Censorship Standards Come From A Personal Place

The United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart gave this famously ambiguous definition for what constitutes pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

The director of the Classification Board, Lesley O’Brien, feels she has seen pornography in I Want Your Love, an American film that was due to be screened at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival next month.

The primary job of the Australian Classification Board is to give films their ranking of G, M, MA 15+, and R 18+, which allow them to be sold and exhibited.

Films shown at film festivals are exempt from the usual classification processes. But if the board’s director believes that a festival film might be rated X 18+ (pornographic, and therefore only available in Canberra or the Northern Territory) or RC (refused classification: available nowhere) the exemption is not granted. You can read the particulars here.

To give a film either of these classifications is censorship in every relevant way.

Yes, in 21st century Australia our government still censors “obscene” culture – we still employ a descendant of the system that banned James Joyce’s Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. We still have bureaucrats who decide what we can and cannot watch.

It has been decided we cannot watch I Want Your Love. The film features a “six-minute montage of friends, housemates and partygoers” having their intimate way with each other. Presumably it’s a pretty graphic six minutes, worthy of the X 18+ stamp.

But so what? It’s hard to see what public purpose banning a film that was to be shown only at a gay film festival achieves. You’d expect the audience at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival to have fairly specific tastes.

The film’s supporters say the six-minute scene is a critical part of the film’s narrative. The classification board says it serves no narrative purpose. The broader question of why we want a government bureaucracy doing contextual analysis of story structure is unclear.

Is it facetious to ask what approach to narrative theory the board uses? Vladimir Propp’s? Tzvetan Todorov’s? Claude Levi-Strauss’s? Joseph Campbell’s? Christopher Vogler’s?

Now, I’m not going to pretend to have a deep understanding of narrative theory – I got that list of names here. But if narrative relevancy is being used to justify censorship then it would be nice to know more about the board’s thinking.

Either way, by bureaucratic decree, I Want Your Love is now banned in Australia.

The banning comes at a critical moment in Australian classification history.

Last February the Australian Law Reform Commission released a major report into classification. The ALRC had a brief to bring classification up to date with the wealth of media choice that has been unleashed by the internet. What does it mean to classify a film when in the age of YouTube? What is the point of banning a sex scene in a film when there are many lifetimes’ worth of pornography freely available online?

Indeed, the ALRC had a hopeless, even pointless task. No mandatory, centralised, bureaucratic classification system could ever hope to monitor all content available to Australians in 2013. Seventy-two hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. An honest reform of classification in our era would begin by rethinking its purpose, and, perhaps, throwing it all away.

Instead, the ALRC did what every inquiry before now has done. In the report’s view, the Government should try to classify “any content with an appropriate Australian link”. This seems more like a cry for help than a policy principle – how on earth could it be achieved in practice? Although to be fair it’s a better attempt than what was recommended by a 2011 parliamentary report, as I wrote on the Drum at the time.

The only real outcome of ALRC process has been the introduction of an R18+ rating for videogames. For historical reasons – pretty much just hostility of policymakers towards gaming – video games have lacked this higher classification. The new rating came into effect in most states in January.

And yet an R18+ for video games is cosmetic at best. Australian gamers have been flouting the restrictions imposed by our archaic classification system for decades. Gamers tend to be a technologically literate bunch. They’ve been importing and downloading whatever they’d like. And video games can still be refused classification – that is, banned.

The video game classification issue became an iconic battle within the gaming community. It was the quintessential “politicians just don’t get technology” story.

Unfortunately, for all their passionate defences of free speech, too many of those gamers and game-focused technology journalists have vacated the field after their minor win. The Government’s sort-of abandonment of its internet filter hasn’t helped either.

But our classification board is still acting as a censorship board. It is still a sop to the self-appointed moral arbiters. Just because some video games have had a small reprieve doesn’t mean the broader problem has been resolved.

In his 1704 essay On Obscenities, the French philosopher Pierre Bayle argued against the arbitrary nature of deciding what offends society – that is, trying to define what we would call “community standards”.

For all the verbiage poured out about community standards, censors rarely make any attempt to determine what the community’s real standards are. If they did they would be confronted with a problem. Those who, in Bayle’s words, “compose wanton verses” are surely part of that community, and contribute to its standards. Those who would eagerly read wanton verses are part of the community too.

So how can any model of community standards exclude the opinions of the people who might go to the Melbourne Queer Film Festival?

Ultimately, any censorship that tries to test a cultural work by (in the words of the Classification Act) “the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults” will be built on sand – an unstable pile of assumptions and prejudices of the officials who make the final decision.

In other words, they’ll know pornography when they see it. And that’s all it takes for censorship to kick in.