Tests that pornography fails

THE Meese Commission's report on pornography was released this week. As might be expected, given the topic, the political orientation of its sponsors, and the intellectual and constitutional issues it raises, the report has raised quite a stir among the parties -- anti-pornography crusaders and civil liberties advocates -- who have battled over this issue since the last major study, in 1970, and long before that. Among the general public, the assessment on pornography would likely be more measured, more practical, but no less in earnest. Survey data clearly show a widespread concern that moral and ethical standards in society are not as high as they used to be -- as reflected by the more open display and availability of pornographic materials. No doubt there is an element of nostalgia in such assessments, rather than any exact calculation of whether a moral decline has set in. The public, on quite a different subject, the work ethic, thinks that attitudes toward employment have eroded, though objective evidence shows Americans no less industrious. ``Public anxiety follows on any deeply held set of values,'' observes political scientist Everett Carll Ladd. Given this pattern, anxiety over the moral integrity of society may reflect the continuing vitality of that social value as much as any perceived decline.

Part of the context of the Meese report, too, is the feeling that there may have to be limits to the extremes of personal liberties advocated during the expansionist 1960s -- if not a conservative backlash, then at least a digging in to affirm mainstream social values on sexual matters, speech, and so forth. The Supreme Court's recent decision refusing a privacy sanction for a homosexual encounter and its refusal to uphold a high school student's use of sexually suggestive language in an oration seem to be assertions of social values as much as interpretations of constitutional principles. American society still seems generally inclined to tolerate greater individualism and freedom of choice. But again, Mr. Ladd: ``The more extremely atomistic argument of individual rights in the 1960s has infuriated many people.''

In the main, then, the Meese report may please many Americans who want the issue confronted. Its finding that pornographic materials can be degrading to women bears repeating. So does the importance of sanctions against the exploitation of children in pornography.

The report has its problems. It attempts to enlist public support from those concerned about violence by asserting that pornography induces acts of aggression; critics counter that any violence after the viewing of such material may result from the violence content rather than the sexual content. A federal judge stopped the Meese Commission from reprinting the names of some 8,000 stores that sell magazines and materials it deems pornographic.

Is a crusade against pornography needed, as Attorney General Meese says? The issue is one of tone. Crusades can be indiscriminate, trampling the rights of many to honest, wholesome expression.

Commercial enterprises that attempt to profit from salacious materials should feel uncomfortable. We see no problem with citizen boycotts of such stores, though leading such actions should not be the business of government.

The most reliable defense against pornography's aggressions has to be in the individual's own consciousness.

It is not sexual content of itself that necessarily makes pornography deplorable. It is how it fails to pass some fundamental but easily understood tests: Does the material strengthen human affections, deepen trust, elevate purpose, safeguard the individual and society's interest in stable, lifetime bonds? A public effort to make such a review widespread would be welcome.

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