Saturday, November 22, 2008

With A Public Intellectual Like This, Who Needs Barbarians?

Mike Meloni kindly invited me to write something for Somebody Think Of The Children. We agreed that I could publish it here also - thanks Mike!

In a year or two from now Australians may wake up to find themselves living in a country unique amongst Western democracies - a country that has imposed mandatory filtering on all residential ISP feeds. It is unlikely that most will notice anything unusual about that particular day - any reports of unusually slow Internet connections will be written off as the ravings of a paranoid minority for that is surely what they will be. After all, a single sample on a single day does not a trend make.

That morning may see protests, possibly on the streets. For a brief while the dissent will capture the attention of the media and editorials will be written cautioning the Government that they would do well to treat their newly enacted powers wisely. A few days later, the controversy will die down as the Ritalin-deprived eye of the media wanders onto the next most appealing outrage. Dissent will have been silenced, temporarily.

Several years later, as some wonder why they aren't getting better than 12Mbps out of their now much larger National Broadband Network pipes, others may wonder why the war on child pornography hasn't been won yet. As the calls are raised again for yet more effective filtering of pernicious Internet porn, some may also notice the similarity in the arguments being put forth to argue that anorexia sites should be added to the ACMA blacklist - "it's for the children, after all". This despite the previous assurances that this would not happen. Bloggers in forums such as this will still be bitterly reminding those that read them: "We told you so".

When this situation comes to pass, who should Australians thank for the state they have found themselves in? Perhaps it will be current Minister for Communications, Broadband and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy?


The person that all right-thinking Australians will thank is the founding (and now former) executive director of a left-wing Australian think tank - The Australia Institute - Professor Clive Hamilton. As recently as this week, Hamilton unashamedly claimed moral rights to the architecture of the policy when, during a talk-back program on ABC Radio National, he stated: "We were the first to advocate exactly this sort of system back in 2003". And it is undoubtedly true: the blueprint that the Government has adopted for its mandatory ISP filtering proposal is virtually unchanged from the model set forth in Flood and Hamilton's Australia Institute discussion paper "Regulating Youth Access to Pornography". Senator Conroy may currently be the proposal's leading proponent but he is hardly the intellectual force behind the endeavour. That honour surely, and deservedly, goes to Flood and Hamilton.

One would like to believe that the course of time and rational argument would have disposed of Flood and Hamilton's proposal as a temporary aberration in the output of otherwise respected public intellectuals, particularly ones with such fine progressive credentials. Alas, although the arguments were superbly debunked by Irene Graham in 2003, this is not the case. Not only has this lunacy become official Government policy, at least one of its principal authors still proudly proclaims his ownership of it.

That being the case, one would have expected that in the intervening years Hamilton would have refined his arguments. If anything, his rhetoric is looking more desperate. Take this quote from a recent post on Crikey.

The individuals who live in cyberland often display a contempt for social rules and moral norms that would put post-modern academics to shame. Attacking Labor’s filtering plans, the CEO of iiNet, Michael Malone, declared: “We live in a world of multiple sets of morality, all of them equally valid”.

To substantiate his claim that "individuals who live in cyberland often display a contempt for social rules and moral norms that would put post-modern academics to shame" Hamilton uses a quote allegedly from Michael Malone. Since the source wasn't quoted, one can't be certain what it was, but it seems likely it was this article. In fairness to Michael Malone, here is a more complete quote from the article.

"If the Federal Government says we are going to stop certain sorts of objectionable content, what on earth is the definition of bad here?" asks Hackett. "Is it the Federal Government's definition of bad? Is this going to be a white Anglo-Saxon protestant filtering system? Is it going to be a Muslim filtering system? Is it going to be one that doesn't like Scientology? The problem is we live in a world with multiple sets of morality, all of them equally valid."

"For some parents, they may consider information about homosexuality to be a real problem," says Malone. "But for some other parents they might consider that to be entirely appropriate. Nudity in art may be appropriate for one set of parents, not for another. Those things are household decisions."

So, here we have Hamilton selectively quoting Simon Hackett, attributing that quote to Michael Malone and then implying by omission that this quote displays "a contempt for social rules and moral norms that would put post-modern academics to shame". I challenge anyone to explain how Hackett and Malone's statements substantiate Hamilton's wild claim. The only contempt on display here is Hamilton's own contempt for principled, honest and logical intellectual debate.

All moral standards are equally valid. Electronic Frontiers Australia, which represents the most extreme strand of internet libertarianism, has argued that filtering will impose one set of sexual standards on others who don’t share them and this makes all net censorship invalid.

Logic without moral clarity is no logic at all. If EFA truly believed this then it would support abolition of all restrictions on films, television, books and magazines. Every perverse and sick practice that could find a market would be available, including child pornography.

Hamilton's statement about logic's correctness being dependent on its moral clarity is astonishing for someone who has just accused others of moral relativism. How can logic have moral clarity? Logic is value free. It is precisely this quality of logic that enables logic to be used to rationally debate the different merits of alternative moral systems. This is why ethics is a discipline of philosophy and not a branch of applied religion. One would think, at the very least, that a professor of ethics would understand this vital distinction between logic and morality.

Hamilton's article drew a lot of criticism to its comments page. In response to these criticisms, Hamilton wrote:

As I see it, there are only three types of position to take on mandatory filtering.

  1. We should not do it (end of story, as practicalities are irrelevant)
  2. We should do it but we can't (because filters don't work well enough, so we have to put up with the problem or seek other methods).
  3. We should do it and we can do it (so let's go ahead).

If you believe we should not do it (i.e. your position is 1) there are two types of reasons for it:

  1. It's not a problem
  2. It is a problem but it's not government's job to intervene to tackle it.

In the above quote we have a public intellectual attempting to frame the debate in terms favourable to his argument by presenting a false dichotomy. There is, of course, at least one other choice: it is a problem, the Government should do something about it, but that something should not be mandatory ISP filtering. However, Hamilton appears so stuck in the intellectual hole he has dug himself that he can't even admit the possibility that there are other solutions to the problem that do not involve mandatory ISP filtering. He also appears convinced that the problem is a technical one (the existence of an uncensored Internet) and thus requires a technical fix (eliminate the uncensored Internet).

Let's illustrate the flaw in Hamilton's arguments by drawing an analogy between the Internet and church choirs:

Internet Church choirs
The uncensored Internet allows unrestricted access to websites containing illegal pornography. Church choirs provide pedophilic priests with access to young boys.
Eliminate the uncensored Internet. Eliminate all church choirs.

While it is undoubtedly true that church choirs do provide pedophilic priests with access to young boys, the problem isn't the church choirs, it is the pedophilic priests and that is what needs to be fixed - not the existence of church choirs.

The analogy with the Internet is clear: the problem is not the uncensored Internet, it is with the websites that contain illegal pornography, the illegal pornography itself and the effects on the the people who consume it. And similarly, the fix needs to be directed at the problem, not the medium.

Imposing mandatory ISP filtering does nothing about the illegal websites, it does nothing to restrict access to those sites by people who want it, and it does nothing about the effects on those people. It is the wrong fix for the wrongly identified problem.

One can agree with everything Hamilton has written about the risk that Internet-sourced pornography poses to children and still not agree that mandatory ISP filtering is the only way to address the problem.

While it is intellectually dishonest to present a false dichotomy, it is an intellectual disgrace of the highest order to use that false dichotomy to argue that opposition to mandatory ISP filtering implies supporting "the abolition of all restrictions on films, television, books and magazines. (Implying that) Every perverse and sick practice that could find a market would be available, including child pornography."

Clive Hamilton is one of the intellectual fathers of the mandatory ISP filtering proposal the Government is now advocating. His continued arguments in support of it are often intellectually shoddy and are at times dishonest and disgraceful. He should be ashamed of himself.

With a public intellectual like this, who needs barbarians?

Jon Seymour is a left-libertarian geek who cares for Englightnment values, both his own and those of others. He is thankful he briefly studied philosophy at university and deeply regrets the fact that Clive Hamilton did not. He blogs about this and similar issues at "Broadbanned Revolution - fight the philterphiles that be."

This article may be reproduced, unedited, in other forums. Requests for permission to publish edited reproductions of the article should be directed to the author.

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