Purveying Morality in the Public Sphere

How does the public sphere purvey a moral system? The government funds art and it could grant subsidies to artists with positive messages. The obvious, and stupid, Rawlsian retort would be “who chooses what is moral?” Traditional virtues of love, kindness, honesty, humility, grace, mercy, love, education, etc… are not controversial between the major religions and moral systems which Rawls feared would be in conflict and threaten liberal society if the public sphere adopted a strong moral system.

As of now, tax incentives for film and media production are based on economics and not moral consideration of the piece. If the state of Georgia wanted to have wholesome hip-hop or Tennessee wanted have wholesome Country, they could give tax cuts to particular artists and give those artists access to public broadcasting like featuring them in, say, a pro-vaccine PSA or a flood warning. Commission them to write a jingle discouraging drunk dirving. Revenge fantasies and violence would get them taxed more while forgiveness would get them less taxes and free airtime.

The problem with doing this is that in the 1980s, when soft censorship was called for, it had nothing to do with real sins or virtues. “Stairway to Heaven” was called satanic but I have listened to the supposedly satanic lyrics if played backwards and if those lyrics were intentional, they talk about the devil but in no way endorse the devil. By their logic, if the Book of Revelation mentions the antichrist then it should be banned. More to the point, it is a warning to the lady in the song that she is going to hell for her vanity which she, falsely, believes will lead her to Heaven. If anything, the song is perfect for a 1980s televangelist who had thought they had bought the stairway to Heaven.

The Moral Majority had nothing moral about them. They didn’t shed a tear for napalmed Vietnamese peasants and viewed with prideful scorn the addicted, the sick with HIV and Hepatitis, and the needing of government assistance. Insofar as they wanted moral media, it was free from the stereotypical vices (metonymic sex, drugs, and rock & roll) which doesn’t begin to count as moral. It wasn’t the selfless blankies who crossed the invisible lines in South Africa to get tear gassed and incarcerated out of a deep love or the medics who defied society to nurse the HIV and Hepatitis patients in the jungles of needles and in the sexual underground.

Tipper Gore was afraid of sadomasochism in song lyrics. I certainly would be averse to it, myself. The copious volumes of corporal punishment I endured as a child mean BDSM allusions trigger anxiety attacks in me. The stereotype is that one cycles into wanting it but in my case, it didn’t end with a partiality to chains and whips (more a visceral aversion to them) but just a massive anxiety disorder. However, far from that being a concern of the ilk of Tipper Gore, they saw nothing wrong with doing that to children and just wanted to keep them from seeing it in the media as if watching physical discipline is less traumatic than experiencing it.

And I am not saying that Conservative Evangelicals aren’t charitable. I recently wrote an article entitled “Charity verus Justice in Disability Advocacy” and many of the people who tried to help me were motivated by religious conviction and were Republican Christians. Yet, there are virtues I learned on the left they never learned on the right. That the marginalized need social justice, way more than a handout at a soup kitchen, and that requires fighting strong social morés and requires real sacrifice. Helping the poor is easy, defending the weak is far more difficult because protecting the powerless means taking on the powerful. Liberty University does teach Christian charity but it fails in teaching divine justice. Their emphasis on the stereotypical vices left their approach to the traditional virtues in preschool. They knew nothing about justice and saw altruism in only the simplest terms of direct charity to individual cases of need.

The problem was not if society can determine the morals to purvey in a pluralistic society. The traditional virtues are all fine and good and most religions and secular humanism agree on them. When we actually tried this, it had nothing to do with those virtues. Tipper Gore and Jerry Falwell were not livid that pop culture failed to suffeciently market kindness, grace, patience, humility, and the rest. No, they wanted a circus with a freak show of dominatrixes and witches. It had nothing to do with morals and everything to do with production value. It presents a major problem in the public sphere purveying morality which is how we define “moral” in the vernacular. If we are to purvey morals through the public sphere then we must render obsolete the definition that “moral” means the absence of stereotypical vice and means more the presence of benevolent virtue, the condemnation of vice, including and especially the non-stereotypical ones like hubris, moral cowardice, avarice, gluttony, and more, and the emphasis on justice for the marginalized and the oppressed.

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