Exasperating Anti-Porn Editorial Fails to Acknowledge That Words Have Meanings

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Words are important. After all, we can only communicate because we have a mutual acceptance of the objects and concepts to which our own series of abstract sounds refer. If you’re a semiotician, you can amuse yourself for hours pondering on the interaction between signifiers and their signifieds. For the rest of us, it’s important to think every so often about how important these interactions are to defining the way in which we interact with the world — and, in particular, how important the specific meaning we choose becomes to the way we discuss abstract concepts like politics.

Take, for instance, this piece from the Guardian last week, wherein the paper’s resident radical feminist Julie Bindel returns to one of her favorite topics: porn. Her arguments on this topic tend to focus on dubious links between porn and violence, and on the idea that porn normalizes and enables violence against women: “The world,” she argues in this piece, “would be a better place without porn.” Given that this is an entirely hypothetical situation — the world would be a better place without mosquitoes, too! — it hardly seems worth arguing about, but still, it’s worth examining as an example of the way in which radicals on both sides of the political spectrum have a bad habit of shaping language to fit their arguments.

There are two things to consider here. The first is that Bindel’s argument is largely nonsensical: despite the fact that censorship and/or attempts to abolish porn seem to be the logical conclusion of her argument, she’s apparently not calling for either of these things. A charitable interpretation might be that as a feminist, Bindel presumably understands that legalization of sex work has generally led to better conditions for the women involved in that industry, and that driving any aspect of it back underground would be counterproductive and destructive, but to be honest, I don’t think she’s that smart — she just wants people who consume porn (male or female, presumably) to feel bad about it.

But in any case, the more interesting part of this piece is the language it uses. Clearly, the majority of porn isn’t violent, in the accepted sense of that word. It doesn’t involve men using physical force or abuse to force women to submit to their will, or for the purposes of their own pleasure. There are, of course, corners of the Internet where violence and porn do mix, either to cater to the fetishes of the viewer and the people involved or, more disturbingly, as a means of coercion. The latter is clearly something that must be gotten rid of by any means possible, but to say that its existence makes all porn inherently violent makes no more sense than arguing that, say, the mistreatment of migrant laborers makes all farm work exploitative.

I suspect, though, that Bindel means violent in the sense that Andrea Dworkin famously discussed in Intercourse, that in a patriarchal society, the act of intercourse itself is inherently violent. This is an idea that tends to get misread, both by feminists and critics of feminism, who like to simplify Dworkin’s contention to “all sex is rape,” when her actual argument was rather more nuanced:

No, I wasn’t saying that [all heterosexual sex is rape] and I didn’t say that, then or ever. … The whole issue of intercourse as this culture’s penultimate expression of male dominance became more and more interesting to me. In Intercourse I decided to approach the subject as a social practice, material reality… Since the paradigm for sex has been one of conquest, possession, and violation, I think many men believe they need an unfair advantage, which at its extreme would be called rape. I don’t think they need it. I think both intercourse and sexual pleasure can and will survive equality.

But in any case, the point is that words like “violence” and “brutality,” in the context of this piece, don’t suddenly change their meanings just because Julie Bindel wants them to. This stuff is important, because without words, we can’t talk about anything. Attacking meaning has been a favored tactic of the right forever — ask an average American what “communism” or “terrorism” mean these days, and you’ll get a million different answers, because these words have essentially been shorn of their meanings, existing now only as rhetorical devices to refer to anything whoever’s using them happens not to like. Of course, the left has never been averse to it either, and these days, sadly, it seems to be an all-too-common characteristic of social justice discussions.

It’s not for nothing that George Orwell, who devoted some of his best work to the interaction of language and politics, incorporated the idea of doublethink into 1984 — as well as providing for rich satire, it represents the most extreme manifestation of the plasticity of language: if war is peace or freedom is slavery, then what do those words mean? Nothing. Perhaps the most terrifying real-life example of this comes from David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult in Waco, wherein children learned to substitute the word “love” for fear; when rescued from the compound, these children continued to claim that they “loved David,” having been deprived of the vocabulary to express their true feelings. (I’m not making this up, by the way.)

It’s this sort of confusion that leads to interminable Tumblr arguments over statements like “people of color can’t be racist,” which is clearly nonsense — unless you redefine “racism” to mean “a systemic social oppression of people of color” instead of “prejudice or discrimination based on race,” in which case it becomes a valid point. Problem is, that’s not what the word “racism” means. If you unilaterally redefine it to mean this, you lose the ability to describe ethnic conflicts between people of various colors, or between “white” ethnicities.

If people want any sort of intelligent discourse on these topics (which, in the case of Bindel, I rather doubt, but happily, she’s not representative of anything beyond a lunatic fringe of radical feminism and TERFdom), it’s important to use clear language rather than throwing around rhetoric. Sadly, Bindel tends to eschew the former for the latter. At one point, she argues that, “In the 1970s and 1980s, pornography was a contentious issue among feminists. But since the 1990s a neoliberal perspective has developed which labels anti-porn activists as ‘anti-sex,’ and those who support it as ‘sex-positive.'” Regardless of the merits of these claim, how does any of this have anything to do with neoliberalism, which is an economic doctrine? Or does she just mean “new liberalism,” in which case she’s playing fast and loose with words again?

If Bindel had argued, say, “the majority of porn depicts men in dominant roles and women in submissive ones, and this is a problem because it reinforces gender dynamics that privilege men’s pleasure above women’s,” she’d have had some semblance of an actual argument. (I still think she’d have been wrong, for the record, but at least it’s a position that’s worth discussing.) The problem, of course, is that Internet feminism (and Internet politics in general) is characterized by a sort of rhetorical arms race, and it tends to be the people who shout the loudest who get noticed the most.

As a result, you wind up with blanket statements like Bindel’s. She ends her piece by making reference to “the culture of misogyny that porn arises from and contributes to,” which again, is so general as to be largely meaningless. “Porn” is not some monolithic entity — it’s a vast and multifarious industry that caters to literally every imaginable taste, and it runs the gamut from a couple uploading a grainy video to Pornhub, through “indie” sites like Make Love Not Porn, to highly polished professional productions made at a terrifying castle in San Francisco. (And that’s only discussing hetero porn; the very existence of queer porn is erased from Bindel’s argument.)

If you’re going to ignore these distinctions, you’re essentially arguing that “literally any depiction of a man having sex with a woman arises from and contributes to a culture of misogyny.” That may in fact be Bindel’s argument — like I said, I don’t think she’s especially smart. But if she was to argue that, at least her argument would be clear. As it is, her argument is essentially nonexistent. This is what happens when you deprive your words of their meanings.