The Supreme Court heard argument in a case about a California statute banning violent video games. The law mimics almost precisely the way the Supreme Court requires that laws restricting obscenity be written: the banned acts have to be precisely described, appeal to base instincts, be patently offensive, and without any serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. In other words, if it’s worthless, it isn’t speech and government can stop it.
The justices doubted whether they should prohibit another form of speech, and if they prohibited violent speech, what next? Those questions would apply equally to obscenity. But my question, and Justice Breyer’s, is why we can ban pictures of naked people but not images of disgusting and worthless violence?
We commonly hear that obscenity and pornography are potentially harmful to women. Men who see it might do violent things to women. But the video games at issue do precisely that; they depict very violent behavior purely for the pain they cause. What’s the point of saying that sex, which is legal, and sometimes blessed, is off limits so long as it isn’t literary, but violence toward men, women, children or animals, which is illegal, and for which we put people in prison, is protected?
I once listened to an elderly women that I had long known describe to me and to her daughter her own sexual ignorance when she was married, and the pain that caused her. Some sex education would have been very helpful. I haven’t heard anyone tell me they missed out on life because they hadn’t seen films of people pouring gasoline on others and burning them to death.
I understand that people have dressed up their views of nudity and sex in religious garb. Yet any scripture that could be cited against sexual misbehavior also has plenty to say about misbegotten violence. There’s a choice being made and I wouldn’t blame it on God. The question for us is whether prudery is important more important than protecting people from the most obscene violence?
A portion of our country believes that exposing people to naked bodies or sexual behavior will ruin them for life and bring down the republic, but exposing them to violence and then handing them weapons just makes “men” out of boys. Actually, that is a much more direct threat to the republic.
Laws against porn, obscenity and violence are in tension with fundamental First Amendment principles – both are designed to control people’s minds, to make sure they think one way rather than the other. But it isn’t any more problematic for violence. Of the two, violence seems much more dangerous to the social fabric.
If we really want to make “men” out of boys and “women” out of girls, I’d suggest national service would provide a much more valuable lesson in shared responsibility – for all of us.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 9, 2010.