The Pursuit of Knowledge

P Is for Poison

As in political correctness, pornography, and plastic, the three great public poisons of our time.

By From the June 2012 issue

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People poison themselves through consuming stuff that harms them. They also poison the world, by spreading venomous thought, venomous entertainment, and venomous waste. It is a strange feature of our societies that governments increasingly seek to control the first kind of poison, which threatens only the individual, while largely ignoring the second kind, which threatens us all. The reason for this lies in a deep disorder within democracies—namely the fear of moralizing, which leads legislators to order us about for the good of each of us, but never for the good of all.

We go a little way to understanding the matter if we consider the three great public poisons of our time, what they are doing to us, and why we find it so difficult to take action against them: political correctness, pornography, and plastic. The first poisons thought, the second poisons love, and the third poisons the world. Between them they put in question whether human life as we know it will survive, and whether it ought to survive, given what it will look like when the poisons have done their work.

Political correctness means soft censorship—censorship with penalties soft enough to be spread across us all. When people burned each other at the stake for uttering forbidden thoughts, they were also careful to draw a precise distinction between the forbidden and the permitted, so as to confine the danger. When the only penalty for uttering forbidden thoughts is to lose your job as a journalist, or your promotion in the academy, then the task of defining the forbidden area becomes less urgent. Moreover, for that very reason, the poison spreads rapidly through society, so that there is no longer any easy way to avoid it. When “homophobia” or “Islamophobia” are mere name-calling, without clear legal consequences for the victim, they can be used indiscriminately to ruin the career of whosoever might have stumbled, by whatever accident of fate, into the target area. When words become deeds, and thoughts are judged purely by their expression, and not by the arguments advanced in their favor, then there is no clear way of debating the issues of the day, however vital they might be. A universal caution invades the intellectual life; people mince their words, sacrifice style and grace for the clumsy armor of “inclusive” syntax, avoid all the areas where orthodoxies have taken root—sex, race, gender, religion, patriotism—and beat around bushes in which nothing hides.

It is thanks to political correctness that the academy has been overwhelmed by pseudo-scholarship. It is thanks to political correctness that the British government has adopted gay marriage as its policy, even though it never proposed this to the electorate. It is thanks to political correctness that a hospital worker can, in Britain, leave a patient unattended in order to say salat, but not perform his or her hospital duties while wearing a cross. In a hundred little ways our traditional forms of life are being censored out of existence. Every now and then there is a show trial conducted in order to remind the people of this, as when Larry Summers was driven from his position at Harvard for having dared to suggest that the brains of women are differently organized from the brains of men.

The poison of pornography has something in common with the poison of political correctness, namely that it is not noticed as a poison by those who promote it. The astonishing thing, indeed, is that American opinion formers have to be persuaded of the damage that pornography is inflicting. They have to be confronted with the overwhelming body of research, well known to the psychological community and in any case no more than common sense, which shows that porn is addictive, destructive of sexual confidence, undermining of sexual relations, and promoting of an entirely abusive and objectified view of women in particular and human beings in general. Not only is porn driving all romance and hesitation from the expression of sexual desire; it is reconfiguring that desire, so that it is no longer a free gift between persons but a form of enslavement.

It is right to see porn as a poison, because its effects cannot be confined. The addiction is only the smallest part of it. Far worse is the destruction inflicted on the emotional life and on the capacity to love. A difficult discipline, on which the future of society depends, and to which previous generations devoted all that was best in their nature, is being placed beyond the reach of young people. And as a result their emotional lives are increasingly disordered. (If you don’t believe this, then you must read the definitive account in James Stoner and Donna Hughes, The Social Costs of Pornography, Princeton, Witherspoon Institute, 2010.)

IS IT STEPPING FROM the sublime to the ridiculous to extend my argument to plastic? Some would say so. But just look at what plastic is doing to us. Go into any supermarket or drug store today, and you will see products almost entirely wrapped in non-biodegradable cellophane or polythene, which composes some 15 percent of the weight of the goods that leave the store. Most of this will be conveyed to a landfill. But not all of it. Even if only 0.01 percent escapes into the environment, to be blown by the wind, washed into rivers, buried in undergrowth, and eventually conveyed to the ocean, the effect over a matter of a few years is devastating—to wildlife, to the oceans, to the look of the landscape, and to the beauty of human habitations. You can see what I mean if you look from a railway train at those unvisited plots alongside the track. Bottles and wrappings from the passing traffic, few and far between compared with the trash that is collected from each train, have nevertheless accumulated to such an extent that for many miles, and especially through the towns, it is all but impossible to look from the window without a feeling of alarm and disgust. But that sight is a premonition of what the whole world may soon be like. We are told that a platform of plastic waste the size of Texas now swirls in the Pacific Ocean, and all across the world polythene bags drift in the trees, snag in the rivers, and end in the stomachs of animals and birds.

Why mention this in the same breath as the other two P’s? Because it tells us how to look for a remedy. Non-degradable plastic wrappings are unnecessary. They could be forbidden tomorrow and we would survive. Thanks to the agitation over climate change, environmentalists expend their energies on problems that cannot easily be solved, instead of on this one, which can. Forbid these wrappings in one country and the solution will spread to all other countries that are connected to it by trade. To forbid this poison would not be oppressive: it would not be forbidding us from taking pleasures that are meaningful to us, or from leading lives that we really want. Of course, I am not in favor of governments bossing us about. But forbidding this particular poison is not stopping a reasonable pleasure; it is merely compelling us—you, me, and the storeowner—to internalize our costs, and not to pass them on to future people.

HAVING PRODUCED a legal antidote to one of the poisons, why not extend the solution further? It was until recently regarded as wholly within the bounds of legitimate law to forbid the production and propagation of pornography. This changed only because wily lawyers were able to hoodwink judges into protecting pornography as “free speech” under the First Amendment. But it is neither free nor speech: it is a form of visual slavery, in which those who watch are enslaved by the sight of others similarly enslaved. Why not forbid it? What exactly would be lost?

But then what about political correctness? The contrast with the other two poisons reminds us that nothing is harder to overcome than the poisoning of thought. Where is the antidote, when the mental space in which it could grow has been invaded and sterilized? I have wracked my brains about this for quite some time, and come up with the following suggestion: we cannot forbid political correctness, since that would be simply reproducing the disease. But we can ridicule it. We can, by a collaborative effort, go on using language as we should, go on making remarks and expressing thoughts ruled offensive by the censors, and go on showing contempt for their censorious ways.

It seems to me that this is the only available antidote. It will work only if we look out for the people to ridicule and make effect arguments against them, and look out equally for the victims and offer them our support. I don’t see this happening to any great extent in America, and it is not happening at all in Europe. But surely it is worth a try? And maybe the way to begin is to fight those other two poisons that I mentioned. By doing so, we might persuade the world that we are serious about the most dangerous poison of all, the poison that prevents us from thinking.

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.