.
But the arguments are separate. I can quite reasonably accept that we ought to ban something without being outraged by the item in question. For example, if evidence indicated that the Axe advert led to violence, murder, etc., and that when the advert is banned these horrible things stopped, I might support banning the advert. However, notice the problem isn’t the advert but the violence, murder and so on. These are the things that are wrong.
The point is that there doesn’t seem to be much scope for banning since the argument rests almost entirely on emotion and expects that to carry said argument through. I’ve shown that having emotion in or as part of an argument is possible, but that when it begins the very discussion we ought to be wary since someone can begin the opposite discussion by simply having opposite feelings about the same item. Furthermore, something causing outrage is not enough as a basis for public action since there is plenty that causes outrage but which, for good reasons, is not a crime (and plenty of crimes, like drugs and prostitution, that ought not to evoke outrage or indeed be crimes). It might be sufficient for private action – i.e. you turn the TV off – but you can’t force that view onto others. The basis of our sustained plural society is that we accept, as adults, our right to be offended and, as adults, our right to response as mature beings.
In reality, adults can choose for themselves. Banning is not effective. If the item is serious enough, we can make possible reasonable legal and moral reasons to admonish it. Instead of reasonableness and evidence, many consider volume and pitch to be sufficient to sustain ideas about, for example, what we are allowed to view. This cannot be enough, since, as I’ve shown, no matter how you dress up emotions, you can’t force them to make arguments sound.