The following question is based on an inquiry to The Ethicist column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. When there are scientific studies that point to the media having an impact on violent behavior, is it unethical to write, produce or direct violent films and TV shows?
What is the first text children are supposed to learn, according to the Talmud? You might think it would be Genesis, or perhaps Pirkei Avot, but in fact, it is the book of Leviticus. There is much sense in this, as nearly half the 613 commandments are found in this priestly text. However, it is a text full of graphic violence; animals being violently sacrificed, their blood dashed against the altar, and remains set aflame. There are terrifying images of skin diseases. The only narrative in the whole book deals with the story of Moses' sons--Nadav's and Avihu's--immolation.
How is it that the Talmud, so concerned with the education and proper rearing of children, would want them exposed to this book, which even causes us as moderns to grow squeamish?
The texts are ambiguous, but I would suggest that the reason the rabbis of old have no problem starting with Leviticus is context. These kids weren't just reading them behind the Hippodrome to be grossed out or to infuriate their parents; they were taught the text by responsible adults who helped explain and provide context and meaning. In this way, the material--which we might find dark or banal--was elevated.
Can we make the argument that today's TV programs, movies or video games (or comics, or books) are any more or less graphically violent than the works of our ancient worthies? I think that question is moot. What I think is of concern is that so rarely do parents, teachers, or other responsible adults provide the context for violence when encountered. Do we stop to talk about the violence they see in the news? Do we ask questions about the legitimacy of Han Solo's choices? Or Kylo Ren's? What about the football game that's on TV, and our reactions to it? Or, are we embarrased, conflicted, feeling morally ambivalent about our own relationship with violence, who we ought to be versus who we are? I suspect that's more the reality for most of us; that we don't know how to articulate our ideas of violence without sounding like hypocrites.
As a civilization, we have decried violence in media since the dawn of time. And since the dawn of time, we have created violent media (go read the book of Judges sometime). The question is, to my mind, not whether it is ethical or unethical to produce violent media, but whether we are fulfilling our obligations as responsible adults, as teachers, by refusing to help create context and make meaning?
Chuck Klosterman, in his “The Ethicist” column on 1/16/2015, responds to the question of whether artists have a responsibility to limit violent content in their work, out of concern that it might encourage others to commit similar acts of violence. Klosterman generally dismisses this concern, writing:
“If a director makes a propaganda film that actively instructs people to commit violence — well, that would be self-evidently wrong. But this is almost never the case. Artists usually have a different intent. And as long as artists are sincere about those intentions, they have an ethical right to employ imagery that could be subjectively misinterpreted.”
He cites as an example that Charles Manson famously interpreted certain tracks on the Beatles’ White Album to be encouraging him to initiate a race war. He writes:
“It would be insane to view the making of the White Album — and all albums like it — as a potentially unethical act. And while I realize the cinematic image of a person committing murder is less open to interpretation than the lyrics to “Helter Skelter,” the principle is the same: You can’t self-censor art based on the possibility that some people might misunderstand the point.”
While Klosterman is correct about Manson’s patently psychotic misunderstanding of the Beatles, the broad conclusion he draws, exempting artists from any moral responsibility for the work they put into the world is problematic from a Jewish values perspective.
Judaism teaches us that our most important responsibility is to cultivate our ethical character. One of the most oft quoted rabbinic dicta is “Derekh eretz kadma l’Torah,” meaning, “Ethical character comes before Torah.” An ethical person, according to our sources, is one who lives with justice and compassion, who embodies generosity and kindness, who loves others and seeks peace. We are taught to seek things that cultivate those kind of values, and to turn away from things that diminish them.
Art is a powerful way of expressing and disseminating values. Film and television are especially potent vehicles for expressing values, since they are delivered directly into the homes of such a wide swath of the public. Film and television can have profoundly positive impacts on us — promoting tolerance, elevating discourse, and opening minds to new perspectives. They can also easily accomplish the opposite through glorification of extreme violence, exploitative sexuality, negative portrayals of women or minority groups, and other offenses against human dignity. They can promote the development of our character, both individually and collectively, and they can degrade it.
There is no single, clear-cut standard for when a film or television program crosses the line from an artistic depiction of violence or sexuality that tells an important story to something gratuitous and debasing. It is precisely because of the lack of a clear red line that it behooves an artist of any kind to respect their awesome power to influence for good and for ill and to be cautious and intentional in exercising that power. Artists should never be censored from producing challenging work, but they should also not be callous to the real consequences of their expression.
In that your question regards the Jewish ethical perspective on these undertakings, what I feel I must first do is briefly digress and discuss what we may mean by the term Jewish Ethics. It actually has a compound nature.
A common assumption is the term Jewish Ethics simply refers to Halacha, i.e. Jewish Law. In fact, Jewish Law is actually only one part of Jewish Ethics. There are further layers to what we would term Jewish ethics which emerge from continuing discussions on a subject within a broader context. Terms such as lifnim meshurat hadin, beyond the strictures of the law, are sometimes employed to reflect these realms of Jewish ethical investigation. This term, however, only reflects one category of such extra-legal conclusions; there are many more. Jewish Ethics in reality is simply multi-layered on many levels.
The way many understand this layered approach to Jewish Ethics is by perceiving one standard – generally the standard of Halacha – as a sort of base requirement with the further standards reflecting higher ones to which a person should aspire. As such, the perception of many is that Jewish Law, in itself, reflects a lower standard that one must necessarily abide by while higher levels, beyond the law, reflect further and further declarations of what is really proper. This approach, however, is actually somewhat mistaken. While it is true that we find such examples of distinction in the call of Jewish Ethics -- cases whereby we are told that the average person should abide by one standard while a more righteous person should abide by another higher standard (with often a caveat that the average person should actually not, for various reasons, attempt to abide by this higher standard – that discussion, though, is not for now) -- the presentation of variant standards does not necessarily reflect this specific dichotomy in ethical conclusions. There are different reasons why Jewish Ethics may yield variant responses to an ethical question.
Halacha, Jewish Law, actually reflects a micro analysis of a situation, defining what is right and wrong within the narrow context of the micro action in itself. Its focus is on the act in itself. Further layers of Jewish Ethical investigation then often reflect upon the more macro considerations of the overall situation beyond the micro details of the act. This could include, for example, the ethical, psychological effect on the person doing the act. For example, within the technical, micro definitions of the law prohibiting the causing of pain to animals (tza’ar ba’alei chayim), if an act has tangible benefit for the human being it is permitted. As such, hunting when the human will gain benefit from the carcass is technically permitted under this rule. Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, Noda B’Yehuda, Yoreh Deah 10, however, still cautions that a Jew should, under normal circumstances, still refrain from such activities, especially sport hunting. This is because, beyond the micro parameters of the act, there is also the psychological effect on the hunter whereby he/she would become less sensitive to the very value of life. This is an example of a macro extra-legal Jewish ethical conclusion beyond the micro parameters of the act itself. Such decisions, however, are much more fluid.
Since such secondary investigations are also inherently bound to the micro considerations of the initial, micro, legal analysis, they generally just expand upon the base halacha to go beyond its strictures. This generally would lead to stricter standards in consideration of the macro situation. The macro analysis may, though, also result, in certain situations, in the introduction of more lenient possibilities, in that this consideration of the macro situation may, through certain technical aspects of Jewish Law, have such an effect on the base law.
The Heter Shemitta would be a good example of this. Jews, in Israel, are forbidden to work their land in the seventh year (Shemitta). There was concern, in the late 1800’s, when Jews first returned to the land of Israel and began developing it agriculturally, that observance of Shemitta could possibly have a massive negative effect on this agricultural endeavour and cause great damage to the religious settlement movement. In response, some leading rabbis developed a halachic argument by which it would be possible for the people to work the land (by legally selling it to non-Jews) and thereby avoid this possible negative consequence. These rabbis still maintained that, in normal circumstances, the micro considerations of the law still would demand that the land not be sold and not be worked. It was only consideration of the greater macro concerns in this specific situation that led them to develop a permitted different response given the circumstances. (It perhaps should also be noted that other leading rabbis disagreed with their arguments on various different grounds and maintained that the macro concerns could not lead to this effect – see further, Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, Heter Mechira, YU Torah Online. These dissenters, though, should not be seen as disagreeing with the basic theory that there is a macro layer in Jewish Ethics. They simply did not agree that in this case the macro effect could affect the micro case.)
Turning now to our case at hand -- whether, given that media can have an impact on violent behaviour, it is unethical to write, produce or direct violent films and TV shows – the prohibition framed by Vayikra 19:14 -- which reads Lifnei iver lo titein michshal, “Before a blind person do not put a stumbling block” -- is generally understood to include an injunction against assisting or causing another to sin. See, further, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 232. As such, given that violent behaviour would generally be of a sinful nature, it would seem that it would be problematic for one to do something that could lead to such behaviour. The actual definition of this law in its purest, micro, halachic form maintains, though, that, to violate the prohibition, the one assisting another to sin must be an absolutely necessary component in the person’s sinful action. For example, for someone to be guilty of Lifnei iver, in its base form, in passing a piece of pork to another Jew who is forbidden to eat it, it must be that there is no other way for this other person to acquire this piece of pork. As such, in its most basic form, we can only say definitely that it would be wrong for one to write, produce or direct violent films or TV shows if there is no other way for a person to gain access to such items. That, though, is really only part of the consideration.
On the macro level of Jewish Ethics, the problem in assisting others in a sin actually expands. There is a general standard that one should not be connected with sin and, as such, even if the other could get the piece of pork from someone else and, as such, in giving this person the pork one would not violate Lifnei iver from the micro perspective, the general Jewish ethical perspective would be that a person should still not be the one who gives the pork. On this macro level, though, other considerations, which would also not be considered if we only specifically looked at the micro act, may also enter and further complicate the analysis.
The fact is that, even looking at the micro act, one would consider various technical issues before arriving at a conclusion of the ethical nature of an act. For example, in looking at the question even on its most base level, what do we mean by impact? Does that mean that some people, a small percentage, are so affected by such media presentations or are the majority of people so affected? The answer to this question could even affect the micro halacha. For example, if you are passing the pork to a group of Jews and non-Jews, that could affect the base law. The presence of non-Jews in the receiving group could permit the action of passing. The result may be that it is on the more macro level that we are more stringent. On this level, we may still say that one should not pass the pork. On the other hand, though, on this more macro level, we may also consider the livelihood of the one who is distributing the pork. Consider a pre-school teacher who has to distribute non-kosher food to his/her group of students consisting of Jews and non-Jews. We may find a way for him/her to do so, although it would result in a sin being performed (the eating of non-kosher by a child is considered to be a sinful act although the child is not culpable for this behaviour) since to not do so may result in this person losing his/her job. Similar broad considerations would also have to be studied in this case of media.
So the answer to your question is actually not so simple. In a broad sense, we can say that since violent behaviour is generally sinful, there is a problem in undertaking activity that could lead to such behaviour. (Another factor would be if the subsequent violent behaviour is not sinful such as in self-defence.) Every specific situation, though, has its own set of circumstances and to declare, in definite terms, whether one should write, produce or direct violent films or TV shows must demand a look at the circumstances.
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