Tag Archives: Manon Lescaut

What American sitcoms and 18th century French novels have in common: thoughts on Carl Trueman, ‘A Comedy of Moral Errors’ in First Things

http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/12/a-comedy-of-moral-errors

Gay marriage has not become normalized through the presentation of arguments (though that is not to deny that many of its proponents have made arguments). It has become normalized through the Will and Grace factor: The impact of comfortable, sentimentalized, middle-class sitcoms, soap operas and their like in which no-one is ever seriously hurt, no action ever has wider social ramifications, and niceness triumphs every time.

Comedy of the American sitcom kind has proved the unexpected silver bullet for changing moral perceptions. The genre is well established as a means of projecting the values and aspirations of middle America. Characters are generally harmless and likable, even sympathetic. The villains are not sinister but typically buffoons or idiots, with the result that any opinions they spout lack all plausibility. The good guys and gals are all clean, comfy, witty, and ultimately reasonable—the kind of people who would generally make good neighbors. The very bland predictability of the genre, combines with the subversive morality of the plots to prove a powerful force in reshaping public opinion.

The crux of Trueman’s article is as follows. Philosophically airtight, solid arguments are worth little in the eyes of most people if the object of them is sentimentally or morally unappealing. Hollywood, and ‘Hollywood-ised media’ by extension, is the prime moral influencer of the masses, and the morality it champions is liberal. Its arsenal of artistic weapons is trained, in the case of the American sitcom at least, to bypass the head and go straight for the heart. It does this by representing liberal political perspectives as ‘likeable’ characters or figures, and playing them off against embodiments of ‘traditional’ perspectives dramaticised as ‘unlikeable’ characters or figures – the latter perspectives usually being a product of America’s Christian heritage in one way or another. Christians who hold to things like the conservative Biblical definition of marriage and sexual ethics are at a disadvantage to those who argue for the liberal perspective no matter how sound their arguments are, because most people take their cues from the sources that cast Christianity as the ‘unlikeable’ cause. Those with conservative Biblical views simply do not have a hold on the cultural power house that drives the moral sentiment of the masses, and they do not have anything like it at their disposal to use instead. Moreover, they are the object of that powerhouse’s scorn, which is expressed by repeatedly casting those with ‘traditional’ views as the bigoted old fools and the liberal-minded who oppose them as the young, intelligent, attractive, tidy, upstanding, mild-mannered, sensible individuals. Of course in the American sitcom there are no baddies or villains, just characters that inspire a vague, fuzzy-edged feeling of disgust, dislike, ridicule or patronizing endearment. But the effect is the same. My thought is that on an artistic level, it achieves a similar impression (albeit softer) as the old films did by repeatedly painting villains as semitic figures.

Trueman writes:

Most people gain their understanding of selfhood not from reading Thomas Aquinas but from watching The Bold and the Beautiful and following the antics of the Kardashians. We who advocate for traditional marriage and sexuality are at a huge disadvantage in the public square because we simply do not have the access to the kinds of tools exemplified by Will and Grace and Transparent. As we try to argue for our position, our opponents have simply narrated theirs, identifying their revolutionary positions with the reasonable and the normal by using the most apparently harmless and familiar of cultural idioms.

A further problem that I can see, from the perspective of the art of sitcom-writing itself, is that there are so many of these stories that make liberal perspectives look appealing and conservative Biblical ones look unappealing that what has been created is not just the stories themselves, but unwritten rules formed out of the deep groove of artistic precedent that come to define the genre, determining how these stories should be configured if they are to ‘feel right’ and be thought of as ‘good’ stories. A major reason why so few of these stories are sympathetic to the cause of the conservative Biblicists is because the precedent for the conservative Biblicists to be stereotyped as emotionally unattractive, dim-witted, bigoted, mentally impaired, or ‘old fashioned’ characters is so strong that the unwritten rules of the genre won’t allow them to look like anything else.

This isn’t anything new. In the world of art, the American sitcom, in doing what it does in the way it does it, in spite of being thought of as morally progressive, is not far from the 18th century French ‘sensibilité’ novel as an art from, which also largely viewed itself as progressive in its day. If the unwritten rules of the American sitcom genre are restrictive, then the sensibilité novel subgenre became so conventionalized that it came to be parodied. Both art forms thrive on their appeal to public moral sentiment and they simultaneously strive to shape it by introducing a morally subversive element, which they strive to justify and normalize in subtle ways. The main character of the 18th century sensibilité novel, although implicated in the morally subversive element, is presented as a paragon of desirability, likeableness and good taste (or bienséance, in the French), according to the moral sympathies of the majoritarian viewer/readership culture. The sympathetic presentation of the ‘goodie’ is at the expense of those around them who cannot attain their heights of ‘goodie-ness’; the latter are cast in the role of ‘baddie’. It is important to note however that sensibilité and the American sitcom often shy away from painting outright ‘baddies’ or ‘villains’ unless these are faceless, undeveloped, scapegoated characters, and seem to prefer to point to an institution or to ‘society’ as the culprit (i.e. a constructed perception of the prevailing culture that is hostile towards the ‘goodie’). Nonetheless, characters that are not sympathetic towards the goodie character are always presented as undesirable, and this ‘undesirable character’ slot is filled by the would-be baddie and is manipulated in similar ways. Both kinds of work often provide an intrigue or sub-plot that subtly presents the ‘goodie’ as being treated unfairly by those who do not sympathise with them; the sitcom, relying on humour rather than indignation as the main vehicle of sentiment, tends to cast the non-sympathiser as a stooge. To this effect, plot events are carefully framed, characterization is carefully orchestrated and literary tropes and cultural idioms are deliberately employed in ways that will make the ‘goodie’ cause look supremely tasteful (bienséant), as well as pleasant and likeable. As a result of all of this, the entire work is drowned in such an impression of ‘harmless niceness’ that the morally subversive aspect, constituting perhaps a ‘tragic flaw’ and as the object of the ‘goodie’s’ misfortune at the hands of the undesirable characters, starts to become assimilated into the niceness as ‘excusable’, and then as ‘normal’ by the time of the subgenre’s widespread reception by the viewer/readership culture. Whereas today’s big moral subversion is gay marriage, one big moral subversion of the 18th century French novel was adultery (think Manon Lescaut). Whatever the time-bound specifics, my point is that that kind of art is orchestrated strategically to interact with the public moral tastes in such a way as to shape perceptions without the audience realising that those perceptions are being shaped. And the trajectory of these perceptions, whether the art is contemporary and American or 18th century and French, has never been towards either conservative Biblical principles or the Christian gospel itself; only away from them.

What is the conservative Christian to do about this? Well, not come up with better arguments for their points of view. Sensibilité ancient or modern is not an unstoppable force, but for the past couple of centuries I suspect that it has not been tackled in the right way. This would be understandable: tickling the media receiver’s sensibilities then gently removing the rug of moral reference out from under their feet and replacing it with your agenda while they’re too entertained to notice, is fundamentally manipulative and seems underhand. The logocentric God, the God of light and vision, who reveals himself and his will and gives commandments openly, works by elucidating, instructing, laying bare and making visible: ‘underhand’ and ‘manipulative’ just don’t characterise the way he does things. It’s therefore not inconceivable that many Christians find it hard to know how to respond to these. What many Christians don’t realise is that elaborate philosophical arguments just don’t cut the mustard when trying to engage people on life’s big questions, when they get their definition of what life is all about from the sentimental hi-jinks that television, newspapers the internet, or, indeed, novels, can make them feel. Feeling needs to be met on its own level. What is needed to get the world feeling outside of the cloying liberal straitjacket that cossets and binds mainstream media genres unawares and subtly reinforces the suffocating ideological consensus that reigns over hot potato issues (as well as the gospel itself in many cases), by shutting down rational discussion under the weight of moral sentimental rhetoric, I think, is more art. Now don’t get me wrong. The greatest need of this world is not to affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman till death doth them part. Nor is it to outlaw and prevent abortion in every country in the world. The greatest need of this world is to be reconciled to God by the blood of Jesus Christ and to start a new life with him. And that is never going to happen unless they hear the Word of God. Art will never be a substitute for that Word and sentiment will never shatter the Logos; the worst sentiment can do is dissimulate it, influence attitudes towards it or distort perceptions of it. But whether conservative Christians are occupied with preaching the gospel or safeguarding the things that God holds dear in the public square, art can lay grounds by which the blinding prejudices and misconceptions of this age can be stripped away and the Word of God can be heard for what it is. What the conservative Christian can do is create stories that their perspective and message can inhabit sympathetically, and hope that these stories will somehow occupy a positive space in the public consciousness that they can use in their interactions with people, so that there can be a cultural point of contact for the Christian to draw on that dissipates their interlocutors’ disgust rather than exacerbating it. As Professor Louis Markos puts it:

We are, in many ways, a civilization adrift on the stormy seas of relativism and existentialism. … Our compass is broken and the stars obliterated, and we are left with nothing to navigate by but a vague faith in the modern triad of progress, consumerism, and egalitarianism. They are not enough. . . . What we need, in short, are stories. (On the Shoulders of Hobbits, 10–11)

I found that in a recent DesiringGod blog post on Tolkein, incidentally. Now I’m not advocating that everyone try to out-Tolkein Tolkein. Tolkein addressed a cultural climate that was different to ours: relativism and existentialism were new, not taken for granted: the existence of stories at all was something to marvel at. But now there are so many stories, so many genres and kinds of story and so many ideological forces that hold monopolies of influence and power over them (and it seems that everyone wants a slice of Middle Earth), that it is important to be mindful of what we’re dealing with as we go about writing stories.

As far as I can see, that can be done in one of three ways. Firstly, you could fight fire with fire, exploit loopholes in what kinds of stories the genre allows and what kinds it doesn’t, and potentially leave yourself open to the wrath of the developers of the genre that you’ve just hijacked, and that of those who approached your work expecting their usual fix of sentiment and sensed that something was ‘off’. Secondly, you could write a story exposing the secular liberal empire for what it is and pass your work off as ‘postmodern’ and ‘a critique of our times’ – although this would require your approach to look secular and liberal at least superficially because if it doesn’t then you will look like that bigoted old fool from the sitcom. Thirdly, you could create a whole new kind of art that can only be described in its own terms. With the latter comes the risk that nobody will like it. But there may be some who do. And with those who do, there is greater protection from sabotage than either of the first two options.

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