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.