Reading Corrupts, Watching TV Corrupts Absolutely

21 Apr

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In November 1960 Penguin were found not guilty under the Obscene Publications Act over the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The book was judged to have sufficient literary merit to make up for the sex scenes and swear words. One of the questions famously asked by the prosecution was whether the jurors would want their wives or servants to read the book. As well as being rather patronising (some of the people on the jury were actually women), the question seemed to assume that only the weaker sex and the weaker-minded lower classes could possibly be corrupted by the book. Normal, middle class men were immune.

That was a long time ago and seems rather quaint (especially the bit about having servants). Now we have Fifty Shades of Grey which, they say, has no literary merit whatsoever, and certainly has a lot more sex. Despite their differences, though, the publication of 50 Shades would not have been possible without the acceptance of D H Lawrence’s book decades earlier. That’s probably not the kind of legacy the jurors thought they were leaving. In the fifty years or so since that trial we have gone from a time when a book could be banned for having sex in it to one where all TVs have several porn channels on them unless you choose to remove them.

It’s not a straight line from D H Lawrence to E L James, and I’m certainly not claiming that Lady Chatterley’s Lover is responsible for the downfall of western civilisation (although personally I don’t like Lawrence’s writing, and I think he had a very dodgy view of sexual relationships in general). If you want to trace the changes in western culture over the late century or so and you’re up for a bit of philosophy you should instead read Escape from Reason by Francis Schaeffer by Francis Schaeffer. That’s not what this post is about. It is about personal corruption.

This is something that has been on my mind since I went to a Royal Foundlings gig last month. Not that they are a corrupting influence – quite the opposite – but the lead singer said something about being careful what you put into your mind, and it got me thinking about some of the things I do consume, mentally, and the effect they have on me.

I’m not just talking about really horrible stuff that, once seen (or read) you wish you could un-see. (The book of American Psycho would fall into that category, as would the film The Change Up. I stopped both of them partway through, but too late to remove horrible images from my mind.) I’m talking about the more harmless-seeming but possibly more insidious stuff that subtly alters the boundaries of what you find acceptable.

I used to watch How I Met Your Mother, a light sitcom about a group of twenty-something friends, their struggles and relationships. The content is fairly tame, very pre-watershed, but the attitudes it espouses are more of a problem. I finally realised what it was that bothered me when I saw the blurb for a particular episode on the TV guide. It said that the main character, Ted, is really excited about his new girlfriends, until his friends point out that he hasn’t even slept with her yet. It wasn’t so much the premarital sex – a phenomenon hard to avoid in fiction or reality – it was the casual assumption that a romantic relationship is not valid until it’s sexual, and that anyone who would wait for marriage must be completely insane. It’s hard enough to live up to Christian sexual ethics at the best of times, but you just make it harder for yourself if you’re feeding yourself messages like these on a daily basis.

Then there are programmes that don’t actually espouse dodgy values, but just colour the way you interpret the world. I have a friend who is a lovely person, but has a rather negative, cynical attitude to – well, just about everything, and certainly all institutions or sources of authority. When I see the kind of things she watches on TV, her attitude become less surprising: it’s all documentaries about paedophile priests, child neglect and other types of crime and vice. These things go on, of course, but they are not the norm. Focusing on the negative makes you see things more negatively. To a large extent, you see what you expect to see – and the material you read and watch trains your mind in what it expects to see. (In fact there’s a wee Bible verse about that, if you’re interested.)

I’m not trying to pick specifically on How I Met Your Mother or depressing documentaries and label them as the source of all televisual evil; I’m just making the point that it’s good to be aware of the messages you are receiving from the material you read, and particularly watch (since it’s a more passive activity). Are there things you used to find shocking that no longer shock you? Are there attitudes that used to make you uncomfortable that no longer do? It’s all very well to say you’re becoming less narrow-minded, or prudish, or bigoted, or whatever other disparaging word you find most comforting, but the reality could be more disturbing. Your ‘harmless’ pleasures could be corrupting your morals and corroding your soul. We are more corruptible than we like to admit. An open mind is a valuable thing – but so is a vigilant one.

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