Consistency, consistency – there’s nothing like consistency

I got involved in a discussion on Twitter the other day about the Ukrainian women’s group FEMEN, whose members are famous for appearing nude, or at least topless, at political protests – some of which are in opposition to the liberalisation of prostitution laws. So, here we have a group that appears to be rather relaxed about public nudity (some of its other activities seem to go even further in celebrating and advocating nudity, but I may be wrong about this interpretation), while being opposed to prostitution and the “sex tourism” that can go with it in countries where the law is relatively liberal.

One response that this receives is a claim that the FEMEN protestors are being inconsistent. “How,” the rhetorical questions are asked, “can they be in favour of (or at least relaxed about) public nudity, while being against prostitution? How can you be in favour of sexual freedom in one context but not in another?”
FEMEN 220px-Fuck_EURO2012
There’s much to say about this. For one thing, being relaxed about, or even favouring, nudity may not be based on anything as broad, possibly amorphous, as “sexual freedom”. It may be based on some narrower or different (perhaps not clearly sexual at all) set of attitudes and values. At the same time, even if you do favour sexual freedom in the abstract, this does not imply that you will favour every practice that is associated with sexual freedom in our culture. You may value other things as well, and these may outweigh sexual freedom (however defined) in certain contexts.

In a post over at The Hellfire Club, I laid out some possible combinations of empirical and philosophical views – views that go with certain values and attitudes – which might lead a person, quite consistently, to favour nudity (and perhaps many other things such as striptease, some sorts of erotic or pornographic art or images, etc.) while disfavouring prostitution (and perhaps certain other things such as some other kinds of porngraphy). Such a position might be quite consistent, though unusual in our (or “my” or “your”) culture and experience. Perhaps it is based on a combination of beliefs, attitudes, etc., that we simply haven’t encountered to date.

I won’t spell out the possible details again here, you can check that post for yourself and make up your own minds how plausible it might seem.

I didn’t claim to have explicated the system of assumptions, beliefs, values, etc., of the real FEMEN. Perhaps FEMEN actually rationalises its moral and political positions on some other basis, such as some kind of antipathy to commercial transactions. Or perhaps it simply places a lot of weight on the value of attracting attention to its protests. Or perhaps the real FEMEN actually is inconsistent. My point was only that, given some logically consistent sets of beliefs, attitudes, etc., it is possible to be principled and consistent in being in favour of public nudity, and even about relaxing the laws against it, while being against prostitution, and against relaxing laws against it.

I’d actually go a bit further. I think that some people probably do hold to a combination of underlying beliefs, attitudes, etc., similar to what I postulated, and this would tend to entail a pro-nudity/anti-prostitution position. And perhaps I should add that, although I don’t really subscribe to that combination of underlying beliefs, attitudes, etc., I don’t think it’s wildly implausible. I suspect that there are probably plenty of pro-nudity but anti-prostitution people around, even if they don’t make a lot of fuss about it, and they might well have quite strong arguments for their position.

As a philosopher, though, I want to bring out a more general point. We ought to hesitate before we dismiss a position as internally inconsistent. It might seem that way based on assumptions that you tend to make, or which you find plausible. But it may not be on the basis of the assumptions being made by the person actually holding the position. There are probably more sets of possible underlying assumptions than any of us ever encounter from day to day. When examined, some of the unusual ones may be at least as plausible as those with which we are more familiar.

In the immediate case, you cannot assume that someone who opposes pornography (or some kinds of it) necessarily opposes people merely wearing sexy clothes or engaging in partial or entire public nudity. Likewise you can’t assume that someone who cheerfully goes nude at the beach is in favour of liberal laws on prostitution or pornography. It is going to depend on a lot of other things that they might defend or believe, or place value upon.

By similar reasoning, someone who opposes gun control laws and so appears to be “conservative” might have specific reasons that do no prevent this person taking “liberal” positions across a wide range of other issues – and this person might be principled and consistent. We could multiply many examples like this. We really need to know why people take the particular stances they do, which might turn out to be surprising yet impressive.

If we bear this in mind we might be more cautious before assuming that somebody is, in a wider way, an ally… or an opponent. It’s going to depend, and it comes down to the details of their reasoning and what they value. Some people doubtless do hold stereotyped sets of positions, perhaps based on tribal loyalty to a party or commitment to a common ideology. But I suspect that many individuals, including many ordinary educated (or not-so-educated) people, do not. They may have more plausible reasons for their combinations of views than is apparent. That might make them more interesting to talk to if we do so in good faith.

  1. I don’t believe that the combination of views you mention is implausible – they are my views!

  2. There are certain natural bodily functions which one rarely sees in public and were they performed in public one would not wish to dwell on them. I am thinking of here of Emptying the bowels, Urinating, Masturbation, Vomiting, Heterosexual/Homosexual copulation, Giving birth, and so on. Why we find such activities distasteful is not easy to explain, other primates so not seem so particular. As a species it has been inculcated into us that such bodily functions are private, and it is physically, psychologically and socially unhealthy to view other people’s activities and to leave bodily fluids and solids and any apparatus in connection therewith in public places. This I guess seems reasonable and in certain instances the law of the land also has certain prohibitions in this connection.
    Nudity, being in one’s natural state, just for the sake of it and with no connection to the above mentioned instances, seems to me to be a very different matter. Yes certainly some people look bizarre unclothed, but on the other hand there are many who look like that, when clothed. So as an advocate of Nudity especially where it is in connection with supporting, or indulging in some thing wholesome (I might draw the line at doing one’s weekly shopping in that condition) I would strongly claim that there is no connection or consistency whatsoever in connection with the above mentioned instances with which I have little or no sympathy.
    There is a gentleman in UK who is perpetually arrested and has served short prison sentences for running nude in country districts. On the assumption that he is not doing it for some nefarious reason I am of the opinion that he should be allowed to continue enjoying his state of nature. Again if I go running disguised as Hitler it does not entail am or was a Nazi sympathiser, I may be doing it for a bet, or trying to get into character for acting that part in a play.
    Be careful with whatever inferences you make, and don’t speak out until you are sure. That seems to be the best practice.

  3. You can logically only speak of inconsistency within a well-defined context:
    otherwise, it is only a matter of opinion as to what implies what: in a very broad context the stream can be entirely lost.
    Nudity in itself implies nothing like pornography: formal nudists are explicitly against the fetishization of body parts or neat separation of body parts into sexual/nonsexual. They believe the sight of a human body doesn’t necessarily imply or promotes sexual activity. The recent “slut march” phenomenon is a reaction by women to the traditional objectification of women and judging their morals by their clothes, hairdo or manner of walking. It says to men, “your fantasies are not consistent with my being”.
    Nudity is… nudity. It and relative nudity may be uncomfortable, unsanitary,
    bad taste, inappropriate, but nothing more.

  4. doris wrench eisler,

    “You can logically only speak of inconsistency within a well-defined context:
    otherwise, it is only a matter of opinion as to what implies what: in a very broad context the stream can be entirely lost.”

    Russell’s question is, is there an inconsistency in FEMEN’s choice of statement, with what they are protesting against (the liberalisation of prostitution in the Ukraine – or the legitimisation of the gansterism of Ukrainian prostitution). The girls are not neutral in their use of nudity – if you see the photo above, both girls have the word fuck written across their chests. It’s provocative nudity playing on pornography.

    In art nudity is sometimes neutral (non-sexual) but sometimes it is deliberately provocative – where it steps out of neutral territory. The members of Pussy Riot were involved in an art installation a few years back, where they staged an orgy. It was meant to be provocative and political – not like contemporary European and American art, which is mostly just meaningless inoffensive junk with no political intent, or at least no politically contentious intent.

    FEMEN are situationists. They are detourning pornography. The are using pornography where it is forbidden. Indubitably, in the Ukraine, there are “business” leaders who would like to see the country become a major destination for sex tourism. I doubt they would have much concern for the young women, who will provide the industrial vaginas that will enrich them for the entrepreneurialism and risk taking. There is something similar here in the way Lisa Brown used the word Vagina as a protest in Michigan. Or the young woman who have been wearing t-shirts with the slogan “If I want the government in my vagina, I will fuck a senator”. The truth is, the conservatives do want their hands in womens’ vaginas – but they do not want it called. Lisa Brown calls it, and she is censured.

    Gary Trudeau called it too, his shaming wand, and he was censured too. For a political act. It’s a good thing he wasn’t in Soviet Russia 2.0, or he would have found himself in jail, on the grounds of “hooliganism”.

    “The recent “slut march” phenomenon is a reaction by women to the traditional objectification of women and judging their morals by their clothes, hairdo or manner of walking. ”

    No, it’s not a reaction to objectification, it’s a protest against the way young women are categorised. And not just by men. If a young woman is prudish in her choice of dress and sexual activity, she is deemed worthy of respect. If on the other hand she dresses provocatively and engages in sexual activity hedonistically, she is deemed a slut….someone not worthy of respect.

    “It says to men, “your fantasies are not consistent with my being”.”

    This is another interpretation of the slut walks protests, is that the women are ironically dressing as “sluts”. That they are in fact prudes, sending a playful message to men, that they are in fact so prudish men are not even allowed fantasize about having sex with them (that the hetrosexual sexual fantasy is misogynistic in itself). I’m sure some are prudes and that is their interpretation and message, but many would not be. Read the young British feminists who write for the New Statesman, the Vagenda for instance. Their position is they should be freely allowed to enjoy their sexuality without shame.

    “Nudity is… nudity.”

    How dare you employ a tautology.

    “It and relative nudity may be uncomfortable, unsanitary,
    bad taste, inappropriate, but nothing more.”

    On European television, a nipple is no big deal. You’ll see them on shampoo ads on television. Yet, when Janet Jackson had her “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl a few years back, where she revealed a pseudo nipple pasty, the outrage and shock of the American public it has to be said, from a European perspective was utterly hilarious. After all these years, diehard American puritanism still lives.

    And I’m sure many American liberals thought Lisa Brown went too far in using the word Vagina. But the real outrage is her republican colleagues do want to get their hands on her vagina.

  5. If a person genuinely feels that they are justified in protesting publicly, or privately about any state of affairs be it sexual or non-sexual, which they consider unjust, for the life of me, I cannot understand why they would think their viewpoint is enhanced by exposing, in a provocative way parts of their bodies which most of the civilised world consider private, and bad taste to expose deliberately. Possibly the results of genital mutilation performed as a result of religious or other beliefs may be appropriate, but this would not be done provocatively. Several words occur to me in describing this activity Childish, Ill-informed, Exhibitionist, Insincere, Prostituting the original cause. Imagine university students protesting in this way before their tutors it would surely not enhance/strengthen the point of view they wish to convey (doubtless his has been done somewhere).
    This blog is about consistency/inconsistency. I am not against nudity in public provided no one is offended. Neither am I against say a flash of private parts for a joke, or to create a situation. What I object to is seizing the opportunity so satisfy one’s own desire to be a vulgar show off, by hi jacking what is otherwise, a serious attempt to convey a serious viewpoint.

  6. Interesting that this movement should appear in the former Soviet Union, and harks back to the Orwellian Anti-Sex league. The prospect of resolving personal sexuality in philosophical and political terms is as barren as resolving love through intellect, and as impersonal as all ideology, which in itself the enemy of freedom. Religious ideology being the same-same, just an earlier text for all dysfuncitonal ideological moralists.

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