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On Impropriety in Fiction and Other Works

· 5 min read
Patrick Pace

What determines the acceptability of moral impropriety in fiction? In my youth (has that passed already?), females showing too much skin, cussing, drug use, so called anti-Christian sentiment, and a thousand other criteria would earn any movie or TV show (book, commercial, magazine article, or person, for that matter) a quick rejection. I was a member of a punk band called Poindexter, and I remember refusing to cover “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind because it talks about drugs. Is that an appropriate response?

I don’t intend to discuss standards of morality but rather how to handle when an artist/writer produces content that conflicts with a person’s accepted standard. Thus “impropriety” for the duration of this discussion refers to any moral impropriety from the perspective of any offended audience member.

I can think of two reasons why moral impropriety would typically render a piece of fiction unacceptable. First, the piece promotes an improper view of some impropriety. Second, a reader or viewer wants to avoid the influence of an impropriety (i.e., an alcoholic avoiding movies with neutral or positive views toward drinking).

If a piece promotes the approval of something morally unacceptable, then rejection can be appropriate. However, it is not uncommon to misinterpret the use of improprieties in fiction. Indeed, writers almost always disapprove of parts of what they create. Antagonists—persons or things who contend with stories’ protagonists, or heroes (who typically represent authors’ proposed ideals)—are a good example. The antagonist lies, manipulates, seduces, or kills in order to contrast, to challenge, and in the end to prove the protagonist’s philosophy or agenda. This requirement for nuance also applies elsewhere. A hero’s lie might be intended to demonstrate that even heroes are flawed. Or, perhaps the hero must redeem his lie in order to fulfill his moniker. Thus we must identify for what intent the author includes moral impropriety. Its mere existence in a piece should not render the entire piece unacceptable.

If what an author intends for approval conflicts with a person’s morals, then we have an issue of disparate worldviews, which is another topic much too large for this post. But in short, should we not expect to conflict with everyone at times? And does this conflict necessitate audiences condemning authors? I propose that it does not. We can disagree with others without enforcing judgment—such is not our responsibility, nor is it in our authority. Our responsibility is to love, to relate, to connect. I do not propose that we tolerate everything but that we disagree with grace and humility rather than judgment.

For further nuance, an author might use something inappropriate to build something good. That is, the ultimate intent is good, and the author uses some less-than-good item (though good or neutral in his own worldview) to further his intent. For instance, an author may view sex as an act of intimacy and love (it is), and she may use it to demonstrate such in a new couple’s budding relationship. While a person who believes sex outside of marriage to be immoral may disagree with this use, that same person can appreciate the author’s intent to demonstrate intimacy and openness in a relationship.

Humor is its own animal and one through which I have yet to think thoroughly. Comedies are all about making new connections and challenging sensibilities, and it is because of the latter that comedies, such as satire or irony, offend morals. For whatever reason, there are some moral standards that we allow to be teased and ones that we don’t. Perhaps the difference involves latent sensitivity from perceived ill intent or from past offense. But the thoughtful viewer would do well to determine the author’s intent before rejecting a piece altogether. It seems reasonable that if some comedy challenges sensibility, it likely does so in full acceptance of the standard that it challenges. I may joke with my wife that I’m going to slap her silly, but this can only make sense if we both recognize that really doing so would not end well.

The second reason concerns a desire to avoid temptation, so to speak. This is a pretty common sentiment and one with which I agree. If a guy wants to kick his porn addiction, watching Baywatch reruns is a bad idea. Even well-meaning but tempting content is dangerous. This sentiment is even more common for pieces directed toward kids. I won’t let my daughter watch The Dark Knight, my favorite movie, because I don’t want her to think violence is acceptable in and of itself (and I don’t want to freak her out). It’s not a case of what the author intends so much as that violence is there, and she’s not mature enough to work through the nuances. When she has learned what is acceptable and can make her own judgments, I will let her decide what to watch.

In short, we should seek to understand authors’ intended use of improprieties before rejecting their work. And even if we disagree with their sensibilities, we can respond with love and humility. However, if an artist’s work is apt to lead a person into some unwanted place, rejection can be appropriate. Thus determining acceptability seems more appropriately based on a person’s self-assessment rather than his assessment of someone’s work.

In the next post, I plan on evaluating Chuck, one of my favorite shows, based upon these observations.