About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, June 30, 2008

Hayles shadow-boxes with transhumanism

The fourth of the six articles in the special anti-transhumanism issue of The Global Spiral (June 2008) is "Wrestling with Transhumanism" by well-known critic Katherine Hayles, Distinguished Professor of English and media studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

As with the article by Don Idhe in the same issue, this contains much that I do not quarrel with, though it does seem (despite an explicit disclaimer near the beginning) somewhat naive or presumptuous about what transhumanists do and do not know. As with Idhe's article, the legitimate points that it makes are not especially new and should be familiar to many transhumanists.

At the same time, the article has merit: there's no doubt in my mind that some, perhaps many, transhumanists get carried away with the possibilities ... and it's good to subject their thinking to a reality check. Actually, the same applies to rabidly anti-transhumanist thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama, who seems like a bio-Luddite Chicken Little imagining that transhumanism will make the sky fall in. It would be better if the whole debate about emerging technologies took place within a framework of more realistic hopes and fears.

Hayles gets off to a false start in wondering why transhumanism is still growing in popularity despite what she naively (by her own admission) thought was her knock-out blow to it a decade ago, when she claimed that it rests on an illegitimate over-extension of information theory in imagining the uploading of human minds into advanced computational devices. The difficulty that she faces here is that (as far as I can see) she never did make out her case - indeed, while I largely share her scepticism about the prospect of uploading, I suspect that she is simply out of her depth, as are most literary critics who broach such subjects, when it comes to the philosophy of mind and personal identity.

However, Hayles herself more or less acknowledges that this is a false start. As she says, there are "many versions of transhumanism, and they do not all depend on the assumption I critiqued." This is a pleasing concession for her to make, because it gives an impression that she understands the richness of current debates within the international transhumanist movement and that she will not be insensitive to diversity and nuance. Unfortunately, she immediately adds, dispelling that impression. "But all of them, I will argue, perform decontextualizing moves that over-simplify the situation and carry into the new millennium some of the most questionable aspects of capitalist ideology." This is slightly odd because she never does actually argue the case that "all" forms of transhumanism fall into the trap she identifies. Since many transhumanists, especially in Europe, appear to have anti-capitalist views grounded in socialist or social democratic thinking of one kind or another, it is highly doubtful that anyone could ever demonstrate such a thing.

All this, of course, sets aside the question of whether the "capitalist" views that Hayles dislikes are actually incorrect. She puts no actual argument against them (and nothing about her article suggests that she is particularly well-versed in political philosophy).

Again to her credit, however, she is able to write this, with which I'm pretty much in agreement:

Why then is transhumanism appealing, despite its problems? Most versions share the assumption that technology is involved in a spiraling dynamic of co-evolution with human development. This assumption, known as technogenesis, seems to me compelling and indeed virtually irrefutable, applying not only to contemporary humans but to Homo sapiens across the eons, shaping the species biologically, psychologically, socially and economically. While I have serious disagreements with most transhumanist rhetoric, the transhumanist community is one that is fervently involved in trying to figure out where technogenesis is headed in the contemporary era and what it implies about our human future. This is its positive contribution, and from my point of view, why it is worth worrying about.

Whatever Hayles's limitations, this passage demonstrates that she is no naive neo-Luddite. The assumption of technogenesis, which she endorses, puts her a long way on the path to transhumanism herself. I don't expect her to adopt the label (indeed, my own reservations about the t-word are a matter of public record), but it would be better if she confined herself to saying that she agrees with transhumanist thinkers on this basic assumption, while disagreeing with certain specific aspects of much of the transhumanist thinking that she has encountered to date. That would be more realistic, and more respectful of the people she wants to engage, than dismissing "all" transhumanist thinking as simplistic and decontextualising. Why not take a more tentative and conciliatory approach towards people with whom you share common ground? (Surely Hayles shares more common ground with thoughtful transhumanists than with some of her associates in the special Global Spiral issue.)

Most of the article consists of readings of various well-known science fiction narratives: among them, Nancy Kress's "Beggars in Spain", the novella, and Beggars in Spain, the novel ... with its sequels (not "sequel" as Hayles seems to think); Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children; and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its cinematic version, Blade Runner. Considerable space is also given to James Patrick Kelly's recent novella "Mr Boy", while brief mentions are made of many other sf works, including Greg Egan's Permutation City, cited for its recognition of the horror that could come from knowing that you are an electronic copy of an original personality. She concludes this discussion with the statement that "One need not agree with Francis Fukuyama that transhumanism is 'the world’s most dangerous idea' to appreciate the critiques of transhumanism enacted in these SF fictions."

But this gets complicated for several reasons.

1. I agree with Hayles that it is worthwhile for science fiction writers to attempt to imagine the social and psychological effects of the technological and scientific innovations (the novum as Darko Suvin calls it) that are at the heart of the genre.

2. I also agree with her that sf writers' imaginative efforts may shed light on discussions of the possible social impacts of new technologies and other innovations. Related to that, I agree that the job of a scholar/critic of science fiction is a noble one, and that sensitive, in-depth critical engagement with sf texts is not to be despised. It is helpful for Hayles to report to scholars in other fields on the imaginings of science fiction writers and on how some of these might be interpreted as containing an implicit critique of certain ideas that can be found in transhumanist writings. (However, it's going too far to talk about "the critiques of transhumanism enacted in these SF fictions." The narratives concerned may criticise certain kinds of naive optimism about the future, but they are not in any sense critiques of transhumanism itself, and nor do they, in New Critical jargon, "enact" such a critique.)

3. However, we should all bear in mind that science fiction stands in various complex, and often ambiguous, relationships to technology and social change. For one thing, there is some dystopian pressure on sf writers because the (frequent) requirement for danger and suspense creates a temptation to problematise whatever technology may be depicted. Of course, it is far more complicated than that. For example, there is also a counter-tendency even for science fiction narratives with a dystopian or cautionary streak to accommodate values associated with the depicted technology. Technological innovations that are portrayed as menacing may be, at the very same time, alluring and cool - and acknowledged as such. I'm sure that Hayles is aware of all this complexity, and is simply unable to tease it out in the space available to her, but in the event it is actually Hayles who comes across as rather simplistic. Her account of science fiction and its working is somewhat thin and under-theorised. If we are to find something, perhaps much, of value in the imaginations of science fiction writers, we must engage with the phenomenon of science fiction more critically than Hayles manages to accomplish in this article.

4. The main conclusion that Hayles seems to draw from all this is that transhumanist thinkers have been naive - whereas science fiction writers have been more insightful - about the difficulties that are typically caused by technological innovations. There may be some truth in this: certainly, many of us have had encounters with naive and dogmatic transhumanists. But at the same time, there are plenty of transhumanist thinkers who are flexible in their thinking, open to new ideas, and well aware of the kinds of points that Hayles is making. Thus when she claims that transhumanists have failed to acknowledge such problems as the implications for social justice and social stability from the development of emerging technologies I am simply astounded.

In this last respect, to show that I am not being unfair to Hayles or taking her out of context, let me quote her at length:

Transhumanists recognize, of course, that contemporary technoscience is not an individual enterprise, typically requiring significant capitalization, large teams of workers, and extensive networks of knowledge exchange and distribution, but these social, technoscientific, and economic realities are positioned as if they are undertaken for the sole benefit of forward-thinking individuals. In addition, there is little discussion of how access to advanced technologies would be regulated or of the social and economic inequalities entwined with questions of access. The rhetoric implies that everyone will freely have access (as in the quotation cited above [she refers to a brief quote from Nick Bostrom]), or at least that transhumanist individuals will be among the privileged elite that can afford the advantages advanced technologies will offer. How this will play out for the large majority of people living in developing countries that cannot afford access and do not have the infrastructure to support it is not an issue.

This is correct in part. In the days when I used to take (not very much) part in the discussion on the sometimes celebrated, sometimes derided, Extropians List, I certainly encountered transhumanists who seemed, frankly, heartless when it came to issues such as these. I'm sure that what Hayles is describing exists, perhaps quite commonly.

But at the same time, the issues that she raises, far from being ignored by transhumanists, are the subject of much earnest consideration within transhumanist forums and by thinkers who are broadly sympathetic to transhumanism. If no high-profile (or low-profile if it comes to that) transhumanist thinker has yet produced a definitive answer, it is because of the difficulty of predicting the future and solving the global problems of the twenty-first century, not because the concerns raised by Hayles are new to transhumanists, who are as aware of such issues as global poverty as anybody else.

In her final paragraph, Hayles writes:

I do not necessarily agree with Fukuyama’s argument that we should outlaw such developments as human cloning with legislation forbidding it (not least because he falls back on 'human nature' as a justification), but I do think we should take advantage of every available resource that will aid us in thinking through, as far as we are able, the momentous changes in human life and culture that advanced technologies make possible—and these resources can and should include SF fictions.

No argument there. Most of that sounds fine.

But then she adds:

The framework in which transhumanism considers these questions is, I have argued, too narrow and ideologically fraught with individualism and neoliberal philosophy to be fully up to the task. It can best serve by catalyzing questions and challenging us to imagine fuller contextualizations for the developments it envisions. Imagining the future is never a politically innocent or ethically neutral act. To arrive at the future we want, we must first be able to imagine it as fully as we can, including all the contexts in which its consequences will play out.

I agree with some of this, too. But there is (let me repeat) nothing in Hayles's article to suggest that transhumanism - as opposed to certain strains of transhumanism or certain transhumanist thinkers - is "narrowly and ideologically fraught" with any particular political philosophy.

In the end, then, we can obtain a reasonably large grain of truth from this article: when we think about the future we should never assume that innovations will be introduced without negative as well as positive consequences; and the study of science fiction is of value to people who'd like to consider what those consequences might be. Science fiction is one - though certainly not the only - resource available to people, including transhumanists, who want to think about possibilities for our future.

However, transhumanists can surely acknowledge this. This is the kind of point that could be made in discussions within transhumanism, or among transhumanists and people who are broadly sympathetic, just as much as by entirely external critics. I urge Hayles to put aside her evident prejudices about the entire transhumanist movement and join in that discussion - not as someone who need ever style herself as a transhumanist (if this carries too much baggage) but as someone who shares many of transhumanism's basic ideas and could surely find transhumanist forums in which she feels at home.

Meanwhile, "Wrestling with Transhumanism" seems more like shadow-boxing with an imaginary (or at least simplified) version of transhumanism, rather than grappling with the complexities of the real thing.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dupuy's "anti-humanism" paper

The third article (counting Hava Tirosh-Samuelson's introduction/editorial) in the June 2008 special anti-transhumanist issue of The Global Spiral is "Cybernetics Is An Antihumanism: Advanced Technologies and the Rebellion Against the Human Condition", by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, director of the Centre de Recherche en Épistémologie Appliquée at the École Polytechnique, Paris. Of the articles I have read so far, this is far the most blatantly neo-Luddite in its approach and the most intellectually confused.

In yesterday's discussion of Don Idhe's article in the same issue of The Global Nexus, I acknowledged that Idhe makes four familiar but legitimate points:

1. In the real world, technological advances involve compromises and trade-offs.

2. Technological advances take place in unexpected ways and find unexpected uses.

3. Implanted technologies have disadvantages as well as advantages: e.g., prostheses and artificial body parts are often experienced as imperfect and obtrusive, and they wear out.

4. Predictions about future technologies and how they will be incorporated into social practice are unreliable.

Idhe writes with a degree of rhetorical excess and unashamed hostility to his imagined opponents that weaken his article, but all four of these points are worth keeping in mind by transhumanists and others who are interested in the advancement of technology and in the social applications of emerging technologies. Thus, Idhe's article is a useful reminder of some basics that I'm sure many transhumanists really do lose sight of from time to time. That, of course, is hardly an indictment of transhumanism or the impulses that lie behind it (though it might be an indictment of some specific transhumanist positions that have - to be blunt - lost contact with reality). Exactly the same four points could have been made by a sensible transhumanist thinker who sought to give her colleagues (or herself) a bit of a reality check.

By contrast, I find it difficult to discover anything of merit in Dupuy's "anti-humanism" paper. Okay, there's some interesting historical discussion of the views of Heidegger, Norbert Weiner, and others, but this sheds no light on whether or not we should approve of the ambitions of (some or all) transhumanists. That question cannot turn on the kinds of questions that arise from a discussion of Heidegger's response to certain historical kinds of humanism.

Once we get beyond that, there is not one point, as far as I can see, that is actually useful for people engaged in current debates about appropriate moral and regulatory responses to emerging technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. Instead, we are treated to rhetorical flourishes that depend more on (perhaps unintended) punning and trickery than on rigorous intellectual examination of the issues. In short, if Idhe's paper is weak on originality,* but at least making some reasonable points, Dupuy's is totally useless to anyone who wants to get some understanding of transhumanism and what might be right or wrong with it.

Alas, it's difficult to know where to begin in demonstrating this, since the paper is so thoroughly permeated by weak reasoning and unsupported claims. It would be a Herculean task to attempt to refute it all line by line - not a task that could be performed in the limited space available for a blog post that anyone is actually likely to read (or in the limited time that I am prepared to give to writing it). Accordingly, I hereby urge readers examine Dupuy's paper for themselves; I'll confine myself to a small number of specific points where I think it goes badly wrong. Even this is made difficult by Dupuy's cryptic, allusive style. It's not difficult to understand that he is hostile towards emerging technologies, but it is certainly difficult to pin down exactly why he is so hostile.

But let's start with an example. At one point, he offers a brief and under-explicated account of the views of German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, which I do not claim to understand (Dupuy doesn't help me, because he alludes to these views, quotes Sloterdijk briefly, comments dismissively on what he quotes, but never actually explains what he takes to be Sloterdijk's position).

In response to Sloterdijk, Dupuy makes the following comment (among others):

"For man to be able, as subject, to exercise a power of this sort over himself, it is first necessary that he be reduced to the rank of an object, able to be reshaped to suit any purpose. No raising up can occur without a concomitant lowering, and vice versa."

He does not explain this any further; nor does he support it with evidence. While the sentences I've quoted have a certain rhetorical ring, I have no reason to think that they say something that's actually true. Taking them as literally as I can, Dupuy seems to be saying that if we are to shape ourselves for our own purposes, we must thereby reduce ourselves from being subjects to being mere objects (note the expression "reduced to the rank of an object" - my emphasis). But why should that be so? He doesn't actually tell us why.

Imagine that I attempt to alter my physical capacities by engaging in a rigorous program of exercise accompanied by a low-fat, high-protein diet. At the same time, I might attempt to be reshape my personality (to a degree) by reading books that give me advice on how to overcome my shyness in company - and by acting on the advice that is given in these books. In carrying out this dual program of self-improvement, I am seeing myself as something that can be acted on and altered. If that is the definition of an object, then - to Hell with it, yes - I am seeing myself as an object and treating myself as one. However, the word "object" can have other definitions. Bearing that in mind, let's say that I am seeing myself, and treating myself, as an Object-1. I am also treating myself as an Object-1 if I drink coffee in the morning to try to rouse myself from lethargy (I don't wake up easily after a night of deep sleep) or if I drink alcoholic liquids in the evening, in part to break down my inhibitions and be more relaxed over dinner with friends. An Object-1 is simply something that can be acted upon and changed in one respect or another.

Another conception of what it is to be an object is to lack various properties that might be thought of as constituting subjectivity. I might think of something or someone as a "mere object" if I imagine that they lack such characteristics as sentience, the capacity for reason and understanding and thoughts about the future, and the ability to reflect on their own values. Or perhaps I can be said to treat someone as a mere object if, despite knowing that they possess these or similar characteristics, I treat them as if they do not possess the kinds of moral considerability that such characteristics seem to involve. Let's say that something which lacks these kinds of morally considerable properties is an Object-2, and that we treat someone as an Object-2 (even though she is not one) if we act towards her as if she lacked these sorts of properties.

The thing is, each of us really is an Object-1. I.e., it is possible to act on us and change us in various ways. I treat myself as an Object-1 if I attempt to alter some aspect of myself (whether temporarily or permanently). However, it does not follow that I thereby treat myself as if I were an Object-2. Nor does it follow, when I treat somebody else as an Object-1, that I am also treating her as a mere object, an Object-2. For a start, she might welcome, invite, or even cooperate with my attempts to produce changes in her (perhaps I am her sports trainer, dietician, physician, teacher, counsellor, or psychiatrist). Moreover, we normally think it permissible to make at least some attempts to change people, even if they don't will it and sometimes even against their will (e.g. by means of persuasion). To treat somebody as an Object-1, which we do all the time, is simply not the same as treating her as an Object-2. Whether or not an act of treating someone as an Object-1 is desirable, commendable, or deplorable will not hinge on the mere fact that she is being treated as an Object-1, but on a whole range of accompanying circumstances, such as whether or not she is also being treated as an Object-2.

Indeed, there is far more to it than this. For example, moral issues arise from the well-known fact that early embryos really are Object-2's: they do not possess such characteristics as sentience, rationality, autonomous self-reflection, and so on. There might still be some moral limits to how we should treat them, but these will need to depend on other considerations. Thereby lies a mountain of bioethical literature on the supposed rights of embryos.

I am not going to assert that Dupuy doesn't understand any of this. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't (though I must say that there's no sign that he does). The point is that careful distinctions need to be made when we explore this philosophical territory, and Dupuy does not make them, preferring, apparently, to throw around emotionally-charged language with an imprecision that verges on irresponsibility. What is clear, though, is that many acts of "raising up" (if this includes acting on ourselves or, in appropriate circumstances, on others, in ways that we see as enhancing) can take place without any "concomitant lowering" (if this means that someone is treated like an Object-2). The "no raising without a lowering" claim sounds impressive - like a line from Heraclitus, perhaps - but there's no reason to give it credence.

Let's take another example of the many where Dupuy appears to be confused. Consider this brief quotation, in which he is complaining about the idea of deliberately redesigning aspects of the world that we find ourselves in:

"One can hardly fail to note the irony that science, which in America has had to engage in an epic struggle to root out every trace of creationism (including its most recent avatar, 'intelligent design') from public education, should now revert to a logic of design in the form of the nanotechnology program—the only difference being that now it is mankind that assumes the role of the demiurge."

Again, where to start with something like this? It is, of course, true that modern biological science is able to explain the diversity of life forms and their functional complexity without resorting to any notions of a supernatural designing intelligence. It is also true that this idea has been resisted on religious grounds, and that rearguard attempts are constantly being made by such bodies as the Discovery Institute to cast doubt on the current evolutionary paradigm - all with the aim of restoring scientific prestige to the idea of intelligent design of living things (by the biblical God, needless to say). It has, indeed, been necessary for genuine scientists to defend legitimate biological science from the well-funded polemics of self-styled Intelligent Design proponents.

But it does not follow from this that nothing is ever intelligently designed. It now seems to be indubitable that the Earth's various life forms (including Homo sapiens) are not the design of a cosmic watchmaker. But it does not follow that watches are not designed by watchmakers. Human beings do, obviously, design many things all the time; it's just that this doesn't entail that other things, such as leaves, eyes, and the flagella of bacteria were designed by a non-human intelligence. The trick is to be able to distinguish which things really are intelligently designed (such as swords, sewing machines, and sailing ships) and which are the products of evolution and deep time (such as livers, lizards, and lorikeets).

Nor does it follow that we are unable to intervene intelligently to modify things that are products of evolution. And nor does it follow that we should not do so when it's in our power, as it often is to some extent. Whether or not we should do so in any particular case will depend upon such considerations as whether the intended modification will really advance our values.

Accordingly, there is no "irony" at all in the idea that we might (1) defend the truth of the claim that leaves, livers, lizards, lorikeets, and Lindsay Lohan are all products of biological evolution, while also (2) defending the desire of transhumanists and others to redesign aspects of the world and themselves to make them nearer their hearts' desires. This is a perfectly consistent position to take. Any irony is entirely in the (evolutionarily-evolved) eye of the beholder - a beholder who is simply not thinking straight in passages such as the one I quoted a few paragraphs back.

Unfortunately, the problems go on from there. As we strive to make sense of Dupuy's paper, we find ourselves struggling with the thoughts of a man who deals in reliance on dubious authorities, long quotations of impressive passages with tangential relevance to the matters at hand, oracular pronouncements (I especially love "In the darkness of dreams, there is no difference between a living cat and a dead cat", whatever that is supposed to mean), false paradoxes, and generally a style with which it's impossible to engage rationally without patiently querying the basis for almost every thought (as I hinted earlier, the level of patience required is considerably more than I can muster on this occasion).

While the paper, taken as a whole, is ornately impressive, its critique of emerging technologies builds dubious point on dubious point to the extent that it has no real foundation. It would, indeed, be easy - and to some extent justifiable - to dismiss the whole thing as X thousand words of high-sounding sophistry, but of course such a dismissal will not convince people who are biased towards Dupuy's neo-Luddite conclusions; hence, it's been necessary to give examples of where it goes badly wrong - to give an indication of why I think it's all a tissue of nonsense.

Near the end, Dupuy offers this paragraph of pseudo-wisdom:

The ethical problem weighs more heavily than any specific question dealing, for instance, with the enhancement of a particular cognitive ability by one or another novel technology. But what makes it all the more intractable is that, whereas our capacity to act into the world is increasing without limit, with the consequence that we now find ouselves faced with new and unprecedented responsibilities, the ethical resources at our disposal are diminishing at the same pace. Why should this be? Because the same technological ambition that gives mankind such power to act upon the world also reduces mankind to the status of an object that can be fashioned and shaped at will; the conception of the mind as a machine—the very conception that allows us to imagine the possibility of (re)fabricating ourselves—prevents us from fulfilling these new responsibilities. Hence my profound pessimism.

I am still not sure where his "profound pessimism" comes from. On close inspection, this passage makes no sense at all. Why are our ethical resources said to be "diminishing"? Surely they are increasing as we obtain a better understanding of the phenomenon of morality and realise the irrationality of clinging to inherited moral ideas that may once have had some pragmatic usefulness in very different cultural, economic, and technological circumstances. We are far better placed than our ancestors to ask whether we really want to live by this or that moral norm under circumstances prevailing today - whether it is really a norm that advances our deepest values (utilitarian, aesthetic, or whatever) and so is worth preserving. Moral philosophy - the rational investigation of the phenomenon of morality - is better placed than ever to make progress; our "ethical resources" are constantly increasing.

As for the claim that "Because the same technological ambition that gives mankind such power to act upon the world also reduces mankind to the status of an object that can be fashioned and shaped at will" ... this seems to make sense only if we confuse the concept of Object-1 (something that we can, to some extent, act upon and change) with Object-2 (a mere object - something that lacks the foundations of moral considerability). It is not at all clear why the idea that we are, in a sense, like machines - i.e. we are physical things in the last analysis, but with an intricacy of functioning - should prevent us from exercising responsibility in how we use emerging technologies. Everything about us can eventually be traced back to physical processes that occurred over the billions of years of deep timeand culminated in the evolution of Homo sapiens, but it does not follow that we lack the characteristics (sentience, rationality, self-reflection, etc.) that we actually have, or that we are wrong to value them. The profound pessimism expressed by Dupuy is based on a series of intellectual confusions. Maybe it's time for him to cheer up a little.

Hopefully, the remaining three articles - which I'll get to soon - will contain arguments of more substance (not to mention lucidity). If this mess by Dupuy is the best argument that the modern-day Luddites can offer, they might as well throw in the towel now.

* And don't forget that Idhe has been discussing such issues for many years - going back to the 1970s when his points were (I suppose) less familiar.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Idol worship?

In my continuing program of reading, and commenting on, the six articles about transhumanism in June's edition of The Global Spiral, I now come to "Of Which Human Are We Post?" by Don Ihde, who approaches the issues from a perspective in philosophy of technology.

This is actually a good article, in many ways, though of somewhat limited ambition. The title is rather misleading, at least to this extent: the overall topic of this group of articles is supposed to be transhumanism, so the title could give the impression that somebody (I don't know who this would be) claims that we are already posthuman.

That, of course, is not a claim typically made by transhumanists. The idea, rather, is that a time will come when there will be intelligent creatures that are, in some sense, our successors - but with capacities greatly different from ours. These are usually imagined as enhanced capacities: these beings might be (for example) smarter, stronger, healthier, and/or longer lived than we are. Their bodily morphology might differ from ours, or, in the extreme, their intelligence might "run" on an entirely different material substrate from our carbon-based bodies. A wide range of possibilities can be identified, but no one that I know of within the transhumanist movement is arguing that such creatures already exist. At most, they argue that we are in the process of altering ourselves technologically to the extent that it makes sense to think of us as now in transition between our evolved human form, nature, and capacities and those of so-called posthuman creatures.

On this view, we are not "post" any kind of human at all ... yet.

But perhaps this is a side issue. Most of Ihde's article does not discuss transhumanism in any direct way, but rather makes more general observations about the development and reception of technology. These observations are far from original to the article, but Idhe has been around for a long time, and perhaps he was saying such things before they became so familiar. Moreover, they are points that are worth bearing in mind - and I'm sure that many sophisticated transhumanists could agree with most or all of them if they were stripped of some slightly nasty rhetoric. Most of them are along the lines of that well-worn cyberpunk catch-phrase (courtesy of William Gibson), "The street finds its own uses for things." Gibson is surely right about this, and there's a large amount of truth in Ihde's analysis.

The significant points that I extract from the article are as follows:

1. In the real world, technological advances involve compromises and trade-offs.

2. Technological advances take place in unexpected ways and find unexpected uses.

3. Implanted technologies have disadvantages as well as advantages: e.g., prostheses and implants are often experienced as imperfect and obtrusive, and they wear out.

4. Predictions about future technologies and how they will be incorporated into social practice are unreliable.

None of these points are laws of nature, but they are useful pragmatic generalisations based on historical experience. One of the features that made early cyberpunk fiction so appealing was its implicit (and sometimes explicit) acknowledgment of such points. Although Idhe argues for each one at considerable length, there was no need for it in my case. Indeed, I made some similar points (citing Gibson as I tend to do) in an article first published in Quadrant magazine ten years ago, "Singularity Shadow". It should not even be necessary to make such points, since anyone who is at all sophisticated in thinking about such issues, is already well aware of them. As with the editorial introduction, I am surprised that so much effort has gone into findings that - to the extent they are true - are rather obvious.

However, I will grant Idhe this much: although the four points I listed above are well known, they are often overlooked, so they probably bear repeating. Some transhumanists and others associated with the transhumanist movement could do with being reminded of them from time to time. Surely there is at least some tempation for transhumanists to imagine perfect, zipless enhancement technologies that are unlikely to come to pass. However, it by no means follows that we should abandon or forbid all attempts to devise enhancement technologies, any more than our inability to emulate the grace and freedom of birds was a reason to abandon or forbid efforts at powered, heavier-than-air flight.

None of Ihde's points - or their combination - entails that attempts to ameliorate the human condition or to enhance human capacities are doomed to futility. At most, such points entail that we should take highly specific predictions, especially those involving short timelines, with a very large grain of salt. I already knew that much, but I don't mind someone like Ihde reminding us all now and then.

However, I do mind some of the rhetoric that Ihde uses. He imagines that his four points are often ignored (well, perhaps they are by people who are too optimistic and need a reality check). However, he is not content to argue that to overlook such points involves error (or even to argue that transhumanist need to inject a degree of realism into their positions, which is often true).

Instead, he characterises people who fail to appreciate his four points as worshipping idols. He describes the so-called idols like this:

The idol of Paradise. This is the idol of much technofantasy which often underlies much of the discussion context we are engaged in.

The idol of Intelligent Design. This is the idol of a kind of arrogance connected to an overestimation of our own design abilities, also embedded in these discussions.

The idol of the Cyborg. Cyborgs, made popular since mid-century, are hybrid creatures of human, machine, and animal combinations, but what do they imply?

The idol of Prediction. Projections of futures are always involved in era shifts, but if past projections are taken into account, this turns out to be a very dicey practice.

I don't believe that I need to comment too much on the language here - the hostility in such word and phrases as "idol", "technofantasy", and "a kind of arrogance" is rather obvious, and there is plenty more of the same. I see no reason why he should adopt such a tone when discussing mistakes that some well-intentioned people may or may not fall into (and which I'm sure that many in the transhumanist movement are well aware of).

Nonetheless, we can draw the more reasonable conclusion that some thinkers associated with the transhumanist movement have a propensity to ignore the gritty realities that cyberpunks such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling have always portrayed (whatever the other pros and cons of their work). We needed no ghost come from the grave to tell us that, but it's a fair point, as far as it goes, and it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge it.

Edit: Spelling of "Ihde" corrected.

Friday, June 27, 2008

On "Engaging Transhumanism"

As promised, I am examining the articles on transhumanism in the current issue of The Global Spiral , an online magazine published by the Metanexus Institute.

The first article is, in fact, an editorial/introduction by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, a professor of history at Arizona State University ("ASU"), who (according to her linked bio) specialises in such subjects as premodern Jewish intellectual history, Judaism and science, Judaism and ecology, and feminist philosophy. Tirosh-Samuelson had the responsibility of putting together the special issue, based on five presentations given at a workshop held at ASU in April 2008.

Thus, the issue contains a total of six pieces: her editorial plus five pieces by the respective presenters (Don Ihde, Jean Pierre Dupuy, Katherine Hayles, Andrew Pickering, and Ted Peters - I'll describe these people briefly in later posts). As Tirosh-Samuelson puts it:

In this workshop, transhumanism was engaged by a philosopher of science and technology trained in the phenomenological tradition (Don Ihde); a sociologist, cognitive scientist, and cultural critic (Jean-Pierre Dupuy); a literary critic (Katherine Hayles); a philosopher and sociologist of science (Andrew Pickering); and a Christian theologian (Ted Peters). Engaging transhumanism from different perspectives, some more critically than others, the contributors agree that transhumanism merits a serious examination rather than cursory dismissal.

Much of the editorial is given over to a (quite detailed) discussion of the articles that follow. It may be necessary for me to come back to this discussion in later posts, as and when I deal with the merits of the specific articles, but I will not respond to it for now. For the moment, I'll work on the basis that Tirosh-Samuelson conveys the content of the other five articles reasonably accurately. I'm more interested in her own discussion of the phenomenon of transhumanism, some of which strikes me as quite accurate, while other parts appear ignorant or obtuse. I'll pass quickly over the piece's prose style, which is horribly clunky. Please blame her, not me, for the stylistic attributes of any quotes from her piece, such as this one, which will also give a good idea of her (not unexpected) supernaturalist bias:

To properly assess transhumanism, it must be situated historically and culturally and interrogated philosophically and theologically.

Just why it is necessary to interrogate transhumanism "philosophically and theologically" [my emphasis] is not made apparent. Insight can come from strange places, of course, and while theology may be one of the strangest - dealing as it does in speculations about the character and motivations of a non-existent supernatural being - I'm happy to give the theologians their say (as long as they don't try to impose their moral and political views on the rest of us, as is so often the case). So by all means let transhumanism be studied and "interrogated" from a theological perspective - but also from the perspectives of the hard sciences, law, medicine, economics, sociology, mythography, literary criticism, art history, urban planning, ceramic design, tourism studies, sports administration, and so on. Theology is not privileged over any of these. Indeed, theologians are about the last people we should offer any deference to when they criticise the worldviews of others.

However, I'll pass over all that to consider the more specific points made by Tirosh-Samuelson. I must say that she actually starts off quite well, ascribing the word "transhumanism" to Julian Huxley (I believe this is correct), and then adding:

Today the term "transhumanism" denotes a cluster of futuristic scenarios in which science and technology will remediate the miseries of the human condition and usher in a new age in the evolution of humans, the posthuman age.

On one interpretation, this seems about right. Charitably interpreted, she is saying that transhumanism is not one thing but a cluster of logically separate things - even if they are sometimes found together. In fact, it is probably reasonable to think of transhumanism as a broad movement whose members envisage a wide range of scenarios for the future but have in common a strong element of technological meliorism in their thinking - and, more specifically, a positive attitude to the use of technology to alter the human body for the purposes of physical and cognitive enhancement. Whether or not all transhumanist thinkers have specific "scenarios" in mind, Tirosh-Samuelson seems, in the early part of her editorial, to acknowledge the protean nature of the movement. Unfortunately, she tends to forget this later on when she makes many dubious generalisations about what "transhumanists" think - but let's give her credit where it's due. (But perhaps the problem is that it's not really due; perhaps she means something less reasonable and plausible than I have taken her as saying.)

She goes on to observe that transhumanists see the human species as "no more than a 'work in progress'". This, she thinks, is because they see Homo sapiens as in a relatively early phase of evolution in which we are enslaved by genetic programming that destines us "to experience pain, disease, stupidity, aging, and death."

This doesn't seem too far wrong. Anybody who seriously identifies as a transhumanist is likely to envisage that technology can (to some greater or lesser extent) and should (at least to some extent and in some circumstances) go inward, transforming us in accordance with our own designs, and thus enabling something like a technologically-mediated evolution of the species. That idea is, indeed, implicit in the name of the journal that I edit, The Journal of Evolution and Technology. It is, I submit, an idea whose time has come - it is increasingly plausible, defensible, and familiar. However, it is also an idea that merits scrutiny from all possible viewpoints (yes, even theological ones).

So far, so good - but Tirosh-Samuelson starts to go off the rails about here:

Bioengineering and genetic enhancement will [according to transhumanists] bring about the posthuman age in which humans will live longer, will possess new physical and cognitive abilities, and will be liberated from suffering and pain due to aging and disease; moreover, humans will even conquer the ultimate enemy—death—by attaining "cognitive immortality," that is, the downloading of the human software (i.e., the mind) into artificially intelligent machines that will continue to exist long after the individual human has perished.

I must say, first of all, that this is not wildly wrong. Indeed, it may well match the visions of some, or even many, transhumanists. More than that, it may a reasonable description of what could be called "popular transhumanism", the kind that is encountered on many websites and doubtless has a large number of enthusiastic adherents.

However, no elaborate scholarship or massive research program of team research was needed to uncover the existence of such a position. The more interesting point that Tirosh-Samuelson failed to discover was that many people within, or associated with, the transhumanist movement would question the vision of the future that she has sketched. Moderately deep research should, in fact, have led Tirosh-Samuelson to find the wide variety of opinion among transhumanists and their allies. In particular, it should have identified passionate disagreements about the realism of the scenario that Tirosh-Samuelson conveys, particularly in regard to such questions as whether any form of personality uploading (or downloading) onto a computational substrate is ever likely to be technologically possible ... and, even if so, whether it is likely to take a form that preserves personal identity and/or constitutes personal survival (in, say, the sense discussed and elaborated by Derek Parfit).

So Tirosh-Samuelson has now gone wrong in taking what she initially described as a "cluster of scenarios" and transforming it into a particular scenario that is controversial within the transhumanist movement. One possible, or perhaps impossible, scenario is presented as somehow the transhumanist scenario for the future.

After this, it gets worse, so much so that it becomes difficult to take any of the author's pronouncements seriously.

For example, Tirosh-Samuelson gives a garbled account of the much-vaunted technological singularity that some self-described transhumanists hope for. She seems to imagine that this hypothetical development has been labeled the singularity because it "will be so unique" (I warned you about her prose: something is either unique or it isn't - there are no comparative degrees of uniqueness or uniquity or uniquedtude). Of course, the term "singularity" denotes a mathematical concept that is explained in almost any serious discussion. More importantly, many transhumanists and others who discuss the concept do not conceive of the singularity in the way that she describes, as the emergence of a particular group of technologies. For example, some describe it merely as a boundary to our ability to imagine the future with any confidence. Others in the transhumanist camp are sceptical about the whole concept. But Tirosh-Samuelson appears to be unaware of any of this.

Indeed, the main thing that is wrong with the piece is not a lack of familiarity with a certain popular form of transhumanism that could (I suppose) be abstracted from Simon Young's Designer Evolution. The latter is an unpopular book among most actual transhumanists I know, but Tirosh-Samuelson takes it as a kind of bible of the movement. By giving it this status, she produces a distorted view of what the transhumanist movement is all about. But more important is her article's lack of something that the opening paragraph promised: an ability to engage with nuance.

She is led, though who knows why, to such bizarre conclusions as the following:

Placing the unlimited human potential (rather than the human as a currently lived experience) at the center of its outlook, transhumanism is also critical of contemporary environmentalism and its concern for respect toward other species and its resistance to massive human intervention in nature, through bioengineering of plants, heavy logging, industrial pollution, unrestricted consumerism, and many other undesirable activities.

This is so thoroughly wrongheaded that it's difficult to know where to begin. It is, of course, true, that transhumanists don't valorise anything that might appropriately be called "the human as a currently lived experience". That is because they agree that human experience, as it has been known historically, can be improved upon. However, it by no means follows that transhumanists tend to be critical of respect for other species (where on Earth did that come from?). Nor does it follow that they are uncritical of such actions as heavy logging and industrial pollution. It doesn't even follow that they are uncritical of the bioengineering of plants or unrestricted consumerism - though it is difficult to see what these are doing in the same list. They are all separate issues: someone could be in favour of bioengineering plants in some circumstances (it's not obvious why it should be labeled, without any argument, as an undesirable activity), while also opposing the logging of old-growth forests. The issues are largely independent of each other. Someone could accept some aspects of what is known as "unrestricted consumerism" (whatever that tendentious expression really means) while at the same time favouring at least those restrictions that are necessary to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Again, there are independent issues here, even if there are also some links, and transhumanists are as capable of thinking clearly about these different issues as anyone else.

Again, Tirosh-Samuelson claims that the following describes transhumanism:

From a transhumanist perspective, radical environmentalism is misguided because it erases the moral differences between humans and other animals and because it invests nature with inherent moral values. The evolutionary process is not directionless but purposeful, life is not an accident but an evolutionary inevitability, and humanity is "not a twig on the bush of life, but the peak of evolutionary complexification on earth due to the incredible power of the human brain."

The final quote is attributed to Young, and the view she is describing may well be Young's. However, once again, it's difficult to know where to start in sorting out this intellectual mess. Even the expression "radical environmentalism" is ambiguous, so it is not clear just what position Tirosh-Samuelson imagines transhumanists must oppose. The fact is that there are many more-or-less radical environmentalists positions, such the one advocated by Peter Singer, that can be as attractive to transhumanists as to anyone else. Perhaps there is some tension between transhumanism and certain deep green positions that claim the wilderness is objectively and non-instrumentally valuable, but I see nothing in transhumanism that rules out such a position - one could believe such a thing while also believing such core transhumanist propositions as that it is morally desirable to use technology to enhance human capacities and ameliorate the human condition.

If I were to go through all the errors in Tirosh-Samuelson's article, it would take me a long time to list them (and defend my claim that they are errors). For example, transhumanists are not necessarily opposed to religion, even theistic religion involving an interventionist deity. My own view is that organised religion is largely pernicious in its contemporary influence - particularly its political influence - and I do see a definite tension between transhumanist ideas and many traditional religious ones (particularly those that see God as having created an immutable and sacred natural order). Nonetheless, there are many religious positions that are not inconsistent with ideas of (e.g.) enhancing human capacities. It is quite open to transhumanists to adopt such positions.

Nor is transhumanism necessarily opposed to the claim that human beings have a specific evolved nature, as Tirosh-Samuelson appears to think. Perhaps there is some tendency for transhumanists to underestimate how difficult it will be to alter aspects of human nature that they consider undesirable, but nothing about transhumanism demands that its ambitions be capable of easy achievement. Nor is transhumanism committed to such dubious claims as that the development of humanlike intelligence was an inevitable outcome of biological evolution or that the picture of life on Earth as a "bush" with no objectively highest point is wrong. No such claims are required to adopt the radical technological meliorism that is at the heart of transhumanism.

In short, Tirosh-Samuelson has begun her Global Spiral editorial with some (arguably) useful observations about the nature of the transhumanist movement, but quickly fallen into the trap of associating certain quite specific ideas that are controversial among transhumanists with transhumanism itself - something quite protean and contested. As a result, she does a disservice to both the movement and her readers - to the movement because she suggests that transhumanism is incompatible with many popular (e.g. religious) or intellectually supported (e.g. scientific and moral) ideas, and to her readers because she will leave them with a distorted idea of a movement that they may actually want to learn something about.

This editorial doesn't bode well for the rest of the journal issue or the associated research program. Tomorrow, we'll begin to see how much the other contributors know what they're talking about.

Global Spiral special issue on transhumanism

The Global Spiral, an online publication of the Metanexus Institute, has just published a special issue on transhumanism; this contains six articles that appear to be highly critical of transhumanist ambitions. It's quite possible that I'll agree with some of the criticisms that are made, but it's also likely - judging by the provocative excerpts that I've seen so far - that I'll consider the articles to be based on dubious intellectual foundations and on procrustean understandings of that protean phenomenon, the international transhumanist movement.

The editor of the issue and most of the authors are obscure, at least to me, but Kathryn Hales and Ted Peters have contributed an article each, giving the publication some credibility in the circles where I move.

The project is a spin-off from a massively-funded research program operating under the auspices of the notorious Templeton Foundation. I doubtless have readers with a better knowledge than mine as to how the Templeton Foundation, the Metanexus Institute, Global Spiral, and this particular academic project all fit together, so I won't concern myself with that. The point is that the outcome will be an influential (and seemingly hostile) portrayal of transhumanism. That portrayal merits cool, careful scrutiny, giving whatever credit is due, but pointing out the problems.

Thus, I'm going to commit myself to reading - and briefly commenting on - one article per day over the next six days [edit: now I've done one and realised how big a task it is to do at all satisfactorily, I'll have to add that I won't be able to maintain quite such a cracking pace]. Tomorrow [edit: actually it turned out to be "tonight], I will begin by commenting on "Engaging Transhumanism: The Meaning of Being Human" by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. I'm always suspicious when I see philosophers and other intellectuals talk about the "meaning" of being human (or of anything else that is not actually an attempt at communication). There are contexts where it makes sense to use the word and its cognates as synonyms for something like "satisfaction" (as in, "I find meaning in my work"), or "value" (as in "To poor Adam, life now seems meaningless"), or "personal significance" (as in "Your love means a lot to me"). I don't demand that we eschew all such language, but it is, at best, a helpful metaphor. Often, it is an unhelpful one. Sometimes, it is simply a category mistake or a mask for confusion.

But we shall see. I'll read the article fairly and give it its due.

There will be opportunities in other forums for more detailed responses to the Global Nexus issue and the Templeton project more generally. But this particular forum will allow for discussion among my (almost) invariably smart readers. Let's see how we go. If you'd like to do the reading with me, and to offer your own insights, they'll be welcome.

Voices of Disbelief update

The book that Udo Schuklenk and I are editing for Blackwell - working title Voices of Disbelief - is moving along quietly but surely. Over the past couple of days, I've been writing to several of the contributors just to check their snail mail addresses so that we can have a comprehensive list for contracts to be sent to.

Quite a few people have already delivered their essays; others have shown us drafts; still others have promised to deliver well in advance of the 1 September deadline (no one really has to do anything before then, but it's very useful to have a steady of trickle of work to look at). I don't think I'm treading on any toes in mentioning the names of some people who've already given us material: among them are (in no particular order) Michael Shermer, Taner Edis, Adele Mercier, Graham Oppy, Greg Egan, Damien Broderick, Edgar Dahl, and Jack Dann. Before we're through, we'll have more than fifty essays with a wide range of viewpoints and maybe some big surprises.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Dreaming Again now published

Jenny and I have now received our copies of Jack Dann's new anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories, Dreaming Again, which contains Jenny's "Trolls' Night Out" and my "Manannan's Children". As it turns out, both of our contributions are fantasy stories, well sort of: I could argue that "Manannan's Children" is very close to being science fiction, despite its mythic trappings, and it has what might be considered a broadly transhumanist moral ... while Jenny's story is set very vividly in the present day, and involves (among other things) the scientific investigation of trolls' life cycles. In fact, "Trolls' Night Out" is a wonderful piece - quirky, funny, and (in a good way) horribly vivid.

I'm looking forward to reading Dreaming Again from cover to cover, though I don't know when that will happen because it's a huge book. Meanwhile, I can report that the people at Harper have done a wonderful job of the art work and packaging. It's a very satisfying volume to hold in your hand and admire; and judging by the quality of the writers from whom Jack coaxed material, it's also going to be satisfying to read. For those who are not aware of this project, it's a sequel to the equally monumental Dreaming Down-Under, from ten years ago (where the hell did that whole decade disappear to?), edited by Jack with Janeen Webb. The earlier book and its constituent stories won a slew of awards and many other accolades, and I'm sure we'll see that repeated.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I'm back!

I was away for a week, visiting family (and people who are close enough to count as family - hi, guys, if you read this) interstate.

Since I got home, I've been a marking machine. My INT2190/3190 (Poverty, Ecology, and International Justice) students had their exam on Friday, and the papers had to be marked super quickly in time for examiners' meetings this week. So I've spent the past four or so days buried under a mountain of exam booklets, from which I've occasionally emerged for cups of tea and/or bouts of mindless activity (since I haven't had much mental space left for ones requiring thought) on the net. Somewhere amongst that, I put a layer of revisions on a new article to appear in a book that will be published in the UK later this year.

Reasonably normal transmission will now resume. There's quite a lot to write about, but it can wait until tomorrow.

There are various other tasks awaiting my attention pretty urgently - work on JET and Voices of Disbelief, an interview with Greg Egan (i.e., me interviewing him) for Aurealis magazine, and the gods alone know what else ... but I'll be getting to it all in the next few days. Then there's a paper that I need to write for a conference the week after next, so it's going to be all systems go.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

I am not the government

I am not the government. I cannot fine you, throw you in jail, or stop you saying whatever you like in any forum that is prepared to publish your thoughts. I can, however, delete any comments that you make on my own blog if they are defamatory, destructive, or just plain tedious ... or even at my whim. This blog is my private domain, and when you publish here it is a privilege, not a right.

I am not moderating the blog at this stage. I will continue to accept a wide range of comments, including comments that take a different view from mine on the issue of the day. I'm happy to engage in debate if the tone is rational, respectful, and constructive.

But my patience has been tested of late by some comments that have combined tedious spamming with blatantly defamatory accusations. As a result, I've already deleted a couple of comments, and I'll delete more as and when needed. If absolutely needed, in fact, I'll introduce comment moderation, but I'd rather not go to that extreme since it's cumbersome for everybody including me.

Use a bit of common sense when you comment here. If you write something on my blog that you wouldn't say in my home (without expecting that I might turf you out), then don't be surprised if it disappears.

And don't come whining to me about free speech ... or accusing me of hypocrisy (since I'm a free speech advocate). I don't exercise the coercive power of the state. But I do exercise a right to decide what sort of language I welcome on my own blog, just as I exercise a right to decide what language is welcome in my own house. You are my guest here, so please conduct yourself like one.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Blog break

As I hinted at in my last post, I've now reached a blog break point. I'll be away for just over a week - reading my emails and responding as much as I can, but not with enough access to the net to be blogging.

Monday, June 09, 2008

We resume normal transmission - soon

Just lately, this has turned largely into a blog about art, nudity, and freedom of speech. Those topics will never be far away, because I'm an unashamed free speech advocate. Since I use this place partly to draft up ideas that may later be used in more formal publications, you can bet that I'm thinking about writing much more on these issues.

Meanwhile, however, there's no end to the idiocy from bio-Luddites who want to oppose such obviously beneficial activities as research on embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning. I see that there is more debate going on about this in Australia even this week. So, I'll be back to those more usual topics soon. And once again, lurking behind it, is the large streak of irrationality that runs through our society because of its religious heritage. Just as there's still a sense of shame about the body that can lead to visceral, fanatical attacks on Bill Henson's rather cerebral photographs, so there's a ridiculous tendency to treat such insentient entities as early human embryos as if they were fully fledged persons. I won't forget to engage in my usual sniping at religion as a reactionary force that merits greater scepticism.

However, I'll be a bit scarce for about ten days. I'm pretty busy right now and will be away for a week from Thursday. Do drop in with your comments, though. I'll be looking in from time to time and responding as needed.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Organise for free speech

With so many voices attempting to attack the principle of freedom of speech and expression (which I'll just call "free speech" where convenient), surely it's time to organise more effectively in its defence.

Following the collapse of the legal case against Bill Henson over the past couple of days, we are already seeing well-funded lobby groups trying to get the law changed in New South Wales - they are seeking new statutory restrictions on artistic expression. Not too long ago, Victoria took the unnecessary step of introducing religious vilification legislation, with disastrous results, and other states are bound to follow. There are pressures of many kinds, throughout the Australian jurisdictions and elswhere in the Western world, to control what can be said and how it can be expressed.

One problem with organising for free speech is finding a rationale that everyone can accept. Even on this blog, we have seen different comments showing quite conflicting ideas of what free speech really is.

In part, the justification for free speech is the general libertarian (in the best sense) presumption against using the power of the state to stop individuals from living how they please and doing what they want. It relates to the general principle of liberal tolerance: in a liberal society the state will not (or should not) tell people how to live their lives or what the good may be. There are many views of the good, and a liberal society will tolerate all except those that are too intolerant to co-exist peacefully with the others.

However, a number of more specific justifications are commonly put forward for free speech, in particular - above and beyond ordinary freedoms in a liberal society.

In the past I've cited the judgment of Justice McLachlan in R v Keegstra, a 1990 Canadian Supreme Court case on hate propaganda, which provides an accessible and concise synopsis of some of the main benefits of free speech: (1) free speech promotes "the free flow of ideas essential to political democracy and democratic institutions" and limits the ability of the state to subvert other rights and freedoms; (2) it promotes a marketplace of ideas, which includes, but is not limited to, the search for truth; (3) it is intrinsically valuable as part of the self-actualisation of speakers and listeners; and (4) it is justified by the dangers for good government of allowing its suppression.

Each of these points can be elaborated, and some may need to be qualified. The first and fourth can be bracketed together as democratic justifications. They relate to aspects of free speech's political role in a liberal democracy. The third relates most closely to general libertarian values but stresses the particular importance of language, symbolism and representation for our lives and autonomy. It can be developed further by referring to the importance for individuals of communicating deeply held religious and similar beliefs and the value of creativity as expressed in literature, art and many other ways, including personal presentation or "style".

The issue here is how we should treat other individuals as moral and psychological beings. We might refer to this as the "moral" justification, if we want to distinguish between political principles, in a narrow sense, and principles that relate to our intuitions about how individual people should be treated for their own sake. Discussion of this point also highlights the fact that we are beings with psychological needs that involve self-expression and self-actualisation. With this in mind, and with some misgivings about the expression, I will refer to the "psychological" justification of free speech.

John Stuart Mill's classic defence of free speech, in On Liberty (1859), is actually phrased as a defence of "the Liberty of Thought and Discussion". One way of putting this point is that free speech of certain kinds is integral to rational inquiry. If we value this, we should also advocate the liberty to articulate potentially unpalatable ideas and unpopular social critiques. That, however, is quite a narrow concept compared with freedom of speech as commonly understood, which includes robust and even offensive kinds of interaction that would be strongly inhibited, if not actually forbidden, in, say, an academic seminar.

Mill's argument might be termed the rationalist justification. It is very powerful as far as it goes but inevitably somewhat elitist, since relatively little speech and expression in real-world societies appeals primarily to the intellect.

However, there are senses in which the rationalist justification can be extended beyond the speech of academics, scientists and other intellectuals. In one sense, it merges with the psychological justification, if it is interpreted as our individual need to pursue truth and understanding in our way own, necessarily reliant on resources available through language. In another sense, it encourages us to protect serious literature and art - especially narrative forms such as prose fiction, theatre and cinema - one function of which is to open minds by appeals to the imagination.

Mill also made the powerful point that is often forgotten (indeed, even I have been known to overlook it) that it is dangerous to let any view, however certain it appears, stand unchallenged. The one thing we must never do in this area is enshrine certain viewpoints in the law to the extent that arguing for a different viewpoint is suppressed. Ronald Dworkin has taken this a step further, in arguing that each of us should be allowed to live in ways that will tend to shape the moral ethos of our society - without the state saying that people with some ideas have a right to do so, and others don't. The boundary here must have something to do with direct harm, not harm merely from the fact that the ideas we express in our lives may become popular.

This analysis suggests a number of conclusions. First, there are powerful overlapping arguments for free speech as a basic political principle in any liberal democracy. Second, however, free speech is not a simple and absolute concept but a liberty that is justified by even deeper values. Third, the values implicit in the democratic, rationalist and psychological justifications for free speech will not apply equally strongly to all speech in all circumstances, and these "free speech values" may sometimes have little application at all. For example, they are not seriously at stake (or at least to the same extent) in arguments about purely commercial advertising.

However, if free speech is to be a political or constitutional principle that imposes practical restraints on the coercive power of the state, it needs to be formulated in a relatively simple and sweeping way. It cannot track the precise relevance of all the underlying values in every circumstance where speech might be suppressed. It follows that a constitutional restriction on state interference with free speech might give practical protection to some speech that has little to do with democratic, rationalist and psychological values. This creates a buffer zone around the more central areas where free speech values apply strongly, and that may well be desirable. In particular circumstances, other values might be more important than free speech but any exceptions to the principle must be defined carefully; otherwise, they will soon gobble up the rule.

That is a real danger at the moment.

I'm sure that some comments replying to this post will emphasise that free speech is not an absolute, so let me repeat that I understand this. Yes, there are many circumstances in which other important values need to be taken into account, and we must always be prepared to discuss those values on their merits. No value is absolute in the sense that it overrides all others in every conceivable situation. At the same time, the case for making an exception to the presumption of free speech often falls apart on closer inspection - as I believe it did when the Henson issue was considered closely.

It can never be guaranteed that free speech values will prevail over all other values in all possible cases - to think that would be to show a naive and indefensible kind of absolutism. But attacks on free speech should at least be subjected to severe scrutiny wherever and whenever they occur.

The piecemeal introduction of religious vilification laws and the possible tightening up of censorship restrictions relating to nudity and sexuality seem, at the moment, to be the greatest dangers to free speech. But many other issues arise from time to time, whenever somebody with a certain degree of political influence thinks that her particular issue is of overriding importance.

I hope that there is now a large and varied constituency of people who have been alerted to the dangers for free speech in Australia. I'm not sure how we can organise - and it's not really my talent - but some method of organisation must be found. I certainly don't trust the existing civil liberties bodies to do the job - we have no organisation in this country with the commitment, clout, and widespread support that the ACLU has, over in America. Indeed, civil liberties bodies sometimes seem all too willing to trade off freedom of speech - where was the outcry over religious vilification laws in Victoria? Where is the outcry as other states consider going in the same direction?

Something more has to be done - something much more - or a precious freedom will be increasingly endangered.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Thoughts on art and nudity

As of this morning, the case against acclaimed artistic photographer Bill Henson appears to have collapsed completely. A few days ago, the censored versions of the most controversial images, as published by news outlets, were given a G rating. The uncensored version of the most controversial image has now been rated a lowly PG. Australia's censorship authority, the Classification Board, has stated that the "image of breast nudity … creates a viewing impact that is mild and justified by context … and is not sexualised to any degree". As of this morning, there seems to be no prospect that the relevant authorities will view the images as pornographic or that any legal action will be taken against Henson or anyone else. The Australian justice system appears to be working well. [Edit: A bit later, it was confirmed that no charges would be laid.]

Assuming that there are no further dramatic twists, we can now reflect on the lessons to be learned from this debate, including the crude populist streak that has been revealed in a number of politicians, the cowardice of others, the prudishness and often sheer stupidity of many prominent commentators in the media, the Orwellian lengths to which others have been prepared to go to dream up some kind of plausible-sounding argument against Henson, the willingness of many to demonise the arts community for its supposed insensitivity and elitism, and so on. It hasn't been a pretty picture, and Australia has not been looking good - there's been all too much willingness to pander to the prudes and the merchants of moral panic.

One of the lessons is that many people are still unable to make even slightly nuanced judgments about images that involve nudity (another is that many people cannot make even slightly nuanced judgments about when it is, and when it is not, appropriate for the state to interfere on paternalistic grounds with family decisions, but perhaps enough has been said about that elsewhere, at least for now).

A few days ago, Guy Rundle - in a particularly wrong-headed piece in The Age - complained that Henson crossed a line, partly because nudity and "the power of photography" have deep-seated meanings. His piece doesn't tell us what those meanings are, but he claims, fatuously, that the images are "unmistakably sexualised". Well, the Classification Board obviously had a different view. The images at the centre of the storm are, no doubt, open to many interpretations, but one thing that they certainly are not is unmistakeably sexualised. Nor are they pornographic by any reasonable standard. They are not even provocatively erotic, which is not quite the same thing (difficult though it is to draw any principled distinction between "pornography" and "erotica").

The images do nothing - certainly nothing unmistakeable - to encourage the gaze of pedophiles or invite sexual arousal. At most, they suggest the sexual potential of the young people whom Henson has photographed, as they begin to metamorphose from childhood into the beginnings of adulthood. It's a vulnerable time, often misunderstood by the adult world, but with its own fleeting beauty (a beauty that most of us find unerotic, fortunately, but our opponents don't seem to be able to make the distinction between aesthetic beauty and sexual attraction). In an earlier version of this post - published as a comment on Alison Croggon's blog - I said that I'd be astounded if this adds up to the "sexual context" referred to in various legislative instruments that are meant to forbid child pornography. As of this morning, I'd have every reason to be even more astounded (when I wrote the original comment I hadn't caught up with the very latest news that the controversial image of the young teenage girl had been given a PG rating).

It distresses me that so many participants in the current debate seem to think that nudity, in art or elsewhere, means one thing and one thing only: sex ... literal, unqualified sex. Not that I'm against sex. Quite the opposite. The point is, I'm against tunnel vision. It also disturbs me that anything even remotely associated with sex, or sexuality, or sexual potential, or perceived as having such an association, is automatically viewed as somehow shameful and (at the same time) dangerous. We need to grow up as a society and take a much more informed and worldly view of these things. If we look around us, we'll see that our forebears adopted varied, and sometimes even contradictory, attitudes to sexuality, nudity, and the body, and maybe we can remind ourselves that all of this is our cultural heritage — and legitimate subject matter for artists of all kinds.

Christianity has been one (rather dull and miserable) thread through the history of Western civilisation, and it has tended to consider the body to be shameful, and insist that it be hidden. But that nasty manner of thinking about our physical selves needn't control our thoughts any longer. In many ways, modern Australia is a post-Christian society, and that's entirely a good thing. We don't need to look at all the amazing phenomena of the world around us through the lenses and filters offered by Abrahamic religion. We can open our eyes to view its splendour (and misery), well, naked.

In any event, those of us who live in countries like Australia (or the US, or the UK, and wherever else readers of this blog are most likely to come from) have the benefit of living in modern, pluralistic societies where no one cultural interpretation of the body (or anything else) is privileged over all the others. All must take their chances, and none merits endorsement by the state.

I said that our forebears had many complex, even contradictory, attitudes to nudity (and sex and the body). Here are just a few examples to think about:

* The stripping or revealing of the naked body when questions arise about what it is to be human - think of maddened King Lear, driven to despair by his ingrate daughters and exiled into the storm. (I can't help but think of Sir Ian McKellen's electrifying performance in the lead role when King Lear played recently in Melbourne.)

* Ideas of baptismal rebirth or the return to an Edenic or Arcadian state.

* Sexuality that is merely potential, not yet come to ripeness.

* The rejection of monogamy, prudery, and convention. A kind of wildness that defies society.

* The worlds of faeries and pagan gods: beings that far transcend the need for clothing to protect them from the world.

* Vulnerability. Not much more need be said about this; clothing can be a protection against the world, and the portrayal of nudity can represent various kinds of vulnerability. Notice, though, the word "represent". It does not follow that people who model nude of their own free will are vulnerable in ways that require the state to step in and protect them on paternalistic grounds. To conflate the two ideas is a form of magical thinking.

* Invulnerability (think of the gods and faeries again — they don't need clothes to survive, not like us; their bodies are at home in the cosmos in a way that ours can seldom or ever achieve).

* Lush exoticism with all its problems (sometimes a disturbing soft racism can be found in the domain that I'm trying to suggest here, in such works as Rider Haggard's nineteenth-century novels and their many imitators; still, the exoticism is sometimes quite innocent).

* The glorious muscular power displayed by strong unclothed bodies, male or female.

* Beyond this, the spectacle of super bodies in comics ... or in movies that use stunningly "built" actors such Arnold Schwarzenegger.

* And beyond this again, the suggestion of a different kind of power when humanlike aliens or monsters appear naked - simultaneously glorious and dangerous, perhaps both more and less than human.

* And finally, for now, moral decadence (yes, there's no doubt that that can sometimes be a connotation of the nude body, based upon the long cultural association of the body and its erotic capacity as shameful - but this goes along with all the other meanings that I've mentioned, and more).

For the past three millennia of Western civilisation, the body has often been despised; equally often, perhaps, it has been loved and glorified. At other times, it has been scrutinized intellectually or aesthetically, and yes, of course it can be utilised for erotic display. None of these ideas — or any combination — exhausts the potential of the subject matter. The nude human body has endless connotations that have been explored by many artists in many forms and media over the centuries since civilisation itself was in its cradle.

It would take a crude sensibility to reduce its depiction by a skilled visual artist such as Bill Henson to some kind of shameful voyeurism (and yet, much of the debate in the blogosphere consists of fools equating Henson's work with pedophilia, some even engaging in disturbing fantasies about how Henson must relate to his models).

Henson is surely well aware of the rich cultural tradition that I've been describing, probably more aware of it than any of us. However, his detractors don't seem to understand it one bit. Much of what I've been reading over the past couple of weeks is thought without rigour or nuance. Some of it scarcely deserves to be regarded as thought. Much of what has been written in the blogosphere has been no more than childish posturing (the commentators showing less maturity than Henson's much-condescended-to youthful models). Maybe I'm an elitist, but if it's elitist to make an effort at analytical rigour and sensitivity to nuance, then I call elitism "good". I'll go and join the carnival of elitists and be proud.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A small victory for freedom of speech

Expelled is a creationist propaganda film starring Ben Stein. Its main claim is that various academics have been "expelled" from the academy for challenging Darwinian evolutionary theory. However, once examined in detail, this turns out to be a farrago of lies and distortions as I've discussed previously. That, however, does NOT mean that its makers must be wrong on every single controversial issue.

One ongoing issue relates to the movie's use of an excerpt from the John Lennon song "Imagine", apparently in a bitterly ironic way. The song was used without permission, and thus (prima facie) is in breach of copyright. As the movie plays the famous lines in which we're invited to imagine "Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too", we are shown images relating to totalitarian communist regimes, culminating in a close-up of Stalin.

The clear effect of the juxtaposition is to attack the song's philosophical and emotional message. While the precise nature of the attack is open to interpretation, one way to take it is that a world without religion would be horrific. This is consonant with the movie's generally pro-religious message and its linking of Darwinian theory with atheism. (The makers have also argued that the excerpt has been used in such a way as to make the point that opposition to religion is not a new phenomenon.)

Should this use of "Imagine", without permission from the parties who hold copyright in its words and music, be allowed by law? Over the past couple of months, I've consistently argued "yes".

To recap the argument, intellectual property law (including copyright law) exists to encourage the creation of valuable cultural products that, by their very nature, are not scarce and so cannot readily be taken from, or kept from, the commons and turned into property. Items of intellectual property are non-rivalrous because they essentially consist of information. Information can be replicated endlessly (in contrast to, say, a particular hamburger or a particular block of land or a particular, physical CD that your lover gave you for your birthday - all of which are genuinely scarce resources). It is socially important to create a kind of property in the information that cultural products such as songs and recordings ultimately consist in, but it takes a legislative scheme to accomplish that.

However, it is also socially important that items of intellectual property be open to criticism relating to their aesthetic form or to their explicit or implicit ideas. Public policy needs to strike a balance between (1) offering the creators of intellectual property a means of obtaining income from it, thus encouraging the creation of valuable works, and (2) allowing criticism and comment that relates to these works once they are created. Copyright law should not work in such a way as to suppress criticism, which would be contrary to its entire purpose.

Putting it simply, we want to encourage people to create valuable cultural products, such as songs, but we do not want to stop others from criticising those products once made. If somebody wishes to criticise a song such as "Imagine" - or some aspect of it or its message - they should be free to do so (and should not be told how; e.g. they should not be confined to abstract discussions in expository prose but, within reason, they should be able to make the point in their own way).

In this case, "Imagine" was not being played for its entertainment value or as an ornament to, say, product advertising. It was not an attempt to usurp the market for the song while getting away without paying.

Rather, an excerpt was selected to make a point: to juxtapose it with certain images in order to attack on the song and what it stands for. Arguably, no more of the song was played than was needed to make the point, so this was not a mere contrivance for what was, in reality, a use of the song in its "normal" way, i.e. its entertainment value. Nor was it a case of co-opting the song for a strictly commercial use such as trying to sell running shoes. Rather, a comment was being made on issues of public interest, such as atheism and secularism. From first principles, such use should be allowed by the law (irrespective of whether the entertainment industry would normally adopt the cautious practice of attempting to get permission even in a case like this).

I've been cautious about whether this kind of argument actually would prevail in the courts, because I'm not familiar with how the relevant case law has developed to this point, but the in-principle argument, based on the underlying policies reflected in the law, always seemed to me to be extremely powerful. I was pretty convinced that there was a reasonable legal argument available that what was done by the moviemakers fell under the doctrine of fair use.

John Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, and children (the plaintiffs) recently sought to stop the use of "Imagine" in Expelled, arguing that it breached their copyright in the song and its lyrics.

In a judgment issued a few days ago, the judge hearing the case denied the motion by the plaintiffs for an injunction to stop further distribution of Expelled, and to recall existing copies, pending trial. The judge held that the plaintiffs had failed to meet the appropriate test of showing a clear likelihood of success on the merits of the case at trial; on the contrary, the defendants (Premise Media and Rocky Mountain Pictures, the makers of Expelled), were likely to succeed on the basis of their defence of fair use.

Note that this is only a preliminary decision. It is still possible that Yono Ono and the other plaintiffs could succeed in the full trial or on appeal. For the moment, though, the outcome is a victory for freedom of speech. If the reasoning stands the test of time, it will expand the legal entitlement to make legitimate use of copyrighted materials for criticism or commentary.

I'm not especially pleased that the outcome to this point in this particular case has favoured the makers of Expelled, a movie whose message I oppose and even despise. However, freedom of speech should apply to our opponents as well as our friends and allies; if we don't accept that, we don't really support the concept. This small victory for freedom of speech is welcome, and I look forward to seeing the final outcome of the litigation.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Killing the Rabbit

In between my usual activities of defending human liberty and taking swipes at sanctimony and godliness, I managed to put aside some time last week to read Killing the Rabbit (Bantam 2007), a wonderful crime thriller by (my dear friend) Alison Goodman. Rather than dropping spoilers, I'll just say that you ought to kill whatever large or small mammal you need to in order to read Alison's book. As she knows, I'm awed by her. In particular, the depth of her research is enormously impressive: for those who know the intellectually fierce, but basically rather gentle, Alison, it's amazing how much information she's been able to master about guns, the workings of gangland, how to talk to the Yakuza, carry out a "hit" with a long-range rifle, use a knife or a garrotte, etc. All this is woven in seamlessly. Alison has a huge talent, and as more of her work keeps coming out she's going to end up being a famous, celebrated author.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

It's not just about Henson

As the debate about Bill Henson's nude portraits of young teenagers drags on, we need to worry about the immediate threat to Henson's liberty, and his good reputation as one of our fellow citizens, but also about general policy issues and about how the debate would have gone if it had been someone less famous.

At least in the media, Henson is being accused of serious crimes - which must itself be traumatic - and his freedom is at stake, as is his good name as a fellow citizen. He could end up being stigmatised as something akin to a creator of child pornography. But there are also issues of principle here, together with legitimate concerns about the direction of public policy and the development of our general social environment, here in Australia.

Let's keep this idea somewhere at the front of our thinking: in a modern pluralist society (or a liberal society, as I like to say) many people will have different responses to Henson's work, and many parents will have different views as to whether they would be happy permitting their children to take part as models in the way that's currently under discussion. The key thing about a liberal society is that it permits such differences and counts a wide range of different critical responses - and a wide range of different uses of parental discretion - as being "reasonable" for the purposes of the law.

The ethico-legal principles of a liberal society require that the coercive power of the state be exercised with great reluctance, and if it is going to be exercised at all then countervailing values, such as artistic expression, must be taken into account. Accordingly, it is relevant that what we're dealing with is, irrespective of all the differing judgments about its meaning or value, work that: (1) is genuine individual expression, and not something prepared for an overwhelmingly commercial purpose such as product advertising; and (2) of a certain level of artistic quality.

Even if some well-informed people have adverse critical responses to Henson's portraits, we ought to be defending the artist's right to create them and also the rights of the young models to take decisions, in consultation with their parents, to participate. This is not the sort of situation where the clumsy machinery of the criminal law should be involved, and it's incredibly dangerous for art and expression if, as a society, we are too quick to wheel out that machinery to settle cultural disagreements.

Perhaps a bit more needs to be said about this. I doubt that anyone who is defending Henson is unaware that paternalism has more role to play when we're dealing with younger people than when we're dealing with competent, consenting adults. But where does that get us?

In discussing the issue on her blog, Alison Croggon has made an important point, which I'm happy to adopt, though it has more weight coming from her than from me, since she is actually a parent of teenagers. Like Croggon, though, if I were the parent of one of the young people who are at the centre of the controversy I'd want them to talk it over with me first before they decided to be photographed nude, and I'd want to know quite a bit of detail. I'd reserve my right to veto their plans. That's what parents are for, the way this society works.

But I also agree with Croggon about the following: if they were smart young people who knew their own minds, I'd happily let them pose for any of the portraits that I've seen, in the circumstances I've seen described by people who are familiar with Henson's work methods. In fact, I'd be proud of them for doing so. I certainly wouldn't want the law coming in to overrule my judgment - implying that I was, in effect, an abusive, or at least unreasonable, parent for not stopping them. My concern would be to be careful and protective, but also supportive of my child's values and projects as far as possible.

Many people tend to think that every social issue must be resolved by having a law about it, at least if there's something like nudity involved, or anything that can be construed (by prurient minds) as "sexual". The extreme paternalism about nudity, as opposed to all the other decisions of consequence that are made by many people, including young teenagers, suggests to me that the human body is still, at some level, widely seen as problematic; there's a prudishness and shame about the body lying behind this debate. It goes back to St Augustine, at least ... and beyond to St Paul and even Plato.

Interestingly, we seem (as a society) to be much less keen to prevent teenagers or children making other kinds of decisions. We let them poison their minds with, say, fundamentalist religion - though the effects on their flourishing can be much worse (leading, them, perhaps, to live an entire life based on the ridiculous lie that our planet is only 6000 years old). In fact, we let parents do all sorts of things - and acquiesce in all sorts of initiatives from their children - that I consider far less reasonable than what was agreed to by parents who let their children be photographed by Bill Henson.

Of course, the positive experience of posing for Henson has now been poisoned. Now I'd be much less inclined to let my hypothetical teenage child take part. Again, I'm going to explain this by adopting a point that Croggon has made: I don't think it would have been psychologically harmful in the normal course of events, but now that the prudes and panic-mongers have made such a big issue of it, it might well be. I would be loath to let my child put herself (or himself) at the risk of having her image described as "revolting" by the prime minister, and of being the subject of endless discussion in the mass media in the way that has happened. With regret, I'd probably now veto participation in Henson's photography sessions. The prudes and panic-merchants have managed to do that much damage already, whether or not Henson is ever charged or convicted.

I'm not saying that the state should never have the last say where parents and their children are in agreement. Take two cases at opposite ends of the spectrum. It's clearly fine if a parent lets her teenage girl go topless on Bondi Beach (if the girl wishes). No one in their right mind would want a law about something as harmless as that. But maybe it's not fine for a parent to let a young teenage girl dance topless at a strip club - where she is going to be confronted with quite different dangers.

It may not be possible to draw lines that are absolutely defensible with no
exceptions, but there really are reasons, it seems to me, why it would usually be reasonable for a parent to go along with her teenager being photographed by Bill Henson in the ways we've seen, but not so reasonable for a parent to go along with her teenage girl posing for intra-uterine shots in Penthouse. A lot of this, unfortunately, involves subtleties such as taste and context, but those subtleties do matter - and some of it isn't all that subtle.

There are, then, issues of paternalistic concern for young people, though I hasten to add that there are also legitimate concerns about the ongoing infantilisation and disempowerment of young people by our social institutions (something that has become a serious problem for modern societies, which are plagued by the consequences of having created an adolescent maturity gap).

We must not forget that there are also genuine issues here to do with freedom of artistic expression. While it's correct to focus on the proper role in the criminal law for an element of state paternalism, we mustn't forget the ugly fact that, within some sections of the Australian community, there's widespread distrust - sometimes verging on contempt or hatred - of artists and intellectuals. Politicians are usually wise enough not to whistle this out of its kennel as a populist electoral tactic. However, it's the sort of vulgar populism that they've descended to in the current debate, and I think we have good reason to be fearful about where it will lead them now they've started. Not to mention where it will lead Australian society (this is not a crude slippery slope argument - there are genuinely nasty outcomes that could occur, and there are genuinely temptations for politicians to go down a populist road that leads to a certain amount of repression).

Artists and intellectuals need a wide margin in which to operate without having to fear criminal punishment and stigma. Like Henson and his work or not, it seems clear to me that he operated well within that margin - indeed, with great care and sensitivity, by all accounts. But serious efforts are now being made to narrow the margin, and I don't expect those efforts to cease any time soon.

Right now, the priority lies in defending Henson's liberty.

However, it would be just as important to defend an unknown artist, as discussed over here. If it had been someone less celebrated, we might not be able to confront politicians with the same prudential arguments ("think of Australia's international cultural reputation"), but I don't think we should eschew those arguments in the present urgent situation. When dealing with governments on policy issues, it's unwise to throw away whatever bargaining power you happen to have. But it would, nonetheless, be equally important to defend an unknown artist's liberty, reputation, and freedom of expression, as it is to defend Henson's.

The main difference is that with Henson we don't have to start from scratch: his fame and success don't give him any more right to be defended, but they do assist in putting the defence together. They provide some quick and compelling evidence of the fact that his work is of artistic seriousness and value ... and that fact is definitely relevant to public policy and to how his work should be regarded by the law.