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not even once

By Diogenes (articles ) | Dec 16, 2006

Last year a Montana billionaire, disturbed by the social damage caused by addiction to crystal meth, convinced many of the state's television and radio stations to broadcast public service messages -- produced at his own expense -- designed to discourage even "first-time" meth use among young people. For examples of the video ads (note: requires FlashPlayer -- not for the squeamish), go here, here, here, here and here.

The ads are very skilfully made, not only technically slick but psychologically deft in inviting the young viewer to project himself into the "before" and "after" personae of the meth user with chilling plausibility.

What interests your Uncle Di is not the issue of meth nor the effectiveness of these particular videos, but the unspoken moral assumptions to which the ads give voice -- or more exactly, the culturally diffused permissions and prohibitions that they exemplify. We see, e.g., that representational realism is permitted with respect to squalor and violence, but restricted with respect to race (all the users portrayed are white). That's to say, there's a tacit understanding that some sensibilities may legitimately be shocked while other sensibilities must be sheltered, even if reality is sacrificed thereby. More easily overlooked is the implicit permission to instruct the uninstructed by means of an exceptionless prohibition: DON'T DO THIS. No one polled Montana parents and asked, "Is it OK if we discourage your kids from doing meth?" It was taken for granted that this was a good thing.

Will this tacit understanding still be in place 40 years from now? Maybe. Maybe not. Consider the changes the last 40 years have made in permission and prohibitions. Available here is a video called Boys Beware showing the hazards of hitching a ride with a Thinking Catholic (viewer warning: portrays auto passengers not wearing lap belts or shoulder harness). The production date isn't given, but the shot of a 1960 Ford provides a terminus post quem. Note the implicit permission to instruct the uninstructed DON'T DO THIS. Note which sensibilities are protected and which aren't.

Has American morality changed in the past four or five decades? If by that term we mean what Americans actually do, the answer is Yes. If instead we mean what Americans judge to be right and wrong, the answer's not so obvious. My hunch is that, even today, 95% of parents concur in the DON'T DO THIS of the "Boys Beware" clip, and 95% concur in the DON'T DO THIS of the anti-meth campaign. What has changed is the tacit willingness to hear the former prohibition delivered by a public voice: it's the moral etiquette that's shifted. And when the etiquette forbids a certain kind of behavior to be rebuked in public, it comes at a lower cost even to those who judge it wrong, and persons inclined to the lapse in question will fall more frequently.

The term "etiquette" may seem to endorse the view that public morality is as fickle as any other fashion. It ain't so. A look at Robert George's excellent article in the November First Things (which provoked this post) will show that the prohibitions and permissions are dispensed with tactical precision by cultural elites in ways that are narrowly self-serving. Of course every moral system assigns both liberties and restrictions, but when the liberties disproportionately benefit one group within society and the restrictions demanded is proportionately pinch another, it's obvious the fix is in. So take a look at the rebukes that Rawls and Habermas and Anna Quindlen and Andrew Sullivan have decided should be unspeakable, and ask yourself: who profits, who doesn't?

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Dec. 18, 2006 1:09 PM ET USA

    How dare they impose their views on me! One should make an informed decision and then always use safe drug practices. These drug abstinence programs are a waste of time. Some kids are going to use them anyway. We should just make sure the do it responsibly. The argument sounds silly when applied to something other than sex.

  • Posted by: Clorox - Dec. 16, 2006 7:11 AM ET USA

    At least we (parents, public authoriities, priests, Hugh Hefner) can all agree that smoking after fornication is in bad taste.

  • Posted by: Ignacio177 - Dec. 16, 2006 6:53 AM ET USA

    MacIntyre in "After Virtue" takes a look at conflicting values and concludes that the world is waiting for another Benedict. That is to say someone to inspire the construction of "moral communities" the prime example of which are monasteries, but one could add others: amish, quakers, menonites. Perhaps even the parish could become a "moral community". The thing that distinguishes conflicting ethical views are their starting points. The Christian moral community begins with the Logos -

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