The Final Sign of Fanaticism

GEORGE F. WILL

October 28, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Catherine MacKinnon, author of ''Only Words'' and campaigner in the culture wars on campuses, is more than just another full-time victim, ubiquitous and loud in proclaiming that she has been silenced. This professor at the University of Michigan law school also is a leader of the most radical assault on free speech in American history.

McCarthyism, the ''red scare'' after the First World War, and the Alien and Sedition Acts were the products of political factions with familiar kinds of interests and passions. But today's assault on free speech is launched by intellectuals citing the core values of contemporary liberalism -- compassion, fairness and equality.

Like all monomaniacs, Ms. MacKinnon believes in One Huge Fact. Hers is: We live ''in a world made by pornography.'' She makes two arguments for aggressive censorship of pornography.

One argument is that pornography is not ''only words'' (or only pictures), it is a form of assault, causing violence against women and reducing them to mere commodities. So government should treat pornography as action to be regulated, not expression protected by the First Amendment.

Her second argument is that free speech is, for most people, a chimera in sexist, racist America, where most people are members of ''subordinate groups.'' Pornography, a tool of male domination, must be censored to promote the constitutional value of equality.

Her argument sweeps far beyond pornography. Government has not only a right but a constitutional duty to suppress all expression that exacerbates any ''historically oppressed'' group's subordinate status. Ms. MacKinnon says that pornography and all other expression that imposes (''constructs'' is the preferred jargon) subordination really silences groups, so such expression is itself really a form of censorship, and censorship of it is really an expansion of freedom.

According to the theory behind the proliferation of campus speech codes, there is this new entitlement: the right of certain groups not to have their sensibilities hurt. So censorship is progressive when it suppresses expression that offends subordinate groups. Such groups include almost everyone except white heterosexual males, Jews (interesting, that) and perhaps Asian-Americans.

Free speech must wait until all groups achieve equal status. When Ms. MacKinnon says, ''Society is made of words, whose meanings the powerful control, or try to,'' she rationalizes something familiar: Despotism -- government control of words -- made virtuous by the goal of equality.

Although she bases her case for despotism on an empirical claim (about pornography's power to impel behavior), she shows scant interest in evidence. Judge Richard Posner, reviewing ''Only Words'' in The New Republic, notes some evidence. Denmark, where pornography is completely unregulated, and Japan, where pornography featuring rape and bondage is especially popular, have rates of rape far lower than here; the rate of rape has been declining as pornography has proliferated; women's status tends to be lower where, as in Islamic nations, pornography is suppressed.

The point is not that pornography is harmless. It contributes to the coarsening of American life and so conduces to social crudeness, perhaps even violence. But the First Amendment is a nullity if it protects only expression that is without consequences, or that has consequences universally considered benign.

And even if pornography were proven inconsequential regarding violent behavior, Ms. MacKinnon and like-minded feminists would still want it censored as part of a government program to impose on society a progressive ''consciousness.'' Furthermore, the logic of her position leads to censorship of all depictions, in popular culture or advertising, of women in ''subordinate'' roles.

For someone who so strenuously loathes American society, which she says is defined by pornography, Ms. MacKinnon is remarkably eager to vest in this society's representative government vast powers to regulate expression. She simply ignores the familiar contradiction in radical programs for therapeutic government: If society is so sick that it needs radical therapy, what reason is there to trust the government produced by that society to be therapeutic?

Ms. MacKinnon reasons serenely, as fanatics do, within a closed circle of logic: If you do not see our wicked society as she does, that just proves how wickedly society has ''constructed'' your false consciousness. Thus all critics are dismissible.

This professor, made rich and famous by a tenured position at a prestigious public university, proclaims her voicelessness in a volume published by the Harvard University Press. Here is the final sign of fanaticism -- no sense of the ridiculous.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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