Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Googled Values

This is great.

Judges and jurors who must decide whether sexually explicit material is obscene are asked to use a local yardstick: does the material violate community standards?

That is often a tricky question because there is no simple, concrete way to gauge a community’s tastes and values.

The Internet may be changing that. In a novel approach, the defense in an obscenity trial in Florida plans to use publicly accessible Google search data to try to persuade jurors that their neighbors have broader interests than they might have thought.

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.” The publicly accessible data is vague in that it does not specify how many people are searching for the terms, just their relative popularity over time. But the defense lawyer, Lawrence Walters, is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics — and that by extension, the sexual material distributed by his client is not outside the norm...

“Time and time again you’ll have jurors sitting on a jury panel who will condemn material that they routinely consume in private,” said Mr. Walters, the defense lawyer. Using the Internet data, “we can show how people really think and feel and act in their own homes, which, parenthetically, is where this material was intended to be viewed,” he added...

“We tried to come up with comparison search terms that would embody typical American values,” Mr. Walters said. “What is more American than apple pie?” But according to the search service, he said, “people are at least as interested in group sex and orgies as they are in apple pie.”

It goes to the heart of American puritan "values." The US may be a country founded on principles of individualism, but the authoritarian puritanical streak running through American culture has always entailed an ongoing conflict between what the individual does and what that same individual says others ought to do. The ought is based on a largely unreflexive set of vague, protestant values - a mythology - against which one judges others. It sublimates desires so that the mythology serves to build individual and communal resentments against those who don't believe the mythology and may do quite well outside of its system without suffering the misfortunes of God's wrath. "Communal values" may have some roughly identifiable qualities, but they are always fundamentally vague and diverse in a pluralistic society (after all, who belongs to the community?). In other words, "communal values" are generally what the keepers of the unreflexive mythology say they are. Nothing individualistic about that.

But then we do love when the keepers are exposed as what we call "hypocrites." We do love to cast stones. The angry, anti-gay pastor who is discovered in an alley on his knees in front of a male prostitute. The critic of money in politics who takes reelection funds from the most flagrant lobbyists. But also smaller instances most of us see in our own families - the family members who consider themselves upstanding Christians, who harm or hurt others, but claim it was not their intent to harm (thus, there's no problem! Or the hurt person is overly sensitive). They are hypocrites because they earnestly preach one thing and cynically do the other. But there's nothing unusual about this for the puritanical society because the values of the community are always used to hold others in check, not one's own individualistic self. Besides, in Protestantism you can then save yourself through rebirth. That's a pretty neat method for getting away with whatever you want. Nevertheless, the charge of "hypocrite!" also allows the rest of us to make our own personal reference to the "communal values" mythology and lay claim to being one of the keepers.

The google method of discerning the values of the community isn't any worse than any other method we have, which are generally, subtly authoritarian. The google method might not work, and there are probably serious methodological problems with it, but workability isn't the issue here. What the case exposes is the deficit between genuine-because-practiced values and genuine-because-preached values. That's much more interesting territory for thinking about the nature of communal values than the lazy reliance on that mythology which leads to such unreflective - and seemingly individualistic! - statements as "I know it when I see it."

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