Origami Elephants walks the tightrope between religion and philosophy, faith and certainty, symbol and science. Hosts Bryne Lewis and JR. Forasteros tackle the elephants in the room, talking about issues that often go ignored for fear of a fight. Bryne, JR. and their guests initiate a conversation about controversial subjects with an invitational tone.
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Meet the Hosts
Born and raised in Scranton, PA Bryne Lewis is a philosopher, poet, writer and teacher. Bryne is an adjunct instructor with classes in philosophy, ethics and religion. Her poems have appeared in Janus Head: A Journal of Philosophy and Art, The Anglican Theological Journal and other publications. In 2010, her poem “Conjoined” won first prize in the “Love at the Mutter” poetry contest, sponsored by the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia, PA. Bryne is the co-ordinator of the Sit Next to Me! Film Festival, featuring films stories that illustrate our universal need to belong and our personal responsibility to make others feel welcome. Bryne works out her philosophical demons at brynelewis.com.
JR. lives in Dallas, TX with his wife Amanda. He’s a writer, blogger and pastor (in the Church of the Nazarene). He also loves Batman, spirited debates and smoking meats. Check out his blog for his sermon podcast. In addition to Origami Elephants, JR. also cohosts the StoryMen (history, theology and pop culture), Bible Bites (education and theology) and Don’t Split Up! (horror films). He also blogs on faith and pop culture right here on NorvilleRogers.com. Follow him on Twitter or say Hi on Facebook.
(Shout out to my summer section of Introduction to Philosophy who graciously evaluated my argument and previewed this essay. Thanks!)
From the convention stage down to my Facebook feed, I feel like the public conversation has grown thick with rhetoric. Don’t get me wrong. Between the most recent repetitions of racial injustice, all too common acts of gun violence and the current dysphoric election cycle, I think there are plenty of legitimate reasons to be worked up, to be critical and to be angry. Persuasive speech is appropriate and inevitable. However, when rhetoric gets ratcheted up, we risk miscommunicating our position in favor of enflaming passion.
Among the oratorical misdeeds common to our current conversation, I want to focus specifically on confusion between moral condemnation and ethical censure. What I’m not suggesting is some feeble retreat to “making nice.” As a feminist, I’m very aware (and terrifically weary) of the way politeness has been used to silence dissent. Rather, I believe at the current moment we have necessary, hard things to say to one another and just as importantly, we need especially to be clear if we hope the conversation will be productive. The difference between moral and ethical is a nuanced one. While both attempt to distinguish between “good” and “bad,” those conclusions are reached in significantly different ways. I think making a distinction between them can help us more accurately hear one another.
When I teach Introduction to Ethics, one of the first texts I have students read is Plato’s Euthyphro. First of all, Euthyphro introduces students to the basics of philosophical argument. Philosophical argument, in turn, forms the logical foundation of ethics. In ethics, right and wrong is judged by reason. Secondly, Euthyphro draws out how morality, in contrast to ethics, approaches questions of conduct. In the text, the philosopher Socrates questions the title character, Euthyphro, about his motives for prosecuting his father for the murder of a family slave.* This was a strange act in Greek society given both the cultural reverence of the father figure and the widespread existence of slavery. When Socrates presses him, Euthyphro answers that he is prosecuting his father for the sake of “piety” or “holiness.” Throughout the rest of the play, Euthyphro attempts to define “piety” to the satisfaction of Socrates (SPOILER ALERT: he doesn’t do a great job).
Why does Socrates drill down on the word “holy?” Apart from rigorous interrogation being the hallmark of the
Socratic method, it’s because holiness indicates something beyond being merely correct or logically acceptable. By using “holy,” Euthyphro seems confident that what he is about to do is not only right, but also better than other courses of behavior. Euthyphro sees himself as occupying a vantage point from which he can better judge the situation. In Euthyphro’s case, this position is a result of his religious worldview; what he is doing is approved by or for the sake of the gods.
But morality should not be understood as being confined solely to religion. Broadly speaking, the signature of morality is that it appeals to authority and tradition first, reason second. Sometimes, religion is that authority, but the ethnic or political communities may play that role of tradition as well. To say that morality appeals to reason second is not to say that morality can’t be reasonable. It’s more like saying: because of my upbringing, I believe that 3 + 2 is the preferable way to get to 5. 3 + 2 is a perfectly reasonable way of adding to 5, but preferring it over 4 +1 is just a matter of what I was taught to believe.
I’d also like to avoid the misunderstanding that morality is necessarily arrogant. The distinctive of morality isn’t “better than you,” it’s “what’s best for us.” They reveal who we think we are as much as what we think to be good or evil. Because it is grounded in authority and tradition, morality comes from within a particular community, a specific perspective. It’s important to note that typically, my identity is not in question during the course of an issues based conversation. Rather, I speak out of my community of origin. Therefore, moral assessments add a dimension of identity that can’t be ignored.
So in public conversations, which are conversations that span across communities and identities, it’s really helpful to understand whether an objection is being made on moral or ethical grounds; in other words, whether it is more part of someone’s traditionally held beliefs or whether it is more about what makes sense. This helps me to distinguish what’s on the table in the conversation. When we ignore the difference we lose opportunities to agree with one another or we potentially argue over the wrong point.
Let me give a personal example: I am a vegetarian who doesn’t eat meat for ethical reasons. Although there are plenty of vegetarians who abstain from meat for moral reasons, I’ve decided to land my diet lower on the food chain because I think it makes sense as a more fair way to share in the world’s food supply. I don’t think eating meat is necessarily evil. Making that distinction in conversation has allowed me to have discussions with meat eaters about issues we might agree on like conservation and resource distribution. I’ve even learned some things about sustainable meat-eating practices (although I remain untempted).
As another example, I grew up in a faith community that taught homosexuality was wrong. This is a moral judgment drawn from traditional teachings on portions of sacred texts. Growing up, I accepted this position along with many other moral positions shared by my faith community. As I became an adult however, I met members of the LGBTQ community (very patient and gracious members) who made a compelling ethical case for equal treatment under civil law. Even before I began to question my moral assumptions about queer sexuality, I could agree that it made sense that civil rights should be extended to all citizens. This initial agreement opened the doors for me to begin exploring my religion for other voices and teachings on the issue. Eventually, I decided both that the judgement of homosexuality as morally wrong should not be accepted uncritically within my faith tradition and also that I no longer wanted to associate with a faith tradition that held those views.
It is equally helpful to observe cases in which the distinction cannot be made, instances when morality and ethics strongly align. I would argue racial injustice (police profiling and brutality, higher rates of arrest, sentencing inequities) is both unethical and immoral. It does not make sense to apply the law differently on the basis of race; also, doing so attacks the belief that all persons are equally due basic human dignity.
Distinguishing the moral from the ethical does not provide us with a no fail recipe for civil conversation. Far from being an easy fix, it may initially make matters seem more complex. However, if we practice speaking more precisely about the origins of our concerns, we have a better chance of focusing on solutions that we might all agree on.
*As a modern reader, our sympathies are certainly with Euthyphro’s intent.
If you’re a regular Origami Elephants listener, then you know that I recently had a baby with my partner, Peter. If you’re a regular Norville Rogers reader, then you know that writers around here often turn to film to discuss themes theological, philosophical and cultural. So why not a look at pregnancy in movies? Turns out, there’s plenty of good reason why not. In taking a look at what’s available, it rapidly emerges that culturally we have a very narrow view of pregnant women.
If you start with the lists — “25 Movies You Need to Watch During Pregnancy” or “10 Movies to Watch While You’re Expecting” — a couple of things become immediately obvious. First of all, there aren’t many films with pregnant protagonists out there. Which is strange if you compare to the abundance of superhero movies, considering how many women actually get pregnant versus how many superheroes actually foil plots for world destruction.* The official lists are full of movies that are ten and twenty years old. Nothing against the 80s and 90s (that’s my era after all); it’s just an indication that the lists have to dig back awfully deep in order to get up to a respectful number of picks. I’m hoping that the relatively few number of films also accounts for the almost universal inclusion of Junior, a movie-long gag in which Arnold Schwarzenegger carries a baby to term and beyond all credibility. On the other hand, I fully support the fact that Rosemary’s Baby also shows up here and there. Not only is it a good film, but the depiction of the isolation of pregnancy is realistic, despite the demonic character of the pregnancy.
Secondly, most of these movies are comedies. Considering how touchy our society is about women’s reproductive rights and female sexuality, it’s kinda weird that Hollywood also seems to insist that pregnancy is yuk-yuk hilarious. Most of the films focus on the absurdity of pregnancy symptoms are and the uncomfortable reactions they elicit from male partners. However, slapstick level comedy is not central to most women’s experience of pregnancy. And while we’re talking about it, what’s with everyone’s water breaking in embarrassing places?! Only 10-15% of women have their water breaking prior to labor and only a portion of those happen in public. So let’s agree to take a break (ba-dum-bum) from that joke already.
I would also like to point out that many of these movies center around unintended pregnancies. As almost half of all pregnancies in America are unintended, this at least rings true to the statistics. Sometimes the surprise is treated as the opening laugh line, but considering the very real physical and mental health consequences of mistimed and unwanted pregnancies, the subject, like pregnancy in general, seems hardly suitable for comedic treatment. Dramas that develop their stories around an unintended pregnancy often feature teenagers whose main mistake seems to be the decision to have sex in the first place. I remember being subjected to For Keeps? in high school as part of a campaign to scare me and my classmates celibate. What these films don’t address is the same thing that abstinence-only sex education ignores; there are some very safe and effective means of birth control out there. But then again, how often does a cinematic sex scene of any description included the couple either asking about or practicing safe sex?
Another thing the “crazy kids” story line misses is that there are marked and significant disparities in unintended pregnancy rates in disenfranchised demographic groups, such as poor and minority communities. With numbers like these, unintended pregnancy should not be understood or portrayed simply as a judgment lapse, but as related to restricted access to education and medical care which needs to be addressed at a policy level.**
Lastly, “pregnancy” movies are about pregnant women, as opposed to women who are pregnant. Let me break that down a little. What I mean to point out is that, almost across the board, the plots of these movies are all driven by the pregnancy primarily while the woman’s talents, career, and passions are sent to the sidelines. The pregnancy isn’t portrayed as a part of her life as much as her life is reshaped around her pregnancy. Now I’m not saying that pregnancy can’t be disruptive or isn’t life changing. But movies, and TV shows and ads, indicate how extreme our cultural expectations are. Consider commercials for a moment. You won’t see an ad for a copier or a weed wacker featuring a woman who is pregnant, although pregnant women definitely use these products. In fact, you won’t even see a pregnant woman selling typical feminine products like shampoo or makeup. Pregnant women are typically depicted only with specific reference to their pregnancy. In this way, “pregnancy” is not just a medical condition, but a cultural condition that indicates very narrow parameters of interest, activity and gender expression. As a result, you’ll almost never see an ad or a movie in which a woman just happens to be pregnant.
Which is why Fargo is my favorite “pregnancy” movie. In light of the fact that I rank The Mothman Prophecies among my favorite Christmas movies, this shouldn’t be too surprising. And yes, I know Fargo was made in the 90s. And Fargo *is* a kind of comedy, albeit a super dark kind of comedy. But here, the jokes have nothing to do with the fact that the movie’s hero, Chief of Police Marge Gunderson is pregnant. Instead, her pregnancy is treated as color, a facet of her character that brings interest and informs, rather than defines. Within Fargo, there are no tissue-paper stuffed baby shower scenes, there are no acrimonious discussions about quirky family names, no panic attacks in front of the mirror about changing body shape. Marge is depicted going about her normal life: her job, her marriage. As the police chief, Marge is an authority figure. She is a problem solver and a brave officer. The movie only references her pregnancy twice: once when Marge almost gets sick at a crime scene and once when Marge herself mentions her “condition” in order to disarm a suspect. The movie even allows Marge to struggle with an attraction to an old flame which challenges the idea that her sexuality is nullified by her pregnancy and allows us to see her as a person who is married in the same way we see her as a woman who is pregnant.
When it’s all said in done, I’m not making a case for more pregnancy movies. Rather, I’d be happier seeing more pregnant female characters populating other types of films (of course, that would mean we’d need better, stronger female characters in movies overall HINT HINT). More importantly, I think we need to start pushing back on the underlying cultural commitments that limit our picture of what being pregnant means.
*For the record, there are about 6.2 million women pregnant in the US at any given time.
** If you’d like to read more about pregnancy statistics, please visit the Fact Sheet page on the Guttmacher Institute website.
Bryne and JR. welcome author and professor Tripp York to discuss the recent death of Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati zoo. Bringing insights from his book THE END OF CAPTIVITY to bear, Tripp invites us to consider the very nature of zoos – and the animal kingdom.
2:00 – Coming Soon
In This Episode
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Origami Elephants returns after an extended hiatus! Maybe it’s Bryne’s new baby, but we’ve been thinking about Zika, and the implications the virus has for questions of human existence. Listen up as we debate life, death and everything in between.
2:00 – Coming Soon!
In This Episode
2:00 – Coming Soon!
Origami Elephants - May 30, 2016
The Zika Virus and the Problem of Human Existence
From Series: "Origami Elephants Season 3"
Bryne and JR. return with more topics, more guests and more movies (probably). Listen up and weigh in, as always!
More From "Origami Elephants Season 3"
The film focuses on the team of investigative journalists that exposed and documented the sex abuse scandal within the Boston Catholic Archdiocese. Like The Big Short, the film turns what might be considered less than exciting material (clip-hunting, interview-hounding, data-cleaning research) into a compelling visual story. Also like The Big Short, Spotlight chooses to highlight the immense obstacle of institutional failure over the traditional story of individual character triumphing over adversity.
On the most recent episode of Origami Elephants, JR and I discussed some noticeable differences in this kind of storytelling. First, the protagonist tends to be a team rather than an individual. In Spotlight, our “hero” is a team of four journalists, plus their managing editor and the recently installed editor-in-chief. Second, the film doesn’t take the shortcut of setting up an individual villain. In fact, Spotlight doggedly directs its investigations toward the institution. When the team reports that they have evidence of a cover up by Cardinal Bernard Law, their editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (played brilliantly by Liev Schreiber), instructs them to continue researching in order to establish a systemwide culpability that cannot be dismissed as “bad apple” individual behavior.
The only place that I think Spotlight falls short of the storytelling in The Big Short is when it is revealed that team leader, Walter “Robby” Robinson, was one of the reporters who silenced the original inquiry into the sex abuse scandal. In The Big Short, the audience struggles with the protagonists as they each deal with the realization of, not only the staggering scale of the financial crisis, but more importantly their personal involvement in it. On the other hand, “the Robinson reveal” is quickly defused; the characters and therefore the audience are not allowed to grapple with the moment in the same way. To be fair, I think the scene in question was used by the writers more with the intention to move Marty Baron’s character forward than to complete a moral arc. However, I think it’s a significant omission. One of the tragedies of institutional brokenness is the way that even heroes are dragged into cooperation and collusion with it.
All in all, Spotlight is a fantastic film in a genre that only seems to be gaining momentum. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see a movie willing to take on #OscarsSoWhite.