Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Commerical Culture and Its Critics: Why Conservatives Are Wrong.

The argument is made that the media is responsible for the alleged decline in moral standards. There is nothing new in such an assertion. The media of the day, for centuries, has been attacked for precipitating moral decline.
Dominican Friar Filippo di Strata lamented that the printing press allowed the production of "cheap" books for the general public. He argued that these books drove morally uplifting books from the market, and allowed the lower classes the illusion of believing that they could think for themselves. Even worse, books promoted immorality. He noted that the world had gotten along for millenniums without books, and he saw no reason to change that. A common phrase of the day was, "The pen a virgin, the printing press a whore."
Even in colonial America similar statements were made. The royal governor of Virginia, in 1671 wrote: "I thank God that are no free schools nor printing" and he hoped such things would not come to his colony for hundreds of years. His reasoning was simple: "learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world." When Omar burned the great library at Alexandra in 642 AD, using the books as fuel to heat water for baths he built, he was unconcerned about the loss of knowledge. He said that the books were either in accordance with God's will, as revealed in the Koran, or not. If they were in accordance, they are useless since God's word is sufficient. And, if they were not in accordance, they deserved to be burned.
The moral pessimists will concede that not a generation has been born that didn't eventually conclude that the next generation was making things worse. The mere presence of the phrase "the good old days" is indicative of how pervasive this tendency has been. Yet, by any objective and measurable standard, people tend to be better off today than at any time in human history.

Anyone who reads the history of culture will note that all new cultural phenomena have been attacked as being degrading and immoral. And, negative aspects of society are often blamed on those facets of culture that the critic in question opposes.
The advocate of cultural freedom might point out that throughout history the media, especially the arts, have concentrated on controversial issues of morality. Tyler Cowen, in his book In Praise of Commercial Culture wrote:
Critics often attack modern literature for using excessive sex and violence to pander to a mass audience. Artistic masterworks, however, usually concern controversial themes. The creative writers of highest stature have dealt with sex (Boccaccio and Joyce), violence (Homer, Dostoyevsky, and Shakespeare), torture (Dante and de Sade), incest (Sophocles, Fielding, Faulkner), bestiality (Ovid), obscenity and scatology (Rabelais), and grotesque monsters (Spenser). The list of writers who have explicitly treated homosexuality is especially long, including Plato, Catullus, Virgil, Michelangelo, Wilde, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Whitman, Proust, Gide, Mann, and many others.
The opponents of free speech will argue that the world has changed; that the media today is so pervasive that such material has become commonly available. And, to a certain extent, this is true.
The unstated premise of this argument is that the average person is incompetent to make moral decisions; that the "common" man must be sheltered from "bad" ideas. The fact is that "immoral" art and literature has been available since the earliest days of human culture. What has changed is that, for millenniums, such material was the luxury of the well-to-do. It was only those in power, or who had access to large sums of money, that could afford the "base" and "degrading" literature of the day.

The Rise of Consumer Capitalism

With the rise of consumer capitalism two trends emerged which changed the elitist nature of art. First, mass production lowered the costs of goods significantly. The economist Ludwig von Mises noted:
Capitalism is essentially a system of mass production for the satisfaction of the needs of the masses. It pours a horn of plenty upon the common man. It has raised the average standard of living to a height never dreamed of in earlier ages. It has made accessible to millions of people enjoyments which a few generations ago were only within the reach of a small elite.

When Mises sought to provide an example of the results of capitalist production he turned to literature calling it the "outstanding example."
According to Mises capitalism, with its division of labor, allowed for a flourishing of the arts. New, niche markets were created. In prior centuries, he wrote,
. . . writing was an unremunerative art. Blacksmiths and shoemakers could make a living but authors could not. Writing was a liberal art, a hobby, but not a profession. It was a noble pursuit of wealthy people, of kings, grandees and statesmen, of patricians and other gentlemen of independent means. It was practiced in spare time by bishops and monks, university teachers and soldiers. The penniless man whom an irresistible impulse prompted to write had first to secure some source of revenue other than authorship. Spinonza ground lenses. The two Mills, father and son, worked in the London offices of the East India Company. But most of the poor authors lived from the openhandedness of wealthy friends of the arts and sciences. Kings and princes vied with one another in patronizing poets and writers. The courts were the asylum of literature.
The rise of capitalism not only brought about new means of producing art but secondly, it increased the wealth of the average consumer. As the cost of various mediums decreased, the disposable incomes of the average worker increased substantially. As costs were plummeting the wages of workers were also increasing. Together these two trends massively increased the disposable income of workers, allowing them access to items that previously were reserved to the wealthy few.

Art and Dissent

Mises argued that the nature of art is fundamentally that of dissent. "Literature is not conformism but dissent. Those authors who merely repeat what everybody approves and wants to hear are of no importance. What counts alone is the innovator, the dissenter, the harbinger of things unheard of, the man who rejects the traditional standards and aims at substituting new values and ideas for old ones." Where Mises saw artistic innovation as the function of dissenters, Camille Paglia has noted that it is often the domain of outsiders and marginalized minorities. Cultural change in the United States, she noted, was often the result of the work of blacks, Jews and gays. Of course, as noted by Mises, art is dissent and the people most likely to dissent are those who have been marginalized.
In pre-capitalist days such rebels could produce very little as they were restricted by the cost of their art. They needed to seek out a sponsor or starve. As mass production and specialization progressed so did the market for literature and the arts. Books, which once consumed week's worth of the average man's wages, dropped dramatically in price. Eventually new techniques brought the cost of books down to levels so that even the poor in most modern societies could afford them. As the number of customers rose, so too did the demand for artists including artists who appealed to minority tastes.
Suddenly the domain of the elite was the realm of the everyday man. The hobby of bishops was now the occupation of men like Hemingway. The mass production of books increased the demand for books. Cowen notes that in the United States, as late as 1947, there were only 357 publishers. Within half a century that number had risen to 49,000. The number of books in print increased from 85,000 to 1.3 million with 140,000 newly published in 1996 alone (the year he wrote his book). Today every author can be his own publisher as well, since technology now allows e-books or print-on-demand books.
When the critic of culture argues that more "bad" art and literature is now available he is fundamentally correct. But, that is only half the picture. More art and literature in total is available. The markets for art have expanded at such a rapid pace that virtually every individual in a modern society, and huge numbers in the developing world, now have access to books, art and great music. More people have seen Shakespeare done as a film then ever saw his works performed live. The music of the great composers, once available only in royal courts, or to the elite, is now cheaply available to billions of people.
The rise of consumer capitalism has meant an explosion in the demand for art and literature. And, of course, some of this is "bad" art or "bad" literature according to anyone's standards. The sheer size of the market today makes its impossible to avoid this.

Social Morality and Censorship

The role of the media, in which I include film, press, books, television, art, etc., is open to debate when it comes to its influence on social morality. The critics are aware of the all the points that I have raised here and that is why they are concerned. They fear the fact that literature is now in the domain of the common people. They fear it because they think, most fervently, that the media is changing the morality of society.
Every would-be censor is convinced that the media, or specific segments of it, has a negative influence on others. They confidently believe that they themselves are immune to such influences. This is fundamentally the fatal flaw of censorship. It is a belief in one's own innate superiority to that of everyone else in the market. The censor feels that "bad" art is problematic and of course, bad art is that art which they themselves find unattractive, disturbing, obscene or negative in any way. The art that they approve of is, by definition, "good" art. The books they enjoy are literature, while the books they find repulsive are pornographic. Censors are inherently distrustful of the abilities of others. No doubt they are guilty of two sins simultaneously. They overestimate their own innate qualities while under-valuing the abilities of others. Edward Weeks, the long-time editor of Atlantic Monthly noted in 1935 that, "the dictator or the reformer thinks that he alone is the right-minded member of the community."
On a radio show I was once asked to discuss the role of the media in influencing public morality. I said there are three problems with this discussion right from the start.
First, the concept of media "influence" is too vague to discuss. The word "influence" is rather nebulous. Some people use the term to mean "cause" while others simply mean it has some undetermined, perhaps very minor, impact. Certainly everything in life influences other aspects of life, but that does not necessarily mean that they cause specific outcomes.
The advocates of censorship actually mean that the media causes people to behave in "immoral" ways. Usually, when they refer to morality, they are speaking about sexual activities, legal or illegal, and criminal activities. Their statements are quite simplistic. They believe the media is causing people, who would not do so otherwise, to act immorally, either through sexual activities that the censors find wicked, or through the infliction of violence on others. When they use "influence" they in fact mean "cause."
The second problem to get out of the way is the concept of "public." Morality is not "public," but inherently personal. Only individuals live by moral codes. Since society is a collection of individuals the "social norm" is merely the moral values of the majority of individuals in that society. We can accept that by "public" the censors mean actions that harm other individuals in society.
The third issue is to define what we mean by morality, and here the entire process becomes a bit sticky. Each cultural critic has his own ideas of morality, and hence there is no uniformity amongst them about what is or is not to be banned.


Morality, in the sense of a code of ethics that helps us judge our actions, is comprised of various issues. Some are issues that directly affect others, while some are issues of a more private, personal nature. We can divide a code of behavior into several categories. First, there are those actions that deny others the rights to life, liberty, or to their property. These actions would be defined, in a liberal society, as criminal in nature. Actions which directly violate the rights of others would be forbidden by law. No individual would have the right to the life, liberty, or property of another person.
On the other hand there are vices. In 1875 Lysander Spooner wrote his essay Vices Are Not Crimes where he said: "Vices are those acts by which man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another" As Spooner saw it, vices were "simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their person or property."
A third type of widely accepted social control is that of etiquette, which is simply the little rules which help life go easier. They are social codes that help us act toward others in ways that reduce friction and conflict.
Of course, the role of the state in each of these areas is quite different. One would not expect government to enforce the basic rules of etiquette. No one seriously wants the state to imprison people for flatulence in enclosed spaces, or for belching in church.
And the subcategory of vices is also problematic. While some social conservatives want the state to prevent individuals from engaging in "immoral" practices, which they believe to be harmful, they are utterly inconsistent on this matter. There is no evidence that any specific sexual practice is more harmful than any other when practiced within the confines of a relationship. Yet the moral conservatives want some practices banned and others allowed, and they do so arguing that "harm" is being prevented.
In addition they ignore the fact that the harm they think exists is denied vehemently by others—especially the bulk of the people whom they are seeking to protect. The only category that has clear boundaries, when it comes to the state, are crimes that violate the rights of others. And the easiest method to determine if a crime exists is to ask if an action was engaged in without the consent of all the parties. Where consent is absent coercion is presumed, and a crime has been committed.
When people argue that the media is causing people to act in immoral ways they use the term to describe transgressions, as they see it, of all three areas of the moral code. In general their outrage at sexual acts has nothing to do with the violation of the rights of others—except perhaps the presumed and fraudulent right that they claim for themselves to not be offended by the choices of others.


To simplify the debate, and to give them more credit than they deserve, let us presume, for the time being, that they are mainly concerned about sexual acts and violent acts which violate the rights of others. And, let us presume that consenting acts in private are not on their agenda. That brings us then to a rather simple question: does the media cause people to act violently or coercively against others.
The presumption is made that the witnessing of filmed acts of violence on television or in the movies will cause some people to act violently themselves. For this concern to have any legitimacy they must also assume that the offender in question would not have acted violently otherwise. But how true is this assumption?
The usual culprit blamed for such violence is "Hollywood" or the American media. Yet, as films have become more explicit in their portrayal of violence, the crime rates in the United States, where these films are most widely shown, has been declining. In other parts of the world, where the average consumer views less violence, crime is increasing. It appears that America is often scapegoated by other cultures unwilling, or unable, to deal with their own social problems. They immediately attribute their problems to the influence of American culture. This is especially true for politicians. When faced with a social problem they have three options: either their own government has failed, their own people are immoral, or some third force is responsible for their problems. It's usually much safer politically to blame a third force. Only opposition politicians will blame the government, and neither government officials nor opposition politicians, find it useful to point the finger at the public that also happens to be the voters in the next election.
A former French minister of the interior, Charles Pasqua, announced that rising crime levels in France were the result on an "American-style evolution of French society." And one newspaper reported that "Britons blamed violent US films and television shows for promoting violence and gun use." Yet, the same article noted the decreasing levels of crime in America, in spite of wider availability of guns, while in Europe, new crackdowns on firearm ownership were followed by escalating crime rates.
Certainly it is true that films have become more graphic, but this trend is the result of new technologies that allow more realistic special effects. Films have always been violent, but the new technologies have made that violence more believable.
What of the influence of the message behind the typical Hollywood film? The depiction of violence is often directly related to the depiction of good and evil. Hollywood films that show evil triumphant rarely have much box office appeal. It is often noted that a film, after being shown to test audiences, has its ending changed to reflect a basic American virtue: the triumph of good over evil and the desire for a happy ending.
If we look at the "action" films of recent decades, the plots are actually pretty similar. An evil individual, or group, does something horrific. The "good" guys then ride out in search of the evil ones to teach them a lesson. The film ends with a cliffhanger, where good and evil battle it out, and just when things appear darkest for the hero, he succeeds, and evil is vanquished. In the typical Hollywood film the portrayal of violence is rarely done without a moral message attached. If anything, the message of violence in many, if not most films, is that the initiation of violence leads to violent consequences for the perpetrator.
With that message embedded in each film, the question has to be asked: Do the positive messages regarding morality outweigh the "depictions" of violence? Certainly the fact that many individuals have seen a lifetime of films, where criminal acts are shown having dire consequences, must mean something. The critics of Hollywood focus on the acts and not the message, which accompanies them. It is true that a few films show violence for the sake of showing violence and some even promote the concept of the anti-hero. But such films have always been a tiny minority of the totality.
One good indicator that few people accept their view of reality from film is the dearth of believers in Santa Claus. While characters in films may routinely question the existence of God, virtually no one questions the existence of Santa Claus. And, in those films where someone does deny Santa's existence, the film inevitably proves him wrong. Virtually every segment of the media drags out countless images of Santa every year. Television has endless shows about him, and even news broadcasters will report on the sleigh making its way through the night on Christmas Eve. Yet, virtually no one grows into adulthood accepting these images as true. We assume that while images of Santa don't cause anyone, past the age of five, to actually believe in him, it is widely assumed that violent images cause peaceful individuals to act violently. We have news stories to prove it.
The nature of reality is such that an act of violence directly influenced by a film is readily reportable. A youth who mimics a crime seen on film has his case widely reported in the press. But positive influences can't be reported. A youth who picks up the moral messages of films and hence does not commit a crime is never a news story. The simple reason for that is that his lack of action doesn't, and can't, come to anyone's attention. The absence of a crime is not something that can be recorded, while the commission of a crime is reportable. This alone means that negative consequences will be reported while any countervailing positive consequences can't be.

Desire for Stimulation

There will always be individuals who react to stimulus of any kind in disoriented and destructive ways. To blame the stimulus for the response of a troubled mind is absurd. In 1930 Ben Ray Redman wrote of this problem in Scribner's Magazine:
. . . censorship must seek to control an uncontrollable force by the futile expedient of eliminating external stimuli that are infinitely replaceable. Its impotence resides in the fact that it can only do away with certain specific stimuli that it considers evil; it cannot diminish the desire for stimulation, and so long as that desire exists a dozen new stimuli can be found to take the place of every one that has been removed.
What is inescapable is that human beings are a diverse lot and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to project the actions of individuals based on general responses. The overwhelmingly large majority of people who are exposed to violent films do not act violently themselves. And, we have no evidence that the few who do act violently would not have acted so without exposure to film violence. Our experiences in life, in fact, tell us that such matters are extremely complex.
Some of the gentlest, kindest people are individuals who were exposed to horrific violence and abuse. And, certainly many an individual, with a privileged upbringing, who saw little or no violence in his life, has become a violent criminal. Nor is there necessarily any reason that one person will respond to a specific stimulus one way, while another will respond another way. One indication of this is the horrible attack conducted against a teenage boy by a woman inspired by a Biblical injunction that "if thine eye offend thee pluck it out." She cut the boy’s eye out based on the "inspiration" of this Biblical injunction.
We all know that her response to that passage from Scripture is not evidence for banning Bibles. We would note that the vast majority of people reading the New Testament do not respond in such a fashion. The vast majority of people don't respond to violent films by becoming violent criminals either. Nor do the vast majority of individuals who view adult material become rapists.
A fundamental concept of Western thinking has been that individuals have free will and are responsible for the choices they make. Of late there has been a lamentable trend that attempts to exonerate the guilty and place the blame squarely on inanimate objects that have no power in and of themselves. A violent image cannot force individuals to become violent. A gun does not make one a killer. Pornography consumption does not lead to being a rapist. Individuals who have seen violent films may become violent but then who hasn't seen a violent film? Some owners of pornography may become sexual criminals but then so do people who don't own it. There is no evidence that the one causes the other.
 The belief that it does undermines the concept of individual responsibility. If humans are like Pavlov's dogs, programmed to respond to stimulus, then human free will is an illusion. If free will evaporates then so does responsibility. The criminal, who through no fault of his own, responds to outside stimulus, can't be held responsible for what he has done. In one fell swoop we have eliminated the idea of criminal responsibility. We no longer need police, courts, judges or prisons. The entire structure could be replaced with therapists instead. But, I doubt we'd succeed in eliminating crime.
We have to concede one important point, and that is that some people are just evil. Certainly most people are not very anxious to violate the rights of others. In every culture, throughout the ages, a minority of people have done so—some in very cruel ways. The censor would respond by banning any stimulus that he purports influences criminals. In doing so he has punished all non-criminals who enjoy or prefer the material he is censoring. On the one hand, all non-criminals in society are being treated as criminals, and their preferences denied them. On the other hand, the criminal is relieved of personal responsibility for his actions. That some people in society are incapable of thinking rationally, and responding accordingly, is not a justification for treating all people as mental incompetents in need of keepers.
But what about children? If the media presents competing value systems, some of which are immoral, won't children adopt those values?
The question assumes children are reared in a vacuum where only the values of the media get through to them. It also assumes that the bulk of values shown in the media are negative—something I dispute. And this assumes no ability on the part of the child to think for himself.
Children grow up within a community, a culture, and a family. Each of these has huge impact on the child. The lives of parents, and the values they teach, are far more influential than movies, books or television. The typical child may view violent acts on television but he also views, on average, that most people are not violent. Most people are not criminals. Most people are not rapists. Around each child there are a plethora of competing images that are positive.
The media is a tool, and as a tool it is only used when individuals chose to use it. The only way the media can have undue influence on the moral values of a society is under two circumstances. In one case, the community in question may have adopted bad values. This is not unknown. When the members of the community are exposed to competing values they may prefer those values with their accompanying consequences—which in this case are positive. Certainly we have seen many cultures abandon counter-productive value systems when they encountered other systems of value.
It's no surprise that people adopt a better system of morality to replace the one they've been following. And it’s unlikely that people intentionally pick values which will be counter-productive. What worries the cultural critic is that individuals, particularly children, will adopt bad values because they don't know any better. But why don't they know any better?
The media can only have an disproportionate influence in a child's life when that child is not exposed to countervailing ethics in the home, school, church, community, etc. It is when parents abdicate, and when communities cease to operate, that children are left on their own with only television or films as their guide. But is censorship, or state control, the means for solving this problem? What government can ever replace competent parenting? What state can teach moral values?
That some children are left groping for a value system on their own is not a justification for turning all people into children. That's what censorship does. It assumes that some people, children or adults, are badly influenced. The means suggested to avoid this problem is to treat all people as children or mental incompetents. As Havelock Ellis wrote in Saturday Review in 1928 "we are not entitled to protect children by laws which also extend to adults and thus tend (sometimes with too much success) to convert adults into children. It is for the parents and teachers to protect the children."
US Judge Curtis Bok, in a 1949 ruling, came to a similar conclusion. He noted that the justification for censorship was often that the book would corrupt an adolescent but he noted this theory "put[s] the entire reading public at the mercy of the adolescent mind and of those adolescents who do not have the expected advantages of home influence, school training, or religious teaching."
In conclusion, let us return to some of our opening comments. Capitalism created an explosion of creativity in the arts. The result is an expanded media that covers virtually all aspects of human life. There are millions of books, films, television programs, and magazines competing for our attention. Each of us, as an individual, chooses upon which of those items to focus. The responsibility to choose, and the consequences of those choices, belong to each of us as individuals.
More importantly this explosion of choice allows us to pick and choose more carefully than in the past. We are free to find those mediums that express our values and we are free to shun those which do not. In the liberal society there is no central authority making those decisions for you. They are yours, and yours alone, to make.

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