The other afternoon, while drawing up an outline of subjects to cover in this month's editorial, we received a telephone call from a New York agent (showbiz, not literary) and in the course of the conversation, we mentioned that we were working on The Playboy Philosophy for May. He said that a few evenings earlier he had read the current Philosophy aloud to his wife and they had spent most of the evening discussing it. If this editorial series can get very much of that sort of thing going around the country—prompting discussion and debate on the relative merits of the common and the uncommon man, individual initiative vs. security and conformity as motives in modern society, the deeper significance of religious freedom in America and the other subjects we've been expressing our own views on the last few issues—it will have been well worth the writing. We must confess that we feel closer to our readers while working on each new installment of The Playboy Philosophy than we have at any time since we began editing this journal nearly 10 years ago and nothing we've previously done here at Playboy has given us any greater satisfaction or pleasure.
It's an interesting experience—organizing and setting down the fundamental ideas and ideals that have influenced and motivated one over the years. You find that in the very process of spelling out what you believe in, new truths begin taking form, new perspectives and relationships that you had previously only been vaguely aware of start falling into place. It's a very stimulating process.
We try to personally read all the mail that comes in on the Philosophy and there has been a considerable amount of it—more than on any previous article, series or feature we've ever published. The letters are all carefully considered and we try to take them into account as we draw up the subject outlines for future parts of this editorial.
We don't expect very many of our readers to agree with all the points we make in The Playboy Philosophy, though most will probably agree with most of them—for it is the unusual rapport between editors and readers that has made Playboy such a remarkable publishing phenomenon. But the single most significant point we have tried to establish here is the importance of many varied and divergent opinions—it is through their free exchange and interplay that a democracy thrives.
In the March issue, we discussed the importance of religious freedom and the separation of church and state in any society that is to remain truly free; we traced the history of American Puritanism and, last month, we pointed out how it has managed to insert itself into many of our laws and traditions, so as to frustrate some of the guarantees of freedom that our founding fathers wrote into the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Religious puritanism is never more insidious than when it succeeds in undermining the free expression of words and ideas amongst us. In the April issue, we also pointed out that censorship can become so confused that single words—treated as symbols, separate and apart from the action, object or idea they may represent—are often considered "obscene" in our culture; although granting such power to mere symbols might be likened to the worship of idols—specifically forbidden by the Bible—and is, according to Judge Thurman Arnold, creating attitudes toward sex that are akin to fetishism.
Obscenity and the Law
The U.S. courts no longer accept the position that a single word or phrase can be legally obscene, so such censorship or suppression in America is actually extralegal or outside the law; the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a work of art or literature—and this includes any book, magazine, movie or play—must be judged in its entirety and no part of it may be considered alone. But while the courts have become increasingly liberal in their interpretation of what constitutes obscenity in recent years, they still persist in judging our art and literature on the premise that obscenity does indeed exist and that it is illegal and outside the protections guaranteed to our freedoms of speech and press. It is with this premise that we want to take issue.
Is there any idea, no matter how repellent it may seem to some, that we can hope to expunge from the mind of man or afford to disallow in his writing or speech? As we have already said—and said again—our democratic way of life is built upon ideas, and our nation's inner strength is drawn from their free, unhampered exchange—not, as Congresswoman Kathryn Granahan would have us believe, from censoring those notions that do not particularly suit us at a particular time. History has proven, over and over again, that the most important ideas are often not recognized as such when they are first expressed.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, stated in his second inaugural address: "The press, confined to truth, needs no other restraint...no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and demoralizing licentiousness." And in 1799 James Madison, chief hand in the drafting of the Constitution of the United States, wrote that to make a "distinction between the freedom of and the licentiousness of the press" would subvert the First Amendment.
Madison stated further: "Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press. It has accordingly been decided by the practice of the States, that it is better to leave a few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigour of those yielding the proper fruits."
The founding fathers of this great democracy were unalterably opposed to any exception in this nation's guarantees of the freedoms of speech and press because of supposed immoral, licentious, obscene or otherwise objectionable ideas that might be expressed, for they were convinced that no man, or group of men, or any government had the right to curtail the opinions of any other man or their free expression.
Nothing in the intervening years has given us any reason to disagree with the wisdom of these first American patriots; in fact, a greater insight into the psychological factors that influence man's behavior supplies additional reasons for agreeing with Jefferson and Madison that these most basic freedoms should not be abridged. Nevertheless, religious puritanism has subtly eroded both the spirit and letter of this doctrine so that today it is virtually lost to us.
Only with the sexual revolution of the last decade have we begun to win back some of this long-lost freedom. We would like to establish here why we, ourself, are opposed to any manner of censorship and why the label of "obscene" is no just cause for suppressing any man's endeavor, no matter how significant or trivial.
The Problem of Definition
We do not believe that a satisfactory definition for obscenity can ever be established.
The Supreme Court of the United States attempted a definition in 1957 in a split decision (7 to 2) in the case of U.S. vs. Roth. The High Court ruled that a work is obscene when "to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest." This is the definition currently used by the courts.
It had the virtue of seriously curtailing the kind of arbitrary censorship that had previously prevailed. It included several specific directives: A work must be judged as a whole, not piecemeal; the predominant theme must be prurient; the standard for judgment must be an average member of the community, not an emotionally retarded adult and not a child. It confirmed that a mere discussion or portrayal of sex was not enough to automatically stamp a work "obscene"; on the contrary, the Supreme Court clearly recognized that material dealing with sex was an essential part of the exposition of ideas protected by the Constitution and only those works devoid of the "slightest redeeming social importance" were considered to be outside the protective arms of the fundamental law; unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion have the full protection of the First Amendment. It also attempted to establish a distinction between erotic realism and pornography. However, as much-censored author D.H. Lawrence observed: "What is pornography to one man is the laughter of genius to another."
And how does one go about "applying contemporary community standards"? The community standards of a sophisticated urban area like San Francisco are certainly not the same as those of a small town in Massachusetts. The community standards in the heart of a major city may not be the same as those of its suburbs; and both may differ from those to be found in the outlying rural areas; or in any particular part of a city where one particular ethnic or religious group predominates. Whose particular community standards do we apply? Is it to be the will of the majority? Or is it the will of a well-educated and enlightened minority? And in any case, have we the right to deny the laughter of genius to one group on the ground that it is pornography to another?
Justice William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court has observed: "The standard of what offends 'the common conscience of the community' conflicts, in my judgment, with the command of the First Amendment that 'Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.' Certainly that standard would not be an acceptable one if religion, economics, politics or philosophy were involved. How does it become a Constitutional standard when literature treating with sex is concerned?
"Any test that turns on what is offensive to the community's standards is too loose, too capricious, too destructive of freedom of expression to be squared with the First Amendment. Under that test, juries can censor, suppress and punish what they don't like, provided the matter relates to 'sexual impurity' or has a tendency to 'excite lustful thoughts.' This is community censorship in one of its worst forms. It creates a regime where, in the battle between the literati and the Philistines, the Philistines are certain to win."
Moreover, the judicial assumption that pure pornography is without any "redeeming social importance" is open to serious question. There is presently a considerable school of scientific opinion amongst authorities on human behavior suggesting not simply that pornography is harmless, but that it may actually have some value as a sublimation and release for pent-up sexual frustrations and desires.
Any person who feels the censor's vengeful wrath may find some comfort in the knowledge that he is in illustrious company, for many of the world's most honored writers, artists, poets and philosophers—the giants and the geniuses down through the ages—have known the scorn of their contemporaries and seen their works expurgated, bowdlerized, banned, burned and otherwise disfigured and destroyed. The list of the censored is a veritable Who's Who of philosophy, art and literature: Homer, Confucius, Dante, Galileo, Shakespeare, Bacon, Voltaire, Gibbon, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Goethe, Shelley, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Hawthorne, Hans Christian Andersen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Darwin, Whitman, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Gilbert and Sullivan, Zola, De Maupassant, Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Kipling, Jack London, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Eugene O'Neill, Faulkner, Hemingway and Walt Disney, to name but a few.
Since the beginning of recorded history there have been individuals determined to force their own standards upon their fellow men. And time inevitably proves that the "dangerous" work of art or literature of one generation is the classic of the next—that any contemporary condemnation of the spoken or the written word appears ridiculous to succeeding generations.
Even the Bible has faced a long history of censorship in many countries. When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English, his work was suppressed and in 1536 he was imprisoned, strangled and then burned at the stake along with his translations.
Judge Thurman Arnold, past assistant attorney general of the U.S. and celebrated associate justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals, who wrote the famous decision in the Esquire obscenity case in 1946, has commented on the frustration and unintentional humor sometimes involved in a court's attempt to determine what is, and is not, obscene; as a participant in the Playboy Panel on "Sex and Censorship in Literature and the Arts" (Playboy, July 1961), Judge Arnold observed: "I remember that in the case of Sunshine Book Company vs. Summerfield—involving a nudist magazine—in the District Court, Judge Kirkland examined each nude in the magazine and tried to analyze which would cause prurient thoughts. He condemned some and passed others. The spectacle of a judge poring over the picture of some nude, trying to ascertain the extent to which she arouses prurient interest—and then attempting to write an opinion that explains the difference between that nude and some other nude—has elements of low comedy." Judge Arnold once commented that the only way to avoid argument over what is obscene and what is art in cases of this kind is to hold that "no nudes is good nudes," which he was unwilling to do.