Moral Relativism in Popular Culture
Contemporary Western culture is far from perfect. Although major positive changes have been made with regard to social attitudes, equality and tolerance, there is still much work to be done. Privilege is still rife, be it financial, political or societal. Just to put one’s cards on the table right from the outset, I am a white, middle class, British male in his late forties. I do not feel in any way, shape or form marginalised. At present I am in one of the most advantageous social economic groups in the UK. That statement is devoid of any emotional connotation. It is simply a statement of fact and a means of providing some context for this post. Although I am acutely aware of discrimination, I have seldom personally experienced it. I mention this because this post is about moral relativism in popular culture and thus it is only fair that I define the prism through which I experience the world.
For most of history, there have been hierarchies that have perpetuated discrimination for personal advantage. The church, nations states and all manner of other social institutions have done this in the past and continue to do so to varying degrees today. Therefore, it is foolish and factually inaccurate to try and avoid depicting this in any narrative medium. The quasi medieval world of Game of Thrones is therefore potentially justified in depicting the unpleasantness of its faux era. However, accuracy is one thing, exploitation is another. The latter often sites the former as a reason to justify "showing all". Sadly, authenticity is not really the real motivation here. It's purely a case of sex and violence sells. So, it is important to consider context. The harsh realities of slavery are shown without titillation in a movie such a 12 Years A Slave. Can the same be said about Mandingo?
There is a difficult line to tread here. Sometimes showing the stark reality of something abhorrent is the best way to make a point and to inform your audience or start a debate on a specific matter. On other occasions, depicting the specific details may not necessarily achieve this. I am of an age where I still remember the debate as to whether the rape scene in the 1988 movie The Accused actually needed to be shown, to make the film’s point about the treatment of women by the US judicial system of the time. On mature reflection, I believe that it did. Showing the assault puts a human face upon the crime and brings home its magnitude. However, can the same be said for “sensational” airport massacre scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2? Its primary inclusion seems to be to titillate, rather than to make any wider dramatic point.
Some people have very strong moral and ethical world views. These may be driven by faith or politics and they are also shaped by the prevailing social ideas and customs of the times. For example I have very different views on some subjects compared to my eighty year old parents. They are very much products of their era, as I am of mine. As a result, I believe that it is simply illogical to deny the concept of moral relativism. There are some broad common concepts that most cultures can agree upon, such as murder and theft being wrong. However, there is not a globally accepted moral equivalent of the Beaufort Scale or Periodic Table. Hence, we see disparities between men and women’s status and rites in certain cultures and religions.
As a result of this diversity of opinion, it's pretty difficult to deal in absolutes (unless you are the tabloid press). Yet that doesn't stop people from trying. Some folk feel that there are limits on the exploration of specific subjects or that certain things are just taboo. You mustn’t joke about this, never be disrespectful about that, the list can get pretty long. I cautiously take the opposite view. I don't believe anything is truly out of bounds to explore in a democracy as long as it’s done within the confines of the law. However, one must question what ones motivations are for doing so and straying in to such minefields. For me, I use the litmus test that comedian Reginald D. Hunter suggested. "Was there hate in your heart" when the controversial statement in question was said. It may not be the most sophisticated of tools but I believe it is a strong starting point.
Because so much of our perception of the world around us is visual, humans have a strong tendency towards voyeurism; thus, many people find depictions of sex and violence alluring. This is not necessarily in a sinister or unwholesome sense but possibly more due to the cultural attraction of anything designated taboo. In the UK during the early eighties, the home video market was unregulated. Hysteria and panic lead to ill-conceived legislation, namely the 1984 Video Recordings Act, resulting in lot of movies gaining notoriety as they were removed from shelves. Let it suffice to say that this state of affairs made a lot of these titles essential viewing for many teenagers. It became a rite of passage to try to seek them out and endure them. In many respects this is no different from placing an age based embargo upon smoking, drinking and other sundry vices. There is some truth in the clichés regarding forbidden fruit. It's a curious thing that the appeal of such extreme material often wanes with age. Teenagers are still drawn to such movies such as The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film. I however recognise that there is no real benefit in seeing such unpleasant and extreme material. Subsequently I now have self-imposed limitations.
Gender is also an important factor within this debate. Reactions between the sexes can differ drastically on matters such as the depiction of sexual violence and the use of pejorative language. Sadly, most media based industries are far from a level playing field and there is often gender bias when dealing with certain material. Often it is this sort of content that proves most financially viable, regardless of its moral rectitude. It’s a matter that seems to be the bane of video games industry at present. Consider the debacles over Tracer’s sexuality in Overwatch and the aesthetics of female characters in Mass Effect: Andromeda. With regard to TV and specifically Game of Thrones which has often been criticised over its lurid content, I would love to have an accurate age and gender based break down of the viewing figures to determine what aspects of the show appealed to whom. Do you think there would be any major surprises? No, neither do I.
Following on from this, I think that we need to focus on the inherent duality of contemporary society with regard to current social issues. There is still a huge gulf between what people say in public when they’re conscious of maintaining an equitable moral and ethical position, as opposed to what they may think personally. We’re all guilty of this to a greater or lesser degree. Perhaps modern life exacerbates this phenomenon. For instance, most places of employment have clear policies regarding equality and discrimination these days and usually staff publicly endorse them. However, do all employees genuinely support such ideals or is it just expedient to do so? Until recently, the prevailing politically correct mindset has silenced certain quarters. In this post Trump, post Brexit world, a lot of people who previous kept their less inclusive views to themselves now are more comfortable sharing them publicly.
Then of course there is the fact that as a species we just seem to have a knack for failing to live up to our finer principles. Consider a commonly held notion such as not judging a person by their looks. Most people will strongly advocate such an ideal, again to possible project an acceptable public image. Yet despite this, so many of us still do the complete opposite, possibly because the ideal is contrary to our genetic imperatives. I'll freely admit that I regularly fail to live up to the standards that society and more importantly myself set. We live in a world where many of us embrace concepts and ideas in principle only; because we've realised that actually acting upon them requires effort, self-denial or having to step outside of our own personal comfort zone. Morality and ethics often go hand in hand with cognitive dissonance.
There is still much more to say and explore about moral relativism and its impact upon numerous social and ethical issues. It's interesting that many of these subjects manifest themselves in genres that are appealing to gamers, geeks and nerds. Games and comics still court controversy at times with the way they depict women or ethnic groups. The debate over the casting of the first female Doctor Who still rages on. The level of sexual content in shows as American Gods still causes tongues wagging. The BBC is about to embark upon its Gay Britannia season, celebrating 50th anniversary of The Sexual Offences Act 1967, which partially decriminalised gay sex. Expect outrage from specific newspapers. There are still mutterings from some fans over both the critical and financial success of Wonder woman at the box office. This is why we see push back as some see progressive ideals as threatening and don’t want them in their social spheres.
Context and the prevailing Zeitgeist have a bearing on representation of all subjects. Why should popular culture be any different? Therefore, we should not carte blanche deny the reality of moral relativism. However, we should not just use it as a “get out of jail” card to justify an “anything goes” mentality. Moral relativism is an academic debating tool and not a life defining philosophy. Just because something taboo can be shown on TV or a controversial subject used as a plot device, doesn’t mean that it automatically should. I would hope that such a decision was tempered by the application of a good many other criteria first. Because despite what some academics, critics and pundits may think, popular culture is not necessarily trivial by default. It is accessible to swathes of the population and can shape a great many opinions. As such it can be a very powerful medium. Whether it is a force for good or not, is down to us.