December 11, 2006

We Must Act Now to Silence, Not Think!

desade.jpgAccording to Germany plans crackdown on violent online games - Financial Times - the regional governments of Bavaria and Lower Saxony have drafted a bill that would subject developers, distributors and players of video games whose goal is to inflict "cruel violence on humans or human-looking characters" to a fine and a maximum of one year in jail.

It is the typical overreaction to a tragic school shooting. Since the real causes are probably diffuse, individual and hard to deal with a suitable scapegoat that can at least in principle be dealt with has to be found. It is also somewhat consistent with the famous Omega vs Bonn case where the EU court decided it was OK for Germany ban a lasergame on the grounds that it threatens human dignity. So leaving out the likeliehood that cooler heads will prevail and the practical impossibilities of banning games, from a legal perspective it could be done.

What makes me curious is the ethical implications. Suppose it was not computer games but violent, sadistic books? Suddenly the bill would likely be seen as utterly draconic and unconstitutional. Germany has strong protections of freedom of speech, and although there are some constraints that in principle could prevent such a book it is very likely that it would be deemed falling under freedom of art and press. It is easy to attack computer games since they do not represent mainstream high culture, and many opponents do not even recognize them as culture or social expression (Eudoxa has a very good report by Rasmus Fleischer (in Swedish) criticising this).

This moves the issue close to my own area, bioethics of enhancement. A very common kind of objection to enhancing humans is that even if a particular kind of enhancement does not directly hurt human dignity it will lead to a society moving towards disregard of human dignity, filled with instrumentalisation of human lives and inequality, hence enhancement should be resisted. Now, if we accept this argument as valid for the moment (there is a lot of technological determinism, wooly slippery slope thinking and lack of empirical support here that I usually attack) it implies that the consequences are bad enough to merit not just not supporting relevant research but limiting people's freedom to do it, possibly even making it illegal (George Annas is perhaps the most extreme, arguing that it should be made a crime against humanity).

Here it is the outcome that is regarded as the problem, so the argument is consequentialist (although a lot of the people making it actually seem to be more perturbed by the nonconsequentialist aspects of enhancement). Hence any other activity that were equally or more likely to cause this bad future society must be resisted equally strongly. That includes computer games and books. It is entirely legal in all western countries to write a book laying out a philosophical and aesthetic case for why it would be good to reduce all humans to resources to be used by the Powers That Be and why human dignity and equality are irrelevant (in Germany and some other countries this mustn't be argued from a nazi standpoint of course, but doing it from any other is allowed). If freedom of research and action must be curtailed to prevent threats to human dignity, then clearly freedom of speech must be equally curtailed.

These curtailments have one very worrying aspect: they happen before the fact. They are based on the assumed potential for information or technology to cause bad effects, but preclude any testing of whether they actually have them. Hence the rules will be founded on ignorance.

On the other hand, setting rules after bad experiences is rationally possible only when these experiences actually can be traced to the non-curtailed activities. Has the existence and publication of de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom made mankind worse? It is impossible to give a clear answer since its effects have percolated so widely and spawned responses in all directions and of all kinds. Yes, the book is boring and vile, yet its overall impact in terms of reactions in psychoanalysis, freedom of press, existentialism and whatnot is far more complex and hard to evaluate. Would we be better of if it had been burned? It is very convenient to blame books (or computer games) for the ills of society, especially if they are burned and future generations cannot check the likeliehood of these claims.

Overall the aim of this kind of culture-protecting curtailments of freedom is to protect society from a cultural change that is (regarded by some sufficiently influential group) as negative. It is somewhat paradoxal: in order to safeguard human dignity human freedom has to be reduced (but doesn't dignity require freedom to express itself?). Worse, this activity is exactly the kind of subjecting the individual to the goals of the Powers That Be that I mentioned in the context of the fictional book. It puts the good of Culture and Society above the good of the people that make them up. And once you start to put the abstractions before the people (since they don't know what is best for them, and this is why you can safely disregard their uninformed complaints) there are so many more things you can make better by ignoring their will!

While the impacts of complex things like books and computer games are hard to estimate, we have quite a bit of data to base our decisions on in regards to reducing freedom of expression. Putting people in jail for producing unwanted expression and preventing its spread has not just been a hallmark of tyrranies, it has quite often helped them rise to power. When it is easy to silence critics - be it legally or just by the chilling effects of the laws - criticism and alternative opinions vanish.

I think attempts to ban anything that actually doesn't have demonstrably bad effects should not be countenanced. We already know the bad effects of that. Instead we might want to find out more. Allow enhancement but monitor the psychological impact of their use. Keep an eye on violent computer games and try to figure out how to avoid mentally disturbed people from playing them - or better, find ways to use the games to discover who is in trouble. It is interesting to note that the proposed legislation will likely affect online games - i.e. the ones that have more of a social component - than single-player games an isolated and troubled youth could be playing. Might babies be thrown out with the bathwater?

As Fleischer pointed out computer games are not just isolated gaming but part of a culture and the basis for much online social interaction. That many are violent may be an expression of a desire to master or interact with the most forbidden in our otherwise (historically speaking) peaceful western world, violence itself. The more forbidden it becomes, the more schools and adult culture disapproves on any expression of aggression, the more fascinating it will be. Games could just as well be a way of learning how to handle violence and see its limitations, but that form of learning is unlikely to happen because the outside world wants it.

Posted by Anders3 at December 11, 2006 08:40 PM