Ban on porn: Max government, min governance

 

The Narendra Modi government’s ban Internet pornography, on the pretext of checking child pornography, is yet another instance of moral policing and misplaced priorities.

Before substantiating my assertion, I would like to make it clear that child pornography is not something that should just be banned; it has to be rooted out because sex with children is the grossest form of violence, as it robs them of their innocence, harms them physically, and traumatizes them for life. I am of the opinion that in extreme cases, there should be a provision of capital punishment for offenders. The consumers of child pornography should also be penalized.

However, the campaign against child-offenders is difficult because it is a function of better law and order situation; it calls for massive police, judicial, and administrative reforms—something the Modi regime has shown the least interest in. The easier way out, thus, is an announcement that would make news, like banning pornography altogether. The consequence is: maximum government, minimum governance.

Now pornography involving consenting adults, however offensive it may appear to the fine sense of social conservatives, is still a victimless activity; and criminalization of any victimless activity is illiberality, plain and simple. As a Bench headed by Chief Justice H.L. Dattu recently said, “Can we pass an interim order directing blocking of all adult websites? And let us keep in mind the possible contention of a person who could ask what crime have I committed by browsing adult websites in private within the four walls of my house. Could he not argue about his right to freedom to do something within the four walls of his house without violating any law?”

But, interestingly, there seems to be a consensus between Leftists and Rightists over ban on pornography. Most feminists and Leftists describe pornography in their favorite jargon: it exploits women; it harms women during production of pornographic material; women are reduced to sex objects; sexual violence against females is encouraged; it propagates hatred of women; a feminist (Gail Dines) called pornography as “the perfect propaganda piece for patriarchy.” All these are myths, for women in pornography opt for this career; in fact, many of them chose it in their forties. They have their own websites. In no way they were coerced into the profession. This is not to say coercion has been absent, but in such cases it is coercion rather than pornography that needs to be acted against.

As for harm during production, this is an occupational hazard—and for both, women as well as men; at any rate, now studios are very cautious about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV-AIDS. Further, there is no cause-and-effect relationship between pornography, on the one hand, and sexual violence against women and hatred of women, on the other.

On the Right, Irving Kristol wrote a celebrated essay, ‘Pornography, Obscenity, and the Case for Censorship.’ Kristol, the founder of neo-conservatism, wrote, “The purpose of any political regime is to achieve some version of the good life and the good society. It is not at all difficult to imagine a perfectly functioning democracy which answers all questions except one—why should anyone of intelligence and spirit care a fig for it?” His entire case is based on “the good life and the good society.”

People in every society do envision “the good life and the good society,” but can translating this vision into reality be called a liberal enterprise? Is there, or even can there be, a consensus among all people about the vision of the good life and the good society? Further, should it be the “purpose of any political regime” to achieve such a version? And can there ever be a consensus on the means to achieve such version? The answer to all these questions is ‘no.’ Would the translation not lead to some or other sort of social engineering and, eventually, totalitarianism? Yes. In fact, such an endeavor would be a threat to the open society. No matter what the nature of this endeavor is, Rightist or Leftist, the results are always unpleasant. Especially when the endeavor is state-sponsored.

Apart from the illiberality involved in banning pornography, there are practical problems. Cyber experts have already pointed out the impossibility of sanitizing the web. Then there is the problem of demarcating literature from pornography. A large number of classics, Indian as well as Western, can be accused of arousing erotic feelings. Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses have faced the charges of obscenity. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina could also be accused of glamorizing, if not promoting, adultery. Indian literary works can face charges of exalting ideals and values that would harm any society. Agyey’s Shekhar: Ek Jiwani has shades of an incestuous relationship. Premchand’s Nirmala also has a similar implication. BimalMitra’s Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, on which a great Hindi film was also made, is all about the decadence of feudalism, complete with mentions of debauchery and profligacy. In today’s context, the works of Kalidasa can also be accused of obscenity.

Therefore, the Modi government ought to focus on governance rather than moral policing, on its Digital India programme rather than banishing erotica from the Net. For, we, the people, are neither stupid nor impressionable. We are individuals who have been given, by God or nature, a free will so that we can choose whatever we want to. If we can choose who would be right to govern us, to make laws that could send any of us to the gallows, to protest our life and liberty, and to keep our national borders; if we can choose our professions, spouses, the schools for our children, and the persons to interact with; if we can choose the investment instruments on which our future would depend; if we can take a myriad of decisions in our everyday life—well, then, we are also capable enough to know which movie we should watch and which book to read. We don’t need any advisory from cantankerous louts over these matters. We can choose.

The choice may be right or wrong, beneficial or harmful, legal or illegal, but it is the individual alone who is supposed to choose in a modern, liberal society. If the choice harms another individual or violates the law of the land, the offender would be punished; if the choice is made imprudently in an investment, the individual would suffer the erosion of his capital. Similarly, if a person chooses cheap songs over, say, Kumar Gandharva’s renditions and Begum Akhtar’s ghazals, he would grow into an oaf—and would be known as one. If somebody wished to live a life following all the rituals and superstitions of his faith, his social and economic status may remain low. But every individual has a right to be uncultured and superstitious, as he also has a right to be refined and rational.

The Modi government, on the other hand, has a duty—to redeem its pledge of maximum governance and minimum government. Keeping away from “the four walls” of the citizen’s home is the prerequisite for the redemption.