After church, yesterday, I received a mild rebuke for the (bleeped out) swears in the video I posted on Saturday. I explained that one of my central complaints against the Nail Communications/RI Foundation clip that my video parodies was the slap of putting swear words in the mouths of children, and that seems to have pointed the complaint where I believe it belongs.
The discussion brought to mind a conversation that I had with my father during my mid-teen go at writing self-righteous progressive protest songs (expressing views that I sincerely, if ignorantly, held at the time). In an attempt at biting irony, I referred to “[f-word] hippies,” and my father thought I should find a word that I wouldn’t have had to bracket out, there. If I recall correctly, his suggestion was “shaggy,” which wouldn’t have quite served the image or the message that I was creating. All words convey a unique meaning in terms of both their dictionary definitions and the images and feelings they evoke in a particular audience. In the case of swear words, their ability to have an almost physical impact on people is part of that context.
And so, while my preference would have been to find some way to clean the language up even more than the bleeps, I don’t think any amount of cleverness would have had the necessary effect if the goal is simultaneously to parody the original video and to offer a cutting commentary of the attitude many of us pick up from Rhode Island’s insiders.
Naturally, whether to pursue such a goal is a separate question having to do with one’s mission and vision.
The other day, Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron posted an article suggesting that the fictional (or fictionalized) History Channel series, Vikings, is “the most religious show on television” — by which he obviously means “mainstream television” — because the characters actually take religion seriously, and the show doesn’t go out of its way to be cynical about their doing so. [Spoiler alert.]
A few episodes into the series, the vikings visit England for the third time, having looted a monastery on their first trip and then raided a church and village during a second. The third time, they go after the regional king, who negotiates with them, attempts to betray them, and ends up giving them what he promised after they kill his brother. As the Northmen sail off, the king swears in the name of Jesus and Mary that he’ll have his vengeance and bring the viking leader to justice.
Note that there are better images of religion in the show, so the king isn’t presented as if he’s representative of the faith, but his vow got me thinking about what should have been the proper Christian response in his circumstances. Of course, much of the trouble could have been averted if the king had taken some precautions after the very first raid, like massing archers along a river rather than allowing the vikings to row up it for three days. A proper show of force at the outset would have set a very different tone.
The next decision point comes when the king’s brother, also his general, doesn’t descend on the vikings as they set up a defensive camp but, rather, decides to wait and, with amazing carelessness, apparently doesn’t post any guards around his camp, allowing the vikings to catch his army unawares in the middle of the night, slaughter his troops, and capture him.
The operative moral question is: Where is the line between the monks’ complete passivity while being slaughtered and some anything-goes strategy like, for example, shooting the vikings’ boats with flaming arrows as they sail away at the end?
In an admittedly very soft way, questions of tactics in social and political battles are of a similar sort. Where is the line between effectively countering a damaging intellectual, ideological, and political trend and holding to propriety and maintaining respect even for opponents as human beings? The Nail Communications/RI Foundation video escalated divisions and lowered standards in an attempt to shame those who drop nasty comments online. Does one answer that escalation in kind or model a better behavior?
Answers will vary from person to person and circumstance to circumstance, but as I told my interlocutor after Mass, readers and viewers should expect that the #WeKnowBetterRI video is about as far as I’m likely to go.