Kevin W. Saunders


On his book Degradation: What the History of Obscenity Tells Us about Hate Speech

Cover Interview of March 28, 2011

The wide angle

My interest in the concept of obscenity grew out of a law school course on the topic of the rhetoric, law and culture.  One of the readings was Sophocles’ play Philoctetes, and the professor noted that the play’s violence occurred offstage.  It was ab scaena or obscene.

That led to an interest in understanding why the concept had shifted from violence to sex.  It also led to my first book, in which I argued that depictions of violence could still be considered obscene, not only conceptually, but also legally.

A continuing interest in the concept later led me to consider why it was that cultures such as the Greeks of the classical era were very accepting of sexual depiction, while others saw the need to restrict such material.  I concluded that sexual depiction was tolerated by the Greeks because they did not see it as degrading.  This raised the question of why the Greeks had such a different attitude from that which prevailed in later Europe.

The major distinction that I found between cultures that tolerated and even openly appreciated depictions of sex and those that found them somehow shameful was in their views of the nature of the divine.

The Greek gods and goddesses were themselves highly sexual creatures.  The depiction of humans as sexually engaged did not distinguish them from the gods and place them on the animal side of some divine/animal chasm.  These depictions were simply not degrading.

Outside of Europe, on the polytheistic side, this distinction explains the sexual nature of carvings in Hindu temples and in Indian literature in the precolonial era.  It also explains the Shinto culture of Japan.  It might also explain differences with regard to sexuality in Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, given the longer ascendancy and shorter period of dormancy of the Nordic gods.

With the onset of a monotheistic religion, the situation changed.  A monotheistic God is not a sexual creature.  Depictions of human sexuality show how far we are from the divine and emphasize our animal nature.  This could explain the relative similarity in this area in Christian, Judaic and Islamic cultures.

In Christian Europe, this led to early limitations on sexual depictions involving the clergy, since they had to be closer to God, and only later to depictions of the ordinary man.

These later restrictions and the great growth in obscenity statutes in the United Kingdom and the United States occurred in an era in which the development of the theory of evolution most strongly called into question humankind’s status relative to the divine and the animal and might be seen as a reaction to that theory.

Today, most people are relatively accepting of our animal nature.  And that is accompanied by greater acceptance of sexual depiction.  This may explain, on the mild side, the banter of television sitcoms.  On the other end, obscenity prosecutions are relatively rare.

While some sexual depictions may degrade by ignoring the humanity of its subjects, sexual depiction is no longer automatically degrading.  Sexual depiction does not alter the status of all of humanity, and it does not place us at a level lower than that which we have come to accept.

While hate speech differs from what has been considered obscene, the two are conceptually akin.  Hate speech degrades.  Rather than degrading all of humanity to a level lower than the divine, it selects a target and degrades that target to a level lower than the rest of humanity.

And this less than universally shared degradation should be of far more concern than any remaining obscenity-based degradation in which we all share.