Tuesday, 13 May 2008

This post has been rated 'R' for 'Rambling'

This is sort of a response to Andy's post last week about censorship in games, and the response to violent games in particular. It's only sort of a response, since I pretty much agree entirely with his point of view, and hence just want to make a few vaguely related points.

Personally I am dead set against censorship. I don't think that someone looking at a piece of art and saying "this is not allowed to exist" leads to a healthy society. I think that it leads to a society obsessed with the forbidden and the taboo where every piece of art is scrutinised to see whether or not it is allowed to exist within the rules of society, rather than whether or not it has artistic merit. It also seems like it would lead to a more restrictive society in which we were denied personal experiences because others had decided that we could not be trusted to experience them.

And this, I think is the more important point. I don't think that pieces of art have the power that we sometimes attribute to them to permanently affect our mental state. In terms of lawmaking, either the state has to allow us to make decisions for ourselves, or it has to declare us unfit to make decisions. I think that allowing us to make our own decisions about what we view and experience is an essential part of living in a free society, and the only valid reason for restricting an experience is its effect on other non-consenting (or non-adult) parties.

In the case of reading a book, viewing a film or playing a game, there is no non-consenting party (assuming you're not forcing someone else to watch/play too), and as such it is a decision for you and you alone as to whether you engage in the activity. For the state to step in and say you cannot read this book/watch this film/play this game says two things, firstly that engaging in the activity in question would be (psychologically, mentally, emotionally) damaging, and secondly that the state has a right to prevent its citizens from engaging in self-destructive behaviour.

The second point is not something I really want to go into, partially because I don't really know what I believe, and partially because I simply don't know enough about the arguments involved. Can we be called a 'free' society if we don't allow suicide, drug taking etc? If we ban things because they are bad for you, then do we need to start officially regulating people's food intake and exercise levels? If allowing people to commit suicide would be neglectful, then is allowing people to smoke not too? I don't know, and I don't really want to bullshit my way through an attempted argument.

On the first point, though, we simply need to know whether or not a piece of art can be said to be intrinsically damaging. Clearly this is a hugely difficult matter, because pretty much all art lies in the massive grey area between totally inoffensive and basilisk. To draw a line here is difficult legally, but when we try to do it scientifically, it becomes even harder. How do we measure the effect of a piece of art on someone? And how do we classify an emotional response as 'damaging' or 'non-damaging'? Where do we draw the line between an experience that causes momentary distress, but leads to personal development, and one which is emotionally crippling?

Ultimately, I don't see any way that a censorship system for art could be constructed in the abstract, let alone put into practice. So, as usual, we have a compromise to deliver. Do we accept the possibility that there exist unbalanced individuals for whom a piece of art may cause their behaviour to degenerate into the socially unacceptable, or do we think that that possibility is unacceptable, and remove any experience from society that could cause such a degeneration. The problem with this approach is that the art itself does not cause this degeneration (assuming it is not in fact a basilisk), but merely forms part of a complex series of causes.

No one plays through GTA and suddenly becomes a gun toting homicidal maniac, in the same way no one watches Se7en and becomes a serial killer, or reads Lolita and becomes a paedophile. Art is ultimately escapism, and no matter how realistic it is, it is not real, and obviously not real. Anyone who becomes confused between a game or a film and reality, or who takes 'ideas' from a film or game and puts them into practice without applying a basic morality filter is firstly not an 'average' person, secondly not mentally healthy, and thirdly someone who may well have done something else unacceptable given a slightly different stimulus. So, do we restrict everyone else in society based on a superficial reading of these rare individual cases, or can we recognise both that these cases are symptoms of other, deeper problems with the way our society treats people, and also that some level of degenerate activity is part of the price we pay for a free society.

As with any question of this kind, there is no correct answer, and it is a decision for society to make and to change as it sees fit. On a personal level, I believe that a freedom to create art that challenges people is a healthy aspect of society, and one without which long term change becomes difficult. Applying any kind of censorship in practice stifles creativity and prevents the feedback loops that allow society to produce new and interesting art.

I don't want to see Saw 3 or 4, I don't want to see 2 girls 1 cup, I don't want to see Audition or Hostel. This is not because I believe them to be evil, unacceptable or even undesirable, but they are not pieces of art that I believe I would enjoy. And so I choose not to watch them. These are films and videos that are pushing the boundaries of what is currently acceptable (certainly for me) and yet we as a society have not simply dedicated ourselves to producing these extreme pieces, we are also filling in the 'gaps' behind them, producing a wider range of art than ever before.

My point, I guess, is that I think it is healthier to allow people to produce whatever they like and let society decide what it wants to experience than to tell people that they are wrong, and that the things that they want to see are not permitted. And ultimately, on that point, it is simply a matter of personal belief. Can people be trusted to act responsibly in society whilst viewing whatever they want? Is the benefit from a freedom to create worth the cost of the occasional transgression? Would censorship actually have any effect on the problems it claims to address?

Personally I think that I would rather live in a world with vibrant and free artistic expression.

Huh, that ended up being longer and more rambling than I originally intended. I was planning on focusing more on computer games and less on the whole abstract-ethics thing, but that's where my mind tends to wander when I'm not sure what to say. I might do a bit on specifically computer game based censorship another time, but in case I don't, here's the link I would have used to the ever relevant Charlie Brooker's take on the whole business. Notable not least for the fact that I can remember reading his game reviews in PC Zone, before he was a celebrity and all that.


Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

I'm sure I insulted Charlie Brooker at one point, however today I agree with him, mostly, I think his description of storyline is a little off, but maybe not by much.

On your stuffs, I agree. It threw me a little you referring to art, mostly, I was thinking, but I was talking about computer games, however they are indeed art, more so now than maybe they where years ago, but most defiantly art.

I think that games are most defiantly a scapegoat at the moment, that can be blamed for all the wrong in the world, because to blame parents or the media or anything else would be to admit fault. I'm getting mildly pent up so I shall stop before I spew a torrent of abuse at the stupid people who moan for no good reason whilst unwilling to change their own actions. Bitches!

Anyway personally I'm not opposed to ratings (15, 18, AO (Andy Only)) as I think that certain things should probably be reserved for older people. This may be contradictory to what you where saying, but I don't think that a bunch of 14 year old scallies going to see Hostel or some other torturefest film is a good thing, as some of them are more inclined to brutality in the first place so giving them tips is hardly a good thing.

It is mostly to do with the individual and what they deem appropriate for them to watch, but could making it entirely open lead to problems. I dunno, there's a lot to think about from this post, if heroin was legal would more people do it and in turn would more people suffer as a result? not sure?

By way of strange confession/illustration. I don't quite know what triggered it, but it may have been a game called Condemned, which involves serial killers and some of the methods they use. Anyway I was recently just drifting off to sleep when I started to think about how I would punish some ass-hole scally if they had tried to attack me in Salford. I've luckily never been attacked in Salford, but it's something I am aware of so at times think about what I would do if it did, and this time it took the form of horribly torturing this person. Now I'm not that much of a violent person so I know that I would never do this, but entertaining the thoughts was strangely enjoyable and it took me a while to snap myself out of this mindset. I know that this is a disgusting way to treat another human and I seriously doubt I'd be able to go through with it if the situation arose, but it's a little worrying that all it really needs is for me to decide that this is in some way acceptable or justified for it to become reality.

Anyway hopefully that hasn't freaked anyone out too much, but if that's how I think, what about someone who is more inclined to commit acts of violence?

immedia reaction said...

You mean "definatly" rather than "defiantly" and what you actually mean is "definitely".

I'll read the actual post and reply at some point I promise...

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

hahaha cheers, could you spell check all my posts before I submit them too :D

immedia reaction said...

I'm probably obsessive enough to do so, but must regretfully decline, in order to maintain some semblance of a life...