Not even Madiba can turn anecdotes into data

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

b4fe7c9b0dba486dbca05103ef5b7445One of the documents that awaited my return from the Icasa headings on TopTV’s application to screen adult content channels was a medical certificate, in support of a student’s application for an extension on a deadline. The certificate bore the logo of a naturopath-slash-homeopath, though, and made no reference to the student’s ailment, or her date of her expected return to full health. (Edit: I’ve subsequently submitted a complaint to the Allied Health Professions Registrar about this.)

The subject material in the previous week of the course was pseudoscience, making the submission of this particular certificate all the more ironic. Needless to say, the extension was not granted. But the fact that a student could submit it at all – to me, who makes no secret of my lack of respect for imaginary medicines – was another reminder of how strongly the will to believe can make us immune to changing our minds, or to seeing things from perspectives other than the one we’re currently committed to.

The hearings on TopTV’s channels were certainly interesting. They were also somewhat disappointing, in that any of the stronger cases that could be made against granting permission to screen these channels were entirely absent. To put it plainly, some of those who commented on my column last week would have done a better job than those who made submissions and presented to Icasa.

However, even stronger cases – perhaps from a gender rights perspective, but without the religious moralising and paternalistic bias – should fail to persuade Icasa, because the legal case for being allowed to screen the channels is to my mind irrefutable. But the cases that were presented testified mostly to hysteria’s dominion over reason.

And testimony there was, of the sort that those of you who have been to certain sorts of churches would remember. At one point, the commissioners gave permission for the one of the presenters to introduce another speaker, a 23 year-old man who shared his story of having been raped by his cousin at the age of 13, after said cousin had developed an “addiction” to E-Tv’s adult programming.

This happened after the speaker in question had reminded us that she herself “knows” that pornography causes rape, because of evidence including the piles of pornographic magazines found at rape scenes x and y. This speaker was an authority, she reminded us, because she herself had been raped.

Other authorities we heard from included Nelson Mandela, because quotes from the Long Walk to Freedom are somehow relevant, and also Jesus, because Icasa should heed the words of one particular religion in interpreting laws and a Constitution that are premised on freedom of religion, and freedom from religion as a defining characteristic of the law.

There was no stage, but we were seeing theatre. Not only in the powerful anecdotes from sympathetic figures, but in the rhetorical force of emotive language, the blown-up pictures of brain regions and science-y language (polydrugerototoxins are a thing, according to Doctors for Life) but also in the reaction of the crowd, who were lapping this up. They were receptive to hearing that pornography was as addictive as cocaine and heroin (with the fact that the DSM-V doesn’t list it as one being less important, I guess).

Any mention of “the children” seemed to draw a whoop, and there were sympathetic sighs and murmurs at every mention of moral degeneration of South Africa. The evidence against a moral panic around pornography was pre-emptively discredited with a wealth of statements along the lines of “just yesterday, I spoke to a policeman who told me that pornography is the cause of these problems”.

The people “on the ground” know the truth, we were told, and the “so-called research” indicating that pornography isn’t the cause could not be trusted. It was in fact “rubbish”, which I imagine must be a technical term of some sort. Just four minutes of exposure to pornography can irreparably alter a child, so no safeguards are sufficient – any increase in the availability of pornography is impermissible.

Of course I’m laying it on thick in the text above. This is, after all, part of a competing piece of theatre. But the gravity of a situation (namely the number of incidents of sexual violence, and the struggles of support groups like Rape Crises to even exist, never mind provide support for all) is no excuse for ignoring evidence and basic principles of critical reasoning.

Innumeracy is also a problem. Widespread inability to express and analyse ideas cogently is a problem, not only in that it allows for authorities like Ministers and naturopaths to deceive us, but also in that it prevents them from being able to themselves make sense, even if they cared to do so.

And, if we do want to address the high incidence of rape and other forms of sexual violence, the hysteria gets in the way of our finding the best ways of doing that. For every example of someone who was raped by someone who consumed porn, I can find you thousands of men who consume porn, and don’t rape. But I wouldn’t bother doing so, because these are anecdotes, and good arguments can’t be made from them.

Yes, you might find pornography degrading. And if people who likewise found it degrading were being forced to participate in it, we would have a violation of their consent or their will, which is a legal matter. If the police or the courts are being insufficiently attentive to that, there is an additional problem. But the problem is not the pornography itself, unless that by necessity is degrading.

Some, like the Christian Action Network, think it is and want the entire industry criminalised. But when significant numbers of women search out pornography themselves, it can’t be degrading by necessity – it’s degrading to you, because of your moral standards.

Your moral standards cannot be imposed on others, especially not by the state. It’s a contingent fact only that the state – in South Africa at least – tends to side with the Christian viewpoint in matters such as liquor sales and public holidays.

But let’s imagine the (for example) Christian response if the state was an Islamic one. Then, the same Christian who told me at the hearings “you have no future in this country” would likely be on my side, saying that the evidence alone should dictate policy, and that quotes from the Quran or personal anecdote were no grounds for making decisions.

In other words, they would see the value of a secular state, in which those who are repulsed by pornography shouldn’t have it forced upon them, and where those who wish to consume pornography are free to do so, assuming that it doesn’t cause necessary harms to others. The case for it causing necessary harms to others is far weaker than the case that it does so, as I’ve argued in last week’s and other columns.

As I point out in one of those columns, I’m even of the view that pornography can contribute to social dysfunctions. But I don’t get to choose what sorts of relationships people have with each other, and neither do you – except for those relationships you’re actually in. Meddle with those all you like. But if you want to meddle in mine, you need to motivate doing so with better reasons than your subjective preferences, or the strength of your conviction in them.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.