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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

The dismissal of standards as cultural imperialism

Rochelle Gurstein on the loss of “principled debate about the quality and character of our common world”

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

The dismissal of standards as cultural imperialism

“'The activity of taste,’ Hannah Arendt once observed, ‘decides how this world, independent of its utility and our vital interests in it, is to look and sound, what men will see and what they will hear in it.’ In our own time, however, taste has no public resonance at all; rather, it has been drastically reduced to mean little more than individual whim or consumer preference. In consequence, judgments about which things should appear in public, speculation about the common good, as well as deliberation about moral and aesthetic matters, have increasingly been relegated to the obscurity of the private realm, leaving everyone to his or her own devices. And in the absence of considered debate about the meaning of democracy, freedom, equality, and justice, or about the good, the beautiful, and the true, the public sphere has degenerated into a stage for sensational displays of matters that people formerly would have considered unfit for public appearance.

“It has become a cliché to notice that our common world is flooded with lurid descriptions, representations, and images of sex and violence. And it is not just the old culprits — movies, television, radio, journalism, best-sellers, advertising, rock and roll, and, more recently, rap music — that shamelessly exploit these subjects. Sex in its most obscene form — pornography — now appears in the most unlikely public places: not only is it an unregulated, multibillion-dollar industry, it has also become a litmus test of the First Amendment, a badge of sexual liberation, a tried-and-true strategy of ‘advanced’ artists, a divisive feminist issue, and the subject of serious academic study.

“The other remarkable quality of our common domain is its sheer triviality: we are persistently bombarded by reports of people’s most intimate affairs by way of celebrity gossip and human-interest stories, confessional talkshows and soul-baring interviews, and by omnipresent television series and movies that treat the most banal incidents of ordinary life with the utmost gravity. Our public sphere, which should have displayed and preserved the grandeur and beauty of our civic ideals and moral excellences, is instead inane and vacuous when it is not utterly mean, ugly, or indecent.

“To render this judgment, so plain to common sense, is to invite the inevitable charge of elitism. For, in contemporary America, to judge at all is to be ‘judgmental.’ To hold out the hope that commercial entertainment might occasionally rise above a puerile, sniggering adolescent level, for instance, is evidence of snobbery or, worse yet, of attempting to inculcate middle-class or ‘highbrow’ values in others. Critics are scolded time after time: ‘No one is forcing you to consume popular culture, but don't interfere with others who have a right to do as they please and are entitled to their tastes.’ It is a sign of our time that this ready-made plea for freedom of choice, and the dismissal of standards as a form of cultural imperialism, is automatically offered not only on behalf of commercial entertainment but also for obscene art and pornography; and it is offered with equal gusto by Hollywood, Broadway, and Madison Avenue as well as by postmodern academics, liberal arts administrators, ‘advanced’ artists, record companies, and First Amendment lawyers. . . .

“[T]o raise objections to so-called free expression — no matter how graphically violent, sexually explicit, perverse, or morbid — is to invite the epithet ‘puritan.’ On the one hand, objections to the moral content of flagrantly obscene images are interpreted as a lack of aesthetic sophistication; on the other, they are treated as a squeamish refusal to confront reality in all its variety and intractability. In the logic that rules this argument, the next move is inevitable: to question the value of the work of any self-proclaimed artist is to endorse censorship, and censorship is the first step toward fascism. . . . ”

“With the powerful weapons of rights-talk and personal ridicule at the command of all forward-looking people today, anyone who tries to criticize anything that can be formulated as a free-speech issue — and free speech has been so overextended that it now encompasses not only pornography but cross-burning — is forced to acquit himself or herself of these charges in advance. This is impossible, of course, since to be critical of these liberal pieties is to be a self-confessed traitor to the liberal cause. All this results in the interminable quality and fruitlessness of our most important controversies over our public life. If we are ever to move beyond these stalemates, we shall need to pose a more fundamental question: How and why have puritan-baiting, which focuses narrowly on a person’s alleged sexual liberation or aesthetic sophistication, and rights talk, which makes the individual right to free expression the only issue, displaced principled debate about the quality and character of our common world?

“[W]e no longer understand debates about the things that occupy our common space as matters of taste and judgment susceptible to public deliberation and speculation. Instead, when they are not simply banished to the private sphere of ‘lifestyle’ choice, they are formulated as legal disputes, in which courts balance and weigh the relative rights and interests of the individual against those of society. This resort to the law has made it impossible to address many vital issues that fall outside its narrow precincts, and thus urgent differences over political, moral, and aesthetic matters are all but impossible to articulate. . . . The faculties of taste and judgment — along with the sense of the sacred and the shameful — have become utterly vacant; yet, without them, it is now clear that disputes about the character of our common world can only be trivial, if not altogether meaningless.”

— from The Repeal of Reticence: A History of America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art (Hill & Wang, 1996)