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Demanding a grown-up debate about child porn


 

Some opinions are so ignorant and wrong that those who choose to express them deserve to be shunned. We can’t, nor should we, silence any opinion.  But if a person espouses certain ideas, it’s perfectly acceptable for that person to be ostracized from public discourse. Publications, broadcasts and universities should refuse to associate with a person who says such things. They can still talk, but we needn’t listen.

Conservative mentor Tom Flanagan has expressed just such an opinion.

I’m not talking about his recent comments on child pornography.

I’m referring to Flanagan’s remarks about Julian Assange. In 2010, speaking on CBC’s Power and Politics about Assange’s publication of U.S. diplomatic cables, Flanagan said that “Assange should be assassinated. I think Obama should put out a contract.” In calling for the U.S. government to murder a non-violent foreign citizen who hadn’t been charged with any crime, for what was arguably an act of journalism, Flanagan exposed himself as a radical extremist, unworthy of a seat at any civilized table. That was the time for the CBC to boot him off the air, for his university to fire him, for his political party to oust him, for the Prime Minister to disassociate from him. Not now.

Once again, here are the words Flanagan uttered at the University of Lethbridge last week when asked to clarify his opinion on the consumption of child pornography — words that in a matter of hours cost him his livelihood and reputation:

“I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures.”

It’s perfectly legitimate to make this argument. It’s a reductive argument, it lacks nuance, but it’s an arguable position. Meaning: if you don’t agree with it, argue it. Don’t burn Flanagan at the stake or banish him from the kingdom for it. But that’s what we do to those who dare to challenge the only acceptable position a person can have on child porn: zero tolerance. And with zero tolerance comes zero intelligence and zero reason.

Child porn has become such a radioactive subject that few dare to discuss it rationally. It’s not even a topic anymore — it’s a curse, a weapon, a stigma.  Consider the headlines containing the words “Flanagan’s child porn views.” Do you want to have “child porn views”? I sure don’t. I don’t want my name anywhere near the words. Even a whiff of association with them threatens to ruin lives.

So let me bow down to the power of this monstrous term and provide the required disclaimer: I am against child pornography. I think those who create it are awful criminals. I think those who consume it are culpable as well, to a lesser degree, as they create the demand that fuels the production. I think child pornography is really, really bad.

But I dare to ask some questions:

1. When a teenage girl posts a nude picture of herself, does it make sense to charge her with producing child porn?  If she sends it to her boyfriend, does it make sense to charge him with possessing child porn? Does it make sense to charge parents for taking bath-time pictures of their small children? Should border agents be allowed to search our phones, cameras and computers for such pictures?

2. Does it make sense to criminalize computer-generated child porn and fictional texts describing child porn, as Canadian law does? Who do these materials harm?

3. It’s easy to end up with child porn on your computer that you never asked for.  Click on the wrong site by accident, and your cache will store pictures you never wanted.  Is it time to rethink what “possession” of these materials really means?

4. How common a crime is child porn in relation to how often it’s invoked? In Monday’s Montreal Gazette, Allison Hanes wrote that “child pornography is a scourge of the digital era. (The Internet) has fuelled an insatiable appetite.” But is there any data to prove children are being abused in greater numbers than before the Internet?

5. Police units on the hunt for child porn have incredible surveillance powers that allow them to spy on suspects without warrants, which Internet Service Providers don’t ask for when child porn is mentioned. Are we eroding our privacy rights and our freedoms online because we are afraid to “stand with the child pornographers,” as Vic Toews put it when bullying those who opposed his Internet spying bill?

These are questions we should debate. This is a topic we should discuss. I’m glad Tom Flanagan brought it up.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown


 
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Demanding a grown-up debate about child porn

  1. You’ve asked a few good questions, and I have a couple to ask too. What makes a self-taken photo of a teenage girl, or a baby in a bathtub, pornographic? Is nudity necessarily pornographic?

    • part of it is the old charged vs. convicted switcheroo that Macleans likes so much it has even benefitted from. Often decision makers in a case will reach the same conclusion agitated commenters will.

    • To the extent that a nude self-pic is intended to be erotic, it is pornographic. In which case, a not inconsiderable % of Canadian teens are child pornographers…

      • So it’s in the intention of the photographer, the girl, in this case — but isn’t it the intention of the receiver that really makes it pornographic or not? What about the public aspect of it, the sales for money — this is very complex, when you start to think about it. And in this case, it’s Flanagan’s theorizing about it that has got him fired and hated. I’m with Jesse in that we can’t even seem to talk about it long enough to define it — it’s like abortion in that there are no shades of anything but black and white.

        • I believe the test still in use (will accept corrections) is called the community standards test (an odd name, because it’s supposed to be pretty universal and not variable from neighborhood to neighbourhood). Like many tests, the language is fluid and is best evaluated by looking at different examples.

      • Yes, an interesting irony isn’t it?

      • “is intended to be erotic, it is pornographic.”

        Erotic ≠ Pornographic. Pornographic ≠ Erotic

    • Photos of your baby taken by you in the bathtub are likely never meant to be used as pornography. When a teenage girl sends a picture of herself to her boyfriend sans clothes, she likely never intends for that picture to be seen by anyone but him. Fast forward and some adult has hacked into your computer or the teenage boyfriend’s computer and is using that photo of your baby in the tub to masturbate and he/she are sending your babies photos to their network of friends who also get sexually aroused by naked children. Further, the parents of the naked teenager are outraged because they have found the picture of their daughter on her smart phone and they are out for blood….certain that her boyfriend must have coerced her into sending the photo. The teenage girl is too afraid to admit what really happened and the boy is facing charges. Is nudity necessarily pornographic? Absolutely not! However, are the pictures we take safe from exploitation? Absolutely not!

      • Yes, but the law does not make these distinctions. I personally think it is insane to apply child porn laws to teenage sexting.

        • It has much to do with the age of the “teenagers” doing the “sexting”. Unfortunately, in some cases the one party is older than the other. Let’s say it is an 18 year old dating someone who is 14.. Suddenly, it looks like coercion on the part of the “adult” teenager. As I said, parents become involved. Many are denial that their 14 year old has a sexual relationship. The law is there to protect young teenagers exploited by adults. You are right, it won’t differentiate between an 18 year old teen and a pervert who trolls the net pretending to be a teenage boy and asking girls to send photos, especially if parents call foul. After all, how else does the case of teenage sexting come to the attention of police?

  2. But the argument was phrased so badly that the counterarguments were well-known and obvious (even if we consider the debate controversial, it’s hardly NEW, like abortion the lines have been drawn for quite a while). It’s not that his arguments were hideous and evil, they just had obvious consequences that WERE, and that he apparently didn’t think about.

  3. Well said Jesse. It’s unfortunate that so many in the media were so eager to crush Flanagan because of his political allegiances that they completely failed to consider the context of his comments.

    Just another example of how academic freedom doesn’t apply to right-wing academics in left-wing academia.

    • And your evidence that so many in the media were so eager to crush Flanagan because of his political allegiances?

      • Just look at the reporting. Not a single “reporter” sought clarification or context of the comments.

        • Why aren’t you accusing the PMO of rushing to judgement.

        • What about the 20 minute interview on Steve Paikin’s show allowing Flanagan to explain himself?

    • I thought the context of his comments were quite clear: Viewing child pornography is a victimless crime. To try and twist this into a debate on civil liberties is a farce. That is not the argument he was making and that is not what is offensive about what he said.

      • How on earth do you get that child pornography is a “victimless crime??” Ask the children now grown, whose pictures are STILL behind circulated if they do not feel like victims. Look an 18 year old girl whose father sexually abused her and took video and photos of the abuse to circulate on the internet when she was 9 years old, and whose pictures are being “collected” like baseball cards, leading some of those “collectors” to seek her out, wondering if she was as “willing” as her pictures show she is…look her in the eye, and tell her child pornography is “victimless.”

        • I believe that Gmeb was actually referring to the context of Flanagan’s remark, not stating his own opinion. Ie That Flanagan was wrong in making the comment that no one hurt is the process in of view such material.

        • Reading comprehension fail. Holster your outrage and reread the post you replied to

      • He wasn’t saying it was a victimless crime. He was trying to make a point about mandatory minimum sentences. Did you even both reading what he wrote?

        • No he wasn’t – he was arguing that just looking at pictures shouldn’t be a crime at all.

          • No, he wasn’t.

    • Please do enlighten on this “true” context of his argument.

      • He was making a point about mandatory minimum sentences, and pointing out that instead of jailing someone who’s only a view of child porn, that therapy and treatment might be a better option.

    • Frankly, Rick, I believe this whole “context argument” is a bunch of BS when either the left or the right try to use it. It is pretty clear that Flanagan was trying to be provocative and made a completely dumb-ass comment. In fact, in the past he made flippant comments about being on the mailing list for the “national man boy love association”. Apparently that group has a motto that you have to get sexually intimate with a boy before he’s the age of “eight because after that it is too late”. Now, you tell me, how someone who doesn’t make it clear that he is one-hundred percent against the exploitation of children, is taken out of context when he says that people shouldn’t be send to jail for looking at child pornography. It was Flanagan’s job to clarify that parents taking pictures of their babies and boyfriends getting pics from they girlfriends should not be sent to prison.

  4. Personally, I also have an issue with putting someone in jail for their taste in photographs. However, that was not Flanagan’s controversial comment. Flanagan continued “It is a real issue of personal liberty, to what extent we put people in jail for doing something in which they do not harm another person.”

    Here Flanagan puts his previous comment in context. He has a problem putting people in jail for viewing pornographic photos of children because no one is harmed.

    It is not possible to articulate how ignorant and offensive his comments are. I am also glad he brought it up as it meant karma has finally caught up with him.

    He deserves everything that has happened to him. It’s been a pleasure to watch his demise.

    • Proof positive being an academic doesn’t stop you from being an idiot. We’ve all sat through their courses wondering how they got hired.

  5. I think that people like Flanagan fall into this logical trap that while technically sound, has no bearing on reality. It is an exercise. And trying to apply an exercise into a real-world scenario or situation to try to explain it or justify it is asking for failure.

    Taking an innocent example of pictures of children bathing and conflating it to pictures of abhorrent sexual abuse of children is also an example of such logic.

  6. You are right about one thing: Flanagan should have been shunned and cut off when he uttered his insanity about Julian Assange. You are wrong however, on the other thing. He _also_ deserves to be shunned for implying that child porn can just get onto one’s laptop, unbidden, and that people are being arrested for such mistakes. And that it is effectively just “looking at pictures”.

    He probably also should have been shunned for his poorly researched, ideologically-driven book back in 2000.

  7. I still find it difficult to believe we’ve actually become so paranoid of discussing the topic rationally that we’ve become willing to charge young adults with crimes that will effectively destroy their future lives – the crime being that they’re hormonal and took pictures of themselves to pass to their partner??

    It’s so twisted that it becomes its own evil, IMHO.

    This level of paranoia is the worst thing that can happen with an important issue. It not only prevents us from gathering reliable statistics and thus knowing what’s actually going on, but it also prevents us from taking effective action, which of course leads to the type immoral reactions noted above.

    We as a society seem incapable of learning. We keep repeating our mistakes and failing to recognize underlying themes.

    A society cannot effectively deal with deviance throught zero-tolerance methods. Unless we are able to differentiate between levels of behaviour and nuances in various cases, we inevitably poison the well and in fact make it easier for the truly devious to operate.

    I don’t know why this is so difficult to understand. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all perspective on complex issues. It doesn’t work. You just end up creating your own victums and muddying the waters.

  8. There is a debate to be had. I don’t know what context Mr. Flanagan was considering, but there has long been a debate about the extent & application of criminal law. Traditionally, criminal law has been applied to prevent actions that negatively affect others. Our brand of government has its philosophical roots in a system where people are free to do as they please, with only such interference from government as is necessary to prevent harm to others. We’ve traditionally shied away from being ordered by government to do things “for our own good”. We’re generally free to do things that are dangerous, foolish, or in bad taste, as long as no one else is negatively affected.

    However, in more recent times, the rationale for criminalizing certain behaviours has sometimes required a broadened social view – we prohibit the use of marijuana, largely based on our desire to eliminate the gangs & related crime that goes along with its production, not because of the effects of the drug itself, which are arguably no worse than alcohol. We require the use of seatbelts, and justify it by pointing to the increased cost of socialized medicine paying for injuries when people do not use them. And we criminalize the possession of child pornography as a means of reducing its production, so as to protect the children who are abused in producing it.

    People can differ on the extent to which it is appropriate to look beyond an action to societal implications in order to justify criminal sanctions. In the case of marijuana, I think the criminalization perpetuates the very production crimes that we seek to prevent, and that an overall less harmful strategy would be to legalize it and treat it the way we do alcohol. With seatbelts, I’m more ambivalent. I wear one, and I expect everyone in my car to. But I’m less certain that there is a moral case to be made requiring everyone to wear one. In my view it is foolish not to, but it’s also foolish to eat nothing but fast food. Both are behaviours that could increase society’s costs in providing health care. How far are we willing to go to prevent foolishness?

    Which brings us to child pornography. I’m completely in favour of laws that in any way prevent the abuse of children in its production, including laws that prohibit possession. It makes me uneasy, however, when we allow that to cross over into what I’d consider pure thought crimes. If a person draws a picture, or writes a story, involving sex and children, where no child was involved in the production, should the production or possession of that story or drawing be criminal? On what basis are we invoking the power of the state? Is the fact that I consider that person’s interests gross, distasteful, or morally reprehensible, sufficient that society ought to outlaw the way he thinks? And how do we draw lines between what is unlawful, and what is not, in such a way that people can know in advance whether what they are doing is legal?

    Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a decision on hate speech. In that decision, the Court said that uttering true facts can still be considered hate speech, if it is done in a manner likely to incite hatred toward a person or group.

    There’s a slippery slope when we begin to criminalize what a person says or thinks. In my view, a serious debate is required before we go much further down this road. Things as repugnant as the abuse of children will bring near consensus on zero tolerance, and invasive and intrusive police powers. But there is a risk that those powers become normalized, and the justifications for their use become less and less obvious. Are there bright lines between the kinds of crimes where we’re willing to allow enhanced police powers, and those where we’re not? If we don’t seriously think about these questions in advance, we run the risk of those powers creeping ever wider, until we find ourselves subject to a level of government interference and control none of us is comfortable with.

  9. Fantastic opinion piece that throws both the media’s and society’s fatal lacuna on this serious issue in sharp relief. Well done, sir.

  10. I read his explanation. It had nothing to do with the points you are raising.

  11. Jesse – you need to get educated on the topic . yes there is evidence of increased crime. Stats canada has the proof. And ask police ICE units.
    and your use of a teenager voluntarily posting a picture is a disgusting and ignorant analogy to a child being focably raped.

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