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Freedom, Decency, and the MMVA’s

A few weeks ago I discovered that one of the many useless channels that I am now privileged to have access to as a cable television subscriber is a channel called Much Music (I wasn’t aware that my TV went above channel 100… or what combination of buttons on my remote would lead me to this uncharted territory; for most of my life, I’ve made do with five channels or less).  I used to sneak a peak at MM whenever I could as a teenager because I rarely got to see music videos and was strangely fascinated by this brave new (at least to me) world of music and entertainment.

But if tonight’s sampling is any indication, MM now deals almost exclusively in the pathetically predictable mixture of soft porn, degraded discourse, moronic advertising, and indiscriminate noisy stupidity found on 48 of my other 55 channels.  Tonight—for reasons I can only describe as somewhat akin to the phenomenon of passing by a car accident and being unable to turn away—I subjected myself to a few snippets of a spectacularly idiotic and vulgar exhibition called the Much Music Video Awards (the MMVA’s, as they seem to prefer).  I won’t dignify this event by describing it in any detail (those fortunate enough not to be familiar with these kinds of things should not, after all, be penalized for their good taste).  Just imagine the most superficial, talentless, oversexed and overproduced collection of attempts at music you can think of and then add several thousand 12-18 year old girls whose capacity for mindless screaming is, apparently, limitless.  Gruesome viewing, however you put it.

After I had watched about all I could stomach of this ridiculous spectacle, I re-read David Bentley Hart’s article called “Freedom and Decency” from In the Aftermath (text available at First Things).  As always, Hart is a keen cultural critic with a hilarious way with words:

I think it safe to say there has never been a society where the lewd, the dissolute, or the perverted have not been able to find some place for their recreation, and this is a reality to which we are wise to be in some degree resigned. But we live now in an age in which indecency refuses to be confined within its own sphere, but rather forces itself upon us, and indeed demands (almost sanctimoniously) that it be embraced and granted social legitimacy, and that it be subject to no strictures other than those of the free market….

As it happens, by far the worst argument against censorship is the one likely to carry most weight with persons on both sides of the cultural divide: that, were certain cultural products legally proscribed, we would be denying people things they want, denying them the right to choose for themselves, putting limits upon expressive freedom, refusing to trust in the law of supply and demand—all of which is, of course, quite true. But to find this a compelling argument, one must already be convinced of the inalienable sanctity of choice, over against every other social good, and convinced, moreover, that freedom and choice are more or less synonymous. It is indeed true that many of us manifestly do want unimpeded access to explicit depictions of sex and violence, and to mindlessly brutal forms of entertainment, and to artifacts born solely from the basest impulses of the imagination; but surely, in point of fact, no society that simply concedes the prior right of its citizens to have whatever they want can ever really be free.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. I like YOUR writing better! I love that kind of sarcasm. Made me laugh out loud for real.

    June 22, 2009
    • Well thank you. I find that sarcasm tends to come fairly easily when presented with that kind of nonsense…

      June 22, 2009
  2. jc #

    I don’t think indecency forces itself upon us in free market. You chose to put that channel on watch what you consider trash. I think the argument against censorship is more and argument against the use of force to control the media. I imagine if your nemesis Dawkins was censoring the internet he might at least make this blog inaccessible to minors.

    I must admit I did enjoy the Bruno and Eminem bit on the MTV awards though.

    June 22, 2009
    • I agree, I turned the channel on (to my shame!). And we are all certainly responsible for what “cultural artifacts” we choose to subject ourselves to. But I think it would be tough to argue that a good deal of what passes for entertainment these days (not to mention advertising) is explicitly directed towards what Hart calls “the basest impulses of the imagination.” At the very least, those who would actually rather restrain and discipline these impulses find themselves pushing up a steeper hill than they may have in the past. I can’t check my email these days without the accompaniment of an assortment of half-naked women. I suppose I could just keep changing my address, but this seems like a rather cumbersome solution to the problem!

      June 22, 2009
  3. I am curious about this line, “one must already be convinced of the inalienable sanctity of choice, over against every other social good, and convinced, moreover, that freedom and choice are more or less synonymous.”
    While choice may not be the most sacred social good (it can be conceeded that choice is not necessarily the most efficient social dynamic), is not choice an essential element in the nature of free will which is fundamental to the nature of our relationship with God? If freedom is NOT synonymous with choice then what is better definition of freedom? Is it possible to construct a definition of freedom without choice that does not somehow constrain?

    June 23, 2009
  4. Here’s what Hart has to say (I can’t improve much upon it—sorry about the length!):

    And yet—and I would not even go so far as to call this a paradox—freedom is possible only through constraints. That sane organism… can be solicitous of its autonomy only because it is some particular thing; and for anything to be anything at all—to possess, that is, a concrete form—it must acquire and cultivate useful, defining, shaping limits. True freedom, at least according to one venerable definition, is the realization of a complex nature in its proper good (that is, in both its natural and supernatural ends); it is the freedom of a thing to flourish, to become ever more fully what it is. An absolutely “negative liberty”—the absence of any religious, cultural, or social restrictions upon the exercise of the will—may often seem desirable (at least for oneself) but ultimately offers only the “freedom” of chaos, of formless potential. This is enough, admittedly, if one’s highest model of life is protoplasm; but if one suspects that, as rational beings, we are called to a somewhat more elevated moral existence than that, one must begin to ask which impulses within us should be suppressed, both by ourselves and by the cultural rules that we all must share….

    [P]recisely through accepting freely the constraints of a larger social and moral tradition and community, one gives shape to a character that can endure from moment to moment, rather than dissolving in each instant into whichever new inclination of appetite or curiosity rises up within one. One ceases to be governed by caprice, or to be the slave of one’s own liberty.

    This understanding of freedom, however, requires not only the belief that we possess an actual nature, which must flourish to be free, but a belief in the transcendent Good towards which that nature is oriented. This Christians, Jews, and virtuous pagans have always understood: that which can endure in us is sustained by that which lies beyond us, in the eternity of its own plenitude. To be fully free is to be joined to that end for which our natures were originally framed, and for which—in the deepest reaches of our souls—we ceaselessly yearn. And whatever separates us from that end—even if it be our own power of choice within us—is a form of bondage. We are free not because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well.

    June 23, 2009
    • jc #

      “[P]recisely through accepting freely the constraints of a larger social and moral tradition and community, one gives shape to a character that can endure from moment to moment, rather than dissolving in each instant into whichever new inclination of appetite or curiosity rises up within one. One ceases to be governed by caprice, or to be the slave of one’s own liberty.”

      Is this because social and moral and traditions of communities do not dissolve in an instant, are less capricious and do not enslave?

      One might be able to argue that what passes for entertainment has gone downhill in recent years. I don’t really know how to evaluate the state of entertainment. While it seems true that mainstream pop music has gone deteriorated over the past couple of decades it also seems true that new technologies has made it much easier for people expose themselves to other types of music. The Indie music scene has exploded in the last 10 years.

      June 23, 2009
      • Is this because social and moral and traditions of communities do not dissolve in an instant, are less capricious and do not enslave?

        Of course there are examples of communities that do enslave and are capricious. But I still think that is a broad enough cross-cultural consensus on what is good and decent and some general conception of human flourishing that could guide us a bit more accurately (and helpfully) as a species than raw instinct. At the very least, trying to figure out what this may be seems preferable to our default position as a culture which seems to be “if it feels good, do it… or watch it… or promote it… or glorify it.”

        I don’t doubt that technology has allowed for a broad range of music to be available—indeed, I’m quite grateful that it has. But I’m not really criticizing technology here. I’m criticizing the “raunchification” of pop culture and how this is somehow seen to be a sign of our “progress” or “liberality” as a culture. I see it as the opposite—a sign of our enslavement to animalistic instincts. The fact that we have managed to exalt this as some kind of badge of honour shouldn’t obscure what’s actually going on.

        June 23, 2009
  5. wow I’m not sure I can agree with that.
    I get worried when people couch the social control of morality in the subjective language of “flourishing”?
    To me it suggests a less powerful God who could not overcome the constraints of free will by making freedom not really quite free…
    I don’t know perhaps I am missing something…

    June 23, 2009
    • I’m not sure I understand what the power of God has to do with this question. I think Hart is just saying that we have the obvious ability (and honour) as a species to be guided by more than just instinct—that there is a vision of humanity that we can aspire to and come to some level of understanding of.

      To me it suggests a less powerful God who could not overcome the constraints of free will by making freedom not really quite free…

      What is freedom in your view? The absence of any constraints on our behaviour? I think there is always a freedom “from” as well as a freedom “for,” if that makes sense. To be free from x or y means our behaviour is not constrained by some external force. To be free for x or y means that we recognize that there is something external to us toward which our thought and action is properly oriented. I think our culture is pretty good at the freedom from, but not so much the freedom for.

      June 23, 2009
      • I’m not sure that I get the semantic difference of ‘from’ and ‘for’. I suppose freedom is really both from something and for other things but at the center of that seems to be the ability to make an unconstrained choice either from or for something. I’m not sure how someone can be truly free if they are making a constrained choice.
        It seems, according to this dude, that someone who make a choice not to ‘flourish’ is not really free. They are only free when they make the choice that causes them to flourish. But who gets to decide the meaning of flourish?

        June 24, 2009
      • All I’m really trying to get at with the from/for distinction is that freedom has to be directed towards something in order to avoid simply being the expression of a chaotic set of responses to impulses and desires. In the NT, the freedom of the believer is never presented as just the absence of constraints; rather, it is the freedom to become ever more conformed to the image of Christ. I’m not advocating a new set of constraints here (nor do I think Hart is). As stated in the quote above, all meaningful freedom can only come within parameters (even the most libertarian understanding of freedom draws a line at harming others; nobody is free to do whatever they want).

        [W]ho gets to decide the meaning of flourish?

        The easy answer is God. On one level, this doesn’t seem very helpful because we obviously still have to have some reliable way of figuring out what God has decided about this (if we think God exists). Still, at a more basic level, it’s the only answer there can be because God is our maker and he has created human beings with a specific understanding of what it means to be human. I think that there are some basic conceptions of what constitutes a good life, regardless of whether or not you believe in God (i.e., health, vocational fulfillment, virtue, compassion). Those might be a place to start the conversation.

        June 24, 2009

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