Author George R.R. Martin said, “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.” The same logic can be applied to the censoring of nude art on social media. When a piece of artwork is censored and the poster is banned, it does not necessarily mean that the piece is obscene or that the poster has done something uncomely. Censorship is almost always a matter of fear, if not downright moral panic. By looking at the censoring of literature or art work, we can get a sense of where our society paranoia lies.
Even though I have lived in New York for some forty years, I have visited the Metropolitan Museum (the Met) only a few times. The last time I did, it dawned on me that there is a huge amount on nudity in the museum pieces on display — paintings, sculptures, etc. Sometimes they are full frontal nudity. Art and nudity seem to go hand in hand.
This raises a question regarding what kind of nudity society accepts and what kind of nudity it rejects. And why? As you are probably aware, Facebook has very strict “community standards” regarding nudity. Generally speaking, photos showing the female nipples or the genitals of either sex are not allowed. But I have seen many full frontal sculptures of nudes at the Met, similar to Michaelangelo’s David in terms of explicit details. There are, for example, several fully nude sculptures of the goddess Aphrodite. There is also Tullio Lombardo’s Adam where the male genital is prominently displayed. The list goes on. So, what accounts for the discrepancy in standards between a social medium such as Facebook and the Met? Why is it that the Met uses a looser standard than most social media in regard to nudity? As we shall see, in an attempt to answer such questions, much can be learned. We will develop a deeper understanding of art, Zen and the current state of the art of artificial intelligence. They are all related.
First, let us take a look at the community standards on Facebook. Here is a brief statement of Facebook’s policy for Adult Nudity and Sexual Activity:
We restrict the display of nudity or sexual activity because some people in our community may be sensitive to this type of content. Additionally, we default to removing sexual imagery to prevent the sharing of non-consensual or underage content. Restrictions on the display of sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless it is posted for educational, humorous, or satirical purposes.
This statement is interesting. It means that materials are being censored not because it is necessarily obscene, harmful or illegal. The bar is set very low — there is a cause for censorship just if SOME people may be SENSITIVE to such content. The implication is clear. All it takes is that some people dislike and object to the content. It does not have to be a majority of the people. Even if a small minority of people are upset by it, there is cause for censorship. Also, there is no need to provide evidence that objective harm has been done. Just the irritation of some people’s sensitivity would do. This policy means that even a small minority of Facebook users indicating discomfort with the material can cause it to be censored. Effectively, this is the tyranny of the minority. The objectionable material does not have to be of a sexual or erotic nature either. In September 2017, the Guggenheim museum bowed to the pressure of animal rights activists who protested images that suggest dog fights. The activists raised concerns about animal cruelty and death threats were issued to museum staff members. Eventually, the exhibit was cancelled due to public safety considerations.
Censorship is always an intriguing social phenomenon and it is never straight forward. In terms of nudity issues, Facebook tells us that it has learned to be more tolerant and progressive in executing its censorship policy. Its community standards page continues:
Our nudity policies have become more nuanced over time. We understand that nudity can be shared for a variety of reasons, including as a form of protest, to raise awareness about a cause, or for educational or medical reasons. Where such intent is clear, we make allowances for the content. For example, while we restrict some images of female breasts that include the nipple, we allow other images, including those depicting acts of protest, women actively engaged in breast-feeding, and photos of post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.
So, the categories of material which are protected against censorship are three — (1) materials for raising political and/or social awareness, (2) materials for educational purposes, (3) materials for medical purposes. Markedly absent are materials for artistic or aesthetic purposes. Apparently, Facebook does not regard this category as important enough to be protected from censorship. According to this policy, the nudity does not even have to be obscene or pornographic. There is a reason for censorship and for banning the poster as long as the posted material does not fall under these three protected categories. Aesthetic or artistic value just does not factor into the equation. Why? My hunch is that the artificial intelligence software used for censorship is too coarse. It is not able to identify art. In January 2015, Wired Magazine published an article titled Simple Pictures That State-of-the-Art AI Still Can’t Recognize. I was a computer science major when I was in college. I have also worked as both a programmer and a translator. I am well-aware of how difficult it is to translate Chinese into English, or vice versa. The computer is very good in performing tasks which are based on rules. But it has a terrible time recognizing the spirit of a language, poetry or art. The problem with language (translation), poetry and art is that they cannot be reduced to simple rules, formulas or algorithms. In these fields, there is a substantial amount of fuzziness and ambiguity. There is also a fair amount of rule-breaking. After all, creativity depends on break out of an old mold.
In his book, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki has a chapter called “Illogical Zen.” It is his view that Zen has to be illogical. This position lands him into a nasty dispute with Chinese scholar, Hu Shih. I think it is unfortunate that Suzuki used the term “illogical.” Zen is not anti-logic. A better way to express this idea is that Zen transcends simple binary logic. In my book, The Zen Teachings of Jesus, I pointed out the limitations of the rational mind, which tends to pigeonhole life into neat little boxes through classifying, labeling and discriminating. The computer does these tasks very well. It can also do them very quickly. The problem is that human life is not so simple. Instead of saying that Zen is illogical, it would be better to say that the Zen mind does not function as a regular computer, or a mechanical machine. It cannot be programmed using rigid rules and binary logic.
In my earlier book, I gave a concrete example of problems in translation. In the Bible, there is a verse: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” If we first translate this verse into Russian and then translate it back into English, it might read like this: “The volka is agreeable, but the meat is too tender.” Clearly, many factors go into a translation. The context is very important. There is much ambiguity and fuzziness that the human mind can sort out but a machine perhaps never can.
Herein lies the dilemma of Facebook and other social media. It is extremely labor-intensive to monitor what is posted everyday by members. According to one survey, 4.75 billion pieces of content shared daily as of May 2013. It would be extremely difficult to monitor them using human beings. So, it is almost inevitable that artificial intelligence (AI) is used for monitoring purposes. But AI is based on algorithms and rule-following. Once again we are thrown back to the difficulties of a computer. A machine is ill-equipped to handle different shades of meaning, ambiguity and uncertainty. Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, once said, “A robot can’t tell the ‘Mary had a little lamb ‘ means only that she owned it, not that she ate it, gave birth to it or had an affair with it.”
It is exactly the same problem with nudity. A nude picture can have many different shades of meaning. How we interpret a nude picture depends a lot on the context and many subtle cues. There can be many alternative ways to interpret it. Is it art or is it pornography? Is the photography refined or is it crude? Is it just a presentation of raw flesh, or is there an air of transcendence, bliss or exquisite beauty in it? The AI algorithm cannot tell the difference. To the machine, a human body is just be a human body, and nudity is just nudity. The good news is that AI today is way to crude to judge beauty and poetry. As a result, AI and the robots cannot take all our lunches. The sad news, however, is that many of the social media platforms are monitored by AI. So, fine art can easily be flagged as inappropriate and the poster can easily be thrown into “Facebook jail.” I have gone through this many times on Facebook. Last time I was banned for a full thirty days and I could not appeal the decision. I did post a sensual picture which I thought is rich with aesthetic value. But how could I argue with an algorithm?
To be jailed for a month by Facebook was a painful experience. I probably have lost quite a number for friends during that period. There were also people who were mad at me for not answering their instant messages. But I could not respond because I was also banned from texting even private messages. The upshot of the experience is that I came to a better understanding of today’s social media, censorship, art and the limits of artificial intelligence. More importantly, I have developed better insights into Zen and found new ways to communicate the essence of Zen. Over the years, I have argued with various people about whether Zen is rational or irrational, intellectual or mystical. There are many Zen practitioners who are adamant in insisting that Zen cannot be understood by the rational mind. Today, I discovered a new way of explaining the matter to them. It is not that Zen cannot be understood with reason. Rather, Zen cannot be understood using conventional binary logic. Zen can best be understood by comparing it to art, which defies rules and there is a high level of ambiguity and complexity. Zen is not static or rigid. In order for Zen to be Zen, it has to flow. To flow means being flexible and adaptable. There are no rigid rules. We cannot be reductionists in these matters. But most human endeavors cannot be understood with a reductionist approach anyway. If we can see the difference between nude art and crude nudity and the dilemmas of AI, we can understand Zen. Zen is about transcending the rigid rules of life.