Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The wages of change

Hugo Schwyzer has a post about Garance Franke-Ruta's WSJ piece advocating for raising the age of consent for appearing in pornography, and while I am just sick to death of arguing about porn and who it hurts and why and how much, I do think this is a good opportunity to discuss the necessary trade-offs that come with making the world a better place.

To begin with, Schwyzer is optimistic about the utility of "moralizing sermons" in making cultural change. He says:
I’m a big, big proponent of fighting most social vices by reducing demand first. I’m a historian and a recovering alcoholic who knows damned well Prohibition was largely a failure and Alcoholics Anonymous has been, by and large, a phenomenal global success. Pot is illegal, and I didn’t have trouble finding it in my youth and my students seem to have very little trouble finding it today. Using the power of the state to reduce the supply of an addictive commodity often ends up raising its price and making it more dangerous for those who work to produce it. Reducing demand, the seemingly more difficult task, is ultimately the more successful strategy.
First off, AA is a particularly bad analogy to use here. Whatever you think of Hugo's anti-porn stance, I don't think that what he desires is a world where only the people whose lives have been consumed by pornography are the ones who quit purchasing it. Even with AA, it's not like all alcoholics who enter it are able to come out the other side as recoverees - and that's just the people who make it in to begin with, which is hardly 100% of alcoholics, let alone casual drinkers.

An analogy I think is instructive is with rising rates of obesity and diet and exercise. You have by now heard many people say that "diets don't work." And on any important scale when it comes to working for a change in the human condition, they don't. But if people would just stick to them and get off their lazy asses, they would work. Well, yeah, but they apparently don't do that - so as far as the health care system and our home-poked belts are concerned, they don't work.

There are a lot of places we can go after we arrive at this conclusion. We can re-think how important it really is to get Americans to lose weight. We can publicly fund support group programs that have been shown to help people keep weight off. We can ration food and require exercise by law. But we can't just keep recommending a diet regimen and expect weight loss to be anything other than an anomaly.

Part of the problem between Franke-Ruta and Schwyzer is that they're actually talking about two different phenomena they find to be undesirable. Schwyzer doesn't like porn at all. Franke-Ruta doesn't want young women's lives to be ruined by moments in their youth that are influenced by alcohol, lots of social pressure, and a healthy desire to experiment. Franke-Ruta's solution isn't going to end up making Schwyzer happy, and I don't think it's going to make her happy. Ditto Schwyzer's. As many have observed, the problem that Franke-Ruta is attempting to solve is not exactly that young women are exposing themselves on camera. My take is that the problem is that underaged drunk women are being pressured into signing contracts, and the simultaneous pressure women face to conform to male sex fantasies but also enforce prudish sexual morality. But please, please steer me straight if I ever say the "solution" is changing an entire nation's attitudes about sex, because I see no reason to wait generations for something I can't be guaranteed is coming.

What Franke-Ruta does have over Schwyzer is the recognition that a solution to the problem is going to involve more than just asking people to stop doing that bad thing they do. Franke-Ruta's proposed solution introduces problems of its own (big ones), and that obstacle seems to be the price of change that Schwyzer is unwilling to pay in exchange for anything resembling his actually-desired results. As my favorite tautology goes: things have to change for things to change. Schwyzer concludes:
The way to put an industry out of business that profits from exploitation and degradation is through taking away their customers, one at a time. And we do that by changing their hearts. And we change their hearts by holding them accountable, by refusing to accept or enable, by lovingly challenging them.
But that just isn't true on a meaningful scale. He uses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "moralizing speeches" as an example of revolutionary changing of hearts and minds, but it's not like King was the first person to advocate for civil rights. It's great that he did it, and I bear no grudge against moralizers (and thus can sleep at night, as a blogger). The problem is that there's really no evidence that the moralizing was the catalyst - though I hardly want to discourage discourse on morality.

Making change means thinking bigger. Girls Gone Wild does not come out of a vacuum. If we honestly believe it's a problem, we need to be honest about the things that contribute to its existence and to acknowledge that disappearing GGW will affect more than just which ads you see on late night Comedy Central.
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