Moral outrage is on the offensive

by Adam Banks on May 13, 2010

Adam Banks

Adam Banks

In times of economic strife, scary puritanism seems to flourish, which might explain three recent high-profile moral panics…

Bill Clinton told his election team, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ but the relationship between prosperity and political attitudes is far from being a no-brainer. Sometimes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going; so from the destitution of the Weimar Republic, we gained Bauhaus, Brecht and the Bomb. Then again, the Great Depression in the US was effectively a cultural intermission, unless you happened to like crime novels.

Is the current downturn galvanising or frustrating us? One barometer is conservatism, and there are unmistakable signs of a puritanical tendency: three in one week, at the time of writing.

First, as you’ll recall, Apple chucked out several thousand ‘overtly sexual’ products from the App Store, the only route by which software can be installed on iPhones and iPod touches. Phil Schiller, a man whose public role as Steve Jobs’ deputy may or may not owe anything to his physical resemblance to Deputy Dawg, mentioned ‘degrading and objectionable’ content. Which Apple, of course, had previously approved.

As Phil admitted, the process favoured any ‘well-known company with previously published material’ – so Playboy stayed, while an independent beachwear catalogue found itself excluded. ‘Ice skating tights are not OK, either,’ one curious developer was advised. Bang goes ‘Debbie Does the Winter Olympics’, then.

The Italians are more relaxed about sex, yet they’re also in favour of corporate censorship. In Milan, Google executives were convicted in absentia (you can hardly blame them for tiptoeing away at the first ting of a sharpened pitchfork) of violating a teenager’s privacy by hosting a YouTube video of him being bullied.

Google owns YouTube, if you’ve lost track. It’s MySpace that’s owned by Murdoch. Facebook still owns Facebook, unless you’re reading this in the archive, in which case possibly Kraft. Apple doesn’t own much because it prefers to sit astride vast heaps of cash, occasionally lifting a few million dollars to its wide-eyed face and letting it trickle through its fingers, gurgling.

Although Google took down the video as soon as it was alerted by the local fuzz, that wasn’t good enough: the court found it should have reacted to earlier comments. Do we really want sites only to host items that nobody criticises? And must they read and act on every comment? Maybe YouTube could watch all the videos, too, just to be sure. With 20 hours uploaded every minute, you’d only need around 5000 full-time staff to keep up.

Of course, they’d have to be told what to look out for. Maybe the App Store vetting guys could help. Or the copyright barons who’d like to be notified and remunerated every time someone whistles a tune in a home movie. Or maybe we should all get used to the public having access to mass media and stop demanding magic wands.

Offline, magazines were also coming in for some stick. A report for the Home Office recommended that ‘lads’ mags such as Nuts and Zoo should carry age restrictions and be confined to the top shelf. You don’t have to be a gender politics wonk to fear the social implications of females routinely stripping off and bending over in the middle of WHSmith for the benefit of what gender politics wonks call the male gaze, especially when those doing the gazing are young enough to know better. But is legislation the answer? We already have so many new laws that it will soon be simpler for Jack Straw to introduce a bill prohibiting everything, with amendments for the exceptions.

Self-censorship is widespread anyway. In my local Sainsbury’s, the dodgier titles are obscured by Perspex bins that leave only their mastheads visible, like a Victorian frock. As well as concealing what the cover stars were paid not to, this makes the merchandise seem vaguely grubby.

Which is exactly how a sensible solution might work. Slapping an age rating on a mag will hardly make it less attractive to younger users. However, tuck it up with less-salubrious bedfellows, and its publisher will start thinking about how to steer its content back into the mainstream. As with the ugly warnings on cigarette packets, addressing perception is likely to do more good than fighting the tide of availability.

What links all three issues is the need for moderation – in both senses of the word. Yes, we should keep an eye on things and give them, when necessary, a push in the appropriate direction. But in times like these, the appropriate direction is forward. Moral panics are a distraction we can’t afford.

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