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An Ethicist at the Movies

August 25th, 2009 · 15 Comments

Jonah Goldberg looks to pop culture as a barometer of American values and concludes that many of the abhorrent practices revealed in the 2004 IG report on CIA interrogations will not be considered outrageous by the modal citizen:

I’ve long been fascinated with the disconnect between what pundits, politicians and various activist groups complain about and the status of interrogation techniques in the popular culture (here’s a column I did on the subject in 2005). In countless films and TV shows the good guys — not the bad guys — do things to get important information that makes all some [see update] of the harsh methods and allegedly criminal techniques in the IG report seem like an extra scoop of ice cream and a Swedish massage. In NYPD Blue, The Wire, The Unit, 24 and on and on, suspects are beaten, threatened, terrified. In some instances they are simply straight-up tortured. In movies, too, this stuff is commonplace. In Patriot Games, Harrison Ford shot a man in the kneecap to get the information he needed in a timely manner. In Rules of Engagement, Samuel L. Jackson shot a POW in the head to get another man to talk. In Guarding Tess, Nick Cage blows off a wimpy little man’s toes until he talks. In The Untouchables Sean Connery conducts a mock execution.

Now, I know I will get a lot of “it’s just a movie” or “TV shows aren’t real” email from people. At least I have every other time I’ve made this point. So let me concede a point I’ve never disputed while making one these folks don’t seem to grasp. If such practices, in the contexts depicted, were as obviously and clearly evil as many on the left claim, Hollywood could never get away with having the good guys employ them. Harrison Ford in the Tom Clancy movies would never torture wholly innocent and underserving victims for the same reasons he wouldn’t beat his kids or hurl racial epithets at black people. But given sufficient time to lay out the context and inform the viewers of the stakes, as well as Ford’s motives, the audience not only understands but applauds his actions. Of course it’s just a movie. But the movie is tapping into and reflecting the popular moral sentiments. Think of these scenes as elaborate hypothetical situations in the debate about torture and interrogation that are acted out and played before focus groups of normal Americans.

This has a certain surface plausibility, but I don’t think it holds up under scrutiny. Hollywood gets us to sympathize with and root for all sorts of protagonists who, in the real world, we would regard as moral monsters who should be in prison at the very least, and probably on death row. A quick list off the top of my head: Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega; Mr. White and Mr. Pink; the team of con artists on Hustle; Tony Soprano; Omar Little; Spike from Buffy; Jayne Cobb on Firefly; Leon the Professional; The Punisher; Wikus van de Merwe in District 9; Danny Ocean of the eponymous 12, 11, and 13; the homicidal grad students in The Last Supper. You can probably add a dozen more with a few minutes thought. We had better hope fiction isn’t a reliable guide to our moral intuitions, because with a tub of popcorn and some Milk Duds in hand, we routinely cheer thieves, thugs, and murderous sociopaths provided they’re kind to children and puppies or make a habit of mostly killing or victimizing mean people, or seem like maybe they’re sorry about that whole “lifetime of causing mayhem and suffering,” or frankly just dress stylishly and seem kind of badass. Maybe we don’t regard most of these as “good guys,” exactly, but redemption typically comes cheap, and a characters often do a face-heel turn on a dime.

Jonah’s argument gets its whiff of plausibility from the observation that there are some things a sympathetic character—and certainly not a “hero” character—really can’t do. We’ll accept the cold-blooded killer with a heart of gold or the costumed crimefighter who maims petty crooks and pisses on due process, but you won’t usually see the (white) good guy drop an N-bomb or smack his kids. Why is that? Well, why are parents often a lot more worried about cinematic sex than violence and gore? Well, probably because little Timmy is a lot more likely to have occasion to emulate James Bond’s penchant for bedhopping than his prowess with a Walther PPK. Similarly, people who use racist language or mistreat their children are “real” to us—part of our actual social worlds—in a way that hitmen, suave mobsters, and tough-guy cops who make their own rules just ain’t. So we can identify with the latter in full-bore fantasy mode, reveling in their power and freedom from constraint, without triggering our normal moral reactions—provided they don’t actually do something repugnant that we could realistically imagine ourselves or people we know doing in real life. Look, I think Batman is awesome too. This is not a reliable guide to my feelings about the Fourth Amendment.

Update: Radley Balko hits some of the same notes, and adds his bemusement that Jonah now appears to think Hollywood is reflective of authentic American values.  Meanwhile, down in the comments, Rick Russell makes the sound point that there’s a certain fictional circularity at work when we wink at the strongarm tactics of cinematic heroes: That is to say, we don’t worry quite as much about whether the good guy’s actions are morally justifiable because as omniscient viewers, we’re sure they’ve got the right baddie, and anyway they’re the good guys, so of course whatever they’re doing is justified. (Again, it’s a lot easier to fall back on the “they’re the good guy” heuristic when we’re talking about actions far removed from our practical experience or the day-to-day demands placed on our moral senses.)

That said, let me flip Radley’s ironic point and put on my conservative media scold hat for a minute here. It may actually be socially harmful that we’re now so acclimated to and comfortable with these portrayals of anti-authoritarian authority figures who don’t have any patience for rules and regulations, who don’t hold up the action with search warrant applications and Miranda warnings, because the entertainment industry has discovered that these types of law enforcement agents make for more exciting drama and more thrilling power fantasies.

Tags: Art & Culture · War


       

 

15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 RickRussellTX // Aug 25, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Stop thinking about Batman!

    I think there’s a another complicating factor. When the good guys shoot kneecaps and cut off fingers, the audience has a third-person omniscient view of the criminal’s recent history. The audience *knows* the bad guy is deeply involved, they know the bad guy kidnapped the hero’s family, they know the bad guy has been selling crystal meth to first graders, etc. Generally speaking, moviemakers almost always set up the hero this way, so the audience knows that the hero’s actions are beyond reproach.

    Sure, if in the midst of the narrative we were to hop out and say, “Wait, would we accept it if a real cop acted this way? Would they be in a position of moral certainty?”, then sure we might conclude that the hero’s behavior is immoral.

    Compare that to dropping the N-word or smacking children. No matter how you set it up, there’s really no way to justify that. If an African-American antagonist has been a particularly bad character, then it might be perfectly appropriate for the hero to shoot his kneecaps off. But it still wouldn’t justify using racial epithets.

    Hence the original columnist’s statement, “if such practices, in the contexts depicted, were as obviously and clearly evil as many on the left claim” — and that’s the problem. Movies give the audience plenty of context to be judge, jury and executioner, but that kind of context almost never exists outside of surveillance video in the real world.

  • 2 RickRussellTX // Aug 25, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Actually, let me expand a little. When Karla Fay Tucker was executed in Texas in 1998, there was a (small) pro-execution group of demonstrators outside the Huntsville death penalty facility. They had a banner that said:

    USE A PICKAXE

    We probably would not call these demonstrators “history’s greatest monsters”, even though they probably would have been comfortable with the torture and execution of Karla Fay Tucker. Ms. Tucker had explained her murderous activities in vivid detail, so there was no question as to her guilt. That’s why the demonstrators felt so strongly. Since her guilt was certain, they felt that she should suffer as much as her victims did.

    More generally, I think that humans have a very powerful emotion — let’s call it equity — from which spring some of our greatest and most frightening traits. Equity gave us “an eye for an eye”, it’s what motivates us to seek justice and revenge, it’s what makes us demand equal pay for equal work. It’s the root emotion behind “a fair price” and “a fair deal”, even though economists know that such things don’t exist. For some, I think equity motivates altruism (“those children deserve better”, “that family doesn’t deserve what has happened to them”).

    Viewed that way, hitting children and using the N-word are repulsive because they don’t appeal to the internal sense of equity. Shooting the kneecaps off somebody who kidnapped your family, however, is perfectly reasonable in the equity equation.

    If you read the responses to Shame, you see the justification for torture is rooted directly in the appeal to equity. “They would get worse treatment back home”, “He suffered no worse than the men he killed”, etc.

    I’ve studied a little bit of workplace psychology, and I daresay that one of the most damaging situations for employee morale is when an employee feels they’ve been singled out or treated worse than others of their rank or function. Feelings of betrayed equity are extremely hard to overcome.

  • 3 steve // Aug 25, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    http://www.anonymousliberal.com/2009/08/law-and-pop-culture-morality.html

    One thing I noticed here from that argument was the supposition that every such torturous encounter in popular culture has this sort of calculus involved: Bad guy evil. Omniscience that he knows something worse is about to happen. Good guy must save us. Acts decisively and quickly, but wrongly, saves us with information. That sort of calculus is probably guaranteed to make us agree that under a very specific set of circumstances which almost never exist, such actions might even be morally permissible. It’s not realistic, and it’s not even the case in all movies.

    To play off the Batman routine (since he and Jack Bauer are probably the best pop moral icons for this subject), his beating of Joker in the Dark Knight doesn’t actually gather information that he couldn’t have gotten any other way, certainly correct and actionable information at that, to save lives. It’s just a torture scene disguised as a one-sided fight and interrogation. The information Joker had he was going to provide anyway. But the Joker was evil enough a character to want to see how far Batman would go in the role of the bad guy first for his amusement. And despite this being Batman he still went pretty far.

    I don’t think you can make the claim that that event was a justification of the measures used to get information in a desperate situation. You might arguably be able to see some justification earlier when he goes to Hong Kong and kidnaps a money launderer who escaped justice in Gotham (in much the same way that we might snap up some known and obvious terrorist suspect in a foreign country or region with a questionable set of internal law enforcements). But not there in the interrogation room scene (in much the same way that we don’t see it when or if we proceed to torture said terrorist suspect). There was a line that was crossed and we can start to see the Batman character as what he really is in that world: an outcast. Maybe a useful one with a set of idealized moral imperatives. But an outsider nonetheless.

  • 4 Paul Wright // Aug 25, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    If I was sure of myself, I would commit heinous acts to prevent greater evil. The key to ethics is to keep people from becoming sure of themselves in situations where they don’t have enough information.

    OTOH, the concept that ‘given enough information, anyone can make the right decision’ is also incorrect. Given enough information, it is possible to make the wrong decision or it can be impossible to make any decision.

    So, the key to ethics is to convince people not to be sure of themselves?

    I dunno.

    —–Paul——

  • 5 An Ethicist at the Movies emulator emulate // Aug 26, 2009 at 12:36 am

    […] See original here: An Ethicist at the Movies […]

  • 6 JustinOpinion // Aug 26, 2009 at 9:02 am

    I think dismissing “it’s just a movie” is an error. The fact that the audience knows that it is fiction greatly changes the experience. There are macabre comedies that do, in fact, use things like racism and spousal abuse to elicit laughter. These things work because of the shock value, but also because the audience knows that no real humans were harmed in the filming of the comedy.

    But, similar actions in the context of a documentary would elicit revulsion from the audience. Consider, for instance, the reaction people have to simulated movie executions versus watching clips of actual brutal executions. The viewer’s reactions are very different because reality has a much higher ethical weight than fiction. Thus even things that are “part of our actual social worlds” can be trivialized in fiction.

  • 7 Ryan Sager - Neuroworld – Torture’s TV Morality - True/Slant // Aug 26, 2009 at 10:32 am

    […] yes, as a few people (including Julian Sanchez) have noted, movies and TV make us empathize with bad people all the time. Tony Soprano seems the […]

  • 8 Matt D // Aug 26, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    The problem is that we aren’t talking about anti-heroes savaging some goon to save the day–we’re talking about government agents doing it with little accountability and to ends unknown. It’s possible to approve of and even thrill at the former while being repulsed by the latter.

  • 9 Alex Knapp // Aug 26, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    I feel obligated to point out to Mr. Goldberg that the highest rated show on cable TV is Burn Notice, which consistently makes the point that torture is sadistic and impractical…

  • 10 Sax And Violins In Movies, Part 428 « Around The Sphere // Aug 26, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez: Hollywood gets us to sympathize with and root for all sorts of protagonists who, in the real world, we would regard as moral monsters who should be in prison at the very least, and probably on death row. A quick list off the top of my head: Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega; Mr. White and Mr. Pink; the team of con artists on Hustle; Tony Soprano; Omar Little; Spike from Buffy; Jayne Cobb on Firefly; Leon the Professional; The Punisher; Wikus van de Merwe in District 9; Danny Ocean of the eponymous 12, 11, and 13; the homicidal grad students in The Last Supper. You can probably add a dozen more with a few minutes thought. We had better hope fiction isn’t a reliable guide to our moral intuitions, because with a tub of popcorn and some Milk Duds in hand, we routinely cheer thieves, thugs, and murderous sociopaths provided they’re kind to children and puppies or make a habit of mostly killing or victimizing mean people, or seem like maybe they’re sorry about that whole “lifetime of causing mayhem and suffering,” or frankly just dress stylishly and seem kind of badass. Maybe we don’t regard most of these as “good guys,” exactly, but redemption typically comes cheap, and a characters often do a face-heel turn on a dime. […]

  • 11 Anderson // Aug 27, 2009 at 2:15 am

    Julian,

    I think there’s a huge difference between a bad guy the audience sympathizes with to some degree, and a good guy who sometimes does bad things for good ends. Perhaps you don’t see much of a difference between Tony Soprano and Jack Ryan, or between Omar Little and Jack Bauer, but I think most audiences do.

    Jonah is absolutely right. Characters who are clearly portrayed as fundamentally decent and righteous are often shown doing brutal things to bad guys, or suspected bad guys, and audiences accept that. If torture were remotely as abhorrent to people as you would have us believe, writers and filmmakers would never be able to get away with this.

  • 12 Barry // Aug 28, 2009 at 9:13 am

    Rick: “I think there’s a another complicating factor. When the good guys shoot kneecaps and cut off fingers, the audience has a third-person omniscient view of the criminal’s recent history.”

    What would be interesting is to have a TV show where the criminal is evil, but the police can’t get evidence.

    So they just walk up with civil forfeiture papers, and take everything that he owns, even the car he’s riding in (if it’s not his, tough – take it anyway). When he complains about lack of evidence, the police point out that they don’t need any.
    And laugh.

    I wonder how many of these torture-loving right-wingers would suddenly have second thoughts?

  • 13 B. Kennedy // Aug 29, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    The only torture-lovers here appear to be the ones inflicting it on their favorite whipping boy, logic.

    The Dark Knight scene isn’t really a relevant example because The Joker’s entire purpose is to be an inhuman sociopath with absolutely zero morals. Even the world’s population of jihadist terrorists is not as far gone as The Joker on the chaos as purpose scale.

    Most people do not believe inflicting physical or psychological harm on an enemy for the purposes of obtaining life-saving information is more of a moral affront than the potential consequences of not getting that information.

    England let the Nazis burn a city to the ground so that Nazis would not know they cracked the code. The idea that situations like the ones depicted in 24 are nonexistent is foolish utopianism. Most of the bad people in the world are not sociopaths, they can be coerced given the proper incentives. Physical comfort is usually up there as a priority.

    Ultimately the CIA is the back room of the US Military. They do the ugly work that they must do to keep us safe. We praise our soldiers because they risk their lives for us, but it is the CIA who often have to finish the job to get the information our soldiers need. It is hard and dirty work that never nets you praise, because it is much easier to wax philosophical about beating swords into plowshares than it is to acknowledge the world is an ugly and brutal place and there are people right now tempering their plowshares into swords with intent to harm you.

  • 14 Alvis // Sep 1, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Ultimately the CIA is the back room of the US Military. They do the ugly work that they must do to keep us safe. We praise our soldiers because they risk their lives for us, but it is the CIA who often have to finish the job to get the information our soldiers need. It is hard and dirty work that never nets you praise, because it is much easier to wax philosophical about beating swords into plowshares than it is to acknowledge the world is an ugly and brutal place and there are people right now tempering their plowshares into swords with intent to harm you.

    Not bad, but I still prefer the Jack Nicholson version.

  • 15 translation services // Sep 3, 2010 at 10:29 am

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