I’ve been rereading Lady Chatterley’s Lover lately, and also reviewing some of the literature about it. The central theme of this book, the rootedness of mankind in his physical body and in “animal” pursuits, is still very fresh today and well worth thinking about (but one notices this only if one is not distracted, as I was when much younger, with looking for the naughty bits, which are a) not very naught b) include not-so-bad descriptions of female orgasms… how does DHL DO that?)(there is a consensus among critics that Clifford’s paralysis is a flaw in the book that makes Lady Chatterley’s departure “vulgar;” I cautiously disagree–that is, if it does make if vulgar, that is part of the point). And I’d not realized before that the book set such important free speech precedents. The litigation surrounding the publication of the book in England and in the United States marked a significant shift by the judiciary of the lower courts towards considering the actual community of readers in conceiving of “community standards.”
If one considers recent history, one might get the impression that the movement of tolerance for offensive speech was steadily growing greater. That is, if one considers only the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it looks as though tolerance grows continuously, perhaps due in part towards a market mechanism. Producers and publishers continually push the bounds of the scandalous outwards, hoping to gain attention for their works. The public becomes continuously more jaded. If this process continues indefinitely and courts actually pay attention to community standards, this means that the content of what could be considered “obscene” or otherwise offensive steadily shrinks.
Whether this perspective can be maintained, though, depends very much on what period of history one chooses to start with. Starting in the nineteenth century with the Victorians biases the outcome considerably. This was a world in which young wives were permitted to die of veneral disease contracted from their husbands without anyone ever explaining to them how it could be prevented, or even what was wrong with them. Naturally taking this as a starting point of comparison, the category of what is taboo to speak of is likely to seem to shrink, it could hardly grow much larger.
Starting with the ancient Greeks, though, who were forever painting artistic images of couples frolicking about in various positions on their lamps and other household goods, what is taboo seems sometimes to shrink, and sometimes to grow, within certain parameters. One starts to wonder if certain visceral responses to sexual content are not only learned or cultural, but to some extent hardwired, which would be natural for mammals, which we are, after all (back to Lawrence’s thesis). If this is true, does this justify censorship, or make it inevitable? I think not. That we may react to certain imagery as mammals does not dictate that we must react as censors, by empowering the government to control those things. The risks of delegating that sort of control are too great.
But it does explain, in part, why the battle for free speech is so difficult.
[update: Thinking about this issue further, I realized my discussion of the free speech rights of children could be misinterpreted to cast me as an advocate for eight-year-olds reading some really appalling stuff. No, no, that's not the point! (Don't forget, the parents are still in charge). There is a larger issue, whether the government has more expansive powers to control the speech or religion of children than it does of adults, and an interesting question of constitutional interpretation... how some things that people just seem to assume about reading the constitution turn out to be problematic...]