Monday, 4 March 2013

Beware the Ick Factor: How to Think the Unthinkable

     Saying "fire" won't burn your mouth. Saying "water" won't drown you.
(Zen koan)

     There's a strong connection between the psychologies of disgust and morality. We have a powerful desire to distance ourselves from things we see as disgusting, and one of the instinctive, hardwired principles of disgust is that it's contagious: you get cooties by touching something with cooties. (I've known people who are completely grossed out at the thought of wiping a runny nose with toilet paper instead of facial tissue, even though it's a fresh roll right out of the plastic wrapping, because of the mere fact that it's even just associated with the other end of the digestive tract.) For most of us, the only conceivable reason for handling something icky is to remove it, to get rid of it. And this carries over to ideas we find disgustingly immoral; some of us refuse to even think about certain subjects except for the purpose of rejecting them. By extension, anyone who does suffer to contemplate these things is viewed in the same way we would view someone who voluntarily picks up a turd with his bare hands, squeezes it gently to evaluate the texture, maybe takes a sniff to get an idea of the diet of its owner: sick, sick, SICK!

     But in both philosophy and in law, it's important to be able to suppress one's Ick Factor. One must be prepared to think objectively and dispassionately about even things one might find horrifically evil or disgusting or both. And in academe, the community where such thoughts are shared, discussed and evaluated, people need to be willing to speak and listen about such things, without letting their natural sense of disgust shut down critical thought. Suppressing one's Ick Factor does not mean that one isn't disgusted or that one accepts or endorses the subject as perfectly okay; it just means one is able to set aside one's revulsion in order to think about it rationally.

     Now, for triggering the Ick Factor, there is just about nothing that compares to child pornography, which produces a very strong revulsion on both the visceral and the moral levels. Really, I have a hard time imagining of anything that could more effectively set off the cognitive stink bombs, and I have made a lifetime habit of trying to contemplating any concept I become aware of, however disgusting or uncomfortable. This is the most universally reviled and inflammatory topic I've found, and the reaction to University of Calgary political science professor Tom Flanagan's recent remarks on the subject are a splendid demonstration of this. Flanagan has lost his TV pundit gig with CBC, the political parties he's supported are racing to distance themselves from him (he had been an advisor to Prime Minister Harper), and his retirement has just been announced from the University.
     Readers of this blog will perhaps not be surprised to learn that defending a staunch conservative carries with it a certain Ick Factor for me, but here goes.

     I want to talk first about a general libertarian principle in our political tradition, one that in the abstract is (I hope) fairly uncontroversial: People should be free to do whatever they wish, so long as it doesn't hurt others. While we might need to be a little more specific about exactly what we mean by hurting others, I don't think there are a lot of people reading this who will disagree with the basic idea, so long as we're speaking in the abstract and don't consider specifics that might activate the Ick Factor. 
     Still speaking in the abstract, most of us would agree that applying this libertarian principle will often require people to suppress their Ick Factors. For example, although I happen to find mushrooms disgusting, my own personal Ick Factor over eating them is not a justification for me and like-minded mycophobes to enact legislation banning other people from enjoying them, even if we manage to form a majority. It's just not consistent with the principle for us to impose our Ick Factors on others.
     Professor Flanagan's remarks about child pornography were a specific application of this principle. He wasn't saying that child pornography itself is okay, and in fact he took some pains to clarify that he condemns the production of it. What I understand him to be saying is the much more narrow claim that viewing child pornography, all by itself, does no harm to other people.
     I can already hear you shouting back, "But it does harm people!" and yes, of course, there's a great deal of harm involved. But let's stop and neutralize our Ick Factors for a moment: are we saying it does harm because we're clear on the nature of the harm and how it necessarily follows, or are we instinctively trying to resist mentally handling something in a way that doesn't involve pitching it immediately into the oubliette and washing our hands? So let's look at the two main ways in which the act of viewing child porn produces harm.

     First, it's said that the act of viewing this material creates a market for it, thus encouraging the production of more. That's almost true; actually, buying this material creates a market for it, and I'm absolutely in favour of criminalizing the trafficking in child pornography for precisely this reason. Providing money or support for the commission of a crime is and ought to be a crime itself. But we're talking more narrowly about just the act of viewing, and it's not at all clear that by itself, a person's viewing images of an event will encourage others to stage more such events. Indeed, the possibility that it will be viewed by certain parties (law enforcement, for example) almost certainly discourages production. 
     Second, there is the idea that viewing child pornography normalizes it for the viewer, making it more likely that the viewer will eventually act upon desires that might otherwise be recognized as wrong and thus kept in check by conscience or propriety. If this is true, that might be a valid basis for the claim that viewing such material does harm, depending on how strong the causal link was, but it's not an easy thing to establish. Correlation is not causation, and so on. Personally, I'm very skeptical, just based on how many murders I've seen on TV and in movies without ever coming to think that killing people is an acceptable means of dispute resolution, but maybe it's different for child pornography. 

     I'm not saying that the mere act of viewing child pornography absolutely doesn't do harm, because I really don't know enough about it to make such a claim with certainty, and in any case that's not the point I'm trying to make, which is this: Be aware of the Ick Factor, and when it might be interfering with rational thought. Saying "fire" won't burn your mouth, saying "water" won't drown you, and thinking rationally about abhorrent things won't make you abhorrent. 


  1. Perhaps this is irrelevant to the 'Ick Factor", but I'm reminded with one other interesting point banning child pornography: It makes merely reporting the crime depicted itself potentially dangerous. Some people (in Sweden) have been arrested merely for trying to report the rape of a child to police.

    (Perhaps more on topic) The author I heard that point from, also remarked about some of the war photography surrounding the Vietnam war. The fact that the images depicted absolutely appalling scenes was the very point of them.

  2. It is an interesting point, but one I deliberately avoiding in the original post because it does tend to stray a bit from the emphasis on Ick. It's important, though: to what extent does criminalizing the possession of evidence impede investigation and prosecution of crime? At the risk of sounding flip, one would think that the silver lining, so to speak, in child pornography is that the abusers of children at least document their crimes, which hopefully will make it easier to convict them.

    And yes, as to the role of war photography in mobilizing opposition to the Vietnam War. And there, even if we grant that the viewing of these pictures further victimizes or exploits the suffering of the subjects, it could be argued that keeping it out of sight would have enabled the brutality to continue longer than it did.