Contesting Pornography: Terministic Catharsis and Definitional Argument

By Palczewski, Catherine Helen | Argumentation and Advocacy, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Contesting Pornography: Terministic Catharsis and Definitional Argument


Palczewski, Catherine Helen, Argumentation and Advocacy


Catherine Helen Palczewski (*)

The 1980s bore witness to an interesting and confounding development in the ongoing debate over what constituted pornography. The traditional liberal vs. conservative disagreement was supplemented by competing feminist voices, voices that both defended and critiqued pornography. (1) Most of the debate centered around a civil rights ordinance written for the Minneapolis city council by Catharine A. MacKinnon, now a professor of law at the University of Michigan, and Andrea Dworkin, author and feminist activist. The Ordinance defined pornography as the "graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words.. ." and it created standing to sue in civil court for women (and men, children, and transsexuals used in the place of women) who had experienced discrimination as a result of the traffic in pornography, who had been coerced into pornographic performances, who had pornography forced on them, or who had been assaulted as a result of pornography (Dworkin and MacKinnon 134).

The sustained disagreement over what constitutes the celebratory expression of sexuality and what represents the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women marks the pornography controversy as one to which argumentation scholars should attend. In fact, even with the 1986 legal pronunciation that the MacKinnon and Dworkin Civil Rights Ordinance did not pass constitutional muster, the controversy over the feminist critique of pornography continues. In 1995, ACLU President Nadine Strossen published Defending Pornography and Canadian feminist Wendy McElroy published A Woman's Right to Pornography. In 1997, noted U.S. feminist theorist Judith Butler published Excitable Speech and MacKinnon and Dworkin published In Harm's Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings. In 1998, Gail Dines et al. published Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality and Jane Juffer published At Home With Pornography. In 2000, Drucilla Cornell published an edited collection, Pornography and Feminism.

The pornography controversy is a complex one, spanning personal, technical and public argument (see Goodnight) as it invokes social, moral, legal, and ethical claims. It also raises interesting theoretical questions about the way personal testimony operates in public argument (see Palczewski "Survivor" and "Public"). Prior to all of these considerations, however, is how the controversy is distinguished by the primary role played by definitional argument. Ultimately, the controversy was and is over the definition of pornography (Kendrick xiii-xiv and 31; Hawkins and Zimring chapter 2; Duggan, Hunter and Vance 133-43; McElroy chapter 2; Strossen chapter 6; Dworkin and MacKinnon). Legislative and administrative action is "inseparable from... defin[ing] what [pornography] meant -- since the justice and effectiveness of any law depend on the precision with which its object is identified" (Kendrick 215).

The centrality of definition makes sense, given that "'observations' are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made" (Burke, Language 46). Names select, reflect, and deflect "reality" (Burke, Language 46). Thus, definitional argument is a constant, if implicit. part of persuasion insofar as "the process of convincing requires not only that a given policy be accepted but also that a given vocabulary (or set of understandings) be integrated into the public repertoire" (Condit 6). In this case, once a definition of pornography has been accepted, a particular course of action follows. If pornography is obscenity, then criminal sanctions should be imposed against all those involved in its production and use. If pornography is expression, then it should be encouraged in a society that values free expression. If pornography is the subordination of women, then civil sanctions should be applied against those who harm the women; the women involved in pornography's production are not criminals, but one of the people harmed by a discriminatory act. …

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