The Facebook beheading row is a symptom of our weird attitudes towards sex and violence

Lara Pulver in Sherlock
Down with this sort of thing. (Photo: BBC)

I remember, when I was quite young – maybe 10 or 11 – seeing, on a TV in a French hotel, a nipple. A female nipple. On an advert for something entirely un-nipple-related – hair product, possibly, or a department store – at about 2pm. It may have been later that same holiday that I also saw a young woman sunbathing topless on the beach, for perhaps the first time in my life. It was an important and formative time in my life.

A few years earlier, I saw a Judge Dredd comic, possibly the one in which people melted in a heatwave, and it gave me nightmares for two days.

The difference between our prudish, Protestant attitude towards nudity and sex in the Anglo-Saxon world and that in much of the rest of Europe is hardly a new topic. (Or a new phenomenon. I went recently to the exhibition on Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum, and was a little surprised by just how fond of enormous phalluses and statues of gods having thoroughly kinky sex with goats the Romans were. I bet the Britons were covering all their naughty bits with woad at the time.) But it is interesting. And it’s especially interesting in the light of our far more unconcerned approach to depictions of violence.

This morning it’s been announced that Facebook is again to allow users to post videos of beheading on the site. The company says that it is allowing it so that users can express condemnation of the violence, rather than to “glorify” or “celebrate” it – as though, until you’ve seen a 😦 underneath a video of someone having their throat cut, you might not have formed an opinion of decapitation as a means of interpersonal discourse. Facebook have also said, in a statement, that they may end up putting warnings of graphic content on such videos, and that if people are “encouraging” violence, they will have a different attitude. With the inevitability of an onrushing freight train, David Cameron has condemned it while misunderstanding it, saying that Facebook shouldn’t “post” these videos. Of course, Facebook is doing no such thing.

But, as Jonathan Freedland writes this morning, the same company is still deeply uncomfortable with pictures of breastfeeding: “Photos that show a fully exposed breast where the child is not actively engaged in nursing do violate the Facebook terms”, as they put it. It is a very weird set of values that says a video of someone having their head chopped off is OK with a “graphic content” warning, but a nipple that hasn’t yet been clamped on to by a baby is not. (Perhaps if users promise that they won’t “glorify” or “celebrate” breastfeeding, but post images solely to condemn it, Facebook might reconsider.)

I actually disagree with Jonathan on one thing. Facebook haven’t got this wrong, from their point of view at least. They’ve probably judged the mood about right. The hysteria over children using the web isn’t about them seeing some horrible violent thing which will give them nightmares, it’s all about sex. Sexting, Snapchat, paedophiles making susceptibility chemicals come out of their keyboards, that sort of thing. And a female nipple or an Anglo-Saxon swearword is a far swifter route to age classification of a movie than is someone being shot in the head.

For the record, the availability of beheading videos on Facebook isn’t going to lead to a rash of copycat beheadings. And your children’s risk of unpleasant things happening to them online is pleasingly small, and it’s not actually clear that they’re starting watching naughty stuff any earlier than they did already. The simplest thing, as Jonathan says, would be to go full free speech, and allow anyone to post anything they like.

But I’ve got a child on the way, and if when it’s a bit older I get a choice between it seeing a picture of naked breast or a video of a prisoner being beheaded – if you’re going to ban something, in short – I know which I’d rather. Not because either one will warp its tiny brain, especially, but because one of them will give it nightmares, and the other one won’t. And yet the former is banned, and the latter allowed.

It’s silly, though, to blame Facebook for it. The real culprit is our strange set of values, which says seeing boobs and hearing swearing is worse for children than watching punishment beatings. Facebook are only doing what society asks of them.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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