This article appeared on the ABC website "The Drum Unleashed" on 13 July 2010. It appears here with the permission of the author.

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The State of trust: it's a one way street

By Mark Newton

On Monday morning Prime Minister Julia Gillard began to lay the groundwork for the upcoming Federal election campaign. Recognising that she is currently governing without a mandate, she said, "I will ask for the Australian people's trust to move Australia forward ... Without listening respectfully to the public's views, I do not believe it is possible for politicians to earn or hold the trust of the people who elect us."

You could say that.

Sadly for us poor voters, we all know that no matter how much trust we invest in our elected officials, they won't return the favour by investing trust in us.

We see that coming through time and time again. Julia Gillard's "Building the Education Revolution" projects made schools choose from cookie-cutter projects determined by Canberra because schools couldn't be trusted to work out their infrastructure needs for themselves. Income management is being imposed on our society's most vulnerable people because welfare recipients can't be trusted to make their own spending decisions. Political debates are reduced to 5-second soundbites because we aren't trusted to understand complicated discourse.

We're talking about a Government who couldn't even trust its own first-term leader to win an election even though he was winning in the polls.

A decision to censor is, at root, a failure of trust. When a Government prevents you from reading or viewing something, they're saying a number of things about the electorate.

To begin with, they're assuming that you, personally, lack the intellectual and emotional strength to view the censored item without being somehow damaged. Yet the censor has been able to see it without being damaged, so they're really making a value judgement that says you are inferior to them.

You can try to convince them otherwise, but you'll be dismissed as inherently unworthy: Once the censor has made a decision, it's too risky to allow /even one person/ to successfully demonstrate that they're sturdy enough to resist the censored onslaught without scarring, because that'd wreck the whole system by undermining the censor's inherent superiority.

Of course, they never come right out and say that. What they actually say is that keeping the censored article away from you is a small price to pay to protect wider society. In the censor's eyes, even if you're as strong as they are, there's always some underclass of vulnerable "others", some unnamed fragile minority which the censor has never actually met, but feels perfectly free to represent. Some of those "others" could be members of your own family, who you are assumed to be utterly powerless to defend. In order to protect these imaginary shatter-prone sub humans, it's necessary to dumb-down the content the strong people are allowed to see to their level - or so the theory goes.

Then there's the "media effects" argument which infects so much of our public morals discourse. According to this model, our society is comprised of members who are so devoid of self-will that seeing or reading a censored article will make them want to go out and do whatever the article has depicted. People who slay zombies in computer games will be inured to violence and feel compelled to shoot-up their school. People who see fetish sex will turn into violent sadistic rapists. People who listen to rap music will disrespect women. Based on the obvious success of advertising, which convinces people to pay money to do things they want to do anyway, the "media effects" theory treats words and imagery as harmful toxins which will veritably force us weak, ignorant vassals to do things no sane human would ever want to do.

In the 1970s and 1980s the media effects model was used to justify enhanced restrictions on homosexual pornography, just in case it convinced perfectly "normal" heterosexuals to be infected by the gay. Picture yourself in that position: Male, heterosexual, married, two kids, you catch a glimpse of two men having sex. Do you feel like a roll in the hay with Ashton Kutcher?

If the "media effects" model had any validity, exposing a gay person to straight pornography would turn them into a heterosexual. Exposing a paedophile to "hot wanton grannies" would be an effective treatment facilitating their return to normal society. Convincing McDonald's to advertise salads would make fat kids skinny. Kate Ellis would be in raptures about the latest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Calendar, because those svelte slim bikini models always look so happy, and that's an ideal role-model to provide to a depressed teenage girl.

Those examples sound absurd, but they're no less cogent than the arguments about harm that are routinely trotted out about virtually all forms of "controversial" material.

Proponents believe that the media effects model justifies their belief that "exposure" to child sexual abuse images will turn perfectly well-adjusted, sane, rational adults into child abusers.

Again: Put yourself into that position. Is it even remotely credible that seeing images of child abuse will make you feel like abusing children? Is there some minimum quantity of brutalised young innocence that you could consume that would make you feel like paying money to see more, rather than, say, immediately calling the police like any other decent person? Of course not: You instinctively know that the media effects model is bogus. Yet that's what the censors believe: That our society is infested with borderline paedophiles, on the cusp of criminality, one glimpse of a bad image away from becoming the lowest of society's low. We're helpless, you see. The censorship is for our own good, and won't somebody think of the children.

It always goes without saying that the censors would describe the sentiments expressed in this article as representative of an extreme point of view. And yet, in the Internet we have a communications medium which has been entirely uncensored for the whole duration of its existence, and last time I looked it wasn't awash with paedophilic malignancy. On the contrary, almost all of it is what most people would consider, "family friendly" to the extent that the people who criticise it most loudly believe that it's supposed to be a place where children can frolic without supervision, and the much-exalted Senator Conroy can only come up with 355 URLs to censor out of a population of almost two trillion.

Could it be that the frightening stories of online doom, destruction and despair aren't backed by reality, and perhaps moralistic censorship isn't a basic necessity of civil society?

Our public discourse is so poisoned with irrationality that we let our elected officials get away with depicting a network we've grown up with for a whole generation as dangerous, deviant, criminal, dirty. The terrain has been so crassly manipulated that advocating in favour of the status quo is labelled as "extremist," and we're all supposed to pretend that holding views that were frankly unthinkable just three years ago is, "centrist." The Gillard Government's expectations of the online world say more about her own mind than ours; perhaps if anything deserves censorship, it's the Prime Minister's "Bookmarks" menu.

Australia banned D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover in defence of our morals for over 20 years, and nobody in Government ever apologised for withholding it from the public when it was unbanned without anyone getting hurt. The Government has never felt embarrassed about the fact that over 50,000 people saw Baise Moi in cinemas without being harmed while it was rated R18+ before "morals campaigners" convinced the Classification Review Board to refuse its classification. There was a time in the not too distant past when smartly-uniformed police officers used measuring tapes to verify the regulatory compliance of women's swimsuits on Bondi, and nobody ever wrote letters of apology to years worth of humiliated beachgoers who'd come up a few millimetres too short after the rules were later rescinded. Censorship is primarily about enforced imposition of yesterday's norms, a last-ditch effort to prevent society from progressing inevitably towards a more liberalised future - and no matter how hysterical their reasoning, the censors never pay any price when history shows that society hasn't fallen apart, and they've all been objectively wrong.

The censor's rationale is ultimately based on a lack of faith in humanity. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we're all fragile petals who need to be kept away from bad things, because we can't be trusted to keep ourselves away from them, and, once exposed, we can't be trusted to behave ourselves afterwards. The world is full of inferior people, and I just might be one of them, so your media landscape needs to be dumbed down to my level just in case.

So yes, I agree with Julia Gillard: This election is all about trust. She wants us to listen respectfully to her views, and trust her to govern responsibly for the next three years - and, once elected, she and her censorious front-bench will treat us like damaged goods, outright refusing to trust us to uphold our side of civil society's bargain in return.

It doesn't really seem fair, does it?

[Mark Newton has spent almost 10 years serving as a boots-on-the-ground network engineer for one of Australia's largest ISPs.]