My thoughts on Piracy

Kester Brewin has been writing a series of articles about Piracy, and how it can/should be re-understood in the context of the church. It was a long and interesting series, following on from some stuff which I didnt hear at Greenbelt.

Richard Sudworth has made a response to Kester’s series of posts, taking  a stand against some of what Kester has to say, and also bringing in the kind of work that Peter Rollins has been involved in.

Indeed the two are from a similar mould, they both write stimulating and challenging prose which I find intriguing and troubling at the same time, in general I’m a fan. But what about their arguments?

In the first place I should say that I think its important there are people like Kester and Pete out there doing their thing. My personal view is that we need to have people like them asserting points of view which are unpalletable and challenging, whether we eventually agree with them or not. I have written before that we need to ‘re-wild’ the church, and that we need to be a lot less comfortable with our faith/religion.

But having said that, and albeit that I am no theologian, I do have a number of issues with some of the stuff they say, lets take the piracy thing.

First there is the concept of piracy itself – what is it really? Is it the great heresy, full of creativity and innovation? I would argue that it isnt. I would say in fact that piracy is simply free market capitalism taken to its logical conclusion.

Piracy is basically a way of making money and obtaining goods or services by finding a way of getting it from other people at the lowest possible cost to yourself. Capitalism encourages the people at the bottom of the ladder to strive to get up it, and it encourages the idea of taking a short cut if possible. That is called ‘efficiency’. Thus we are all trying to stay ahead of others, and in our own way, through systemic exploitation,  all contributing to the death and destruction, rape and torture of others, but for most of us its a few steps removed from our hands. For the archetypal pirate, its right there in front of them.

Piracy also serves another purpose, that of safeguarding the orthodoxy. While there are pirates in the seas, we must have gunships, soldiers, private military contractors. The threat of piracy is what legitimises the defence of the orthodoxy, the pirates are out to get us, so we must have something to protect us. Piracy therefore is a necessary part of our system, rather than being the innovation, its the bogey man which is used to keep children in their beds. (I dont use bogey men stories to keep my kids in their beds… much.)

Oh and my opinion of why kids like pirates? The idea of piracy is one of having what the world offers, without the need for adherence to an ethical code, its basically getting stuff, without responsibility to others save your loyal buccaneer pals. The dream is to buckle a swash, steal some treasure, and sail off into the sun with not a care in the world, looking for an island full of willing maidens, or even unwilling ones if necessary. Kids like pirates because we socialise them into liking the idea that you could have everything you want, without needing to be the poor sucker at the bottom of the pile who has to clean up the mess. The pirate is top dog, answerable to no man but himself and those he chooses (the pirate ship as democracy scenario), he (yes usually it is a he) spurns the idea of obeying the external rules, and chooses to take what he can instead with a piratical wink and an unaccountable forgiving nature for young people (Long John Silver, Capt Adam Penfeather etc).

So I dont hold with the utopian concept of piracy, I do understand the horrendous situation faced by some of the pirates in Somalia, fish stolen, toxic waste dumped, etc etc, and I can understand why they do what they do. Does that make it right? Not at all. Nor does their action make it right that the US navy patrols the area with gunships and missiles. None of it is right, and it is all caused by the disaster that Somalia has become, a disaster which has been exploited by the richer nations to legitimise their own ways of thinking/behaving, and to be hauled out as another example of what happens when ‘Africa goes bad’.

On another form of piracy, that of ripping off music and films, and the ubiquitous complaint that the anti piracy adverts at the beginning of DVDs are annoying. This aggravates me on two fronts, firstly, the whole DVD piracy thing is actually right. Organised gangs do make lots of money from counterfeit goods, they might not wear jaunty hats, and they may live in houses not boats, but these pirates are responsible not just for one form of crime, but for many forms. Any criminologist can tell you that people involved in this form of organised crime are more likely to be involved in other forms, whether that be drugs, prostitution or whatever. This is just another way of making money.

Does that translate to those illegally uploading and downloading music and films on the internet? No, but there is a difference between music and films, in particular the scale.  Iwould suggest that there is a huge moral question over whether we should watch hollywood films at all. The vast sums of money spent on the industry are obscene, and the disparity between the elite and the oppressed are only aggravated by the development of the film stars. Not to mention the fact that the development of the film industry has spawned brainless TV entertainment which is slowly killing our minds, and also taken us away to a large extent from the interaction of live entertainment, which at one time we might each have been a part of. That’s a discussion for another day.

I think there is a genuine argument that the music industry needs to change its structure and methodology, I find Steve Lawson’s arguments very persuasive on this, and while I personally do not conduct illegal file sharing, nor do I suggest anyone else should, I can understand the suggestion that music is much better given away for free like this. There is a social and economic reasoning behind it which makes sense.

Is that the same for films? No, because films dont have the same dynamics, they cant come live in your living room like a band or musician can, and the cinema and the concert hall are two quite different places. There does need to be new thought on all this, but to moan about anti piracy ads on the front of your dvd makes no sense at all to me. Is it subversive to try and rip off films and music? Or is it just an attempt to obtain goods and services at the lowest possible cost to oneself? The latter being the orthodox view of this society by the way, and one which as I said before inevitably results in piracy of one sort or another.

Do I think that we need heretics (a la Brewin and Rollins) in the church, I do actually yes, I think this links to an earlier post I wrote about re-wilding the church. I think there is a calling on some to be provocative, to be wild and out there, in all directions. They help the rest of us by making us re-examine our comfortable philosophies. Richard Sudworth also correctly points out that any group can be on the margins depending upon its context, no one form of Christian faith community has the monopoly on being marginalised. I am more and more of the opinion that we need to be fully accepting of all kinds of church and Christian practise, and a bit more demanding of ourselves in terms of discipleship.

Richard Sudworth questions the morality of what Kester and Pete are espousing, suggesting that it undermines any notion of an objective truth based morality, and of course it does. Both these guys are very much of the postmodern school (imho) and seem to come close to denying the very pillars of our beliefs. While I can understand the point they are making, I feel that in this case postmodernity misses the point. What we need is rather than a postmodern frame of reference, a pre-modern frame of reference, which requires not disbelief, but an active suspension of disbelief on our part. I’ll write more on this another time hopefully.

So on balance, while I am interested, intrigued and stimulated in my thinking by these questions of piracy and the orthodoxy of heresy, I am less than convinced by all the arguments, well done to Richard Sudworth for taking it all apart much more insightfully and eloquently than I ever could, and lets all keep listening to one another.

5 thoughts on “My thoughts on Piracy

  1. Calling the copying of information ‘piracy’ is to accept the narrative the ‘rights-holders’ (often not even the creators), are trying to force down our throats.

    There is an enormous difference between violence and theft, and sharing information. When you copy information you do not deny the original owner the use of it, everyone gains. That’s a moral world away from theft, where you forcibly deprive something of their property.

    There seems to be a presumption of entitlement by artists, the fact is that that entitlement can only exist in a society that restricts the thoughts you’re allowed to think and the things you’re allowed to share with your friends. The small benefit it gives society (mainly the invention of creatives as a mercenery class) is more than offset by the massive immoral removal of freedom of thought and speech that it requires.

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