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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

“24”, torture, free speech, and art

Posted by Thomas Nephew on January 21st, 2009

Over at “Unqualified Offerings,” Thoreau writes about a Stephen Colbert reference to the popular TV show “24“, notorious for depicting torture as an effective tactic:

Last night I had a good chuckle when Colbert mixed in some Jack Bauer speeches with speeches by media and political figures arguing in favor of torture. I chuckled, because I distinguish between reality and fiction, and I can enjoy watching fictional characters do things that would never be excusable in real life. It’s pathetic that some people can’t.

But then he acknowledges that “24” may not be as simple as that, and asks:

Are artists responsible for people who feel validated by their works? Are they responsible for people who fail to see the nuances in their works? What if we were talking about gangster rappers instead of Kiefer Sutherland?

Those are excellent questions, I think.  But one of Thoreau’s readers didn’t, simply answering “no” to each question and closing, “Another edition of easy answers.” As it happens, I value that reader’s opinions, which is why I’m taking the time to write out why and how I disagree; I think easy answers aren’t available in this case.

I begin by affirming that everyone has the right to say whatever stupid, vile, pernicious thing they want, because I don’t see how to agree on what does and does not fit that description, and because trying to in a serious, consequential way would chill the free expression of difficult or unpopular ideas.

But I also think everyone should man up and take moral responsibility when they do say stupid, vile, pernicious things.  As Jane Mayer has shown, this TV show clearly has an intentional agenda, and its directors and actors had and have a choice whether or not to participate in that.  If exposure to “24” has increased the propensity to torture or to approve of torture (as it appears to have done) and if that appears to be part of an intentional agenda, then Kiefer Sutherland and the rest of the “24” cast and crew should take their fair share of the blame.  Sometimes it’s not just a job.

This art — like much art, maybe all of it in some sense — is meant to challenge.  To criticize its makers and their collaborators for their role in that art is to accept that challenge.  This is not about the purported effects of exposure to video games or gangster rap, or whether “Piss Christ” is art or deserves public funding.  This is about the real, intended, and deeply unfortunate effects of a work of art on the public discourse.  In that world of public discourse, these people deserve censure.  I think they are “responsible” for their work to that extent.

To some very small degree, my disapproval of “24” incurs the cost of chilling truly nonstupid, nonvile, nonpernicious expression, and that really is regrettable.  So I don’t think my own answers are easy ones either.  Surnow’s creation of and Sutherland et al’s participation in “24” doesn’t make them permanent pariahs (though in Surnow’s case I’m tempted).  But I do think that in this case they failed as human beings, and that they deserve our temporary contempt and our lasting pity.  They also deserve our serious consideration long enough to answer the questions, “What would I do?”  The answer shouldn’t be “hope that no one gives my choice much thought.”

4 Responses to ““24”, torture, free speech, and art”

  1. Gary Farber Says:

    “But I also think everyone should man up and take moral responsibility when they do say stupid, vile, pernicious things.”

    As “that reader,” I respond. 🙂

    I agree. Where I don’t agree is that people are responsible for other people’s reactions. I completely agree that artists are responsible for their stupid, or immoral, or wrongheaded, or hateful, work. I don’t agree that they are responsible for the responses of other people.

    These are two separate responsibilities, in my view. This view doesn’t make either responsibility any less of a responsibility, or take the responsibility off of either category of person. I’m simply saying that we also all remain responsible for our own acts. People are responsible for their own work, but not responsible for other people’s reactions to it, in my view. Those are separate things, in my view.

    I don’t really think this is in any way in contradiction to your main point, that you “think everyone should man up and take moral responsibility when they do say stupid, vile, pernicious things,” which I completely agree with, but it’s a slightly different view of it in that I don’t think that leads to saying “yes” to any of Thoreau’s questions, which is saying yes to the notion that anyone is responsible for someone else’s acts or beliefs or opinions.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Let’s take campaign advertising, then. Would you say that people who create ads designed to wrongly portray a candidate as, say, a secret Muslim and terrorist sympathizer are responsible for an increase in the number of people believing that after seeing the ad? If you intend a result, and you get a result that wouldn’t have otherwise happened, you’re responsible for that result. You’re maybe not solely responsible, but you are responsible.

  3. RobertNAtl Says:

    In “24,” one of the noteworthy aspects about how they portray torture is that (so far, anyway, through 6 seasons) it is 100% *effective*, which is, shall we say, at variance with what I have read about torture’s real-life efficacy. The show would, to say the least, be more difficult to write if their torture were more “realistic” in that it resulted in false positives which led Jack to waste precious hours (he only has 24!) running down various false leads whilst the bad guys perfect their diabolical schemes.

    “24”‘s portrayal of torture does have one dramatic advantage in that it brings the issue of torture into very sharp relief. In real life, we have two reasons to oppose torture: (a) it doesn’t “work”, and, (b) even if it does “work,” it’s morally unjustifiable. In the show, argument (a) is simply taken off the table, and argument (b) is implicitly countered with utilitarian arguments about torturing one (depraved, evil) bad guy versus saving the lives of thousands and thousands of mamas and their young, sweet children innocently spending their day at a playground. Jack knows where he stands on that issue! You and that Senator who dared question Jack last week do too, it seems.

  4. the talking dog Says:

    Broadcast television is a very funny case; it’s “art”… but it isn’t. It’s this perverse combinations of the sensibilities of Disneyland combined with Beirut.

    Hence, we tolerate obscene violence in prime time every week (violence that in real life, would be extremely serious crimes– not just the torture in 24, but the extraordinary violence depicted in many programs, and movies broadcast on television), but we still get squeamish about Janet Jackson’s micro-second “wardrobe malfunction” or most of George Carlin’s “seven dirty words”… to this day.

    I agree with Thomas: one can be, and in this case, is, “responsible” in a moral sense (though presumably not a “criminal justice” sense) for the reactions to their “art” when those reactions are undertaken by public policy makers and those reactions were explicitly intended.

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