Skin Deep Morality

We’re talking about the horrible toll contempt has taken on art in the last decade or so. There’s no area where there’s a clearer case of that than the way the topic of racism and racial oppression has eaten up such a huge part of every moral discussion in the last ten years. The history of this is pretty long and fraught, and definitely goes back further than 2011. But for the purposes of our talk today it’s not necessary to look back further than a week to see the evidence of this single factor mania everywhere. 

COVID vaccine mandates? Currently being protested as racist by Black Lives Matter for their disparate racial impact. 

Public school systems? Wracked by the critical race theory debate. 

Problems at the border? Either racism against Mexicans or white genocide, depending on your point of view. 

Pick just about any issue to discuss, even strained gender relations (caused, we’re told, by white patriarchy), and someone will insert themselves almost immediately to explain how race points us to the moral failings of the system. It’s tired, it’s boring, it’s repetitive. But it has one thing going in its favor: Americans hold racists in utter contempt. This is a relatively new phenomenon in America, and most of the world for that matter. It’s also the first major moral concept to find its beginnings in the United States. Both of these things are noteworthy in and of themselves, and taken in isolation I would’ve told you, as recently as 2014, that they were positive things. 

The last seven years have convinced me otherwise. 

Which is to say there was a time when I thought contempt for another based on their moral decisions was a worthwhile position. I still find the idea of removing race as an indicator of value worthwhile, but it’s like a shiny new toy that we’ve become overly fascinated with. To discuss this idea in more depth it may be worthwhile to step back and consider it in other terms. Let’s take a relatively nonincendiary example. Say we have a cannibal. 

Wait! Wait! Come back! 

I’m serious, imagine a character like Hannibal Lecter. He’s intelligent, suave, urbane, raised in a culture where we recognize cannibalism is inherently evil as an affront to human dignity, but he chooses to ignore the respect due to others and eat their bodies anyways. Often while they are, in fact, still alive. 

Is this man not worthy of contempt? 

And yet there is an entire body of literature, including Silence of the Lambs where we find Hannibal himself, that tells us such a man is not, in fact, contemptuous. We treat him this way at our own peril. Hannibal escapes from prison and menaces society once again because he is treated with contempt. The characters attempt to use Hannibal, a contemptuous action, and as a result they suffer the full brutality of his twisted nature. Hannibal is evil and we treat evil with contempt at our own peril. When we simply disregard evil rather than confronting it then it will return to the shadows and build itself up more and more. 

The worst part of this is dismissing things with contempt is easy. We know that racism is evil and everyone who displays it is guilty of that evil. So we just dismiss them. But what actually needs to happen is the hard, careful and often fruitless work of reforming that evil through compassion, acceptance and renormalization. Dismissal forwards none of those goals. However, with the availability of such an easy seeming out, people become very tempted to simply plaster this one size fits all ‘solution’ onto everything. 

So we find race seeping into every moral discussion. And anyone who can paint their opposition as racially motivated feels free to dismiss their opposition in contempt.

This is not healthy. 

Solving this problem on the grand scale of American, much less global, society is far outside my abilities and intelligence. So I’m just going to leave the notion there. Let’s look at what the impact on story has been through the lens of a single example. 

Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that explores the legacy of Steve Rogers as Captain America through the views of his two closest living friends. In theory. In practice it’s a sermon on race and power in the United States. Basically every event in the show exists to examine this question in some way or another and it processes everything through the idea of standing hostilities between white people and every other ethnicity on earth. This horribly distorts the story. 

In theory, the MCU is in a state of upheaval as it recovers from the incredible disruption of losing half its population for five years only to have them inexplicably come back. Everyone has problems. Deep problems, complex problems, difficult problems.  Everyone’s problems are incredibly pressing and require immediate attention because no one has anything in place to deal with anything like this. Falcon – Sam Wilson – has just been handed the shield of Captain America and tasked with carrying on the heroic legacy Steve built. Helping with these problems should be his priority one. 

Instead, we get a long introspective introduction where Sam struggles with whether a white nation will accept a black superhero. Even though they’ve been accepting black superheroes for over a decade, since Rhody got a suit of combat armor from his friend Tony. Never mind that, Sam has to reset all that history and become the first one all over again. Then, when terrorists try to usurp the ongoing disaster relief efforts put in place to repair the blip, Falcon spends more time sympathizing with the terrorist ring leader than the people suffering from her actions. Because she’s not white, just like Sam. Because the things that driver her to chaotic violence are things Falcon has also experienced. And ultimately, because Sam finds himself holding the people conducting the relief effort in contempt. 

Deep, complex, difficult problems are washed away in a very shallow moral judgement that makes a mockery of human nature and suffering.  In the end we’re expected to empathize with Sam and join him in his contempt of the world relief efforts. But I found I couldn’t. Not just because I’ve tried very hard to put contempt behind me as destructive only to myself, but because in dismissing all the moral questions in Falcon and the Winter Solider except for race the writers blinded themselves to a host of moral issues that existed in their story and which they did not address. It was easier to dismiss moral questions with contempt for racism than explore them. But the story suffered for it. Suffered a great deal. 

When homeless people were given homes owned by people who vanished where are those people to go when they reappear? When cities were abandoned because there weren’t enough people to keep them going who will help the people who reappeared there, all on their own? When business were closed and their goods given away because the owners vanished who will restore that livelihood to them when they come back? Falcon and Winter Soldier ignores all these questions and the stress, trauma and suffering they will provoke and replaces them with its contempt for racism. 

It’s not fair. It’s not authentic. As a work of art, it fails its duty to truth. 

There is no easy out to moral questions in art. This doesn’t mean that art cannot present us with people who think there are easy outs. This doesn’t mean art has an imperative to confront difficult moral questions, for art can still function without such a requirement. But once you have introduced a moral question in a story you must treat it with honesty and fairness or you will fail in art. That’s hard and uncomfortable and more than once I’ve set aside story elements because I knew I couldn’t deal with them with the kind of honesty the truth deserved. The first lesson from our culture of contempt is simple. 

If a moral decision inspires contempt in an artist, that artist is unqualified to address it in art. Ignorance, hatred and love, all of these approaches can yield valid art on moral questions. But contempt cannot. So I will strive to avoid those issues which inspire it in me, and avoid all art where the two collide as well. Hopefully I’ve made a good case for why others should do so. But we cannot end there. We must go a step further. 

We have to talk about Rorschach. 

But not today, I think. Come back next week and we’ll tackle Alan Moore, The Question, and the legacy of The Watchmen


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