Friday, September 29, 2006

Stigmatizing Stigma

In response to Christianity Today’s big question – How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good? – Amy Laura Hall shares some thoughts about the use of shame in addressing the rising tide of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Her comments could not be more timely, and though directed specifically towards Christians, they are part of a conversation that transcends any partisan divide, and as such, is applicable to all members of society.

Now one need not accept Ms. Hall’s curious history of Christianity’s use of shame (forgive me if I do not accept Margaret Sanger and an unnamed Methodist clergyman as representative) to acknowledge that well-meaning people throughout history have employed it. So rather than focus on her contention that Christians should be moving more towards welcoming unwed mothers and their children, and away from stigmatizing them – as I fail to see how this might be countercultural - I’d like to look at whether there is any legitimate place left for shame in modern moral world.

Certainly shame is on the decline. Our collective lack of moral confidence and fear of the scarlet letter H (hypocrisy) make it a very rare occurrence indeed for someone today to criticize the decisions made by others. And yet, out-of-wedlock pregnancy is one issue that transcends these concerns, and is widely accepted by all sides as problematic. In her encouragement to the church to seek out unwed mothers and serve them, Ms. Hall reminds us that real lives hang in the balance, and that it is incumbent upon us to partner with God to turn even regrettable human choices to good. This is no doubt sound advice, redemption being foundational to the Christian worldview. That said, it is hard to see how such a response helps to move us forward in the broader issue of minimizing future unwed pregnancies. At the heart of redemption is the acknowledgment of sin, and it is not entirely clear from the following quote that Ms. Hall regards this as a necessary step.

This does not mean that Christians cannot say it would have been preferable had this young woman not shared herself intimately with a boy…

And it is here where we begin to see the limitations of pure kindness; what may in fact be the subtle absence of actual care. Promoting the good is easy enough to get behind, but don’t we also have a duty to confront that which is wrong? Is it love for the person that keeps us from necessary correction, or is it more likely that we are avoiding an inconvenient and difficult task? Confrontation has become out of vogue, as so many of its practitioners are less than attractive. Yet shame has a place, even if its implementation proves to be confusing and difficult.

Perhaps it makes sense here to consider where things have gone wrong with our use of shame. For many, shame is viewed as a sort of glue that holds society together. It is the tool that helps it promote its morals (and enforce compliance) among its members. Shame is justified on the basis that society has the right to discourage individuals from causing it injury. I believe that it is out of this understanding that shame is most frequently abused. In this view, members of society ascribe to themselves victim status, which then grants them permission to cast off any sense of responsibility to help those in distress while bolstering their own sense of superiority by devaluing others.

The use of shame in such a scenario is obviously less than satisfying. But what would happen if we shifted our focus so that we were primarily concerned with the well-being of the individual? Natural law, despite its universality, is not immune to the corruptions of the flesh. And so, we know that we will be faced time and again with the question of how to help the individual who has heard the case for moral behavior but finds it difficult to resist temptation? I submit that it is here that shame has its proper place, as it is useful in reinforcing the cost of moral transgressions. For what is sin other than a fundamental lack of understanding of the real consequences of one’s actions? Relationships based on integrity demand that we recognize and account for our nature, that we hate the sin while retaining our sympathy for the sinner.

The words, ‘You should be ashamed of…’, far from being the utterance of prudes, may be among the greatest kindnesses that we can extend to one another. Shame, or guilt, is the critical sensation that we are given to help shape our character so that we may reach our full potential. It is not something to be avoided or stigmatized. It is therefore incumbent upon all of us – with all the grace that we possess – to work to ensure that it remains a healthy presence in our lives. Without it, life would be completely unlivable.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Nielsen to Report Viewership of TV Commercials

I've written frequently about how technology is changing the media industry—both on this site and in articles such as today's piece on media consolidation on Tech Central Station—and one of the most significant events yet is about to happen: the Nielsen service is about to begin reporting on how many people watch the advertisements on commercial programs, in addition to the previous convention of reporting how may people watch the surrounding programs.

The first such ratings will be released on November 18 of this year.

This is a highly important change, of course, and it has TV executives understandably nervous. In a time when DVRs and the TV remote make it easy for viewers to zip through commercials without watching them or to switch back and forth among various channels to avoid sitting through advertisements, the companies that pay for TV programs are of course intensely interested in knowing whether the programs are actually delivering viewers to their ads and not just to the programs around them.

The effect of this new information will not be solely on television, by any means. Certainly advertisers have already attempted to lure viewers to watch their ads by creating amusing scenarios, little mysteries, and the like—as they have always done, but now more commonly and perhaps a bit desperately. That's old news.

The real significance will be if the ratings cause advertisers to decide that they are not getting the best return on their investments in TV programming and choose to migrate more to newspapers, magazines, radio, and especially the Web. That would depress television's profitability, though over the long run it would continue to rise as the overall economy contnues to grow.

What it would do most profoundly, I think, is raise the attractiveness of the web.

And what that infusion of money will do will be to accelerate the corporatizaion of the web, although it will still remain a more diverse medium than television, with a buy-in cost of basically zero for content providers (meaning all of us). More money will flow to web content providers, a much larger proportion of whom will not be affiliated with corporate giants than is currently the case with any other communications medium.

If that happens, this could be another great tidal change in the American mass media. The opening of the media into a wider range of voices will continue and accelerate, and although efforts by big government and big business to control the communications media will continue, the technological and social momentum will almost certainly be too much for them to overcome.

I'm betting that the effect will not be immediately obvious but that over time it will indeed be momentous.

From Karnick on Culture.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Evolution Of A Conservative: Strongholds And Salients

I'm principally a military engineer, for which reason (among others) my thinking tends in a military direction on susceptible subjects. Politics being the pursuit of power over others without the overt use of force, political philosophy qualifies as such.

Tactical analysis of ground-war situations seeks to discriminate between defensible and indefensible positions. The infantry can't be on the move all the time; when it's not, the positions it seeks to hold must be defensible, or it will be assaulted and possibly overrun. Though this sort of consideration is less emphasized in modern military studies, it retains a certain fascination for military historians, particularly those who focus on World War I.

One of the lessons of World War I is of the danger of salients to the side that holds them. A salient is a distinct forward protrusion in an otherwise smooth defensive line. Unless the natural features of the terrain dictate otherwise, such a bulge tempts a two-pronged converging assault -- "pinching the salient" -- to create a breakthrough. Such assaults were several times critical to events on the Western Front. The sole effective counteraction is to withdraw from the salient, smoothing the line to a uniform defensibility.

American conservatives, whose natural inclination is to defend that which they consider good, have several times in the past century tied themselves to positions on specific issues that had become indefensible because of larger cultural and technological changes. In sober truth, the larger changes have sometimes been deplorable, but such things are not easily reversed, and their effects on the enforceability of certain kinds of laws must be respected. For example, the ubiquity of the automobile has indirectly made laws against adultery, which at one time was a felony in every state, completely unenforceable. Changes in popular attitudes toward sexual pleasure have similarly vitiated the laws against (consensual) sodomy. Changes in popular attitudes toward intoxication have eliminated all serious possibility of enforcing the many laws about drug use. The list could be extended, but the point has been made.

When William F. Buckley defined the conservative as "one who stands athwart the gates of history crying 'Stop,'" he was principally thinking of the Communist tide and the seemingly inexorable advance of statist impositions through America's free-market economy, but topics such as popular sexual morality, drug use, and gambling were undoubtedly part of his concerns as well. During the decades immediately after World War II, the usual response to conservative plaints was to ignore them. Politically, intellectually, and socially, statist liberals were in the power seats. After the New Deal years, they appeared to be cemented into them. Even self-nominated conservatives such as Dwight D. Eisenhower were well disposed, in practical terms, toward the statist trend.

The conservative dilemma of those years was that not every position we wished to defend was defensible. Statist intrusions on the economy could be fought, though we did a poor job of it. The cultural milieu was a tougher nut. In time, technological advances plus the perfusion of American culture by hedonistic assumptions had made State enforcement of sexual and self-abuse morals, among others, impossible -- even self-defeating.

Many conservatives lament the surrender of those positions. Some of them have good reasons, too: many of the fruits of the Sexual Revolution, in particular, have left a bitter taste. But given the enveloping techno-cultural environment, such things are political salients whose defense is impossible. Stubbornness about them exposes conservatism to great damage with no practical prospect of gain.

The most recent crop of conservative thinkers and pundits have dramatically de-emphasized old-style "State moral conservatism," which the past century's technological and cultural changes have so greatly undermined. Most of these voices are moderately to strongly in favor of decriminalizing drug use; they have little to say about gambling or premarital sex. From a political perspective, this is to the good, and not only for tactical reasons. To harp on such things made their predecessors look unattractively priggish, which weakened their ability to reach the broad national audience on subjects about which it was still reachable.

None of this should be taken to imply that the older "moral conservatism," shorn of its explicitly political aspects, was in any sense wrong. It had become unenforceable -- indefensible -- in a practical sense. Doggedness about it, even when conservatives are in power, would require the weakening or outright retraction of Constitutionally guaranteed rights of great importance, but would not materially improve the chances of success. It would also drain the vitality from initiatives toward greater economic liberty premised on those rights.

Conservatives have begun to learn to beware the policy salient and concentrate on the stronghold of defensible principles. More is necessary, but well begun is half done.

More anon.

ABC Rethinks Saturday Nights, Shuns Babysitters

Saturday night has long been a desert on television because the networks and cable channels came to the conclusion that nobody worth chasing for advertisers is at home then. Hence they largely programmed cheap shows that had a chance of appealing to babysitters.

Much of the Saturday night programming in recent years has been replays of theatrical movies which most people have already had several chances to see in the theater and on other cable channels, magazine programs about murderers, and reruns of shows that had appeared earlier in the week. That's why the nets run those three-hour marathons of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit on Saturday night.

Of course, such a choice becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If purveyors program only for teenage girls, then teenage girls is the audience they are going to get—if that.

That's why it's interesting to see ABC trying something different, running college football on Saturday nights.

Michigan State's Ervin Baldwin (51) celebrates his second-quarter touchdown on an interception against Notre Dame during a college football game, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2006, in East Lansing, Mich. At left is Michigan State's Demond Williams (9). (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

The games they've chosen so far this season have been good ones, and last night's Notre Dame-Michigan State matchup turned into an "instant classic," as the announcers aptly described it.

Notre Dame went into the game under intense scrutiny after their loss last week to Michigan, and the Irish got behind early and stayed there nearly all the game. Heavy winds and driving rain roared into the stadium throughout the second half, making it immensely difficult to mount a passing attack on offense, which made it even tougher for ND to score points and mount a comeback.

On top of all that, the wind direction actually reversed at the end of the third quarter, when the teams switch goals, so that the Irish had the wind against them the entire second half of the game, instead of being able to move with the wind in the last quarter.

In the end, however, the Irish stormed back as their defense finally managed to put some pressure on Spartan quarterback Drew Stanton, and the ND offense finally kicked into gear as QB Brady Quinn started to show better throwing accuracy and/or his receivers managed to run their routes more accurately.

In the end, the Irish won 30-27 on a 27-yeard interception return for a TB by ND cornerback Terrail Lambert.

Notre Dame's Terrail Lambert intercepts a Michigan State pass and returns it to score the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter a 40-37 college football win over Michigan State, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2006, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Notre Dame didn't look like a potential national champion by any means, but it was a great game—and it certainly was much more interesting than another episode of 48 Hours Mystery.

It's good to see ABC try this, and it seems to me that it will be a good thing if the choice proves successful.

From Karnick on Culture.