29 Jul 2019

Why We Call Things ‘Porn’

“Porn” isn’t just a word for sex stuff anymore. There’s a new use of that word, a broader use. We’re talking about food porn, real estate porn, closet-organization porn.

Sometimes “porn” is used as an accusation, as when you call out some artist who takes photographs of impoverished foreigners for making “poverty porn.” The comedian Alex Moffat teased an audience last year for its obsession with “impeachment porn” — and everyone knew exactly what he meant. But other kinds of porn seem just fine.

This new, generic sense of “porn” is catching on because it’s useful. It gives a name to a specific kind of relationship we can have with images and other media. It’s worth getting clear about the nature of that relationship. For once we understand it, we may discover that we have cultivated some porn-y relationships in some unexpected places.

The philosopher Michael Rea has a helpful account of sexual pornography. He says that an image is sexual pornography when we use it for immediate gratification, while avoiding the complexities of actual sexual relationships like physical intimacy, emotional connection and romantic interaction.

To capture the new, generic sense of porn, we need only to generalize Professor Rea’s account. Food porn is images of food, used for immediate pleasure, without your having to go out and buy the food, cook it or worry about the calories. Real estate porn is pictures of real estate, used for instant gratification, without your having to buy the house, clean it or take care of all that furniture. And so on.

These kinds of porn, like sexual porn, tend toward the extreme — and for the same reason. Food porn is often pictures of unhealthy, decadent or expensive food. Real estate porn is usually pictures of lavish homes, with hard-to-maintain surfaces and delicate, easily damaged décor. Porn is free to go to extremes because its consumers don’t have to deal with the complications of the real thing. With porn, we get to skip the hard part.

This can be relatively harmless. There doesn’t seem to be much wrong with food porn, for example, because there’s nothing particularly bad about using pictures of food for immediate gratification. But other types of porn can be damaging.

Consider what we call moral outrage porn. This is when you use morally outrageous states of affairs for the sake of immediate gratification, while avoiding the efforts and entanglements of actual moral engagement.

When you read your Facebook newsfeed and soak in all the reports of morally outrageous events, and you do it just for the satisfaction of feeling outraged, then Facebook has become your porn stash. You’re not trying to fix problems or make morally balanced judgments. You’re just after the pleasures of moral outrage: the smugness, the self-satisfaction, the delightfully hot feeling of righteous indignation.

ur point isn’t that moral outrage is bad and that we should all be civil to each other, or anything like that. Our point is the opposite: Genuine outrage is a crucial part of a moral existence. It motivates us to act, to fight injustice. Moral outrage porn is troubling because it threatens to undermine the all-important function of the real thing.

Genuine moral engagement is difficult. When we care about doing the right thing, we have to pay attention to the details. And then we have to do the hard work of pushing against the world to fix it, while sweating those details.

But when you are interested only in the pleasures of moral outrage, you engage with the world differently. The pleasures of moral outrage are maximized when morality is simple and the world is starkly divided into good and evil. So the consumers of moral outrage porn will seek out the most cartoonish depictions of the enemy. They will want a newsfeed full of unambiguous stories of the other side’s wickedness. Over time, they may even develop a less nuanced and more easily inflamed sense of right and wrong, to increase their moral outrage.

Notice, too: You could have a porn-y relationship with your outrage at other people’s moral outrage. You could gratify yourself with urgings for civility and calm in the face of too much antagonism. And you could do it just for the smug pleasure of your own high-mindedness. This would be civility porn — a species of moral outrage porn.

It’s bad enough that moral outrage porn can lead to inaction. But if you do decide to act after consuming all that moral outrage porn, you are liable to act in light of the cartoon morality it cultivates. Recall a traditional worry about sexual pornography: that it evokes pleasure by portraying sexuality in unrealistic terms, and that consumers of sexual pornography then risk exporting unrealistic expectations to the real world of sex, with potentially disastrous consequences.

The equivalent worry, with moral outrage porn, is that its consumers, having simplified their moral systems for the sake of self-righteous pleasure, will take that cartoon morality with them when they engage with the real world. We may already be seeing the results.

Thi Nguyen (@add_hawk) is an associate professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University. Bekka Williams is an assistant professor of philosophy at Minnesota State University, Mankato.