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

When Art Turns to Contempt

The fundamental unit of Art is Truth. 

A person can labor to create something but unless it is grounded in something true sharing that creation with another will be difficult if not impossible. The things that are true are the only things we can really share. Art that lacks truth has no shared threads to connect artist and audience and becomes an entirely subjective mess, something to argue about or project oneself onto rather than a vehicle to communicate the deepest concepts of the human experience. 

It’s not impossible to express truth about something that inspires contempt. In fact, contempt is often born from a specific piece of truth that inspires disgust and eventually, yes, contempt in the people who learn it. The problem is that contempt then warps everything we know about a person. Perhaps we learn that someone’s car broke down because they never changed the oil in it. (I am changing the oil in my car every six months, dad, please relax.) Someone who hears this may begin holding this negligent fool in contempt, because obviously they don’t take care of their possessions and who can trust someone like that? 

The problem is, while the negligence is true, there are other truths. A family member was in the hospital and all their time was consumed in caring for them. They were too strapped for cash to afford a visit to the mechanic. Their hospitalized family member was the one who was in charge of scheduling the car maintenance in the first place and they didn’t know where things were in the cycle anyways. All of this truth is overwritten by contempt. The psychological mechanics of contempt are undoubtedly deep and complex, and perhaps it has a greater purpose in our minds, but that’s not really the point I’m here to discuss today. 

Modern art is driven by contempt. 

From cinema to sculpture, painting to prose, all our cultural centers are populated by people who hold their fellow man in contempt. Our cultural betters are contemptuous of the poor, and will pay them to rot in their homes or on the streets, so long as they stay out of the way. They see the impact an expanding civilization has on the planet and assure themselves it would be better if people just stopped having children and families. Most recently, we discover they don’t even want to breath the same air we do. 

The exact source of this contempt is hard to place and is probably as irrelevant as the mechanics and role of contempt because the real problem with all this contempt for art is that it warps a creator’s concept of truth. (There are other problems for society at large, of course.) When your sense of the world is badly distorted, to the point where most people you meet transform into jingoistic caricatures in the very moment you speak to them, you cannot put truth in your art. Yet such is the behavior of our cultural betters. 

The result is art and story that looks like a funhouse mirror. We’re encouraged to refrain from judgement and look at the circumstances of a person and how they influence moral choices. But the only moral subject we discuss in fiction is race. We’re told people need to be in control of their lives and be strong. But in fiction we’re told that strength is mourning how we are victimized by forces beyond our control. We’re told it’s important to build our own identity. But many who attempt to do so are shamed for abandoning an identity they supposedly share with dozens of others strictly on a basis of genetics and place of birth. 

Contempt has convinced our cultural betters they can simply talk down to us, telling us stories full of contradictions and nonsense, and we’ll eat it up. To an extent, they’ve been proven right. But their myopic vision is poisoning their art and it’s quickly falling apart under the strain of its own nonsense. We’re navigating a horribly depressing artistic world these days. But my purpose isn’t to spend a long time commiserating over the decline of our entertainment and culture. My purpose is to chart the dangers so I can effectively navigate around them. And I am a writer, so I write the process down and share it to help me understand what I am seeing. 

So this is my thesis for the fall. Contempt has warped our culture and we must unpack all the damage it is doing so we can avoid it. What is it hiding from our view? What do we have to reinfuse to our storytelling to restore the balance? Hopefully we will come out the other side wiser for the exploration.