A Very Polite Request to Discontinue Hotel Room Pornography

A case study in public persuasion done right: Two professors from different faiths make their non-coercive case to industry executives.

hotel room flickr Jen SFo BCN.png
Jen SFO BCN/Flickr

Writing in Public Discourse, Professor Robert P. George, a Christian, and Professor Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a Muslim, urge hotel-industry executives to stop offering pornographic movies to patrons. "Pornography is degrading, dehumanizing, and corrupting. It undermines self-respect and respect for others," they argue in their open letter. "It reduces persons -- creatures bearing profound, inherent, and equal dignity -- to the status of objects. It robs a central aspect of our humanity -- our sexuality -- of its dignity and beauty. It ensnares some in addiction. It deprives others of their sense of self-worth. It teaches our young people to settle for the cheap satisfactions of lust, rather than to do the hard, yet ultimately liberating and fulfilling, work of love."

While I disagree with some of the assertions the authors make, plead agnostic on others, and suspect that Steven E. Landsburg may be right that access to pornography reduces rape, I must compliment George and Yusuf for conducting themselves in the best possible manner while trying to effect social change. "We make no proposal here to limit your legal freedom, nor do we threaten protests, boycotts, or anything of the sort. We simply ask you to do what is right as a matter of conscience," they write. "We appeal to you not on the basis of truths revealed in our scriptures but on the basis of a commitment that should be shared by all people of reason and goodwill: a commitment to human dignity and the common good. As teachers and as parents, we seek a society in which young people are encouraged to respect others and themselves -- treating no one as an impersonal object or thing. We hope that you share our desire to build such a society."

Their general take on markets and morality is apt too:

We believe that the properly regulated market economy serves the good of all by providing products and services at reasonable prices and by generating prosperity and social mobility. But the market itself cannot provide the moral values that make it a truly humane and just institution. We -- owners, managers, employees, customers -- must bring those values to the market. There are some things -- inhuman things, unjust things, de-humanizing things -- that should not be sold. There must be some things that, for the sake of human dignity and the common good, we must refuse to sell -- even it if means forgoing profit.

Grappling with whether or not pornography is one of the goods that right-thinking people should refuse to sell is too big a question to address in this item, but I do think the authors err here:

Some might say that you are simply honoring the free choices of your customers. However, you are doing much more than that. You are placing temptation in their path -- temptation for the sake of profit.

That is unjust.

There was an era in American life when hotel-room pornography tempted people who wouldn't have otherwise found themselves so proximate to the product, but that time has passed. The Internet creates that temptation for anyone susceptible to it who is possessed of a laptop or smart phone. It isn't clear that victory in the hotel campaign would have a meaningful effect on porn consumption.

Still, the authors tell the hotel executives that they're only trying "to call you to your highest and best self," an approach to public persuasion I find so refreshing and disarming as to merit mention.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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