News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: TV, the Moral Imagination, and the Loss of Reality

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

TV, the Moral Imagination, and the Loss of Reality

What does it say when artists and writers are the only ones in your country with an ethical sensibility? The power of art is that it can embody and manifest possibilities. It can bring to life the hidden realities that are there to see but which the facade of custom, routine and habit hides.

Strangely, the war in Iraq hasn’t generated much popular art. Amid the barrage of infidelity and so-called "reality" shows, little TV has appeared to take on the ethical questions generated by the so-called “war on terrorism.” ...

One of the problems faced by information consumers is imaging the ethical. While this might be a problem for every age, our own age seems especially incapable of imaging the raw reality behind the images and stories that people our daily dose of "news." Indicative of this is the appetite among TV consumers for "reality" shows. Purporting to give an insight into the private lives, thoughts, and acts of people, these neatly scripted and edited shows play on that need.

TV is uniquely capable of presenting a real eye on the world. As the truism goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Yet, as has become apparent, interpretations of what we see can vary enormously, depending on the filters we bring to the pictures. The age of information disembodies the consumer from his or her body and its reality, creating an imaginary world where real things disappear in a vague cloud of possibilities that contradict each other.

The ethical issues facing us are, therefore, formidable. We have lost the coordinates by which to attach real-time emotions, thoughts and beliefs to the reality of things in the world. Artists are uniquely positioned to recapture the ethical for the modern consumer lost in the haze of ambiguity. By embodying situations inside a plot and psychological characterizations, the viewer can gauge the meaning and import of events they otherwise can't measure.

The entertainment industry has tried its hand at presenting the patriotic side of the war on terrorism. Over There somewhat valiantly depicted the gritty reality of the war and some of the personal and social, and moral problems faced by the soldiers “over there.” For my tastes, the show was a bit too gung-ho and one-sided, providing little balance in its depiction of everyday Iraqis. In the show, all Iraqis were potential combatants, even those cowering in terror as the soldiers kick down their doors at night and point guns in their faces.

For my money, the true exceptions to the Hollywood aversion to tackling the war on terror ethics are single episodes from The X-files and Law and Order’s Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit. The last episode of The X-files brought to life the insidious dimensions of military tribunals, those special courts set up to try the non-humans currently “under detention” at Guantanamo Bay. In the show’s final episode, The Truth, its hero, Mulder, is tried before a military tribunal for killing an American soldier (who’s really an alien assassin!). We see the shocking brutality and injustice that these “non-humans” will face at Guantanamo when they are tried. The lack of legal procedure, human rights, and denial of access to the evidence forming the basis of the charges against the accused exhibit how insidious an actual military tribunal is.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit depicted the effects of experimental drugs on US troops. After two soldiers return home from Afghanistan and take up their jobs as policemen again, they mysteriously go berserk and attack their families and commit suicide. The rest of the episode dramatizes the military’s attempts to cover up the disastrous effects.

Episodes, however, that depict most effectively the moral dimensions of the “war on terrorism,” however, include those from Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Stress Position (shown 9/8pm 2/13/05) explores the subject of “rendition,” that practice used by the CIA to secretly shuttle purported terrorists from prison to prison.

Not only are the prisoners tortured, but the show depicts the collusion among the prison guards to keep this practice secret, even killing one of their own who experiences attacks of conscience. We also see a man who is wrongly picked up and branded a terrorist, undergoes torture, and then is released. We watch him dodge the detectives’ questions as he fears retaliation should he recount his tale. The message here is that these things are not supposed to happen in America, where due process is a keystone of the US legal system.

In Scared Crazy (shown 9/8pm 12/04/05), we find the diabolic dimension of the psychological methods used to interrogate the Guantanamo internees. A psychologist who helped the military carry out these sessions at Guantanamo seeks redemption by using the same methods on a schizophrenic patient, hoping to cure him. This results in the patient murdering an innocent bystander.

The episode argues that these interrogation methods have no redeeming qualities and in fact produces unintended and violent side-effects. The plot reverberates with recent stories about former Guantanamo detainees who are psychologically scarred for life. It symbolically raises the question about whether we are creating terrorists out of ostensible non-terrorists.

At the same time, it raises ethical questions about the collusion of medical professionals in ethically ambiguous situations that give the appearance of torture. The powerful means available to modern psychologists for manipulating the mind are given full play here. The dramatic effect is very powerful. What this episode does is to belie the rather innocuous and sanguine characterizations of life at Guantanamo and the methods used there. In their emotional depiction, the psychological realism exposes the extent to which psychological methods can become torture.

Beyond registering a somewhat impotent sense of outrage over such practices, these shows don’t offer much by way of ethical discussion. No doubt, they are perhaps simply happy with the notion that they have been able to raise the questions within the format and time provided by television’s medium.

For those interested in seeing ethical reality, the imagination is implicitly called into play. These shows must be lauded for understanding the role that ethical imagination plays in our lives. Simple facts, government spin, and news reports reify the reality of events. It is a testament to the power of the television that it can evoke a sense of “being there” in real-time and engage the imagination to give us access to the evil of these practices. Depending on how much you’re willing to believe the plots, the more their imagined reality can seep into your bones and make your cringe with indignation and anxiety.

Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that the people in the present age face the danger of losing their ability to discern ethical principles. With this loss goes utter despair and lack of character that thrashes about for moral certitude. Kierkegaard saw this as a result of deeper spiritual and ethical disruptions inherent in the capitalist and scientistic regimes. As we lose ourselves and our proximity to life in images and disembodied phantasies, we lose our sense of how to discern what is evil or what is good.

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