In the several years I have been writing for Ebon Musings, I have received a great quantity of reader feedback. I read it all and, with a very few exceptions, respond to it all, and I am pleased to report that the large majority of it has been thoughtful, sincere and polite, regardless of whether the author agrees with my position. There has been some feedback of the other kind, warning me of the dreadful tortures that await me in the hereafter for my grievous sin of not worshipping the writer’s god, but much less than one might expect. In any case, I do not take these people seriously. Their doctrines are so cruel and so ridiculous, and their ignorance of relevant evidence so total, that their assertions amuse rather than offend me.
However, I did have one experience with a reader that left me profoundly shaken. This incident happened in late 2005. I received a very complimentary note from a person who praised my site profusely, indicating that it had been a great help to him in a debate he was having with one of his students about intelligent design. He also praised my article on biblical atrocities, and invited me to view an essay he had written on his own website about the negative influence of the Bible on our culture. (I will not give the URL of this site, for reasons that will become clear momentarily.)
I visited to his site and viewed his essay, which seemed thoughtful and well-written. Out of curiosity, I then loaded the main page of the site, and received an unpleasant shock. To my horror and disgust, I found that it was a pro-pedophilia website. I did not see any actual pornographic content – at least not on the one page I viewed; obviously, I did not look around any further – rather, the site seemed to be a collection of essays lamenting the fact that our society criminalizes sex between adults and children, and arguing in favor of abolishing the age of consent.
I considered not responding to the original e-mail at all, not wanting to draw any further attention of this sort. But after some reflection, I decided it would be better to write back to this person. This I did, informing him in no uncertain terms that I wanted nothing to do with him and requesting that he remove the link to my site. (To this day, I do not actually know if he did remove it; I have not visited his site again, and do not intend to.)
I did receive one further e-mail in reply, the tone of which was disappointed rather than accusatory or upset. Here is an excerpt from that e-mail:
I am sorry that you feel that way. I was hoping that you might see that society’s proscription of childhood sexuality is as superstitious as the rest of Judeo-Xian bunk. Oh well. The influence of the Bible truly runs deep.
This is more than a little ironic, considering the Bible has not a word to say about childhood sexual abuse or an age of consent, and indeed that is one of the things for which I criticize it. In my essay “The Big Ten“, for example, I point out that no passage in the Bible ever speaks of the wrongness of sexually abusing children or sets a minimum age of consent for engaging in sexual activity. Our society’s prohibition of sex acts between adults and children, which I believe to be entirely correct, rational and moral, exists in spite of the Bible, not because of it. This prohibition is not “superstitious” because, rather than being based on unobserved entities or effects, it is founded on something very observable and very real: the lifelong harm and emotional trauma inflicted on people who are victims of sexual predators.
I cannot help but speculate: what were this person’s motives in writing to me? He invited me to view his website; he must have expected that I would discover its nature. I must conclude that this was his intent, but why? Was he trying to provoke a reaction from me, or alternatively, was he hoping I would find this content and endorse it? Was this a subtle way of testing me, to see if I would be a friend or ally to him?
With the immediate matter dealt with, I had another problem: should I report the existence of this site to a law enforcement agency? However repulsive I find the position, it is not illegal merely to speak in favor of pedophilia, and I had no evidence of any actual illegal activity or content. However, it did not escape me that this person claimed in his original e-mail to be a teacher, and sex predators often seek out jobs that put them in contact with potential victims. On the other hand, if he was debating his students about intelligent design, surely they would have to be old enough for a pedophile to be uninterested in them?
My very ignorance, it seemed to me, was a potential argument in favor of reporting the site to some appropriate group. Since I did not know the relevant facts, and had no power to find them out, would it not be better to bring this to the attention of an agency that did have such power? If this person was committing no crime, then surely this would not do any harm. Is it not better to err on the side of caution?
Then again, I have always considered myself a friend of free speech, and that right does not cease merely because it is used to advocate ideas of which the majority disapproves, no matter how distasteful those ideas are. I strongly believe that the cure for bad speech is not censorship, but better speech. If I reported this site, would I be contributing to a chilling effect where unpopular ideas are suppressed by intimidation? Would I be making a hypocrite of myself?
I do not exaggerate when I say this was one of the most difficult moral dilemmas I have ever faced. Would reporting this website be the right thing to do, helping to protect children, or would it be falling prey to irrational hysteria in the absence of any real evidence that harm was occurring? I cannot judge myself and so, readers, I ask you to judge me in my stead. What should I have done? What would you have done?
I am sincerely interested in feedback on this issue, so allow me to dangle my readers a carrot: I will tell you, individually, what I actually did – but only if you first leave a comment or send an e-mail with your thoughts on the matter. I am not looking for any particular answer, but the possibility has not escaped my mind that this individual or others like him may find this post and attempt to sway my opinion, and accordingly I will be more skeptical of anonymous feedback from people with whom I have never previously corresponded.