Wrong is Wrong, and Hypocrisy Doesn’t Change That

Recounting the events of today:

An American comedian posted to social media a picture that included a likeness of the President in an extremely vulgar, grotesque, and at least plausibly threatening context.

There was widespread outrage and condemnation of the image. Virtually no one of consequence defended the comedian or her content.

Nonetheless, that didn’t stop people from political tribe A from demanding where all the outrage from political tribe B was. A common refrain by tribe A said, “If political tribe B’s president were treated like this, the media would all have a meltdown!”

This true but ultimately meaningless point provoked the ire of political tribe B, who responded that actually, tribe B’s president was depicted in an outrageous, offensive, and violent context. More to the point, where was tribe A’s outrage during all that? If tribe A cares so much about offensive depictions of the President of the United States, why didn’t they mind it when it happened to tribe B’s president?

While tribe A had the opportunity to unequivocally condemn any offensive treatment of tribe B’s president, they unfortunately opted to make it a point of order. “Where did your president ever get depicted like that,” demanded tribe A.

Tribe B responded by producing evidence of the charge. A fair rebuttal, but then tribe B sadly decided to interpret the evidence: “See? You didn’t say ANYTHING when this was going on. Fair is fair. If it’s OK for it to happen to our guy, it’s fair for it to happen to yours!”

If there’s anything in the above that makes you feel good about where American politics are in 2017, bless you, because I can’t find anything. Identity politics, tribal loyalties, and bad faith are completely dominating not only public discourse, but how we even respond to things that are clearly wrong. When presented with an objectively objectionable thing, Americans don’t even have time to articulate the moral principle behind its objectionableness. They don’t ask “what.” They ask “who.”

Who made this? Which group created it? Who is endorsing it? Who is talking about it like it’s a good thing? It’s like the world’s worst game of Clue. The point of Clue isn’t that murdering someone with a lead pipe is bad. The point of Clue is that somebody did it, and we need to know who it was. That’s where the American politics of outrage are at the moment. Nothing is good or bad in the abstract anymore. The only question that matters is, “Is this from our team, or from the bad guys?”

Wrong is wrong, and hypocrisy from the other tribe doesn’t change it. If you think the biased news media isn’t as worked up about this comedian’s garbage as they should be, fine. But that doesn’t prove that that other garbage that was made about the guy you didn’t vote for is now magically better. If being a moral person means anything at all, it means telling the truth, no matter how many people whose politics you despise will gain satisfaction from it. It is absolutely insane that what should be a clear cut case of the degenerating quality of our public square is somehow turned into a contest of, “Who was outraged first.”

If you’re wondering why politics is in the mess it’s in right now, look no further.

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The Parable of Anthony Weiner’s iPhone

A question that’s been nagging me: Would Anthony Weiner still have a political career if he hadn’t owned an iPhone?

Last week Weiner pled guilty to sending sexually explicit messages to a minor through his smartphone. His plea deal comes with probable prison time. Weiner, former Congressman and aspiring New York City mayor, told the court that his “destructive impulses brought great devastation to family and friends, and destroyed my life’s dream of public service.” Weiner’s political ambitions are shattered, almost certainly beyond repair, and his relationship with his children is imperiled. How would his story have been different if Weiner simply didn’t own a phone that could do what he used it to do?

Perhaps our first impulse is to dismiss such a question. We don’t usually think of the physical technology itself as operative in our sin. Wasn’t Weiner just a sexual deviant, and wouldn’t a sexual deviant find a way to satisfy himself regardless? But this response disregards the embodied nature of temptation. In a rush to label our technology as “neutral,” we often ignore the shaping effects it has on us. If our phones, social media, and iPads can condition us toward distraction and insecurity–and there is growing evidence they can–why would we be surprised to discover they can also make us more vulnerable to destructive desires?

Of course, infidelity and illicit sexual activity are not novel to our current generation of political leaderships. There have always been mistresses, secrets, and scandals. But we shouldn’t reason from this that every cultural moment is created equal. Digital technology eliminates barriers of geography, physicality, and evidence in genuinely unprecedented ways. One hundred years ago, if an elected official (or anyone else) wanted a sexual episode, he had to be somewhere specific, an actual physical place whose geographical character created inextricable risks of being seen or heard. Did the inherent dangers of such a risk actually prevent the moral failures of some who might have been unable to resist the individualized, delete-able world “sexting”?

I understand that some may think talking this way diminishes the importance of the “inner person.” Can we really commend ourselves for having our sinful desires hemmed in by uncooperative technology? Lust absolutely does begin in the heart, and the heart does not need Twitter or video streaming. But it’s a mistake to pit this fact against another fact: that temptation is embodied because humans are. We are tied to specific people, places, and things. When it comes to pornography and the hook up culture, digitization is weaponization, and for many of us, winning the war against sexual nihilism in our communities and our own souls might mean refusing to even pick up the weapons.

So, back to the original question. If Anthony Weiner didn’t own a smartphone, would he have pled guilty in state court last week? Would he have thought to send explicit photos and texts to a teenage stranger? Would his fear of discovery and fallout preserved his public reputation if he had not been roped in by the ephemeral blue glow of instant gratification and pocket-sized, password protected secrets?

We can’t know the answers to these questions. But we need to ask them. We need to ask them because we are not gnostics. We confess the spiritual nature of the physical world. We are bodies and souls, and we will always be both. That means that the “spiritual” realm of temptation is a physical one too. Hearts desire, but so do bodies, a fact not lost on the people who build “adult” superstores off the interstate highways, inviting tired and lonely truck drivers refueling just a block away.

Could one of the lessons of Anthony Weiner’s fall be that we should take our digital technology more seriously as a potential stumbling block? I think so. Shrugging off social media and mobile devices as neutral might sound good on paper. But for any of us, at any given moment, there are thousands of ways to wreck our lives and the lives of those around us. It could be that inventions that destroy the created limits imposed on us by space and time are inventions that push us inwardly, away from embodied means of grace and toward the illusion that we are gods of our desires and destinies.

Solomon once observed a “young man lacking sense,” who took a jaunt near the house of a forbidden woman at twilight. She seduces him in proximity and in darkness, and it costs him his life (Proverbs 7). The king of Israel summarizes the lesson for his sons: “Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths.” (7:25) If Solomon had lived a few thousand years later, he probably would have added: “Don’t look her up on Facebook.”

What Graduation Means

Last spring spent about four hours of a Monday night at a college graduation. My wife was being awarded her degree in elementary education, and she was joined by (according to the college president) 995 other undergraduates. Graduates were welcomed, inducted, charged, presented, and awarded, in that order. The night was long; speeches repeated, processionals and recessionals slogged, and of course, each of the 995 students were called, conferred, and congratulated individually.

It was a ceremony clearly not tailored to the entertainment generation or the babies of endless social media connectivity. Neither was it the du jour of those “radicals,” found so often on college campuses, who detest tradition and protest uniformity. Students marched in step behind large banners, signifying their membership in one of the university’s schools. Everyone wore the same traditional black gown and cap. Songs older than many US states were sung. It was, in many ways, a kind of religious ceremony, in which tradition, institution, and (academic) success made up the liturgy.

I realized at one point that for all the endless intellectual coddling and culture policing that characterizes the contemporary American university, a bachelor’s degree culminates in an event that defies such self-expressive autonomy. Graduation invites students, faculty, family and friends to believe that they are participating in something greater than themselves, to find satisfaction and joy in the idea that what they have achieved has been achieved before and will be achieved again. Yes, graduates have their names called, and yes, graduates receive their own degrees. But the entire ethos of the ceremony is one that says: “This is not ultimately about you.”

This is the opposite, of course, of what many undergraduates learn in the college classroom. We hear almost daily updates on an American university culture which at every turn empowers freshmen and sophomores to authenticate themselves through protest, rather than sit and learn about an imperfect world at the feet of imperfect people. Much of young adult life is what Alan Jacobs calls the “trade-in society,” a life of loose connection and easy escape from situations that become difficult. If institutions become ornery, if they cease to align up perfectly with my individual desires and goals, then the solution is to either give up on the institution or else demand that it change.

Nihilism in higher education has been rampant for some time. But if what I saw Monday night was an indication, it looks like it has mostly failed to leave its imprint on graduation. Presidents and executive administrators sat on the stage, above the floor of graduates; no one protested this obvious hierarchy. I didn’t see any letters to the editor in the following days demanding that the school change its individualism-stifling policy on the robe and cap. Nary a thought was given to whether the school fight song, written in 1892, might have been penned by someone with questionable social or political opinion. In other words, there seems to be no pressing need to make commencement in our sociopolitical image. The ritual is allowed to be ritual.

Why is this? Why, among all the college unrest and university politics in our culture today, is there no national movement to “democratize” commencement? Why is there no formidable backlash to its rigidity and solemnity?

Perhaps one answer is that graduation is one of the few moments remaining in our culture where achievement needs tradition. What a conferring of degrees means is dependent on what, or who, is conferring them. This is, after all, the difference between a college education and a few bucks paid to a diploma mill at a PO box. Anyone can write anything on a piece of paper. But the bigness—we might even say transcendence—of the commencement ceremony befits a time where graduates are declared matriculated by those with the (trigger warning) power to say so.

A commencement invites students to become not just graduates, but alumni. That’s why so much of the chancellor’s speech on Monday was given to exulting in the university’s history and prestige. Students aren’t just receiving degrees; they’re receiving membership, a form of covenant (however informal) that ties them to a specific place and a specific body. Implicit in the commencement is the idea that people need to belong, and that belonging to something greater than and outside oneself is not opposed to individual achievement and success.

Unfortunately, from August to April, much of college life teaches the opposite. From radical deconstructionism in the humanities, to rank scientism in mathematics and biology, to the campus hook up culture—all of these coalesce into a living liturgy of lonely autonomy and hopeless self-authentication.

Is the unraveling of the American campus really a surprise? I can’t see how it is. If everything in the classroom and commons area screams that transcendence and God are nothing but ciphers for the powerful, might one eventually want to apply the rules learned about home, country, and religion to the college itself? Why be oppressed? Higher education was comfortable directing this energy toward the general culture for decades; the only problem now is that the barrels are turned the wrong way. If Lady Thatcher was right that running out of other people’s money was the trouble with socialism, you might say the problem with nihilism in education is that, eventually, you run out of other people’s safe spaces.

So the drama of higher education continues. In the coming years we will see just how strong an institution it is, as it tries to fend off the threats of digitalization, debt, and decay. It very well could be that the internet age was created for such a time as this, to rescue the university from itself and provide a generation with the knowledge and intellectual formation that a coddling college culture has defaulted on. In many ways it would be, as Ross Douthat has noted, a punishment that fits academia’s crime.

Whatever the future holds, let’s hold off on tampering too much with commencement. It may be a bit tedious and self-congratulating. But it’s also a spark of meaning and permanence and truth in the cavernous culture of higher ed.

Gotta Trust Somebody

My intention with my last post was to make a very small, but very important point. Discernment is not cynicism, and cynicism is not discernment. What passes for critical thinking is often nothing more than a defense mechanism, wired specifically to keep presuppositions from coming into contact with pushback, disappointment, or worst of all, contrary reality. And there aren’t many better examples of this defense mechanism than the obsession that many of my fellow conservatives have with media bias.

Note carefully that I said “obsession.” Bias in media is real (as I said previously, and have talked about at length before, and will probably write about again). To pretend that most of the powerful journalism and entertainment businesses in this country are not steered by progressives is simply to ignore what couldn’t be plainer. But the idea I tried to get at in my last blog was that, while media bias is real, it is real in the same way and to the same extent that personal bias is also real. So then the issue is not whether we should ride every biased editor and reporter out of town on a rail, but whether we can muster the intellectual effort it requires to discern truth over and against ideology, both out there and amongst ourselves.

The problem for all of us is simple: You gotta trust somebody. No human being can function as their own all self-sufficient filter, accumulate all the necessary information on every possible topic, and be able to process all facts and nuances quickly and perfectly in order to render utterly reliable knowledge hour by hour, day by day. English has a word for that; it’s called omniscience, and if Christianity teaches anything, it teaches that there is only One omniscient person, and we aren’t Him. Every single person, conservative and liberal, progressive and traditional, religious and irreligious, rich and poor, rural and urban, cosmopolitan and localist–everybody has rely on something or somebody else to know what they need to know. To make suspicion and distrust toward established, respected, and accountable sources of information your default orientation is to either put yourself at the mercy of other sources of information–which are probably just as biased and ideological as the sources you eschew, but biased in a direction you’re more OK with–or, even worse, it’s to make intuition and assumption your primary means of knowledge.

Now, usually at this point a fellow conservative will interject with something like this: “You just don’t understand how agenda-driven the media is. Your idealism is admirable, but you just don’t get that those papers and those anchors are giving you only what they think can push you toward their assumptions.” I’ll concede that I probably have insufficient grasp of the ideological power plays at work in American media. Point given. But what if I responded: So what? Let’s assume you’re right that every CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, etc etc, news feature is commissioned, written, edited, and disseminated by progressives who sincerely hope I will inch further to the left after reading their coverage. So what? Do their eschatological hopes for people like me actually determine whether the information they present is valid or not?

Here’s where it gets interesting. If the answer to that last question is, “Yes,” then it seems to me that conservatives have adopted a kind of philosophical identity politics. Liberals make liberal news, because they’re liberals. I don’t know for sure, but I could have sworn conservatives were suspicious of worldviews that reduced individuals to the sum total of their sociological groupings. For me, it seems incoherent to insist on a politics that sees and values individuals within classes and systems, rather than the classes and systems merely by themselves, and then turn around and insist that the “left-wing media” means I don’t have to know anything about that NYT reporter or that CNN anchor before I dismiss them as ideologues. Something doesn’t add up.

You’ve gotta trust somebody. Free market economics are far from perfect, but one thing to admire about the way America works is that even biased, slanted, ideological news outlets have to compete against each other for public trust, have to keep each other accountable, and have to abide by certain norms and incentives. To dismiss an entire arm of intellectual credentialism is to lose a lot of faith in the free market, really quickly. You’ve gotta trust somebody, and it can’t just be you.

Cynicism vs Discernment

Cynicism: “I don’t believe these news reports because they critique or reflect poorly on those in my political tribe.”

Discernment: “Of course, I have my convictions and my loyalties, but everyone, including me, is capable of doing wrong.”

Cynicism: “The problem is clearly that these media outlets have an agenda against my tribe. You can’t trust them.”

Discernment: “Bias is real, but everyone has it, including me. The question is not whose saying what, but what’s true.”

Cynicism: “Why should I believe people like The New York Times or the Washington Post when they clearly are trafficking in ideology? Their goal is political, not objective.”

Discernment: “Major media institutions are not immune to agendas or slanted reporting. But they are established, respected outlets for many reasons, and the vast majority of those reasons are not agenda-specific.”

Cynicism: “What we need is to create a counter-industry of conservative journalism that fair-minded people can consult as an alternative to mainstream liberal media.”

Discernment: “What we need is accuracy and truthfulness. Who is running which outlet is not nearly as important as this. Accountability doesn’t always mean more options.”

Cynicism: “Unless we consolidate around new media, we will lose political and cultural battles.”

Discernment: “Journalism actually doesn’t have much influence on culture. It just feels like it does to people who spend a lot of time in a very specific slice of life.”

Everything Is Awful (But Only On Twitter)

I’m headed to the mountains for vacation tomorrow, and will be signing out of all social media for the duration of my holiday. Unplugging from social media and taking vacation seem to go hand in hand, for a lot of us. But have you wondered why this is? I have a feeling James K.A. Smith got close to the point here:

I am endlessly perplexed by people who say–and there are many who do–that social media and the internet “community” are the best measures of What’s Really Happening in the world today. These folks will point us to Twitter if we want to know what’s really making an impact in our culture, the things people are really talking about. There’s an entire journalism industry, in fact, being formed around the idea that the internet has a personality, and that this personality is every bit as consequential to your experience of the world as the 10PM news. Thus, you get stories in your news feed like, “Celebrity XYZ Recently Said This, and the Internet is NOT Happy About It.”

If you spend most of your day scanning social media sites and blogs, you will probably come away with a very specific idea of what American culture is like. The latest hashtags will probably convey some sense of despair or outrage; the latest viral videos will either do the same, or else distract. But here’s the thing: Because of the effect of digital media on human attention, the internet is designed to be totally absorbing and supremely now. If you’re riding the bus and two people behind you are quarreling, you probably won’t get off the bus and feel a palpable sense of depression for the rest of the day at how selfish human beings can be. On the other hand, if you’re reading Twitter hashtags and following back-and-forths between really angry users and the target of their outrage, you will almost certainly turn off your phone and feel consumed by it. That’s not because the outrage you just watched is more real (actually the opposite is probably true), it’s because your brain absorbed it in a qualitatively different way than it absorbed the bus ride (for more on this topic, I recommend this outstanding book)

This is exactly why a dive into social media will lead you to believe that the world is probably a terrible place to live right now. Everything, from the littlest of impolite slights to the most difficult issues of human justice, is magnified with unending intensity on the screen. If you turn off your phone and head down to the library or the coffee shop, though, it kinda seems the people you’re sitting next to don’t have any idea that they should be packing their bags for the bomb shelter. They talk normally, seem relatively calm, maybe even kind. It’s almost as if you’re experiencing two distinct cultures: One a perpetually moving but never anchored sea of consciousness, bent every which way by advertising and technology; and the other, a culture of place, permanence, and sunshine.

I know people currently going through incredibly trying times right now. Unemployment, illness, loneliness, family disintegration–you name it. There is a lot of suffering in this world. Almost always however, the most miserable people I run into are not these people. The most miserable people are the ones who don’t suffer, but merely hover–attached to the world by ether, spending their time and emotions on a diet of pixels.

The best antidote I know of for this is just to turn stuff off. Which is what I shall do, starting now.

Being Eaten By Lions on Facebook

What does Proverbs 22:13 have to do with social media and public discourse?

The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!”

Now, you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Old Testament to know that waking up near a lion was not an unheard of event in the life of an average ancient Israelite. David, the father of Solomon, lived among lions daily while tending sheep. So what the sluggard says in this Proverb isn’t far fetched. He’s not talking about Bigfoot or an asteroid.

What makes the sluggard’s trepidation laziness is the reason why he’s saying it. The sluggard is using the fear of a lion to justify his refusal to leave his tent or get out of bed. A lion could appear; but the actual probability, the reality or unreality of a lion, isn’t the point. The point is getting out of work. That’s what makes the sluggard a sluggard.

In other words, sometimes people will say things, and the things they say aren’t really the point. Whether something is true or untrue or half-true is immaterial. The point is what the suggestion of the Something means for the sayer. It creates noise and confusion that benefits the person saying it, and in the end, that’s what matters.

Over the past couple of years I have watched in frustration as evangelical friends, many of whom I respect a great deal, have trafficked in some of the most wild, ridiculous, and silly conspiracy theories that money can buy. Facebook seems to be our cultural HQ for conspiracyism. Many times I’ll see a Facebook friend post a link from a website and I don’t even have to click it to evaluate; the website will be a known fabricator, or even a self-described parody, and I’ll know without looking that this otherwise intelligent, reasonable person has been duped yet again. These links almost always purport to show something incredibly scandalous that the “mainstream media” (a term that usually applies to any source that doesn’t happen to back up this particular story) is suppressing.

Do major media outlets put lids on news stories that interfere with an ideological or political agenda? Absolutely, and Planned Parenthood is very thankful. But for the conspiracy circles of Facebook, this reality is used as a trump card to sell the most hallucinogenic fantasies that an over-politicized mind can dream up–hidden microphones, secret stepchildren, etc etc, ad nauseum.

A few days ago I happened to notice that a friend linked to a column by Ross Douthat. Douthat is one of the country’s most articulate and most intellectually sturdy political commentators, and he happens to be a well-known conservative. This column made some critical remarks about the Republican party and their candidate for president. They were criticisms made, of course, in a context of conservatism; whether one agrees with Douthat or not, it is an objective fact that his analysis comes from a worldview that is fundamentally conservative.

My friend’s post attracted some comments, and one in particular stood out. This commenter was offended by Douthat’s critiques, and offered his explanation of why the columnist must have made them: He was a liberal mole, hired by the New York Times to prop up the illusion of having a conservative op-ed writer.

I got a headache doing the mental gymnastics required to believe that this was a serious comment from a serious person. The suggestion runs afoul of virtually everything you can read from Mr. Douthat’s career. It is an assertion made in gross neglect of every objective fact and shred of evidence. It was, nonetheless, this brother’s chosen theory of why a conservative would choose to find any fault whatsoever in the Republican party.

This comment bothered me. How could this person, a Christian by all appearances, traffic in such delusions? How could a person who presumably believes in absolute truth be willing to contort the reality in front of him to fit his political narrative? That was when it dawned on me: This is a “Lion in the street!” moment. What matters right now is not the entirety of Douthat’s writing, nor the many evidences of his political philosophy. What matters is the mere possibility that a grand conspiracy could be afoot. What matters is the angst and dread that comes from the slightest chance that we are being played for fools by “media elites.”

The appeal of conspiracy theories is that they offer a counterintuitive kind of comfort: If the conspiracy is real and if the deck really is stacked against me, then that means that the world is fundamentally not my fault. I am right about the way things should be; in fact, that’s the way things really are! The problem is that these people in power over me are using every waking hour to keep me in the dark. Change is impossible because it’s not in my hands. Life can go on as normal.

That’s precisely what the sluggard does. It’s true that lions exist. It’s also true they can come up into the camp. But every available piece of evidence–every modicum of reality at the moment–says there’s no lion outside. The sluggard knows this. But he wants to stay in bed. If he stays in bed instead of going to work merely because he feels like it, then people will shame his sloth. If, on the other hand, he stays in bed because he doesn’t want to get eaten–well, that’s just choosing the lesser of two evils.

Does Sex Make Movies “Authentic”?

I have a quick word on this take on movies and culture from Freddie deBoer. I agree with 99% of what he says, and have tried at various times to make the point he makes. But I do have one issue with his thinking, and that is his notion that a film without sex is hollow and inauthentic. I think the equivocation of sexuality with authenticity in movies is actually a terrible idea that is ironically responsible for some of the dysfunctions in Hollywood that Freddie picks up on.

Freddie is hardly alone in supposing that sexlessness means inauthentic. Most respected film critics would agree, and most successful film studios seem to as well; for a long time there’s been a disproportionate amount of sexuality in Oscar-contenders, compared to the high grossing blockbusters. Sexuality means seriousness, so goes the thinking.

I see immediately 4 problems with this idea:

1) Healthy people usually devote a comparatively small amount of their life to their sexuality. The idea that a film without sexual activity is “inauthentic” should trigger the response, “Inauthentic to what?” 

One of the major realizations of adulthood is that what Hollywood and pop culture think of as “sex” doesn’t really exist. If you go into marriage expecting that part of your life to look like the hot and steamy stuff you’ve seen onscreen, you will be incredibly disappointed, and such disappointment can indeed threaten relationships. Cinematic sexuality is not authentic to begin with. It’s not really designed to be. It’s designed to be sexy: titillating, exciting, and perhaps more than a little addicting.

I’m reminded here of the stories about the lead actors of “50 Shades of Grey” and their offscreen awkwardness, frustrations and even hostility. There’s something about the exploitation of sexuality for public enthrallment (read: money) that actually undermines the healthier sexual impulses of real people. In much pop culture, sex is the center of existence for everyone. In real life, sex is only the center of existence for desperate, sad, lonely people.

2) Most of the movies that spend a lot of time “exploring” sexual issues are gross-out comedies, not profound artistic pieces. 

Admittedly, this point may not have been true 30 years ago, but I think it’s true now. Equivocating sexuality to authenticity may sound good in theory, but if you look to sexualized films for existential meaning and aesthetic weight, you’re going to be frustrated. The overwhelming majority of films most fixated on sexual themes turn those themes into set ups and punchlines. If there’s anything meaningful to say, it almost always comes in the form of a half-baked, whimsical moral in the conclusion, usually about the very cliches that Freddie talks about (“Everyone is special,” “You shouldn’t be mean to people,” etc etc).

3) If truly authentic films depict sexuality, most of the greatest movies of all time are at least somewhat inauthentic. 

Citizen Kane, The Godfather Part II, Vertigo, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music–all these films would, by this standard, be inauthentic. Obviously that’s not a position anyone would want to seriously take. But flip the equation around. Accepting that these are indeed existentially “authentic” films, what makes them authentic, in the absence of overt sexual themes or scenes? It’s an odd question, because the answer really is: Well, everything! We don’t doubt the profundity of these stories. It’s self-evident. The fact that these movies are “sexless” doesn’t at all mitigate their effect on the imagination, precisely because an emotionally healthy audience doesn’t look for authenticity merely in sexuality.

It would be a strange person indeed who came away from It’s a Wonderful Life frustrated that the film didn’t really probe into the images and inflections of George Bailey’s bedroom. Most people would agree that such a response would be not only wrong, but troubling. The very modern, very Freudian, and also very market-driven notion that all humans are walking around obsessed with sex is merely a projection of our culture’s anxiousness to justify itself.

4) Perhaps it is not the superhero movies that are remarkably sexless. Perhaps its the recent corpus of Hollywood that is remarkably sex-obsessed.

My theory is that audiences flock to superhero films not because such experiences are blissfully sexless but because they are, however inconsequential, 120-minute reminders that courage and intelligence and goodness are real things, not just euphemisms. Perhaps the Avengers and Star Wars are refreshing breaths in the digital age that has monetized sexual addiction and dysfunction more aggressively than any other generation in human history. Perhaps “sexless” stories are not sexless after all, but are actually stories that speak to our sexuality by pointing us to life beyond passion and pleasure. Perhaps, at the end of the day, pop culture’s lack of authenticity is traceable to its insistence on a hedonistic, flawless, pregnancy-free existence.

Perhaps.

A Last Word About “13 Reasons Why”

Since registering my deep concerns with the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” I’ve been pleased to see more thoughts from others, like Russell Moore and Trevin Wax. Non-Christian therapy and counseling professionals are likewise alarmed, and apparently there’s been enough of a backlash that Netflix has pledged to put more “trigger warnings” into the show. I think the worried response to the series is completely justified, and while it’s probably not realistic to expect Netflix to take more drastic action toward what is undoubtedly a popular and profit-driving product, I don’t think you can spend too much time talking about the dangers of such an empathetic story about a teenage suicide.

I want to say one more word about the show, and more to the point, about why so much fuss is warranted about a stupid television program. For a lot of Christians, a movie or TV show’s worthiness is measured simply in terms of number of cuss words spoken or presence/frequency of sex scenes. If a film or program is loaded with blue language, it’s a bad film or program. If it depicts sexuality, it’s a bad program (I think there’s a nuanced case to make for this, but I digress). If the violence is bloody, it’s a bad program. This is the way most evangelicals, in my experience, consume pop culture: they grind it to its constituent parts and then the parts get evaluated on a scale. If the scale tips over, we’re not consuming it.

I don’t think this is the best and most helpful way to engage art, and, interestingly, “13 Reasons” is an excellent example why. Now, a lot of parents who watch an episode or two of the show will immediately call it out of bounds. The language is explicit and harsh, and there are sexual themes and scenes. I have no issue with disqualifying a show based on those grounds, especially a show clearly marketed to teenagers. No problem then, right?

Hold on. The problem with tackling “13 Reasons” on this kind of level is that this is not the biggest problem with the show. The biggest problem with the show is not the words characters use (some may reason their children hear such harsh language in real life school) or the hookups they have (those can be fast forwarded, after all). The biggest problem with the show is that it is art that shapes its audience at a subconscious level to feel understanding and empathy with taking one’s own life. The power of art is not usually in its constituent elements, but in its whole. Teens who watch “13 Reasons Why” may come away without using those words or hopping into bed with someone, but they may still come away with a grossly distorted view of what suicide is and what happens in its wake. And you can’t mute or fast forward past this.

This is why it’s important to understanding what art is and why it affects us. Art, to use James K.A. Smith’s terminology, is a “pedagogy of desire,” a vehicle not just of entertainment but of emotional, moral, and spiritual formation. Movies and TV shows engage audiences at multiple levels, utilizing dialogue, music, visual cues, and symbols to inspire first and foremost an emotional response, not an intellectual one. The power of movies to dazzle and delight, above and beyond the parameters of rational response, is the most important way that films shape our moral imaginations.

This means that the art we consume not only can be an instrument of personal and social transformation, but that it simply is, even if the transformation does not seem immediately practical.

“13 Reasons Why” is a jarring reminder to us as evangelical Christians that misunderstanding the power of art–approaching it shallowly, comprehending it incompletely, and talking about it reductively–is a serious mistake. It’s a mistake because our stories shape us above and beyond the level of bad words and bad scenes. If evangelicals don’t try to understand culture on a deeper level, we will allow ourselves to be shaped by stories without even knowing it, and those stories may be PG-rated, but still spiritually destructive.

Regardless where you draw your boundaries, make the effort to engage culture at a deeper level. Ask what story is being told, why is it being told, to whom is it being told, and how is it being told. Probe movies, television, books, and other pop culture artifacts for their meaning, because it is meaning that molds us deeper than the things we can skip with a remote.

The Outraged Are Always Right

It’s getting really bad out there. Americans, including very intelligent, thoughtful ones, simply cannot abide the mere presence of someone they don’t agree with. How else to explain the spectacle of allegedly reasonable people scurrying to punish The New York Times for hiring Bret Stephens to write op-eds? Stephens, his critics charge, is a climate change denier. He’s not, though he does think jumpy journalists and apocalyptic politicians need to chill. Not good enough. A slice of NYT progressive readership wants the paper to choose; it’s Bret Stephens or their subscriptions.

As he is wont to do, Alan Jacobs gets right to the point:

For some time now I’ve asked the New York Times to give better and fairer coverage of social conservatives and religious people, and hiring Stephens seems to have been at least a small step in that direction. But if their core constituency continues to engage in freakouts of this magnitude over any deviation from their views, will we see any more such steps?…The pressures of the market are relentless. And the more of our institutions, especially our intellectual institutions, are governed by those relentless pressures, the fewer places we will have to turn for nonpartisan inquiry.

Again, my concern here applies to every institution that deals in ideas. When people ask me how academic administrators can allow student protestors to behave so badly — can allow them even to get away with clearly illegal behavior — I answer: The customer is always right. And I’ve got a feeling that’s exactly what the publishers of the New York Times are thinking as members of their core constituency cancel their subscriptions. Religious weirdos like me are a lost cause; but they can’t lose their true believers. Mistakes were made; heads will roll; it won’t happen again. And America will sink deeper and deeper into this morass of “alternative facts” and mutually incomprehensible narratives.

This is exactly right. Sometimes conservatives talk as if bias in the media exists merely because “elites” want it to. There’s some truth to that, of course, but it’s a very incomplete truth. Bias in media exists because people with money hand it to those in control of the media and say, “You know what I want to see, right?” Whether these people with money are cloistered suits wielding enormous, anonymous power, or whether they are just paying customers–it doesn’t make a difference. This is how it all works. If the NYT’s readership decides they don’t like Bret Stephens and their checkbooks don’t either, Bret Stephens is gone.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to journalism. The idea that the customer is always right pervades almost every institution in our culture, including the church. As a pastor’s kid, I have seen firsthand the efforts of “major tithers” to exercise a huge amount of control over the leadership and direction of a church. Often even well-meaning pastors and elders don’t know how to address this situation; one member clearly does not have ruling power of a church, but what are you going to do without that weekly check?

Same goes in education, too. As Tom Nichols writes about in The Death of Expertise, universities see students as clients. They’re willing to pay for a degree? Give it to them! Dumb classes down. Make “A” stand for “Average.” Yield to student protesters’ every demands. Don’t cross your customers with antiquated stuff like authority, hierarchy, and leadership. The customer is always right.

And it comes in subtler varieties too. A version of “the customer is always right” is “the person with the personal story is always right.” The logic is that if you have a narrative, if you have firsthand experience of how people you disagree with on issue X really are all obnoxious jerks, then you win the debate. You don’t have to say anything else, because any response that someone would mount to your story amounts to denying your existence and erasing your humanity. This is the cultural equivalent of manipulating an organization through money. For many millennials, the currency that matters in the exchange of ideas is your story. If you have more currency than the next person, congratulations. The experiencer is always right.

Polarization has become weaponized. Nobody wants to hear from people they disagree with. If I don’t like your Facebook posts, I’ll unfriend you. If I don’t like your column, I’ll boycott the paper until they fire you. I want to hear from good people who think and talk and live like me. That’s polarization. And polarization meets weaponization because many in our culture are willing to use whatever they have, whatever they can leverage, to make this polarization work for them–whether money, friends, jobs, hobbies, even sports. There are lots and lots of folks willing to blow up their lives to make sure there’s no presence of the people and ideas they hate.

I’m not sure how to counteract this trend. Increasingly, I’m suspicious that doing so is impossible without radical steps in regards to technology. As long as social media and TV news make us feel like we’re actually engaging with others (when we’re simply at the control panel of our echo chamber), there is no cure. No one looks in the mirror and says, “I think I’m an easily-outraged person.” All of us that fall into this mentality do so having no clue it’s happening. That, perhaps, is the worst part.

 

(featured image credit)