Moral Courage

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.”

-Stephen Covey

Just about everybody thinks of themselves as good people. There are very few people who will admit that they themselves are just bad. Even people whose sole motivation is selfish behavior will often justify their actions, saying something to the effect of “hey, if he didn’t want me to take advantage of him, he should have read the fine print.” That is, its ok to take advantage of somebody who isn’t on his guard – our proverbial speaker has a moral code. It’s not one that the speaker actually follows mind you, I suspect that in most cases it’s one the speaker modifies after the fact in order to justify his actions. But it remains, the speaker at least feels the need to justify himself. Other such justifications are simple, “The world never did anything for me, why should I help out anyone else.” Something that a selfish person would say, but it still reveals a moral code, presumably if the world actually did something for him, he would be bound to do things for other people.

We all have moral codes, some people will use theirs as a guide, some as an excuse, but its very rare to find somebody with no moral dimensions whatsoever. Just about everybody likes to feel that they are inherently good.

There are two main ways to do this; the first is to be inherently good. This is hard for many reasons, it requires sacrifice, discipline, patience, humility and deep introspection. And if the goal is to feel better about yourself, well the first three conditions are hard, and the second two work against feeling good about one’s self.

The second way is much simpler; compare yourself to others! But this is also hard, sometimes people are better than you. In fact, it doesn’t seem to work too well in other fields. Take income or education, for instance. When comparing ourselves against others, we frequently (or at least I do), compare ourselves against the most successful person in a group. “Ugh, why does this person make more money than I do?” Same for education “ugh, that person went to Yale, aren’t I as good as he is?”

Yet it works wonders for our sense of moral superiority. While financially, vocationally, and educationally we always compare ourselves to the best, yet in a bizarre method we tend to compare ourselves to the worst people morally. Part of the reason is that “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.” We hold our moral beliefs to be the evidence of our virtue, even when we fall short of these beliefs. This to me is amazing, the loftier our goals, the more we fall short of them, yet the better we feel about ourselves because of it?

Thus, so long as we mean well, we are excused and even rewarded, but when others act unfairly, we seize upon the example to remind ourselves that we are better than they are, as their actions must be a reflection of their beliefs, and therefore their beliefs aren’t as good as ours.

But it gets worse. We choose sides on controversial issues, and then believe ourselves better for taking whatever side we take. We feel good about ourselves just for supporting (or opposing) gay marriage, even if it requires no personal sacrifice or courage or risk of ostracism¬†to support (or oppose) it. (I’m not saying that nobody ever faces these things for their opinions on gay marriage or whatever else, I am merely saying people hold themselves up as good merely for holding opinions). There are people who sacrifice things for their beliefs, and there are people who have labored for years on causes and, when they finally win, feel a sense of triumph and vindication. However, my guess is that the majority of people who changed their facebook icon to become a rainbow weren’t facing any real risk retaliation for doing so.

Going along with the crowd in any one instance may occasionally (or even often) be the right thing to do. But its virtually never a courageous thing to do. So if you’d like to advertise on facebook how much you dislike the fact that Cecil the lion was killed, by all means do so. But if you’ve never sacrificed anything to prevent poaching or preserve habitats or save the lions, you don’t really have anything to brag about.

Now while I could go on talking about morals or politics here, and one can seriously argue that what I’ve described is benign or even beneficial. After all, choosing sides is a political activity, and political activity is one way things can change. Take, for example abolitionists in pre-civil war America. If they really all had the courage of their convictions, they would have helped organize the underground railroad and help escape fugitive slaves; yet only a very small percentage of them actually did. Yet, if the abolitionist movement were confined to those people who were willing to break the law and face serious punishment for really enacting what the believe, slavery never would have ended.

This works for taste and art too. They want to be original, but lack that ability to be original, so they instead join a movement. They co-opt the opinions of somebody who was original, then try to impress their friends by repeating these opinions. Its most pronounced on the internet, where we, depending on where you surf, you’ll find people with whole allegiances to hating various movies; (is there any reason that so many people hate Inception or Prometheus? They’re not bad movies).

To form actual intelligent opinions about art is tough, to parrot opinions is much easier. If part of your identity is to talk a lot about culture on the internet or even in person, its a lot easier just to repeat things than it is to think for yourself, especially if you’re trying to impress others.

Its easier to appear sophisticated than to actually be sophisticated. Likewise, its easier to appear moral than to be moral. This is true even if you’re only trying to appear moral or sophisticated to yourself.

Keeping up With the Carcosians

Things used to be so much better, right? Whether its movies, or music, or books, all the good pieces of art have already been created, and we’re left with the bottom of the barrel.

Is this really true though? Movies are a non-starter, they have declined in quality in all levels except the number of explosions or some such nonsense. Music is an interesting question, which I may tackle at some point; I would say yes music has declined, but a: it’s arguable, and b: I’m not versed enough to really comment. Books and visual arts I’ll ignore. Video games are so new that its not really an interesting question – do we really want to compare video games of today to video games of 1990?

That leaves TV. Has TV declined in quality? I think the answer is absolutely, probably more than even movies. So called “reality” programs have taken over every channel, what started as an interesting idea (MTVs the real world), has moved into competitions which could be interesting (Survivor), now it is only talent shows (the cream of the crop, btw), way past their prime contest shows (I had to check, but apparently Big Brother is still on!), staged TV shows featuring some obscure occupation (Storage Wars, Pawn Stars), a whole genre of television which seems to do nothing but exploit rednecks (albeit with their enthusiastic consent), (Duck Dynasty, Swamp Loggers, Axe Men), and worst of all, celebrity worship of the worst kind of people who I can’t really figure out how they became celebrities in the first place (anything with the word Kardashian in the title). That is the majority of TV, and I think it is borderline frightful. Sitcoms are largely horribly stale, doubly so for network dramas, which seem to consist entirely of crime procedurals (CBS currently has CSI, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, and NCIS: New Orleans, not to mention Criminal Minds (a procedural with a slightly different twist!) and Blue Bloods (although to be fair, I can’t really comment on Blue Bloods because I’ve only seen part of it while doing laundry once).

Of course, you protest now. What about Mad Men? Breaking Bad? True Detective? Other new show?

IMDB ranks tv shows by voting, and while I’m hesitant to give those rankings too much credence, you have to get all the way to number 19 before you get an American TV show that wasn’t made primarily in the 2000s. Just about any list of great tv dramas will be dominated by those TV shows which have come out on cable, within the past 15 years, which are serial in nature (so you are expected to watch all episodes in sequence), and which don’t typically have to conform to censors or worry about network reputations. (Of course, not all lists agree. Some lists recognize that perfection in TV was only reached by Season 2 of Murphy Brown)

To answer the question of whether TV has gotten better or worse, we really have to define the question. Has the average TV show gotten better? Have the best TV shows gotten better? Has the average TV show, when adjusted for ratings (ie, the average TV show that people watch), gotten better?

Two things stand out to me in regards to this, the first is that the cause of the greatness is the same cause of the mediocrity. We now have hundreds of choices in entertainment at any given time (during classic TV, the option was 3 to entertain and 1 to educate). Networks had to target the average viewer because specialist programs just wouldn’t work, you couldn’t afford to waste a valuable time slot on something that wasn’t proven, and you couldn’t risk making a show which 10% of everyone thought was great, but 90% of everyone would find offensive.

That changed, now instead of the making tv shows for average viewer, TV shows are nothing but specialist programs. With fifty channels, if you have something that 5% of everyone likes, then you’ve got a chance at winning the time slot; at least in cable anyway. This fragmentation leads to what the cultural critics call “appealing to the lowest common denominator,” although what it really means is that every network is going to be making trash. It means that a cable network can make a show entirely about the Kardashians and it will find an audience, if most people are disgusted by it, who cares?

But it also means that the same system which can afford to produce TV shows that you don’t need a brain to enjoy can also make TV shows which are challenging, complex and engrossing. They can make the TV show which gets weird or maybe just violent. The release from the control of the big three networks has made TV more diverse, dumber on average but more intelligent at its peak.

One other thing to note is that there is a similarity between all the great shows which have come out of cable in the past 15 years, and that is they are almost entirely dramas. While there have been some comedies which people love recently, (30 Rock, Parks and Rec, Arrested Development, The Office), I think the pale when compared to the number and quality of dramas. If you ask people what the best TV drama of all time is, my guess is you’ll get a lot of Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Mad Men (not coincidentally, I wrote up that list, then decided to Google it to at least get somebody else’s opinion on it. The first link I clicked, here: ¬†(and the first hit on Google), had those as the top four). You won’t get too many people saying that Hill Street Blues or ER.

If you go the other way, and ask what the best TV comedy of all time was, my gut feeling is that you’ll get a lot of people saying I Love Lucy, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, and Friends. First, we should questions whether my statement is true, you can argue that the office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, 30 Rock etc are funnier than anything that has come before them. Comedy is more subjective than drama though, what one person finds hilarious is what another finds merely amusing and while these may be the funniest shows on now (or recently), they’re not the most popular. Two and a Half Men and the Big Bang Theory are the most popular sitcoms, and as far as I know they’re not terribly well liked by the critics. Seinfeld was not only the funniest show of its time, but the most popular comedy as well. Same with Cheers and I Love Lucy.

I think a big reason we don’t have the funny, popular sitcom is that humor is, much more than drama, a social reaction. We not only like to watch comedies, but we like to watch them with other people. Drama takes us to a place we’d never experience; a whether it’s a meth lab in New Mexico or Carcosa, comedy takes us to a place we’re totally familiar with – a parking garage or a Chinese restaurant. To be dramatic, you must be unusual, to be funny, universal. Becoming more splintered as a society we don’t have that common connection anymore, or at the very least the artists of today can’t exploit the fragmenting of cable TV to create a comedy which reaches everyone. That is why we seem to be getting more and better dramas while comedies seem to be moving along at a much slower pace.