The Briefing 05-02-17
Tags: 13 Reasons Why, Audio, Museums, Profanity, Suicide
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, May 2, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Teen suicide, the sanctity of life, and the dangerous new Netflix show '13 Reasons Why'
For good reason there’s a great deal of conversation in the United States and around the world concerning a new Netflix television series known as “13 Reasons Why.” The reason why this particular series has engendered so much controversy in conversation is about the accusation that the series glorifies teenage suicide. The series is based upon a 2007 novel by Jay Asher with the very same title. The premise behind the novel and the series is that a young woman an 11th grader named Hannah Baker ends up committing suicide, leaving tapes that indicate why she chose to take this action, and she left them to several friends, most importantly to Clay, a young man who had a crush on her. As the series unfolds, the reasons why are offered.
But the big reason this series is problematic is because it seems to glorify and explain suicide in a way that makes the act seem rational, somehow almost automatic given these circumstances. This has led many around the country and, as we will see, around the world to begin to warn parents and young people that this is not a series that should be watched. In recent days, a Florida school superintendent has indicated that students in his district have injured themselves citing “13 Reasons Why” as the background to their thinking, leading many people to worry about so-called copycat behavior.
Mike Hale writing at the New York Times mentions that the series “literalizes the idea that teenage life is a mystery, one that adults can’t hope to solve.”
Well this is just about as old as modern literature, the idea that adolescents, teenagers, and very young adults inhabit a completely different world than the world of adults, a world that adults even though they were once adolescents are not expected to be able to understand. But that’s a part of the mythology that is very dangerous in terms of this series. It basically invites teenagers and young adults to envision themselves as part of the social world in which suicide just might make sense. Hale goes on to warn potential viewers both teenagers and their parents that the series portrays “startlingly naturalistic depictions of rape and suicide.”
I think that’s probably a poor and unnatural choice of words there. The phrase “startlingly naturalistic” isn’t exactly I think what Hale means to communicate. It’s not so much of this is naturalistic as it is that it is to use at least an artistic description realistic, graphic, overly realistic. Netflix has indicated that it has produced the series because it was attracted to the novel because of the realism in terms of teenage bullying behavior—that is at least the background in terms of the reasons why this particular young woman took this action. But as many are warning, it’s not so much just the depictions of the reality of bullying and abusive behavior. It is the fact that the series ends up glorifying what must not be given that kind of attention, especially in a dramatic television series directed to young people.
Katherine Rosman writing in the New York Times also warns that unlike television the series is being watched by young people on phones and on laptops without the awareness of their parents. Now that also points to a major distinction between how television used to be watched and how at least what’s called television is watched now. In times past television was watched as a communal event or at least it was an event that took place in a communal location, usually something like the family room within an American family’s home. That is to say, when someone was watching something on television everyone knew what the individual was watching, but the game is now significantly changed with what is called television in terms of these video entertainment products being streamed to laptops and now even to handheld devices, including smart phones. That means that viewing has become an almost entirely individual activity with no one perhaps even knowing what anyone is watching, and that can lead to a very dangerous situation when the subject is suicide and when it’s being for trade in the manner of this series.
It’s very interesting that yesterday Netflix announced that it was going to be increasing its warnings on the program. That’s interesting in and of itself. If the program has to now be labeled with increased warnings, that tells us something even coming from the producer, but parents need to be far more concerned than just those warnings might indicate. Writing at the Washington Post, Bethonie Butler points out that the Netflix series might be well intentioned with that message being be kinder to others. She points out the suicide prevention experts say the series might “do more harm than good.”
Many of these experts are actually stating their concerns in far stronger language. Saturday’s edition of The Guardian published in London pointed out that what is known as the Office of Film and Literature Classification in the nation of New Zealand has now offered a warning that effectively bans kids and teenagers from watching the drama in that country. The thing to note in terms of this new story is that this government agency in New Zealand may offer what it calls a ban on teenage viewing, but it cannot prevent teenage viewing. As the paper’s report indicates, New Zealand’s Office of Film and Literature Classification issued what is now describe as a ban on children and teenagers viewing the program because of the government agency’s fear of a spreading suicide contagion. The agency spoke of the central character suicide and warned,
“Her death is represented at times as not only a logical, but an unavoidable outcome of the events that follow. Suicide should not be presented to anyone as being the result of clear headed thinking. The show ignores the relationship between suicide and the mental illness that often accompanies it.”
Now one of the things I want to draw attention to in terms of this story is that all of the sources cited thus far, once in the New York Times, two from the Washington Post, and one from The Guardian are coming from very liberal news media sources this tells us that what’s behind this concern is not something deeply rooted in terms of the Christian worldview. It is rather a secular concern about what is identified here as the virus of suicide contagion. That is a very legitimate concern, and we should be thankful for wherever that concern is found and wherever there is genuine concern for the welfare and the health of America’s children, teenagers, and young adults. But at this point Christians also need to recognize that there are deeper issues even than these at stake. The Christian worldview based in the Scripture is not merely concerned about what might be a virus or a contagion of suicide, but rather about the issue of suicide itself. This is deeply rooted in a sanctity of life ethic and our understanding that every single human life is a gift of a sovereign and benevolent creator, and furthermore we come to understand that suicide not only represents despair, it also represents an abandonment of holds based upon the understanding of the gift of life and the goodness of God.
There are very legitimate concerns about this program, and Christian parents and young persons should be very, very aware of the danger represented by any kind of glorification or rationalization of suicide. We also need to understand, however, that modern literature and much of modern culture has flirted with this kind of glorification and rationalization before. Perhaps this concern, represents something of a turning point in our society. If so, then we should be very grateful. But Christians once again have to remember that our concern is even deeper than what the secular society seems to understand. We certainly want to agree with and validate their concern. We just want to go on and say a good deal more.
The moral importance of language: Why are politicians beginning to use more profanity?
Next we shift to a very different issue. You might’ve noticed that a lot of American politicians seem to be using bad language and to be doing so very strategically, intentionally in a very calculated way. Scott Simon at NPR has noticed this. He asked what in the world is going on. He’s noticed that politicians, at least many politicians, are speaking differently these days. He writes,
“A lot of politicians used to strive to sound at least a little like JFK or Ronald Reagan. Do they really now want to sound like Howard Stern?”
“A few politicians, on both sides of the aisle, have begun to season their speeches with words their parents probably told them not to use, and that we still can't on the air.”
Now let’s just pause for a moment and recognize what we’re being told here. Scott Simon of NPR is telling us that many politicians are now using language that NPR cannot even now use on the air. He starts out by citing Donald Trump, who began to use a great many profanities in the 2016 presidential race, so much so that there were many who recognized that this was a big first in terms of American presidential politics—not the first time that a presidential candidate used profanity, but the first time that a candidate use profanity in such a regular manner. But Donald Trump is not alone. There are other politicians who have begun to do the same, most significantly now some new profanity that is emerging quite clearly on the Democratic side. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton used a certain amount of profanity in the 2016 race but nothing like what is now appearing in such a calculated way.
Tom Perez, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, on a tour going across America to try to increase support for his party, especially at the grassroots level, has begun to inject openly profane language in almost every one of these speeches that he delivers around the country. This certainly has attracted the attention of National Public Radio and Scott Simon, but Simon says it’s not just now these isolated examples. He cites another. He writes that,
“New York's Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand recently told New York Magazine,”
Well at this point I have to stop and say I can’t actually say what she said, and it’s also significant to note neither could Scott Simon on the air at NPR. He just makes very clear it was a really bad word. Now at this point we should ask the question, why? Why would politicians change the way they talk? Why would they abandon efforts at eloquence, a certain amount of dignity, as was characteristic of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in terms of their speeches? Why would they now try to imitate gutter comedians? The reality is, number one, it gets attention. But number two, there’s something even more sinister at work here. Recent research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science says,
“Profanity can be positively associated with honesty. It is often used to express one's unfiltered feelings (e.g., anger, frustration) and sincerity.”
Now this tells us a great deal about ourselves. Language is always moral. The language we use the very words that we use are always important in a moral context. They make a moral statement, and that is very, very important. We judge persons by the language they speak, but one of the things that is mentioned in this article and thus cited by National Public Radio is that some politicians think that by using this kind of language they will, oddly enough, appear more sincere. Politicians have to appear sincere even when they’re not sincere because voters say they want politicians who very much reflect sincerity. So what’s the problem here? The calculated nature of the use of this kind of profanity in order in such an insincere way to appear sincere.
Scott Simon gets this part absolutely right when he reports,
“Maybe politicians have begun to swear at rallies and in interviews just as a show of sincerity. They hope an epithet might help them look knowing, candid and cool. But the third or fourth time you hear them swear, it sounds forced and rehearsed. Profanities, unlike eloquence, can lose their punch.”
Now I simply have to say I agree with everything Scott Simon has indicated here as his concern. We are talking about what has to be recognized as an effort to try to get attention and somehow to express sincerity in a way that anyone watching these successive speeches comes to understand is profoundly insincere. But the other thing we have to recognize is something that the NPR report doesn’t really speak to and that is the fact that the basic issue here really isn’t insincerity or sincerity. The real issue is the moral valence, the moral importance of our language. The choice of the use of this kind of words is an artificial attempt to try to make an argument stronger than it actually is. It’s not only an effort to try to gain attention. Certainly we all saw that on the playground.
It is also an effort to try to bolster credibility in terms of an argument by the use of this kind of profane language. But it has over time actually the opposite effect. Of course, it demonstrates in a moral context a basic moral problem with the one who was using this kind of language, but it also points to something else. And that is that the use of this language is expected at least by the one who uses it to bring attention that is positive from an audience. Those who are now throwing out this kind of language, and as we’ve noted, this is a bipartisan problem are actually saying a great deal about their own moral character but also about what they think is the moral character of those to whom they are speaking. I guess eventually will find out if this is actually the way that Americans now want their politicians and leaders to talk.
The sexual revolution on display: British Museum offers sex exhibit targeted at school children
Next shifting to a very different story, this one appearing here in London. The headline recently in The Times of London was this,
“British Museum offers a lesson in sex.”
Now let’s be clear, in my view museums are not only important, they’re some of my favorite places on earth. And when it comes to museums, it’s hard for any to come close to the British Museum. The centuries-old institution founded and supported by royal patronage is one of the great repositories of human knowledge and of the evidence of the civilizations of the world. But we must always keep in mind that museums, like all other cultural artifacts, are not neutral when it comes to worldview. Somebody’s worldview is involved in the collecting of the items and the decision as to what is appropriate and important for preservation, how displays are then presented, and how items and the larger display context are explained. Museums are not only repositories of items, they are also tellers of stories, and this is a very powerful way to tell a story, whether it’s something like the Smithsonian Institution that grand Museum and collection of museums in the United States capitol, or when it comes to museums, such as the collection in Berlin or, as I’ve said, here in the British Museum in London.
The important thing about this news story in the Times is that it tells us that British Museum has decided to tell the story of sex, but the important thing is this -- it is deciding to tell the story of sex in its way to Britain schoolchildren. As David Sanderson of The Times reminds us that the British Museum “can be … a romp through the history of sex,” he goes on to say, “which is why its director believes it is the perfect place to teach children about the birds and the bees.”
The director, Hartwig Fischer, “said that sex education ‘works much better in museums’ because students,” according to the Times, “can access objects from across culture and time to illuminate the topic.”
Well this is another reminder to parents and to others that someone is always trying to tell our children stories, and that includes the story of sex. Hollywood and the cultural elites are trying to tell our children their version of the story of sex so are so-called progressive sex educators pushing their agenda of what they call comprehensive sex education in the schools and in the larger culture. Now intellectual honesty directs us to imagine that in a museum issues of sex and sexuality and gender will always be present. But what we’re being told here is that the director of the British Museum in London has decided that the British Museum is now going to tell Britain’s schoolchildren its version of the story is sex, and let’s just say that much that is in this article published in one of the main London newspapers is beyond what I can actually mention in specific form on The Briefing. Later in the article, The Times cites Mr. Fischer, the British Museum director, as saying that the Museum would now offer schools a “‘sex and relationship education’ programme where pupils could attend workshops to learn about sex and identity, with the museum’s objects used to discuss contemporary issues.”
Well there’s a bombshell for you. Now the British Museum director is actually saying that the British Museum will take on the responsibility for the schools and for the parents of the United Kingdom to tell their children and young people the story of sex while using the objects found within the museum, but also as you heard here, applying the lessons learned according to their worldview to contemporary issues, and you can anticipate exactly where that’s going to lead. But we actually don’t have to use our imaginations to see where this is going to lead because The Times takes us directly there,
“Pupils can discuss pornography, consent and body image with the help of Japan, Ancient Egypt and Greece. Lesbian, gay and bisexual issues are explored with the aid of ancient Mesopotamia while transgender issues are touched upon with the help of the Aztecs.”
If Britain’s parents are concerned enough, just consider the statement directly from the director,
“They [museums] offer protected spaces and offer schools the possibility for pupils to engage with objects and address difficult subjects. We run a sex and relationship programme that works much better in museums where you have objects that you can relate to and where it is easier to talk about these things.
But just imagine that a school bus full of schoolchildren is headed from some village in Great Britain to the British Museum. Do parents actually understand what their children are going to be confronted with in the museum? The really big problems that go beyond the obvious in this story have to do with the fact that here you have cultural authorities who are deciding that it is their responsibility to in the words of this article tell the story of sex to Britain’s schoolchildren and young people. You can be quite certain that when the British Museum was established, this was not a part of the mission statement. Another big problem is the ideological content of what’s going to be presented is the story of sex and gender and sexuality here.
But that just gets to another point, and that is that with the sexual and moral revolution taking place around us we are noticing that there is no part of the landscape that is left unaffected and that includes cultural institutions, most importantly, institutions that parents and others might consider nonideological, such as museums. But as we said in the beginning, every single cultural artifact or institution is a part of a moral context, and every one of these is directed in terms of someone’s worldview. Someone’s worldview has decided that it’s appropriate to introduce schoolchildren to a specific set of sexual messages while referencing pornography and body image from Japan, Ancient Egypt, and Greece, lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues coming from ancient Mesopotamia, and of course, as was also mentioned here, transgender issues that are touched upon “with the help of the Aztecs.”
Well, with or without the help of the Aztecs I think it’s safe to say that it would be one thing for cultural institutions such as the British Museum to decide to tell the story or at least to invite adults to consider what is now in terms of these exhibits and storylines going to be presented. But this is not even intended primarily for adults, much less restricted to them. Instead, this is being intended for and directed to the schoolchildren of the United Kingdom. It’s also interesting that this article is presented in The Times as if this should be a matter of no basic concern to anyone and certainly not a matter of controversy. But just keep in mind that an awful lot of parents in Great Britain are going to be sending their children to the British Museum believing that they’re going to be seeing great paintings, Egyptian mummies, and also the famous Elgin Marbles from Athens, but that’s not actually all the children will be seeing. And let this be a warning to all of us. When it comes cultural institutions on either side of the Atlantic or wherever they may be found, there is no institution, there is no exhibition, there is no item of art or of history that doesn’t reflect someone’s worldview. The question is – whose?
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I’m speaking to you from London, England, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.