What bothers me most about the arguments against pornography — particularly the new one which states that pornographers are violating the civil rights of women — is the failure to think with any concern or clarity beyond the offending issue. To the anti-pornographers the offense against women is so pertinent as to make it impossible for them to imagine a worse crime. But there are worse crimes than offending women; and my guess is that in a world in which the constitutional rights of a free press have been abrogated — because of some moral emergency or other — we would all look back yearningly to the days when the very existence of pornography seemed like a guarantee of what we had since, perhaps irretrievably, lost.
The issue is not one of women or degradation, but how we conceive of the truth. Those who founded our country carefully refused to define what truth was, even though they knew very well what it meant to themselves; because of their own deep knowledge of history, they knew that tyranny occurred when aristocrats or priests had sole rights of definition. Instead, our forefathers wisely trusted that in the public discussions of free men prompted by a free press truth would mostly prevail, being by nature more attractive and compelling than error — not a truth, but the spirit of truth itself in its many historical manifestations, its temporary and cyclical disappearances, its permanent beauty. They understood that private truth is different from public truth — that is, that our personal truths are more or less absolute beliefs to which we offer up the uncompromising sacrifice of our days; whereas public truth is necessarily pluralistic and relative, having to take into account the differing beliefs of all citizens while maintaining the environment of freedom. What is true for a person, in other words, is not true for a republic; from our private life we can, like a dictator, ban anything which offends us; but in our life as a citizen in a democracy not only can we not ban from the public realm that which offends us, but for our own protection we must fight for its right to exist. As citizens in a republic in which our personal tastes and feelings are given no automatic priority, our choice is often the limited but very human one of paying no attention to that which offends us — we can walk out of the nightclub where the dirty comedian is telling jokes, not close it down. The radical beauty of such a concept lies in its new (historically speaking) respect for a person’s capacity to argue and discuss, in print and in public (man and woman, sinner and saint, rich and poor), and out of this interchange to evolve some workable notion of things. That this system of free expression works — even if it does not satisfy the unhappiest members of society — is evidenced by its historical longevity as well as by the relatively large number of personal rights it can still be shown to protect. Obviously men like Jefferson and Adams regarded truth in the political sphere as a dynamic which exists among people who were arguing for different ideas, rather than as a static event, say, like the fixed doctrine of a religious association.
In America, in order to protect this pluralistic notion of public truth, we are permitted the free expression of all ideas, even if by educated standards they are bad ones. This means that Nazis are allowed to march through the streets of Skokie. Shall the mediocrity of Nazis, their mindless hatred for all differences, not be noticed in our public discussions? Look at the Nazi party in America — what kind of political power has it managed to create for itself? Privately I might regard Nazis as deranged subhumans, but I realize the danger of converting that opinion into a law which would strip them of their civil status by not allowing them to state their beliefs. What if it’s someone else who does the stripping, who wants to pluck out error wherever he or she finds it? What if they don’t like atheists either, and they have a certain momentum behind them? If the laws are there to protect me, aren’t I safe from their fickleness?
The anti-pornographer has a personal right to be angered by the excesses of pornography, but this anger should not be blown into a fire which could consume the constitutional rights which protect us from less reasonable zealots. In America we don’t have an official religion, which means that we have to endure the false gods and idolatries of others; nor do we have an official political party, which means that if our candidate loses an election, we have to put up with someone else’s, at least for a few years. Obviously we don’t need an official morality, no matter how offensive pornography is to women. To survive in a democracy demands a conscious willingness to be offended. Nazis offend Jews, Klansmen offend blacks, fat Republicans offend thin Democrats, television offends intellectuals, and intellectuals offend football fans. (In Cambodia, I understand, the Khmer Rouge shot people who crossed their legs or wore eye glasses, both acts apparently indicative of intellectual types.) Life, in other words, is difficult, and the dream of making it less difficult, of depriving the world of its power to harm even our feelings, is oftentimes the dream of a closet tyrant.
Sleaze is something we can live with. It’s the product of loneliness and a lack of power. What I worry about more is the secret quest for power, propelled by outrage and disguised as law, at the expense of fellow citizens who might be dirty or crippled or loud or obscene or retarded or unpleasant.