The webcomics blog about webcomics

On The Splitting Of Hairs

So … ‘tother day Ryan Sohmer posted an update of The Gutters (just about every update is by an different artist, this time by Ryan Lee) that kind of hit me in the gut. Not that I think that any idea or issue is so sacrosanct that you can’t argue about it, or that any creation of human ingenuity is so perfect that you can’t have different opinions on it. And not because I came into comics as an adult from volunteering with the CBLDF.

However, I think that the premise of his critique of the CBLDF is flawed.

We’ll just dismiss the last two lines where he claims that the CBLDF will provide you with kiddie porn images for a monthly fee — hyperbole, humorous exaggeration, no blood, no foul. I think the real problem comes the middle of the text block:

We fight for your right to view graphic depictions of naked children.

The very straightforward, declarative nature of that sentence gives the impression that that is all that the CBLDF does, which isn’t true¹.

In part, it’s not true because there are threats to comics that don’t deal with the obscenity angle at all; for instance, in 2004 the US Customs Service in Charleston, SC seized a shipment of comics that included a parody of the Bush administration using the iconography of Richie Rich. Their argument was that the images violated copyright, and that the laws of parody don’t apply to comics because comics aren’t covered by the First Amendment. There are similar cases from across the country and across the Fund’s history, but they aren’t the ones that stick in the mind because they tend to settle very quickly.

The obscenity/pornography cases are the ones that linger — in part because we’re in the midst of a multi-decade moral panic over the threats to children everywhere, and in part because in most parts of the country, prosecutors are elected and can pretty much guarantee re-election by going after perceived perverts. The problem is, in a lot of cases, “perversion” is defined as “what I don’t like, personally”. That leads to circumstances like the Mike Diana case, or the fact that Canadian Customs regularly seizes any material coming into the country that contains lesbian/gay content.

Then we come to the elephant in the room — depictions of children in sexual situations. As a society, as a species, we’ve pretty much agreed that this sets off the ick reaction in our brains. It just ain’t right, and protecting those who cannot form consent in a meaningful way from predation is a laudable thing. But somewhere along the way, the idea has been formed that in addition to protecting real children, we must prevent the existence of sexual representations of fictional children, since such material will inevitably damage hypothetical real children.

Honest. That’s the logic.

I’m mindful of the damage that sexual exploitation can do to children — I don’t have any of my own to be fearful of, but as an EMT, I’ve been trained to spot abuse and I’m a mandatory reporter². But again (and I swear I’m not splitting hairs), what constitutes a child? The law, which is a blunt instrument (thanks to Neil Gaiman for that metaphor) doesn’t distinguish and frequently leads to insane circumstances like teens being charged as sex offenders for sending nude pictures of themselves to other teens.

But that’s The Law — and that’s the dilemma. The line needs to be drawn somewhere, and I’m not comfortable thinking that there’s always a single place to draw it. By its nature, this is going to require case-by-case evaluation, with an eye towards precedent; to say that all cases where somebody cries But the [hypothetical] children! How can you defend somebody that does this to [hypothetical] children! are automatically wrong is no more useful than to say they’re automatically right.

Let me draw an analogy (and I’m going to apologize in advance because I’m taking you to a completely unrelated topic in comics, but the parallels are just too useful). In talking about the NCS and webcomics and the establishment of standards, Scott Kurtz wrote:

[T]ry this mental exercise. Come up with a series of criteria by which the NCS can determine professionalism among webcomics that lets in Penny Arcade but keeps out CTRL-ALT-DEL without defaulting to “Well not him because he sucks.” In the end, it’s always going to come down to a bunch of men and women (young or old) making a personal judgment call.

As he usually does, Kurtz identified the key issue there. Now I want you to make some minor substitutions:

Come up with a series of criteria by which the Law can determine what comics are permissible in their depiction of underage sexuality that lets in Anders Loves Maria³ but keeps out creepy manga without defaulting to “Well not that because the characters are [insert arbitrary distinction].”

Why does it seem that the CBLDF spend an inordinate amount of time on child porn-ish cases? Because that’s where the judgments have to be made. That’s where the grey areas exist, where the one-size-fits-all proscriptions are least likely to get it right. I have utterly no problem with Ryan Sohmer for having opinions that either match or don’t with my own, nor for starting the public discussion that he did. But I don’t think the place he started it from was a fair premise to build that discussion on.

¹ Although it’s sometimes a useful fiction — the CBLDF executive director once shared with me that when trapped on an airplane next to a boring person that he doesn’t want to deal with for five hours, “I defend child pornographers” is a great answer to the “So what do you do?” question.

² Actually, every adult in the state of New Jersey is, but since I’ve been trained it would be harder for me to turn my head the other way and claim that I didn’t know or suspect anything was wrong.

³ I’ll leave it to you to browse the archives, considering that Sweden’s morality police could very well decide that Rene Engström is a vile threat to society based upon elements of her work that are an honest depiction of how life is.

Like I didn’t have enough reasons to dislike Ryan Sohmer, he goes and pulls a stupid stunt like this.

I agree with you! But I disagree with the idea that fiction doesn’t cause harm. But also agree. It’s complicated.

Have you read/heard about The Law is an Ass?

Bob Ingersoll writes about the law in superhero comics but also in relation to comics in general. Particulary the censorship or ratings of comics and the CBLDF. Very interesting stuff that brought me round to seeing how even stuff we don’t like should be defended.

[…] Organizations | Gary Tyrell responds to a comic strip by Ryan Sohmer and Ryan Lee on The Gutters, which parodied the recent advertising campaign for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The comic strip says the CBLDF fights “for your right to view graphic depictions of naked children” and features silhouettes of adults approaching children. “The very straightforward, declarative nature of that sentence gives the impression that that is all that the CBLDF does, which isn’t true,” Tyrell says. The original strip has more than 300 comments. [Fleen] […]

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