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Sunday, March 14, 2010


A tendency to deprave and corrupt

Here's a fact: the British Board of Film Classification, which determines which films can be released uncut, which have to be cut and which can't be released, has to make its decisions about what's obscene based on the Obscene Publications Act: a work that has a tendency to deprave and corrupt a significant proportion of its likely audience.

The film critic Mark Kermode, whose reviews I always find enjoyable even when I don't agree with them, put up a post some time ago about how some people propose doing away with that definition and substituting a simple list of things that can't be seen; Kermode rightly points out that this would be a step down.

But what about this 'tendency to deprave and corrupt' criterion? In a way, I think it's kind of a great definition, because I can think of almost no works of art that actually would deprave and corrupt their audiences. People aren't really like that; it takes more than a couple of hours' worth of fiction to make any kind of dent on someone's moral character. Life can deprave and corrupt, but fiction really tends not to. If to be considered obscence something has to demonstrably deprave and corrupt its audience and film censors interpret that sensibly, we can live in an era of great artistic freedom.

But thinking about it a little more, another thought occurred to me. What strikes me as most likely to deprave and corrupt is not fiction, but lies presented as fact. For instance: in the precursor to the available-online The Authoritarians, The Authoritarian Specter, psychologist Bob Altemeyer included a chapter entitled 'The Effects of Hate Literature', documenting experiments in which he tested how susceptible to malign proganda his students were. Specifically, found that students who showed a universally strong agreement that the Holocaust was an undeniable fact showed a marked weakening in that agreement - not a change to outright Holocaust denial, but to a weaker conviction that the Holocaust happened - if he had them read, alongside the confession of Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Hoess, either a pamphlet by an Auschwitz guard claiming that Auschwitz was a cheerful place where nobody was killed, or in a later experiment a series of flat, unsubstantiated statements denying the reality of the Holocaust. Implausible pieces of Holocaust denial genuinely made students, at least in the time between reading them and filling in a form, become weaker in their conviction that the Holocaust was a real tragedy; they were swayed by Holocaust deniers. It would be hard not to conclude that was a tendency to deprave and corrupt.

(The Authoritarians repeats a lot of the experiments documented in The Authoritarian Specter but not this one, largely, I suspect, because students proved equally susceptible no matter how they scored on the test for authoritarianism, so it wasn't relevant to the main thesis.)

Propaganda specifically sets out to deprave and corrupt - or at least, to convert an audience to a particular way of thinking, and the ways of thinking that invest heavily in propaganda tend to be fairly depraved. All of which rather suggests that if the Obscene Publications Act were an international rather than a national law, you could make a strong case for defending The Evil Dead and prosecuting Fox News.

But when I apply that kind of logic to fiction, I find myself running into Kermode's favourite movie of all time, the The Exorcist. I saw a documentary a few months ago that described how belief in exorcism actually rose after that film, and talked about the 'actual case' that the story was based on, a boy in his early teens. (My apologies for doing this from memory; I can't find it online.)

Among the talking heads was a neurologist who went into some detail about the kind of brain seizure that can produce all the symptoms the church classified as 'possession' - convulsions, spasms which can give the sufferer brief fits of immense strength, hallucinations and so on. The good doctor's point was simple: such conditions can afflict people, teenagers often grow out of them as their brains develop, and a common reason for the brain to develop such a tic is stress.

From this, we might deduce that strapping a child to a bed and shouting at him for days at a time, an extremely stressful experience, will only stand to worsen his symptoms, not unlike making a boy with a broken leg go for a run. Which would tend to the conclusion that an exorcism isn't just of dubious merit; it may be horribly harmful to a person who's already sick.

That's one of the things that is so disturbing about exorcisms. The other thing, and even more disturbing than the neurologist's explanation, was the interview with a priest who had known the original 'exorcist'. This priest discussed his friend's ordeal, talking compassionately about how terribly draining it had been for the priest, how frightening and exhausting it had been and how much it had taken out of him.

You got that? It was all about how awful it was for the priest. That man did not say one word about how it had been for the boy, the person actually pinned down. It was like listening to a man describing how hard it was for the poor rapist that the woman kept scratching him.

I've talked about the problems of depicting exorcisms before, but in such works of fiction the problem is simple: in such a story, the hero is the priest. The 'possessed' victim is barely a character: the fight is between the priest and the 'demon', and the poor soul actually suffering from the affliction disappears from view, a piece of territory to be wrangled over rather than any kind of agent in their own life. At the end of The Exorcist the priest is actually provoked to attack the 'possessed' child - which I hope was artistic license, because if a priest tries to beat up a sick teenager he should be in prison. In the extreme forms beloved of movies, it's a predatory form of pastoralism, in which the the priest's faith and endurance and heroism are the only issues, and the rights of the victim aren't even considered. It's a myth that presents a grand and admirable struggle in what is actually the cruel and inexcusable mistreatment of somebody mentally ill.

So if fiction isn't liable to deprave and corrupt - which it really isn't - what can we think about fiction that presents itself as 'based on a true story'? Especially when it presents the abuser as the hero?

I'm not in favour of banning such fiction either; burning is no argument. Far better to put out counter-information and answer words with words. But for myself, I think there's a profound moral ugliness in exorcist-as-hero stories that is for the most part invisible, which is why I'm raising the subject again. They are horror stories in which the horror is blamed on the victim while the real villain wears the martyr's crown.

What does anyone else think about these issues?

I remember watching a raving youtube video about how 'muslims' were invading the UK and would soon breed out non muslims. It took a lot of common sense to calm me down from that one. It's frighting how easily you can get drawn into this shit.
There's a great Criminal Minds episode where the priest is shown as the bad guy: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1256093/synopsis
Maybe if there were some sort of law that said that if something is changed to include elements that could not plausibly happen in real life then it can no longer claim to be based on a true story? I've been thinking about this in terms of subway and billboard ads, that not only are the models one of a fairly rare body type to begin with, and made up and dressed and lit professionally, but the photos are also retouched to the point that no actual human being could look like that, and I think they should have to have notices to that effect. Maybe fiction could be similar: either don't say it's based on a true story, or identify which elements are not in line with reality.

That way the creative work itself isn't censored, but people don't get misled. So in the case of the exorcist, it's not so much the priest's behaviour that's implausible (I have no doubt there are adults out there who would attack a sick child out of religious conviction), as the whole premise of demonic possession in the first place. If the movie had made clear that the girl was actually having seizures and was tortured, that would have been fine, but since they claimed there was a real demon that the priest was fighting it should either have not been allowed to say "based on a true story" or it should have had to have a disclaimer about how the real child had seizures..
I have no doubt there are adults out there who would attack a sick child out of religious conviction
There was a sickeningly sad case here recently involving a religious group (commonly called a cult, but I hate that word) which denied food to a two-year-old because he didn't/couldn't say "Amen" after a meal-- he must have been possessed by a demon!

The child starved to death.

Something needs to be done about this whole demonic-possession, spiritual-warfare nonsense; but I have no idea what. Who would think you even need to tell people that you have to feed a child, demons or no demons?

More generally, I dislike "based on a true story" anyway, but I don't know what to do about that either. If you take it to its logical conclusion, does that mean Shakespeare shouldn't have written "Henry V" or "Richard III"?

I'm not even sure you could enforce a disclaimer rule: there'd probably always be someone who claimed to believe that the real child really was possessed.
I think you could enforce it in some cases. Don't most countries (at least Western countries) have boards of some sort that give movies their ratings? Don't movies need to be rated before they get released? Maybe the evaluation of any 'based on a true story' claim could be rolled into the same process. No theatrical release unless there's no such claim, or it is amended with the appropriate disclaimers. Of course that does nothing about straight-to-video (never mind books or theatre or whatever other media) but at least tv-shows and big-screen movies would be affected.
Jake: In the United States, at least, submitting a movie to the MPAA to be rated is entirely voluntary. A studio can release a movie without a rating.

I'm not sure how many cinemas would show an unrated movie, though.
It seems to me that religious groups (and many of their adherents) are, when such things are pointed out, quick to accuse those who identify such abuses of being anti-religious or anti-[whatever group committed the offense].

BTW, I read the end of your first paragraph wrong. I initially took "a work that has a tendency to deprave and corrupt a significant proportion of its likely audience" as a description of the Obscene Publications Act, so I read the whole sentence as a statement that looking around for obscenity tended to deprave and corrupt. While that's obviously not the intended reading, I think my misread version isn't entirely without truth.
@Jarred. Rats. Oh well, it's not like I ever expected my plan to get implemented anyway.
The US, from what I understand, has an additional problem in that most cinemas won't show an NC-17 rated movie, even though it's a perfectly legal rating. (I get that from This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which also suggests that the board is very secretive and rather capricious in what it considers worthy of an NC-17.)

From a UK perspective that seems very strange, as films rated 18 show in every multiplex. You get the occasional film that is only released in a few places, but that's extremely rare - the only one I can recall is the French arthouse film Romance, which most mainstream cinemas wouldn't show because it featured erect penises, sex and other stuff you don't normally see in a regular film, but their refusal seemed more of a gesture than anything else because it wasn't the kind of film most multiplexes show anyway.

(I saw it at the ICA cinema - that's Institute of Contemporary Arts - and it really wasn't very good. Sex aside, it was mostly a mix of Continental philosophy stylings with incredibly simplistic, inane and frankly sexist opinions. You want to put on Continental-philosophical airs, you really need something more sophisticated to say than, 'He dances because he wants to seduce. He wants to seduce because he wants to conquer. He wants to conquer because he's a man.')
What is belief? Perhaps we think we are measuring belief, but we are really measuring "what you have been told recently".
Hmm. A possible counterexample to the standard exorcist as hero narrative might be Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins novels, which don't generally seem to fall into this trap [1], perhaps because they're basically mystery novels with low key supernatural elements, and possibly because the protagonist is an Anglican diocesan exorcist; they tend to be rather cautious about that sort of thing. (The most potent form of exorcism used so far that I can recall is a Requiem Mass.)

When a 'spiritual warfare'-type exorcist turns up at one point, he's pretty much an antagonist rather than a hero.

(I loved 'In Great Waters', by the way.)

[1] Which isn't to say that they're entirely unproblematic, but that's to do with other issues.
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