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Killing Meaning
Nikki McArthur • What is so valuable about "Open Dialogue"?
April 2004

“It is fine for the CN to give Sex Week the ‘Outrage Award’ if that is how they regard our treatment of the topic, ... but I think it is a biased and backwards organization that does not realize the benefits of such open dialogue.”
— William Garneau, YDN, 4/5/04

What does it mean to have an open dialogue? Practically, this oft-touted phrase is contentless. As far as I can tell, an open dialogue is nothing more than a discussion in which no one is judged. This discussion could be about whether or not gay marriage should be legalized; it could be about the weather. As long as no one is judged, the dialogue is open. Why, then, do so many Yalies think they can justify their opinions, protests, and movements merely by saying they are contributing to an open dialogue?

The organizers of Sex Week at Yale deemed the viewing and discussion of pornography as essential to an open dialogue about sex. (For the purpose of this article, we are going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their de facto goal was really “open dialogue,” as they maintain, though crude jokes, blatant commercialization, and disdain for those of the non-hedonistic sort would suggest otherwise.)

Is the viewing of pornography part of an open dialogue about sex? Of course it is — anything can be part of an open dialogue about sex. The question is whether or not the viewing and subsequent discussion of pornography should be included in dialogue at the university level. The answer to this question is much harder.

Afraid of the ignorance born of fundamentalism, Yalies are ever-intimidated of judging other people’s philosophies or religions. The result of this intimidation is pervasive relativism — tolerance for ideas, intolerance for beliefs. Such relativism may be mildly tolerable in the classroom, but ideas do not exist in vacuums. The average citizen grants great authority to discussions carried on at a university such as Yale. Acknowledging Yale professors and even Yale students as more expert in their intellectual pursuits than he, he pays attention not only to the content of discussions at Yale but also to the subjects. Thus, incorporating new subjects into the intellectual discourse of an Ivy League university does more than expand the scope of open dialogue — it grants legitimacy to these subjects.

The claim that pornography should be included in an academic discussion of sex is terrifying precisely because of this allocation of legitimacy. Do we really want pornography to be granted status as a legitimate academic movement? There are three reasons why we should be scared by this.

First, pornography promotes violence against women. It habituates men into being able to immediately gratify their sexual urges. Such habitual immediate gratification makes it harder for men to control themselves in the face of a resisting woman. Additionally, pornography often re-enacts a rape fantasy, in which a woman who initially resists intercourse is begging for it by the end of the movie. Such fantasies reinforce the “her mouth said no, but her eyes said yes” fallacy.

Second, pornography promotes a perversion of sex. Even if you don’t believe that sex is about children, even if you don’t believe that sex is about heterosexual relationships, you should believe that sex is about more than physical pleasure. Though there are an unlucky few who truly believe that being able to sleep with a man or woman whose name you do not know is a testament to your liberation, most people can agree that sex is done best when done within a relationship. It’s too personal of an act to be done flippantly. The view that the value of sex rests wholly in physical pleasure will inevitably end up hurting either the person who holds it or the person she sleeps with.

Finally, because pornography handles nothing more than sheer carnal pleasure, it does not deserve a place in dialogue at the university level. Even for those who are unwilling to acknowledge that pornography promotes a perversion of sex, this final point presents a challenge. Once the moral baggage that pornography carries with it is stripped away, this unhappy subject of discussion is about as intellectually stimulating as a discussion of the best way to give a massage. The university does not exist to maximize its students’ ability to pleasure themselves. It exists to maximize its students’ ability to know themselves and the world that they live in.

The viewing of pornography is not something that should be included in an academic dialogue about sex. To include it grants legitimacy to something that fosters perversions in society. To include it grants legitimacy to something that is not worth the trouble of academic conversation. If you must have a dialogue about sex such as the one that Sex Week presented, fine, but pretending that pornography must be a part of this is nothing more than an immature joke.

The fact that this joke was passed off under the excuse of “open dialogue” points to an even more pervasive problem at Yale — the tendency to grant open dialogues value regardless of their subjects. Again, this tendency is dangerous because we grant legitimacy to those subjects to which we grant value. While this problem may seem less egregious when discussing the legitimization of such a controversial subject as pornography, the implications of it are great.

Many Yalies have little problem with allowing pornography to be granted legitimacy. After all, lots of people watch pornography; is it really such a big deal? Ignoring the impact of such a move, however, becomes problematic. In a simplistic way, actions can be divided into three ethical categories — the actions that we know are right (i.e. consensual sex within marriage), the actions about which we are ethically unsure (i.e. pornography), and the actions that we know are wrong (i.e. child pornography). Every time we grant legitimacy to an action the morality of which we are unsure, we expand the sphere of actions that we know are right. This expansion, far from shrinking the sphere of actions the morality of which we are unsure, actually shrinks the sphere of actions that we know are wrong. For instance, if pornography is ethically legitimate, the claims of those who protest against child pornography are weakened. (How is child pornography really so different form pornography? And pornography is okay...) Thus, when university-level dialogues grant legitimacy to actions that are morally hazy, it must be fully aware of the fact that it grants legitimacy to actions which are comfortably considered unethical. Such an awareness renders inviable the assumption that open dialogue is always good.

Too often, Yalies justify their actions by assuming the intrinsic goodness of open dialogue. Open dialogue, however, is an ethically neutral category that nonetheless has far-reaching implications within the sphere of ethics. As such, Yalies must assume the burden of proving the legitimacy of their dis-cussions, not by relying on an unfounded assumption but by arguing that the consequences of their discussions will be worthwhile.

Nikki McArthur, a senior from Saybrook College, is Editor-at-Large of the Yale Free Press.


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