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Friday, August 18, 2017


Some natural law must be operating here of which I am unaware.  On many occasions I have written and posted lengthy discussions running to several thousands of words which have occasioned at most a languid comment or two.  Two days ago I posted thirty-three words with an embedded link, thereby provoking one of the longest and most interesting threads of comment in the history of this blog.  Perhaps if I just posted “So?” the comments space would overflow.

Out of the wealth of ideas finding expression in those comments, let me single out just one, the free marketplace of ideas, for some discussion.  The metaphor of a free market of ideas raises all manner of problems, and it might be fun to explore some of them for a bit.  The notion underlying the metaphor is of course that in a real marketplace, where goods and services are offered for sale, consumers, who are presumed to be excellent judges of their own pleasures and pains, very quickly learn which commodities yield a pleasure commensurate with their price and which do not.  Consumers’ unconstrained purchasing choices, which when aggregated with the choices of others constitute some level of effective demand, determine the prices at which the commodities sell, and hence the profits made by their producers.  Commodities sought by consumers establish themselves in the market; those shunned are unprofitable and are soon withdrawn. 

By analogy, we are asked to believe, opinions compete for acceptance in the way that goods and services compete for buyers.  Hence the familiar expression, “I’ll buy that,” meaning “I will accept that as true.”  Good ideas compete with bad ideas, with the good ideas gaining wider and wider acceptance as the bad ideas, like Betamax, are driven from the intellectual marketplace.

There are so many things wrong with this analogy that it is truly difficult to understand why it has gained such currency [itself an interesting metaphor, by the way.]  Consideration of a proposition is nothing like consumption of a commodity, and the conclusion that the proposition is true is nothing like the experience that the commodity yields pleasure [although a deep exploration of the psychological links between the oral incorporation of food and the intellectual acceptance of an idea might actually be interesting.]

Let me focus on just one problem.  In the modern world, consumers are presented with a completely unmanageable multiplicity of commodities whose safety, purity, and reliability it is beyond their ability to assess.  No one [save Rand Paul perhaps] seriously claims that the invisible hand of the free market can be relied on quickly, and with acceptable safety, to weed out faulty or poisonous products by the unfettered workings of competition.  Hence we rely on the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, to maintain product safety and purity standards enforceable by law. 

If one takes the metaphor of the free marketplace of ideas seriously, the clear implication is that the government ought to institute a Facts and Theories Administration, or FTA, whose responsibility it would be to regulate the dissemination of ideas, enforcing standards of evidentiary solidity and conceptual purity to protect us from dangerous ideas that are potentially fatal to our intellectual well-being.

Hmm.  That is not exactly what the folks have in mind who push the notion of the free market of ideas.

I am an absolutist when it comes to freedom of expression, because long experience has taught me that in this society, it is more than likely going to be my ideas that are squelched, my voice silenced, when limits are placed on what can be said in the public sphere.  But what would I say in the socialist society of my dreams?  Ah well, that is a post for another day.


Écrasez L'infâme said...

I don't think a Britisher would ever use the phrase "*free* marketplace of ideas". I've heard "marketplace of ideas" over here without the "free", although rarely. I suggest there's a world of difference between a real market (which might include barter) and a free market (which carries ideological and propagandistic baggage and which doesn't exist anyway). The latter analogy is paradoxical - it implies an admirable openness to debate and free thinking, and a less admirable association of thinking with money.

Enam el Brux said...

This post, which I had not seen when I was commenting in the other thread, preempts what I wrote--though I am not a free speech absolutist. For the reason you state at the end, I might be persuaded to be a contingent absolutist, as absurd as that sounds...

Guy Tennenbaum said...

Professor Wolff, your comments here echo (albeit with more subtlety and humor) what I just posted in my last comment in the previous thread.

I'll just note your statement that in this society it's your own ideas which are most liable to being silenced. Hence your free speech absolutism. This seems like an acknowledgement that -- to put it very crudely -- contingent circumstance should take precedence over "fixed" principles. (Would O.W. Holmes agree?)

Guy Tennenbaum said...

F Lengyel, "contingent absolutism" seems to aptly describe Richar Rorty's position -- as well as that of anyone who insists they're not a relativist even though everyone else seems to think they are.

Jerry Brown said...


Anonymous said...

Probably depends on which kind of socialism. The kind that's highly centralized and run by bureaucrats? I don't know about your ideas, but I don't think there'd be enough freedom of speech generally in such a state. Some kind of libertarian socialism? (That's more like your dreams, right?) Then it would probably depend on the kind of people in your local community. Results will vary, probably.

Jerry Brown said...

You guys are taking the metaphor or analogy or whatever too far. It is a useful metaphor to many people- it helps explain an idea. When someone says the 'free marketplace of ideas' it is only to help explain a principle. If you disagree with the principle, go ahead and explain why. Arguing whether the metaphor is accurate, or if it ever actually exists, is an entirely different subject. I follow economics very closely and I would be the first to tell you that there really is no 'free market' in anything. All markets are fundamentally based on trust, and most of the effective markets have an authority that provides structure and usually enforcement of contracts. So yes, there are no truly absolutely free markets outside of your own brain. But the 'free market' for ideas is probably one of the closest to an actual free market that you can ever find.

Enam el Brux said...

Ed Barreras, I had Rorty in the back of my mind--which is where he will stay. I'm doing my best to observe my non-absolutist ablutions, which, if the marketplace of ideas had any purchase, would already have surmounted the resistance they've received. [This is an allusion to "reflective equilibrium" (to compound economic analogies) which probably has never been achieved.]

Guy Tennenbaum said...

For what it's worth, I think Rorty's defenses against the charge of relativism are on target.

David Auerbach said...


Unknown said...

It’s worth keeping in mind that Holmes used the term “free trade in ideas” and then referred to the power of an idea “to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

This is hardly a cash market; it is more like the kind of thing that occurs on this blog: People are putting forth their ideas in the expectation or hope that others will accept (i.e. “buy”) them.

Does this always produce the most desirable outcome? Certainly not. The problem is coming up with something better. That was Holmes’s point.

Jerry Brown said...

Professor Wolff, I am gratified that you found the comments from your last post to be interesting. I obviously did also :). I actually was somewhat afraid that when I checked them again I would find them deleted, or that I would find an email that asked me not to comment again. Thank you for not sending me that yet.

The subject of free speech and when, or if, it needs to be curtailed is very interesting to me. And I really don't have the tools to make the side of the argument that I hold. And Ed Barreras and F Lengyel make some very good points that I really don't have answers for. David Palmeter and Don Ellis provided better answers than me. Although you seem to have a dislike for the metaphor used. Is that some Commie thing? Just kidding of course. Like I said, I am more familiar with economic theory than philosophy. And economists probably aren't considered the deep thinkers. We do claim Marx as one of the most important economists though. Even if most economists would like to pretend otherwise.

I had asked you in the comments on your last post about your take on the 'red scare' in the 50's. David Palmeter shared some of his experience with that time. Would you be willing to also? I mean, if that had any influence on your view of things? I am sure it would be fascinating.

Enam el Brux said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Re: Ed @3:03
"I'll just note your statement that in this society it's your own ideas which are most liable to being silenced. Hence your free speech absolutism. This seems like an acknowledgement that -- to put it very crudely -- contingent circumstance should take precedence over "fixed" principles. (Would O.W. Holmes agree?)"

Yes, this suggests calling it absolutism is a little misleading. Perhaps free speech "rule utilitarian" would be an accurate alternative? Treating speech *as if* it were an absolute rule--even though it is not--is better overall under prevailing conditions than trusting those in authority's judgments about exceptions, even though the exceptions do exist.

Enam el Brux said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guy Tennenbaum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guy Tennenbaum said...

Anonymous, I don't know enough to weigh in on whether rule utilitarianism is an apt designation, but thanks.

I want to note that none of us would likely be thinking about free speech were it not for He Whose Name Isn't Worth Writing. I feel as though he and his racist cohorts set a free speech trap.

That is, legally speaking, of course "both sides" were equally in the wrong insofar as they attempted to thwart each other's free expression with violence. Yet the president has (as they say) the "moral duty" to make explicit that not all speech is morally on the same plane; some speech is odious and beneath contempt. By abrogating that duty, he's licensed people to, on the level of rhetoric, collapse the legal equivalence into a moral one. I've seen this done in too many places. It's an abuse of our practices of tolerance, and it's infuriating.

And the thing is, we can expect violence at these kinds of rallies, especially if they gain sufficient popularity. So the trap can be set over and over.

On a happier note, it seems like non-state institutions are doing their part to bring on the backlash, preventing the white nationalist from using their platforms. The Daily stormer, one of the most prominent white nationalist websites, has been chased all the way to the Dark Web, where you'll have to jump through some hoops to view it. (

(Though, maybe this is an ambivalent development for the free speech absolutist. Chomsky, for example, once decried such corporate, non-state censorship, citing the example of how a corporation once torpedoed one of his books.)

LFC said...

The "marketplace of ideas" metaphor has its limits and problems but also can cast light on certain things.

Take the notion of 'market imperfections': one can think of the vast amounts of corporate money in politics and communications and media as preventing a genuinely free -- or fair, if one prefers that word -- competition in ideas. More could be said on this, but not now by me at any rate.


Off-topic: I've been involved in a comment thread on another blog in which a right-wing economist posted a long comment purporting to make, inter alia, philosophical/epistemological points about Kant, Hegel, and Marx that struck me as so bizzare I'm sort of afraid to link to it (for fear, among other things, it might cause blood pressures to soar -- there are octogenarians, or near-octogenarians, here. ;)) The commenter also took swipes at Marcuse and Freud along the way; it's as if the comment had almost been designed to take certain of Prof Wolff's
heroes and say denigrating things about them. Weird, actually, though perhaps the guy was simply repeating some Austrian School line about Marx that I wasn't familiar with.


Sorry for the off-topic swerve. Back to free speech!

Enam el Brux said...

There has been an uptick in bruxism cases since the election, according to dentists. Trump's election has cost me several thousand dollars thanks to chipped porcelain on a bridge. Related muscle spasms in the right trapezius and a trip to the doctor led to a prescription of Cyclobenzaprine. I am advised not to operate heavy logical machinery. [As if I were ordinarily capable.] In my hypnagogia, a response to the challenge to come up with something better than a free-for-all occurred from nowhere: Pigouvian taxes on the negative externalities generated by free speech. Perhaps it's more of a Swiftian gesture than a genuine proposal. If I adopt rule utilitarianism, I'm close to conceding altogether. Good night.

Charles Perkins said...

But, of course, you are going to write a post about free speech in the socialist society of your dreams?

Jerry Brown said...

Thanks to the most philosophical economist I follow, (and often struggle to understand), I have this from George Bernard Shaw on the difference between a market place for goods and a market place for ideas-

"If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples, then you and I
will still each have one apple.
But if you have an idea and I have an idea, and we exchange these ideas,
then each of us will have two ideas."

Now I admit I don't know what this has to do what the post or the other comments are about. But it is a neat way of differentiating what goes on in a regular exchange from what happens when people express their opinions.

Michael said...

Professor Wollf, I would be very interested in your thoughts about Antifa and similar fascist-opposing groups. Do they have a role or are they permissible in a free society, does their conception of fascism demand the, in some cases, violent response Antifa advocates? Thanks!

David Rondel said...

If I'm not mistaken, the phrase "marketplace of ideas" arises first in J.S. Mill's On Liberty. Now, there was a free speech "absolutist" if there ever was one! And certainly not for the reason that Professor Wolff shares. Above all, for Mill, the good of free speech is connected with the desire to know the truth. As he says “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion." I admire the fallibilism, but are we really supposed to take this open-minded attitude toward the idiots in Charlottesville?

I read Professor Wolff's "I'm a free speech absolutist because I assume that the opinions most likely to be stifled are my own" as a stance of prudence, adopted in and for the real world he finds himself in. It was not, if I'm right, an attempt to defend at the level of theory some legal principle about when and under what circumstances the state may legitimately suppress speech.

Unknown said...

I think we use the term “absolutist” as a term of art, or at least I do. Legally, despite the 1st Amendment, we do not, even in this country, have “absolute” freedom of speech. In Holmes famous example, free speech protection does not extend to falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. It does not protect false advertising. It does not allow libel and slander, or inciting to violence, among other restrictions. What amounts to incitement in a particular case is a difficult question--one that courts have wrestled with for a long time. It once excluded what was perceived as obscenity, but that’s pretty much gone away, although I suspect that were Sesame Street to display a couple of characters fornicating it would be shut down in a hurry.

Broadly speaking, the rules of thumb in this country are that the protection is from governmental--not private--prior restraint on speech in whatever form, but a speaker may be punished after the fact if the speech was, say, libelous. Restrictions to prevent violence are permitted--requiring permits even for peaceful demonstrations, for example. On the other hand, cases have held that the owners of private shopping centers, which serve as community gathering places, cannot prohibit picketing and such. In effect, the shopping center is seen as a privately-owned “public space”

But all of these are details that concern the application of a broadly stated rule to particular situations. For me, for reasons I’ve given and others on this thread have mentioned, the best interpretation is the broadest interpretation, even for the speech and the speakers I detest.

s. wallerstein said...

David Rondel:

How do "we" decide who are the idiots we should not be tolerant towards?

I note that 60 years ago (I'm 71) most of "us" would have had no problems including advocates of homosexuality among those towards whom tolerance was not due, especially if their message was directed towards those under 18.

The attitudes that "we" have change historically and "we" have no way to ascertain whether
there are some messages which "we" today consider as "worthy of banning", which in 50 or 60 more years will become politically acceptable.

My bet would be that in the next 50 or 60 years (when I'll not be around any more), the age of consent for sexual relations, both gay and heterosexual, is going to drop and people like Polanski (who, I see, still has legal problems in the U.S.) will be considered as kosher as will those that advocate sexual relations with teenagers.

So given that "our" concept of what is kosher to say changes historically, it's best for free speech to be as wide as possible.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree that absolutist is being used in a very qualified--and under those stipulated conditions--accurate way. My worry is more that it's not strategic.

These days I find--especially among young socialists whom I support in most respects--that "free speech absolutist" is almost *only* used pejoratively, referring to a position deemed self-evidently false and not simply unworthy of debate but a as reason to entirely dismiss someone as a reactionary undeserving of engagement. I avoid intraleft fights myself, but can't resist observing them with great interest--Polititcal Twitter is full of them.

So, my question is how to engage those who use the word this way, to do so in a way that recognizes the valid criticisms they make about the borderline cases, without doing so by granting them the extreme positions of either devaluing free speech as a key right to be championed by the left or the dubious position that their criticisms of free speech are self-evident, based in easy lines of demarcation? They are right to problematize free speech, but only insofar as they truly problematize it: recognize it is very difficult to say with certainty either that a borderline case should be allowed or that it should not be.

If I endorse a very carefullly qualified version of absolutism, many leftists will mistake it for a straw man version. If, on the other hand, I reject the term absolutism, I need to be able to distinguish a position that's errs on the side of too much freedom of speech, in contrast to the position that's growing in popularity among you leftists: erring on the side of less freedom of speech.

So, my sense is that those taking an err on the side I'd free speech position should avoid calling it absolutism, since it encourages drawing a false dichotomy that straw mans any open mindedness about the bore cases, and alienates people we need as allies, the growing socialist left.

Jerry Brown said...

One of the things that I find troubling is that limiting speech now seems often a goal of some nominally lefty liberal groups as well as more conservative authoritarian types. I read quite a few complaints from the more conservative economists I follow (and especially from the commenters on their posts) that 'political correctness groups' are making it difficult to have real discussion about important issues on college campuses and what not. Even hear complaints from some writers who are clearly left of center, just for one example Peter Dorman here-

Here is an example of a lefty drawing conclusions I don't agree with but still think are necessary to allow to be discussed. Or rather, would be more harmful to suppress. At least he left my dissenting comment up, even if he didn't respond to it.

I think it is a mistake in nearly all cases for liberals to support restrictions on speech.

David Rondel said...

s. Wallerstein:

I agree with you completely.

I was mainly interested in Mill's claim that the good of free expression is explained, at bottom, by a concern for truth. That is, since (a) we want to know what is true, and since (b) we can never be sure the opinion we are stifling is false, therefore (c) we ought not to stifle it, (d) unless it causes physical harm to identifiable individuals.

I more or less agree with that.

I like to think of myself as an open-minded and fallibilistic person, and I, like everyone else, certainly want to believe those things that are true. But I have a hard time imagining that the Nazi's beliefs might be correct here. They are entitled to express those beliefs, yes. But I'm not taking them seriously.

s. wallerstein said...

David Rondel:

Nazi beliefs are despicable as are those of the KKK. I'm Jewish and lost lots of family members in the Holocaust and if only for that reason, I find them detestable.

However, there is a rule in some blogs that using the Nazis as an example in argumentation about ethical or political issues is not allowed, because they are so especially hideous that they do not fall within the limits of normal human behavior (which can get very ugly, for example, the U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam or the Belgians in the Congo, but never seems to reach the level of Nazi evil).

It's been many many years since I read Mill, but I recall being very favorably impressed by On Liberty when I read it, especially with his analysis of how social pressures produce conformity. So I'll second your opinion on Mill.

We all have seen enough examples of how orthodoxy stifles creativity and new ideas to rightfully fear the banning of free speech, even if at times one might wish to put all neo-Nazis and KKK adrift in the arctic sea in mid-winter. Western philosophy begins when Socrates is put to death for his "heretical" ideas, and the same pressures coming from conformity and orthodoxy still exist.

Matt said...

people like Polanski (who, I see, still has legal problems in the U.S.)

For what it's worth, Polanski didn't only have sex with an under-aged girl (one who he had undue influence over as well, for her desire to be a model) he also got her drunk, gave her drugs (similar to those used by Bill Cosby to rape several women) and had anal sex with her without her consent. It's exactly right that he has legal problems in the US. That he's not extradited is to the shame of the the countries protecting him. That is, of course, besides the point of this post, but should be noted.

s. wallerstein said...

Polanski and the girl took drugs together and drank together. She supplied the drugs. They had consensual sex. There was no rape. By the way, since you admit that he had "undue" influence over her because she wanted to be a model, you more or less admit that there was no forcible rape: they both used each other.

Matt said...

That's not what he admitted to in court, as part of he plea agreement. And, I absoutely do not admit that there was no "forcible" rape. When a much older man gives alcohol and quaaludes to a youngish teenage girl, and then has anal sex with her, despite her uncontested testimony that she said she didn't want to, that's rape. If you see it differently, I'm afraid that my opinion of you has gone down significantly. Don't take Polanski's post-hoc rationalizations. Take his sworn testimony. He agreed to the deal for fear that, if it went to trial, he'd get worse, and he wasn't wrong to think this, given what he did. (The "statutory" rape was a plea down to avoid trial.) He was getting off as lightly as he could, and then fled. He's a clear rapist.

s. wallerstein said...

According to this Wikipedia article, Polanski denies the forcible rape charge. He may be lying; she may be lying. He also denies that she did not want to have sex with him.

Of course maybe Polanski's paid press staff wrote the Wikipedia article.

I'd love to maintain your previous high opinion of me, but as far as I can see, there was no forcible rape. In any case, our differences of opinion about Polansky do not influence my continued high opinion of you.

By the way, why all this fuss about Polanski's age? That is pure moralism. If he forcibly raped her, that would be wrong, whatever the age difference.

Similarly, with the indignation about anal sex. Is anal sex "morally" worse than other forms of sex?

Guy Tennenbaum said...

S Wallerstein,

The following makes absolutely no sense: "since you admit that he had 'undue' influence over her because she wanted to be a model, you more or less admit that there was no forcible rape: they both used each other." You need to help me with the chain of inferences here. You seem to be saying that because this young girl wanted to be a model, and saw a mentoree-relationship with the famous director Polanski as a means to achieve that goal, then she was "using" him and therefore there couldn't have been a forcible rape. Um, what? I don't even know where to begin objecting.

I also don't know where you got the idea that the girl supplied the drugs. By her own testimony to the grand jury, it was Polanski who supplied the quaaludes and alcohol. And as far as I know that hasn't been contradicted.

As for age, yes, forcible rape of any kind is wrong, obviously. But the disparity between a 13-year-old girl and a 43-year-old man adds another militating factor in this case. It's obvious that any 13-year-old, even if sexually mature, is still emotionally and intellectually vulnerable to someone with instincts to prey on them. (Polanski once said in print that "everyone wants to f***k young girls"). And again, Polanski was a rich and famous person occupying a very high position in society. He held all the power in that relationship; so the idea that both parties were equally "using" each other simply beggars belief. Think back to when you were that age; think of the girls you knew then; or think of any girls that age you may know now. Do you honestly not see the relevant distinction here? Do you honestly think the idea that children that age deserve protection from predatory adults amount to nothing except "moralism"?

s. wallerstein said...

Who had all the power?

There is no power like eros in this world and the erotic power of a young beautiful body, male or female, trumps the power of being rich and famous.

So I'd say that her power over him and his power over her were probably more or less equal. I know that that is not a popular position to take and there are probably people in this blog who will never speak to me again.

Is a 13 year old vulnerable to a 43 year old or is a 43 year old vulnerable to a 13 year old? Anyone who has read the book, Lolita, or seen the original Stanley Kubrick movie might have their doubts about whether the 13 year old or the 43 year old is more vulnerable to the other.

By the way, contrary to what Polanski said, I'd not all that interested in young girls or boys myself, although I do like women younger than I am (I'm 71): 45 or 50 seems young to me at present.

There's a lot of moralism and puritanism in the current climate condemning sex between teenagers and adults. When I was 13, I certainly would have loved it if an older woman had seduced me. So I am in favor of lowering the age of consent. For the record, I believe that sex between adults and young people who have not reached puberty yet should be illegal.

Guy Tennenbaum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guy Tennenbaum said...

Well, first, I'd say you totally missed the point of Lolita. I'd wager even the author himself would say so. But let's not debate the multiple interpretability of artworks.

Second, Roman Polanski could have had all the young beautiful bodies he desired. He even could have had sex with teenagers, if that's what he was into, since the age of consent in California at the time of the crime was 18 (and had been since 1913).

Your position is a crude reductionism. It may be the case that puberty signals the development of physically attractive features and a concomitant ability to reproduce, but this in no way entails that it is morally acceptable for any adult to have sex with a child as soon as he or she undergoes that change. Human beings are more than just their base, animal, evolutionary endowment. You know this to be the case. I may desire to murder my sexual rivals because of the operations of my reptilian brain, but that doesn't make it acceptable for me to do so.

Relatedly, although the exterior changes undergone by a 13-year-old might be alluring to some adults, a child of that age still lacks the "interior" resources to avoid predation by adults who can deliberately manipulate them. Herein lies the motivation behind the vast discussion on consent. Let's apply your own logic to a different situation. Suppose a man is sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children. He then engages in sexual conduct with a 9-year-old. Would you still say that the power dynamics came out equal? After all, the child in that case is wielding something like "erotic" power -- even in this case, there presumably would be something the older man found irresistible in the body of his victim. Just because this hypothetical victimizer might claim that he physically "couldn't help himself," does that make what he did OK, that she was just as culpable as he was?

And the invocation of Puritanism seems like a cop-out. Of course, it's universally acknowledged that Puritanism was a bad thing, stifling and oppressive. But watch out for the genetic fallacy -- just because we might be able to trace the legacy of one or another of our practices back to Puritan ideology, does not mean that that practice is bad. Have a look at age of consent laws in European countries which are devoid of the legacy of Puritanism. None of them allows sex between adults and 13-year-olds. And all of them, seemingly, have instituted provisions relating "exploiting the lack of sexual self-determination" even when the person is technically above the age of consent. In other words, someone who uses their position of power or authority to manipulate a young person into sex is legally culpable. That's exactly what we have in the Polanski case. And moreover, we have a complaint from the victim herself. Hence there isn't a European country on Earth that today wouldn't bring charges against Polanski if the crime were committed today. This counts as moral progress.

Finally, S Wallerstein, I wonder why you are so adamant to defend Polanski in this case. First you stated categorically that "There was no rape." How could you know that? You then retreated a little and acknowledged that "maybe he's lying." But then you said that "as far as I can see, there was no forcible rape." Again, how could you know? What are you seeing that the rest of us aren't?

s. wallerstein said...

First of all, I said above that I believed that sex with pre-pubescent children should be illegal.

Polanski was charged with statutory rape, not forcible rape. Now I've already made my point that the age of consent should be lowered, so from my point of view so-called statutory rape is not really rape. In a legal sense, yes, but not in an ethical sense.
Thus, I claim that Polanski did not rape her.

The word "puritanism" is now widely used to refer not only to a group of colonists in Massachusetts, but also to any excessively stringent sexual morality. As stated above, I believe that the age of consent should be lowered, thus, I consider that the current age of consent is based on excessively stringent sexual morality.

Why am I so adamant about defending Polanski? I'm not defending Polanski per se, but the principle that the age of consent should be lowered. I also feel that after 40 years and after the woman involved wants to drop the case, it is a bit absurd to continue the prosecution against Polanski.

Your view of predatory adults manipulating innocent young things into sex seems like a 19th century Victorian novel about evil seducers manipulating innocent virgins into sex before marriage.

Guy Tennenbaum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guy Tennenbaum said...

I read and understood what you wrote. My point was to take issue with your contention that Polanski is exculpated by having been in the grip of some overwhelming erotic sentiment. You said this proves that the 13-year-old victim wielded equal or even greater power in the relationship (“no power like it in the world”). I claim that this can't be sufficient to prove what you want it to, because even a pedophile — someone who was attracted to pre-pubescent children — would claim to be in the same sort of “erotic” enthrallment.

And by the way, you must know that the onset of puberty varies greatly in terms of age. There are recent cases of ten-year-olds who have gotten pregnant, and the youngest confirmed case of maternity was that of a five-year-old. Do you think that even in these cases sexual maturity betokens emotional maturity? I would hope not.

As for the Victorians, their great moral failing (one of them, rather) was to infantilize women, treating them as mental children who require the protections of children. We’ve moved past that, fortunately; but this doesn’t mean that actual children aren’t still owed the protections due to children.

The fact that you can cite the Polanski case — a 43-year-old man takes a 13-year-old girl to his house for a “modeling shoot,” supplies her with drugs and alcohol, has sex with her, and she claims the sex was not consensual — as part of an argument for why the age of consent should be lowered, and then accuse someone who disagrees of being the equivalent of a Victorian schoolmarm, simply beggars belief. (And the only reason 40 years have elapsed is that he fled.)

Thirteen year olds are children. Every relevant statute in Europe and South America recognizes that fact. It is based in sound social science, not Puritanism. The fact that you can’t see this is a terrible blind spot.

We don’t need to go to 19th century fiction to learn about “predatory adults manipulating innocent young things into sex,” because it happens in real life — all the time. Just read the grand jury testimony from the Polanski case.

s. wallerstein said...

Good morning, Ed Barreras,

Sound social science?

This is the same sound social science which until the 1970's claimed that being gay was mental illness. I have no reason to believe that sound social science, with certain exceptions, is any less a rationalization of current puritanical prejudices than it was of the puritanical prejudices 40 years ago.

Where is Foucault when we need him? It seems that the puritan mentality needs a sexual sin to focus its energy on. When they no longer could focus that energy on condemning gay sex, they turned their lofty moral condemnation toward sex with young people, which interestingly was not the object of so much moral energy until the 1970's. For the record, I am totally in favor of gay rights.

I never claimed that people should follow their erotic impulses, however strong they may be, without ethical considerations. You brought out the old argument about the power differential between the famous movie director and the 13 year old woman, and I merely pointed out the erotic power of a 13 year old body.

I've never claimed that there should be no age of consent, merely that it should be lowered, so obviously I am not in favor of older people having sex with 5 year olds or 9 year olds.

By the way, your use of the term "schoolmarm" reeks of sexist prejudices. I simply used the term "Victorian", which applies to both genders.

Last night I asked the opinion of two friends, one male and one female (a self-identified feminist) and they both agreed that the age of consent should be lowered. I'm not claiming that they are a representative cross section of Chilean public opinion, but it seems to me that people are a bit less worked up about the evils of adults having sex with teenagers in Chile than in the U.S.

In fact, I know a young man whose half-sister began a relationship at age 13 or 14 with a guy around 40. The family (the father was totally absent) accepted the older lover almost as a family member and when the relationship broke up in a friendly way after a few years, the older man continued to be a friend of the young woman and her family. That seems to me to be a rational way to deal with such situations (if there is consent), not to call the cops. I don't know the woman at all, but I do know her half-brother well and I promise to email him today to get his take on this issue.

Finally, we have very different views about what you call "manipulation". By the time I was 13, I was quite an expert manipulator. Most 13 year olds are very aware of the weaknesses and blind spots of the adults around them and are more than capable of manipulating them to get what they want out of them. One of the most obvious weak points of most adults is their sexuality, and many teenagers manipulate just as adults manipulate their generally superior economic and social power to get sex from teenagers.

In an ideal world no one would manipulate anyone, to be sure, but given that manipulation is the name of the game in today's world, I don't see why adults who have sex with teenagers should be considered as criminals, unless there is forcible rape.

s. wallerstein said...

Error discovered in proof reading: sorry.

In my penultimate paragraph, the text should read "many teenagers manipulate the sexual weak points of adults"

Guy Tennenbaum said...


S, Wallerstein

I can’t see any relevant sense in which today’s social science is “the same” as fifty years ago. Also, incidentally, if you look at clinical text books from the ‘60s, you’ll see that opposition to the stigmatization of homosexuality had been building well before the APA’s official policy change in 1973.

The sexual abuse of children was a well-worn topic in psychology well before the 1970s. Just look at Freud, who wrote about it, though notoriously he explained memories of abuse as fantasy wish-fulfillment. He thought young girls who remembered being molested were merely projecting their own unconscious desires to seduce their fathers.

Unfortunately, that trope of child-as-nymphet-temptress lives on, as evidenced by people like you who would like to rationalize sex abuse under the banner of liberating ourselves from Victorian prudery. (Where is Foucault, indeed. And by the way, the sexist connotations of “schoolmarm” were, in the context I used the term, not entirely inappropriate.)

I also spoke to a friend about this. She is a clinician who deals exclusively with children and teenagers. So I would say her experience is more than just anecdotal. She is saddened and abhorred by views like yours. Paraphrasing her words, she has seen countless young girls (and some boys, too) who entered into relationships with adult men that, at the time, they considered to be consensual, but which they came to deeply regret, even just a few years later (and often before they came under the possibly goading influence of a therapist). Almost inevitably, they come to see the relationship as exploitative and as a catalyzing agent for a host of subsequent psychological ailments.

Moreover — and this is crucial — the younger the age at which the abuse begins, the greater the trauma. So a thirteen-year-old who is “groomed” and molested by a forty-year-old fares much worse than a fifteen-year-old does. My friend assures me that this is almost like an ironclad rule, and totally unsurprising given what we know about the rapid pace of development during these years. Hence the reason every culture worthy of being called civilized protects children below the age of 14 from adult predation. (And even countries with ages that low seem eager to put forth careful stipulations. For example, from Wikipedia: Although the age of consent is stipulated at 14 in Portugal, the legality of sexual acts with a minor between 14 and 16 is open to legal interpretation since the law states that it is illegal to perform a sexual act with an adolescent between 14 and 16 years old "by taking advantage of their inexperience.")

Guy Tennenbaum said...


Now, are there comparatively benign cases, such as the one you related, where little trauma (seemingly) takes place? Sure. I knew of a similar case myself (although the girl was 15 and her boyfriend 25). However, it’s interesting you mentioned that the girl came from a household with an absent father. That particular detail is typical, but what does it mean? I’m guessing that the girl’s forty-year-old lover came into the situation eager to exploit her desire for a father figure or male mentor. It’s just too bad she could only get that by paying with sex, and at an age where she almost certainly lacked the resources to conceptualize what was going on.

Based on what you said, you acknowledge that there is some manipulation going on here. But you think that’s just the way of the world. She needed a father figure, he needed sex with a thirteen-year-old. A more or less even exchange of goods; everyone comes out with what they wanted. If there’s an element of exploitation, well that’s just too bad but it’s life. Plus you think the exploitation cuts both ways.

I’m sorry but I couldn’t disagree more. At the risk of being called a Victorian prude, my personal feeling is that a forty-year-old man who tries to seduce a thirteen-year-old is an emotionally immature creep. I’m willing to let the law legally deprive these men of sexual fulfillment for the sake or protecting many children who are actually — not in lurid fiction — harmed by their actions.

And I use the word “children” not “teenagers” because your mention of Lolita seems to indicate that you think even twelve-year-olds are fair game. Well, you may be interested to know that Nabokov described Humber Humbert as “a vain and cruel wretch.” I just can’t see a plausible reading of that novel in which Humbert Humbert doesn’t figure as the villain — and unreliable narrator — who victimizes the young girl. The fact that you can read the novel that way indicates, I think, how your prejudices on this matter have warped your perception.

Also indicative of the same is your eagerness to view Polanski through a cloud of innocence. You never addressed that weird chain of inferences I mentioned with regard to your initial response to Matt. And somehow you flatly misrepresented a fact of the case (i.e., that it was Polanski who supplied the drugs.) You’re also seemingly willing to hold on to the claim that the girl used her “erotic power” to seduce Polanski, even though her contemporaneous testimony flatly contradicts that notion. You dropped the matter of Polanski in your last post, but if I understand you, you’re willing to let your judgement of Polanski rest on the sweet plea bargain he accepted. I wonder what the other S Wallerstein we know from this blog — the consummate skeptic of authority — would have to say about such a legal nicety.

s. wallerstein said...

As to the social scientists, Professor Wolff points out in his latest post how they justify paying lower salaries to those who do hard physical work, thus serving the ideological purposes of neoliberal capitalism.

No, don't worry, I'm not claiming that Professor Wolff is backing my points here. However, social science does seem to in general dedicate itself to justifying and rationalizing the dominant ideologies.

We're getting repetitive. You're getting preachy and I'm going to get nasty, so I'll sign out of this conversation with one more (none nasty) comment. If you want the last word, take it.

Last none nasty comment: obviously, a girl without a father will seek a father figure, but I don't see why someone supplying that role necessarily implies exploiting her, even if they do have sex, which is a natural thing for a man and woman to have.

A personal aside: I had a long relationship with a woman much younger than myself (no, not a teenager and no, not a student of mine), also fatherless, and during our relationship we both recognized that I was something of a father figure to her. Since our relationship ended, I generally receive an email and at times a gift from her on father's day. I hope that I was a good father to her.

Biological fathers at times cause a lot of psychological damage; father figures who never have sex with girls who see them as father figures at times cause psychological damage; father figures who do have sex with them at times heal the damage that others have caused. You have to use a bit of creativity in this world at times and to use it in good faith. If there's no creativity and good faith, most everything, including so many families, turns ugly and if there is, almost every kind of human relationship can be a source of growth and wholeness for everyone involved.

Have a good night, Ed Barreras.

Guy Tennenbaum said...

I don't know what "preachy" means in this context. You might have expected the coversation to become strident, given your initial acknowledgment that your views are extremely unpopular and may get you shunned by some here (not me).

I'll say two things. First, since social scinece inevitably deals with human beings, it can be seen as continuous with moral discourse. Some moral discourse might serve the prevailing ideology, but surely not all of it does.

Second, I don't really see how your personal aside about your May-December relationship is particularly relevant. I'm glad your girlfriend was an adult when she found someone to work out her kinks with. But for the love of god let's encourage people to leave twelve and thirteen-year-olds alone! If someone feels that he must have a teenage lover, he should seek thereapy; barring that, he should be encouraged to make sure his partner is willing and is at least above the age of consent (which is as low as sixteen in many US states). That does not strike me as an arrangement overly stifled with puritanical oppression.