Archive for July, 2013

some thoughts on internet porn filters

Posted by on July 26th, 2013

So, David Cameron is keen to crack down on access to online pornography. Some people are thrilled about this. Others, not so much. Here is some detail from the previous link:

“Every household in Britain connected to the Internet will be obliged to declare whether they want to maintain access to online pornography, David Cameron will announce on Monday.

In the most dramatic step by the government to crack down on the “corroding” influence of pornography on childhood, the prime minister will say that all internet users will be contacted by their service providers and given an “unavoidable choice” on whether to use filters.”

And:

“He will say:

* The possession of “extreme pornography”, which includes scenes of simulated rape is to be outlawed.
* The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) is to draw up a blacklist of “abhorrent” internet search terms to identify and prevent paedophiles searching for illegal material.
* All police forces will work with a single secure database of illegal images of children to help “close the net on paedophiles”.”

I’m sure the net on paedophiles is one we’d all like to close, and even though I suspect only the thickest of them use Twitter or insecure websites readily accessible via Google to circulate such material, it’s difficult to object. Simulated rape seems slightly trickier to me. While I wouldn’t like to meet an individual who finds such material sexually arousing, the emphasis should surely rest on simulated. If no laws are broken in the production of certain material, I’m unsure why laws should have been broken by viewing it. In addition, it feels like a very blurry definition. I don’t want to imagine somebody jerking off to rape porn, but I also think Irreversible is a masterpiece – albeit distressing and deeply upsetting. It contains an unbearable 9 minute rape scene. If you were so inclined, I suppose you could jerk off to that. Should that be outlawed?

On the subject of filters, I also have a heavy heart. I’ve had mobile phone contracts with cack-handed versions of this applied (and really, could any filter of the web not be cack-handed, by definition?) and it was intensely annoying. I presume it limited me from accessing porn while I was out and about. It also limited me from accessing several websites that have nothing to do with porn, but which had, for some vague reason, been classified as objectionable. I’d turn down universal filters on those grounds alone. I don’t want to be prevented from visiting a site because it has adult content, because, you know, I am an adult.

Deborah Orr has an interesting article in the Guardian today, basically saying that the filters are no big deal, at least theoretically, and there’s a lot in the article that’s worth chewing over. Certainly, it’s not a hugely prominent free speech issue, simply because you can opt in. Rape pornography aside (and, depending on how it’s implemented, I’m not sure that’s a hill many are willing to die on), nothing is being banned outright. But I still have reservations. From Orr’s article:

“In other words, the current situation is awkward for some people who don’t want a portal to porn in the sitting room, while the proposed one would be awkward for some of those who do.

Why should the convenience of the second group be so much more important than the convenience of the first? The implication is that it’s normal to want access to porn, and abnormal not to want access to porn. Yet it’s clear from much of the criticism that using porn is the sort of normality that people have some reservations about sharing with others, even the people most close to them. Why would someone hide a healthy fondness for porn from their sexual partner? The tenor of this whole debate suggests that somehow it’s unfair to put people in a situation where they’re obliged to be an active participant in their quest for porn, when the responsibility for policing porn in the home is currently resting comfortably in the hands of those who would prefer never to think about it at all.”

This argument seems to pivot on the idea that it’s okay to restrict things if there’s no obvious reason to allow them. That is not how I would personally approach things. Explicit hardcore porn is not beamed directly into your home. If somebody chooses to search for it, then I see no prima facie reason – legality of material aside – why they should not be able to find it. Any argument in support of filters should be addressing why that should not be the case. Saying “I don’t want it” is not enough, because you can – you know – opt out.

In short: to ban or limit access to something, you require a reason for doing so; the default state should be unfettered access, and we work from there. Being able to look at something is not the same thing as being able to look at something if you say please, and we lose that distinction to our disadvantage – somewhere down the line, if not now. This is not trivial; it’s important.

The question then becomes: is it worth doing? Is it justifiable? On the face of it, restricting access to online pornography to save the children seems fairly admirable – simply on the basis that, upon being asked “do you want kids to be able to look at porn?” most people would say “No.” And yet both terms cover a lot of ground. While the internet has allowed easy access to the whole spectrum of pornography, it’s hardly a monolith. Yes, you can watch obnoxiously orchestrated and deeply unpleasant hardcore videos – but you can also watch amateur clips of fairly normal people having loving and fairly naturalistic sex. It doesn’t make sense to me to use the same term for both. As a teenager, I saw a fair bit of porn – most of it on grainy VHS, or in magazines found, bizarrely, abandoned and stuffed into tree trunks in woods – and yet somehow I managed to enter my late teens and early twenties without absurd expectations of what women were like, or how to treat them.

This is not to say that attitudes can’t be problematic. But I do think Orr brushes too briefly over things like Page 3, or – say – the Mail’s infamous sidebar of shame, which will not be prohibited by the filters. These things are more subtle and more pernicious, and I’d imagine that the existence of these, along with countless other examples, is more damaging overall to the collective consciousness than the ability to watch a couple (or whatever) of people shagging, however enthusiastically or unrealistically.

Of course, Cameron is never going to restrict access to those things, and never could. I’d suggest these current plans are similarly unworkable and ridiculous, if on a slightly different scale, and I’d be amazed if they are actually implemented. They strike me as gesture politics at best: a simple thing to say to appease people, but which can easily be forgotten and abandoned down the line. Or, to put it another way, a bit of momentary crowd-pleasing headline-grabbing to distract everyone from the people who are really getting fucked.

 

1.

Over the last year or so, when I’ve done events by myself, I’ve started off the same way. I make a joke about how I don’t really like reading, so I’m going to ease myself in by doing something short, and that I’m going to break with tradition by reading a piece written by someone else.

This is what I read:

“Sergei Yatzenko was 48 years old. He had recently been forced into retirement due to a cancerous tumour in his throat. The treatment left him unable to speak for some time. But Yatzenko was unhappy with being unable to work and continued to find odd jobs around the village. He took on small construction projects; he fixed cars, wove baskets, and cooked for his family. Yatzenko was married and had two sons and one grandchild. He also looked after his disabled mother. He was beginning to regain his voice.”

Having read that short piece, I generally set it aside, say: “And we’ll come back to Mr Yatzenko later”. Then I get on with the beginning of my talk.

It’s not true, as I’ve slightly edited the piece so as to remove clues as to where I’m going. Tension. Withholding information. Call it what you want.

Already, I suppose, I’m using him.

 

2.

I wrote The 50/50 Killer while working as a secretary in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. People there knew I was a published writer, and were proud enough of me, I guess, but didn’t much care. One exception was an internationally renowned Professor of Disability Studies, who wanted the bad guy in the book to be named after him. So I obliged.

He liked it. Afterwards, in fact, his only complaint was that I hadn’t made him evil enough.

Would that it were always so easy.

 

3.

I’ve always been interested and conflicted about the use of violence in fiction. There are numerous arguments around it, of course. Fictional violence is not real violence, but the two inevitably touch: stones skipping across mirrored seas. Does fictional violence influence the real world? Yes, surely, but not in any predictable way. Does it desensitise? Surely not, as anyone who has witnessed umpteen Hollywood fistfights and then seen a real one will attest. Fictional violence desensitises you to fictional violence; the real deal is very different indeed.

And so on.

These connections and questions are fascinating to me. I wrote about them most explicitly in Black Flowers, which is about a writer turning real-life violence into fiction, and then finding that his work of fiction influences real-life in turn.

But I wrote about it first in Still Bleeding, which is a book about online depictions of real-life violence: the forums where you can go to watch genuine atrocities that have been captured on camera, and the impulses that might lead you to do so. Most people would recoil in horror from such footage, but it’s just data: zeros and ones, translated into something your brain can make sense of. It’s not really taking place while you watch it. In no significant way that I can discern is it different from reading a description of what took place and using your imagination. So a few of the descriptions of videos in Still Bleeding are of real online footage, because I thought it would be interesting to muddy the waters.

 

4.

I read this recently. It’s a good article, mostly concerned with the conflict the author feels upon interviewing an elderly man who was one of the Chukiren: the Japanese soldiers repatriated from China after WWII, some of whom were involved in infamous horrors like Unit 731. The author wonders:

“By representing atrocity, are we giving voice, and therefore respect, to the victims who have been silenced? Or are we sensationalizing the private stories of those who have already been violated? When we take evil that is beyond understanding and put it into words, are we bringing healing clarity to the raw confusion of trauma? Or are we falsely packaging and simplifying something that ought never to be reduced, translating inexpressible evil into something common just for the sake of sharing a story?”

Those are good questions, I think, and they don’t just apply to non-fiction.

 

5.

While researching Still Bleeding, I browsed various forums and watched a handful of videos that showed atrocities taking place. The one that stuck with me most appeared towards the end of the editing process, and was never included in the book. It’s a seven minute clip of a helpless man being tortured and murdered in woodland. Someone is holding a camera while a second individual commits the murder. The victim is struck repeatedly in the face with a hammer, stabbed with a screwdriver in the stomach and face, then eventually killed with the hammer. Throughout, the culprits laugh at the man, standing on him at times, and when they refer to him, they use the Ukrainian pronoun usually reserved for an animal, rather than a human being.

This video set certain forums on fire when it was released. It hit the mainstream too, to an extent. Such videos often garner a “cute” nickname, and this one will forever be known as “3 Guys, 1 Hammer”. Hundreds of people recorded Youtube reaction videos of themselves watching it.

The journalist Caitlin Moran saw it. She wrote an article in which she said:

“Simultaneously, I was telling myself that it was probably a revenge attack – that this man had attacked a lover, killed a child, and although his murder was awful, in a world of almost infinite sorrow it was not the unconscionably profane insult to humanity that it first appeared to be. I was using the thought of torturous retribution as a comfort.”

This was not an uncommon initial reaction. Human beings search for patterns, and when good and bad things happen, people seek to justify them. The forums were full of attempts to make sense of this. He must have done something wrong to deserve such a horrible, awful death, it was suggested. He must have been a bad man. People were almost hugging the idea of that.

I felt it too. And immediately, I wanted to find out more about him.

 

6.

It wasn’t difficult – although, ironically, much of the information came from those objectionable shock forums, researching and discussing their prized video, because the Western media didn’t really cover the case in any great detail.

This is what happened.

In June and July of 2007, two individuals committed 21 murders in the Dnepropetrovsk region of the Ukraine. Their victims were chosen opportunistically, at random, and they took several video recordings of the tortures and murders they committed. These were shown in court, and for some reason, one leaked online. In early 2009, they were sentenced to life in prison.

The two murderers were 19 years old. Nobody really knows why they did it. Unlike most serial killers, there was no sexual element, and while robbery sometimes occurred, it was clearly never the main motive. A detective on the case concluded: “We think they were doing it as a hobby, to have a collection of memories when they get old.”

 

7.

These murders were one of the inspirations for Dark Room. So, how do I justify that, and what do I think about it?

a)

Firstly, the crimes in the book are actually very different. I used the initial case as a jumping-off point. What the murders in my book share with the real life case is an apparent sense of randomness, the method, the numbers, and the element of video recording. But the victims are different, the investigation is different, and the ultimate motivation is different. If you read the book and I pointed you towards the case, you might say “Oh yes, I see some vague connection there”. But it’s not obvious to me that, being familiar with the case in advance, you would recognise it in the book without prompting. It’s possible. But my point is, this is certainly not a fictional recreation of that investigation.

b)

Secondly, I figured that the likelihood of anybody with a personal connection to the case ever reading my book was exceedingly slim. Their reaction if they did is something I’ll come back to very shortly, but this consideration is separate to that. It was unlikely to happen in the first place.

c)

Thirdly, all fiction is gleaned from reality. It’s not like anybody writes a story without encountering the real world, and so even the most apparently invented fictional events will have been coloured by real life truths and experiences that the author encountered in some way. If I’d invented the murders in Dark Room from scratch, the fictional story would still – inevitably – have drawn in elements from the real world. Because otherwise, how could anyone write about anything, and what would be the point?

d)

Taking all that into account, I don’t think the issues around using real-life crime in fiction are all that different from the issues around crime fiction that is supposedly invented.

To take an example, let’s say you’re writing about rape. More so than murder, the chances are that your work of fiction will be read by someone with real-life experience of that crime. It seems unlikely to me (with some caveats) that this person will be worried about whether your story is based on real life, so much as whether the subject matter is being used trivially for entertainment, or if the inclusion of it has a purpose. Is it purely exploitative, for example, using such an experience for titillation and excitement? Or is that inclusion necessary for a wider point the author is making, or at least trying to?

e)

And of course, all that is subjective. Different writers will have different thresholds for what they want to do, and what – for them – constitutes fair use of this kind of material. Every single reader will be exactly the same.

And both, perhaps, will have misgivings and conflicted feelings about the same work at different times.

Both will wonder.

 

8.

As I reveal at the end of my talk – and which many people, here and there, will have already guessed – the man in the murder video is Sergei Yatzenko. Sometimes I read that initial (amended) section again:

“He was 48 years old, and had recently been forced into retirement due to a cancerous tumour in his throat. The treatment left him unable to speak for some time. But Yatzenko was unhappy with being unable to work and continued to find odd jobs around the village. He took on small construction projects; he fixed cars, wove baskets, and cooked for his family.”

Then I say that, despite all the speculation, Mr Yatzenko was absolutely not a bad man. He was not remotely someone who deserved what happened to him. He was simply a person, indistinguishable from you or me, who happened to be riding down the wrong isolated road at the wrong time, when a wrong someone stepped out from the woodland, knocked him from his scooter, dragged him into the treeline, and murdered him.

And then I tell the truth: while fascinated by the case, I never wanted to write about the two killers. I wasn’t all that curious about them at all. While superficially inexplicable, there would always be reasons found eventually for the terrible things they did. Instead, I wanted to write – from a point of remove – about someone like Mr Yatzenko. He was the person that interested me. He was the person I related to. He  – someone like him – would always be the heart of this kind of story. And so that, ultimately, is what I set out to do.

“Yatzenko was married and had two sons and one grandchild. He also looked after his disabled mother.”

At the end of my events, I read that out again. And my own inadequacy, the stupidity and presumption, the arrogance, the gap between what I wanted to write and what I did, the sheer ridiculousness of what I’ve done – none of it is lost on me as I finish the reading.

“He was beginning,” I say, “to regain his voice.”