There’s been a lot of discussion lately on the AML-List, and even on the FAIR Board, about a new film Richard Dutcher is making. Allegations about the film range from claims that it will be a fairly hard nudie/slasher flick with both graphic violence and sexuality to other reports that it will actually probably be PG-13.
I thinks it’s all pretty much speculation at this point, but what actually interests about some of the discussions are some of the assumptions made about what is and isn’t appropriate content. Now, between the blogs and the AML-List, it seems we’ve had the discussion of suitable content nearly a hundred times. But I think that in almost every case, the discussion eventually degenerated in an analysis of exactly what various General Authorities have or haven’t said about the rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America.
In the midst of all the ratings discussions, it seems we’ve still never really ever actually gotten to the big questions. Is there anything that really does constitute objectionable material and how would we know it? I think the best thing I’ve read on media consumption was written by William last year, but today I want to pursue the question a bit further.
I swear I am not making the following story up, but I did hear it third-hand, so take its accuracy with a grain of salt. Apparently, an author had written a novel wherein two characters got married and, after the wedding, go off to the hotel. The last line of the scene or chapter had the groom picking up his bride, walking into the hotel suite, and then kicking the door closed behind him. Covenant, the publisher, insisted that the line be removed because of its sexual suggestiveness.
A quick thought experiment: suppose we have a booklet containing 50 different passages, each describing the events of the aforementioned honeymoon night. Each passage is numbered 1-50, and each becomes a little longer and slightly more explicit in its description of the evening’s events. For example, passage #1 could simply say that the couple waved goodbye to their family and friends after the reception. Passage #2 says the same but mentions them driving up to the hotel. Passage #3 adds the offending line brought up above. Passage #4 goes one line further, perhaps saying that he set her down and they kissed. Passages 5-50 go on as such until 50 is the most explicit, most gratuitous, most distasteful passage imaginable. I suppose that if you were a really good writer, with an especially perverse imagination, you could stretch the scale from 1-100, making each passage only minutely different.
Now suppose we took this booklet of passages and told people to read it, but to stop reading as soon as they were offended or didn’t feel comfortable reading anymore, and then note what number they last read.
I’m quite sure that if you handed this out to all the members at church you would get widely differing results. Apparently Covenant seems to think that some of their audience would actually stop at #3. I also believe that if you did it with General Authorities, you would still see a range of responses. I would imagine Elder Packer would stop pretty early. But I tend to think that some of the other apostles might go a bit further. I wouldn’t be surprised if each of the apostles stopped at a different number.
The question is: who is right? And is there a right? Where would Jesus stop? And is the number that Jesus stopped on THE correct place to stop, meaning all who stop sooner are prudish and all who stop later are perverse? More importantly, how do we know where Jesus would stop? The traditional response is that the spirit tells us. But if there were an objective truth which could be discerned by the spirit, everyone who had the spirit with them would stop at the same number. And from what we do know about the varying watching and reading habits of faithful members, is that everyone has a different threshold of offense.
Other variables make the situation more complex. There is, of course, a difference between explicit and distasteful, and I think we all have different thresholds of acceptability for each of these. Some people are quickly put off by explicit material itself, even if relatively tasteful in form and content. Others have a lesser degree of tolerance for distasteful material, even if it’s not particularly explicit. People vary in their tolerance of sexual material, violence, language and even thematic elements. Intensity and frequency of these aspects also creates a divergence of opinion on their appropriateness. Another interesting variance is the difference between visual and textual elements. We are generally much more permissive of content on the page than on the screen.
With all the variables involved in whether or not a work is suitable for consumption, it seems very nearly impossible to make an objective judgment of any kind. If anyone thinks they have a rationale that works consistently (even within themselves) I would be interested to hear it.
It is a commonplace that many members of the church judge members who are more permissive of explicit material than they are, but I have found that those very people are just as judgmental of the more conservative members for their prudishness. We all seem think our threshold of offense is sensible and that anyone on either side of us is off the mark.
I’m not arguing here for complete relativism: I do think there are arguments against both extremes of tolerance and intolerance, which I won’t go into at the moment. But I’m wondering if it’s possible that each of us really do respond to external stimuli in different ways and that, as such, we probably all actually do have different limits to our tolerance of the media. That being the case, I think it’s possible that the Spirit really could respond to each of us differently as to what we ought or ought not engage.
But that’s not a very fun answer. Is there any way we can go about objectively determining inappropriate content? Even if just for ourselves?