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Obscene or Morally Outrageous?


March 11, 2021.

Edward Arthur replies to Kevan James’ article on face masks in schools


‘Etymologically [the word ‘obscene’] is said to derive from the Latin ob (to, before, against) plus caenum (filth)’

Professor Joel Fienberg, the Idea of the Obscene


As much as I enjoyed reading Kevan James’ article on the use of face masks in schools (If a picture is worth a thousand Words...), I have to take issue with at least some of his comments.


For context, I am the referring to the word ‘obscene’ in the broader, moral and philosophical sense, not the narrow, legal definition. Kevan did touch on this (legal) context — re. Lady Chatterley etc—but I don’t think this is so relevant because we are not referencing anything remotely prurient.


A tiny quibble if I may? Kevan seemed to suggest that something that is repulsive is, by definition, also obscene – if I have understood him correctly? I can only agree if the adjective is employed in the correct context. For example, a repulsive odour is not obscene in the normal sense of the word; something obscene can (and often is) repulsive but not necessarily vice versa.


Neither do I accept Kevan’s remarks about face coverings in adults or children amount to a convincing argument that mandating their use (in those over five years of age), comes close to being ‘repulsive’, or ‘tending to deprave or corrupt’ – to employ the definition used from the Oxford English Dictionary. As Kevan rightly observes the term obscene has many different meanings, but the bulk of them seem to me to suggest that moral outrage is at the heart of the matter, and here I think we find common ground.


The philosopher Peter Glassen wrote in 1958:

‘The adjectives that regularly consort with the noun "obscenity" fully reveal its extreme and unqualified character: the obscene is pure and unmixed, sheer, crass, bare, unveiled, bald, naked, rank, coarse, raw, shocking, blunt, and stark. It hits one in the face; it is shoved under one's nose; it shocks the eye. The obscene excludes subtlety or indirection, and can never be merely veiled, implied, hinted, or suggested. The idea of a "subtle obscenity" is a contradiction in terms.’