Christianity and the Ordinary Life on TV

Is The Simpsons the most Christian show in the history of TV?

This question came after I asked fellow Sweet Talker Dave a related one: is The Simpsons the last show to feature a regularly churchgoing family?

To which he responded: can you think of any other popular TV show in the entire history of the medium which did so?

I put the question to Twitter and received a handful of replies. Most, however, involved families or characters that were nominally churchgoing, but the church was kept firmly offstage. In The Cosby Show, for instance, church is a place the Huxtables are occasionally coming home from, and that is it.The more we discussed it, the more bizarre this seemed. Certainly our culture is more secular than ever now, but that was hardly the case from the start of the history of TV. People offered several theories, but I’m going to run with the one I found most interesting:

Stephen is referring to the following:

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I think “reverent portrayals” sums this up nicely.

The bread and butter of TV from the beginning have been portrayals of ordinary American life. By making church purely an object of reverence, it became something bigger than ordinary life. So the center of gravity for shows became work and the home, almost exclusively. The role of church was relegated to special story arcs that required reverence or moral dilemmas or crises of faith, something that would grow tiresome if it were a regular feature of The Andy Griffith Show or Mary Tyler Moore.

The Simpsons, in its irreverence, actually normalized churchgoing—a strange turn of phrase, given how normal churchgoing still is in America! But relative to TV before and since its inception, “normalizing” seems the appropriate word.

Church is a feature of ordinary life in Springfield. People go there every week. Children find it boring. Adults often do, too. Reverend Lovejoy often displays a frustration with his flock expressed with dry and sarcastic wit. The church and even Lovejoy play important roles in episodes specifically about faith or moral dilemmas, but for the most part, it all just fills in the unassuming background for the Simpson family’s ordinary life.

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Direct and Mediated Speech and Reality

Featured Image is Painting of Russian writer Evgeny Chirikov, by Ivan Semenovich Kulikov

I’ve been drawn to the hostile exchange between Jacques Derrida and John Searle for some time. It seems to be such an interesting clash of perspectives, styles, and cultures, and on a subject I wanted to learn more about.

The discussion focuses most intensely on the status of speech acts—such as promises or wedding ceremonies—in fiction and representative art, compared to promises and wedding ceremonies in normal contexts.

Austin refers to the former as “parasitic” on the latter, or derivative. Searle puts it like this:

The sense in which, for example, fiction is parasitic on nonfiction is the sense in which the definition of the rational numbers in number theory might be said to be parasitic on the definition of natural numbers, or the notion of one logical constant in a logical system might be said to be parasitic on another, because the former is defined in terms of the latter.

Responding to a different, similar passage from Searle, Derrida is empatic: “I am not in agreement with any of these assertion.”

The determination of “positive” values (“standard”, serious, normal, literal, non-parasitic, etc.) is dogmatic. It does not even derive from common sense, but merely from a restrictive interpretation of common sense which is implicit and never submitted to discussion. More disturbingly: nothing allows one to say that the relation of the positive values to those which are opposed to them (“non-standard,” nonserious, abnormal, parasitical, etc.), or that of the “nonpretended forms” to the “pretended forms,” should be described as one of logical dependence. And even if this were the case, nothing proves that it would entail this relation of irreversible anteriority or of simple consequence. If a form of speech act that was “serious,” or in general “nonpretended,” did not, in its initial possibility and its very structure, include the power of giving rise to a “pretended form,” it would simply not arise itself, it would be impossible. It would either not be what it is, or not have the value of a speech act.

Here, Derrida makes the argument that a criteria for the existence of non-pretended speech acts is their ability to be imitated in the pretended forms; thus since the latter is a necessary condition of the former, you could reverse the relative status that Austin and Searle assign to each. Not that you should, but this shows the relative status to be arbitrary. It certainly doesn’t have the necessity that the relation of rational numbers has to natural numbers.

The analogy with math was poorly conceived, but Searle’s broad point still seems reasonable. The imitation of a promise in a play is predicated on the fact that the audience will recognize it as something that occurs in real life. Derrida’s argument here seems mostly like a parlor trick, once the analogy with math is dispatched. There’s no logical reason that we couldn’t have invented something like promises in fiction first (“life imitating art”) but in general that is not how it works. And it seems reasonable, when analyzing the nature of promises, to put fiction to the side for a moment.

But there is more to Derrida’s argument than this. Never mind his 80 page response to Searle’s 11 page critique; the original piece that started the discussion, “Signature Event Context”, is making a much larger point.

Rather than subjecting you to more Derrida-ese, I will turn now to Stanley Fish’s unpacking of the piece in question.

Continue reading “Direct and Mediated Speech and Reality”

This One Theory Will Make You Moral

Featured Image is Jonah and the Whale, by Carlos Antonio Tavella

What makes such questions as justice and ethics properly philosophical is precisely that there is such widespread disagreement about what kind of reasons are valid, and what the shape of a valid argument looks like. The methods of answering look very different for theists and atheists, reductive materialists and Christians, Romantics, Marxists, Feminists and Nihilists. The differences between them are not empirical disagreements, nor are there a set of axioms to which we can garner universal consent, nor even a process for generating axioms. The reason why philosophy is necessary, the reason why it arose in the first place, is precisely because of this disagreement.

-Andrew Fitzandrew, Does Ethical Theory Still Exist?

A friend recently said “moral philosophy doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore and neither do I.” Andrew’s post, quoted above, has a similar feel to it.

It is entirely legitimate, and possibly correct, to argue that philosophical methods cannot produce truthful knowledge about the world or ourselves, and is at best rationalizations of deeper processes.

It’s hard to escape this conclusion, if morality is expected to be a topic akin to astronomy and produce insights of a similar nature. Andrew does not expect that, but he sees this deviation as the source of a problem. I do not expect it either.

What might it mean for moral philosophy to “know what it’s doing,” when we acknowledge we cannot expect the precision of a scientific answer?

Continue reading “This One Theory Will Make You Moral”

Comment Section Kayfabe

Featured Image

Forums and comments sections are, to all appearances, scripted performances. There’s nothing new under the sun, but the web has let us see just how scripted unedited arguments between regular people can seem. You see this also with first year philosophy students; their objections to the classics are often quite predictable. Why is it that people with varying levels of familiarity with a subject will provide seemingly scripted responses? How does apparent spontaneity take on the air of professional wrestling?

The answer, I think, is that each discussion is a game, which the players were prepared for in advance. For the most part they are not even aware of this, especially if they are young and relatively unstudied on the topic under discussion. But they are prepared nevertheless, by the communities they are a part of, which induct them into certain traditions.

Following the script is a healthy and necessary part of wrestling with existing ideas yourself and making them your own. But it can also become a dead end. You can fall into the same patterns endlessly without any potential for growth.

In The Anatomy of Peace, it is argued that ongoing conflict can be sustained only by a kind of collusion among the participants. “Everyone begins acting in ways that invite more of the very problem from the other side that each is complaining about!”

In Leadership and Self-Deception, another book by the same authors, it is argued that we often feel a need to be justified in our side of the conflict, and thus ignore opportunities to find peace. One character shares an anecdote:

“On a particular Friday night, Bryan asked if he could use the car. I didn’t want him to use it, so I gave him an unreasonably early curfew time as a condition — a time I didn’t think he could accept. ‘Okay, you can use it,’ I said smugly, ‘but only if you’re back by 10: 30.’ ‘Okay, Mom,’ he said, as he whisked the keys off the key rack. ‘Sure.’ The door banged behind him.”

“I plopped myself down on the couch, feeling very burdened and vowing that I’d never let him use the car again. The whole evening went that way. The more I thought about it, the madder I got at my irresponsible kid.”

When her son returned right on time, she “felt a keen pang of disappointment.”

“After he came in the door — having made it in time, mind you — rather than thanking him, or congratulating him, or acknowledging him, I welcomed him with a curt, ‘You sure cut it close, didn’t you?’ ”

Though he had done his part in this instance, she rewarded him with immediate hostility which invited a response in kind.

In this instance it looks like it’s primarily about personal relationships between specific individuals, but it is at least as much about roles. This aspect is prominently featured in Edwin Friedman’s discussion of what he calls “emotional triangles” in his book A Failure of Nerve.

Friedman says that “there may be no such thing as a two-person relationship,” as we bring in context from our other relationships, often without noticing. For Friedman, all relationships involve at minimum three people; hence “triangles”.

The way I would put it is that a two way relationship involves playing many different games, all of which are made possible by institutional, cultural, and personal context. In these games, as Friedman observes, “it is position rather than nature that is the key to understanding our functioning in any family or work system.” This is the emphasis on role; in his examples, roles within a family or business. But for our purposes, it can be extended to roles in an argument—I’m the Black Lives Matter person and you’re the Blue Lives Matter person; I’m the conservative and you’re the socialist.

Once we take our roles, the various games we play in them “interlock in a reciprocally self-reinforcing manner,” as Friedman puts it. So much so that the dynamics are perpetuated even as there is a complete turnover in the individual players.

Seeing these engagements as games should help clarify why that might be. Novices in chess who play one another often play very predictably. A veteran could guess what they’re going to do a few moves ahead. The structure of the game invites certain approaches; you can only learn the pitfalls of those approaches with time and experience.

In the realm of arguments, studying the classics can help us see how it has played out in the past, and prepare us somewhat. This can only get you so far, however—like boxing, while the training is important, nothing can replace experience in the ring. And like boxing, mere experience can also lead to bad habits and plateaus in growth.

There’s no escaping stepping into the arena, one way or another. But be wary about falling into the same patterns over and over. If you find yourself rooting against a peaceful resolution, it is probably time to change the game.

We Are All To Blame

Featured Image is The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya

We are all to blame, we are all to blame…and if only all were convinced of it!

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons

Morality is not a guide for living a blameless life. It is not a method for keeping your hands unsoiled by culpability.

I do not know if anyone really believes that it is, but I have noticed many talk as if it were so.

The conversation goes like this: Bob talks about how Jane fell short of some exacting moral standard, and thus shares the blame for something wicked. Jill points out that Bob himself has fallen short of that or some other exacting standard, and thus shares the blame for the same thing or something else. Heather turns around and pulls the same thing on Jill.

In short, they proceed by negation.

This game can go on indefinitely; many never escape it. It takes a big leap to see that no one can be blameless. Our hands are always dirty, just by living in this world, supported by institutions which require an ocean of blood to create and maintain. As social creatures we always stand in relationship to other people, and these relationships always involve an element of domination and hurt.

Once you make this leap, only two paths remain open to you.

The first is nihilism. The blame game and the standards are both negated entirely. The players become disenchanted; everything beautiful about the world becomes entirely obscured by ugliness. Institutions become just tools of power, relationships become just relationships of domination.

The second is acceptance. Seeing the ugliness in the world and in ourselves, and taking ownership of it. Accepting responsibility for having a place in this world, and confronting your own wrongdoings. Above all, it is seeing everyone as well as yourself for their ugliness and their beauty and loving them for both. You must be able to do this in order to accept the world. If ugliness irreparably tarnishes the beautiful for you, then you will end up either rejecting the world, or falling into self-deception.

This path is much more difficult than the other, and more difficult still than the idle chatter of the blame game. It is a wonder that we ever find acceptance, even for a fleeting moment.

I don’t imagine I can convince you to seek this acceptance. But I hope that you can see that, although you are not blameless, you are worthy of love.

 

Praise for the Judgmental

Featured image is a self-portrait of Joseph Ducreaux

Let’s talk about courage for a spell. Here are a few scenarios that require courage:

  • Going into a battle
  • Standing up to a bully, especially a physically larger one
  • Highballing a salary requirement for a job you are emotionally invested in getting
  • Lowballing your offer on the house you’ve fallen absolutely in love with

There are degrees, and there are qualitative differences, but it is still appropriate to speak of courage in each case.

Here are two ways you might take this:

  1. The word “courage” can mean many things—indeed, it can be used to mean just about anything, because words only mean what we use them to mean. Therefore it isn’t inappropriate, but the use in each case means something entirely different.
  2. Using “courage” across all of them points to some sense in which there is a true unity. Within this perspective, we can agree or disagree on whether a given scenario ought to be included, while still agreeing that a big plurality of types of scenarios can be unified in just this way.

Whether or not he means to, it seems to me that Akiva is committed to a version of the first one, whereas I am committed to the second. Most of the problems we see in one another’s perspectives flows from this fundamental disagreement.

Continue reading “Praise for the Judgmental”

Rhetoric and Due Diligence

Featured image is Disputation between Luther and Eck at the Pleissenburg, by Carl Friedrich Lessing

This post has a companion piece the delves further into the details of rhetorical analysis.

I recently argued that scientists ought to take responsibility for the effects of their rhetoric. The response was largely negative. Most simply denied outright that scientists have any such responsibility, beyond arriving at accurate conclusions or generating more information. Many were concerned that such an argument would hold people responsible for the very worst appropriations of their work. If we did that, wouldn’t we say the Beatles were responsible for Charles Manson, given his fixation with Helter Skelter?

Sam half-agreed with me, but thought the burden imposed on scientists would be too great in practice. He also misread the argument—he described it as a two step process, “to seek the truth and, once found, to render it palatable to the public through the use of controlled rhetoric.”

There are not two steps, but one; rhetoric is what scientists practice from the very start. And moreover, what I am asking is not unreasonable, nor will I pretend that the uncertainty around this is any smaller than it is. All I ask is for people to acknowledge that their rhetoric has consequences. I also ask that they do their due diligence. This means nothing more than doing what can reasonably be expected of them, given how little is directly under their control.

Rhetoric All the Way Down

As I have said elsewhere, there is no valid distinction between rational evaluation and rhetoric. The way we evaluate things is by attempting to persuade others as well as ourselves. In a companion piece, I have attempted to demonstrate this at length by drawing on excerpts from academic papers, an essay, a tech blog post, and newspaper articles. That piece focuses on the nuts and bolts of this; here I will focus on the bigger picture.

What is an academic paper, if not rhetoric? The author must invite people to read it, in such a manner that they are more likely to actually do so. She must establish the credibility of her research, to say nothing of her own credibility. And she must persuade readers that her conclusions follow from the results of her research.

How does one go about getting a PhD? The dissertation process requires navigating the turbulent waters of department politics. Ultimately, you have to defend your work in front of a group of department veterans, who have the luxury of taking their time to pick you apart.

The name of the game, in each case, is anticipation. If you can anticipate your dissertation committee’s objections, you can have specific answers prepared. If you can anticipate what will catch the eye of a peer in your field, you can take that into account when writing your abstract. If you can anticipate which technical terms will illuminate rather than obscure the point you are making, or what research methods will be taken seriously, or what caveats will help to defend the ones that aren’t, you will have a better shot of winning your readers over.

And if you can anticipate what moral implications people will draw from your work, you can do your best to forestall the bad ones.

Due Diligence

The creative powers of human beings should not be underestimated. As such, the entire range of meanings that people are capable of reading into the same words or same arguments is impossible to anticipate in advance.

Let us grant that from the outset.

Nevertheless, where does that leave us? Scot free, where responsibility is concerned? I think not.

Let us return to my argument about Charles Murray. In hindsight, I should not have made such an argument without liberally excerpting passages from his work. But never mind whether my criticism was correct, for now. I made it because I thought he was a clear example of a certain kind of problem; it was poor judgment on my part to think that so contentious a subject could ever render “clear examples” without marshaling a stronger defense.

My argument went like this: if you look at Murray’s perspective, which I outlined, certain dangers should be obvious. If someone looks both ways before crossing the street, and only goes after he gets the light, then when a drunken driver comes barrelling through the light from the wrong direction, we certainly wouldn’t blame the pedestrian. But if the pedestrian doesn’t look either way and walks against the light, we would certainly say he failed to do his due diligence, whatever the faults of the driver. Murray was staring very intensely at the politically correct crowd, but from his vantage point he had only to turn his head to see other ways his work could be misused.

The companion piece goes into greater detail on what exactly is entailed in a given standpoint and how it makes certain possibilities easier to see than others. But I don’t think the basic idea is all that complicated: Murray believed that our current system encourages us to think people with less than average intelligence are morally deficient. Thus it should have been obvious that some people could both think that and be hostile to political correctness, and so misread his work on different average IQs by group as an indictment of those groups. Murray was too fixated on making political correctness his enemy to do his basic due diligence against a much, much worse group.

Let’s focus on a more recent and clearer example of irresponsible rhetoric. This past week, Glenn Reynolds was temporarily suspended from Twitter because of the following:

runthemdown

In his post justifying himself, he talks about what one ought to do in a situation where people are rioting and you’re in a car, and so forth. But that’s rather besides the point. Does Reynolds have some special expertise here? Is there some way in which “run them down” would have actually been of help to anyone? Does he delude himself into thinking he was doing anything other than venting, expressing a feeling, and working up his like-minded audience?

“Run them down” is not a contribution, and tweeting it is certainly no way for a public figure with influence to behave. It is not how anyone should behave.

Reynolds and his friend immediately redirect the topic to the issue of how one-sided Twitter and other platforms’ enforcement is. This is a slick rhetorical move, to be sure, and stokes up their side quite effectively.

But it is a side issue. Of course Emmett Rensin and Matt Bruenig also behaved terribly—all the worse, in fact, because they were much more calculated about it. But that doesn’t make what Reynolds did right.

We live in an era that prizes “being yourself” in public and deplores any perceived artifice. Far from being a more worldly perspective, it requires the utterly naive assumption that the rhetoric of what we do and what we say has no consequences. Once you acknowledge these consequences—and we must, we have ignored them for too long—it becomes simply obvious that you should be thoughtful about how you act and what you say.

 

If you want to take a deeper dive, you can continue to the companion piece.