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MTV and morality.

Religious moralists have always hated the music of youth culture. Jazz, rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, and now rap have been excoriated, condemned, and even banned throughout their histories. In recent times, however, Christian pop-culture critics have chosen to link the rebellious nature of youth and its skepticism about religious ideology to those evil perpetuators of rock music: secular humanists. In his 1982 book What Is Secular Humanism? James Hitchcock deplored the humanistic depravity of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and others. Regarding the Beatles, Hitchcock wrote: "They, more than perhaps anyone else, were responsible for elevating narcissistic self-absorption to the level of a cult, deifying personal and subjective feelings, and establishing self-satisfaction as the principal goal of existence."

Hitchcock had similar things to say about television. Now, more than a decade later, MTV has appropriated control over a huge part of pop music, the most up-front element of defiant youth culture. To religious moralists, MTV's combination of television and rock 'n' roll is both potent and frightening. The little town of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, recently got some national attention when members of the local Roman Catholic congregation, along with a few other God-fearing citizens, petitioned the city council and the local cable TV company in an effort to banish MTV from the local system. And in response to an MTV program on the "seven deadly sins," an editorial in Christianity Today insisted that "popular culture ignores the possibility of salvation and condemns some sins while condoning {others}."

The question that emerges is whether this controversy is really about MTV's actual threat to morality and ethical behavior or its perceived threat to religion. The numerous moralists who have condemned MTV rarely suggest that their criticism has anything to do with protecting their own institutions. Periodically, however, the true nature of the ideological struggle presents itself unapologetically.

The Roman Catholic publication America--whose title alone suggests a certain reluctance to separate church and state--provides an interesting approach to MTV. First, it describes the cable network's domestic presence and its worldwide growth (57 million homes in the United States and 249 million homes in 88 countries). Then America asks how the Catholic church is going to compete. Regarding the United States' 59 million Catholics, the magazine's Phyllis Zangano writes: "These Catholics, a large portion of them between the ages of 12 and 34, are not reached by preachers, teachers, catechists, or catechisms nearly so effectively as they are reached by MTV...."

Is this "us versus them" dualism primarily concerned with society and its moral salvation, or is this really about declining church membership? The belief that MTV represents any kind of philosophy or alternative to religion is ridiculous. MTV is a business; it represents the values of the corporate world. The gospel of capitalism is not concerned with anyone's moral salvation.

Zangano further writes: "Either Christianity can compete, and can help the MTV market outgrow its programmed narcissism, or Christianity, unable to compete, will be replaced by a combination of secular humanism and individualism."

What should be remembered here is that MTV is primarily advertising. Ads for music are interrupted by ads for other consumer products. With that much advertising, there is obviously going to be plenty of "narcissism" and "individualism" being inculcated; that's what advertising is all about. The notable idea in Zangano's analysis is that MTV somehow represents secular humanism. This constitutes a huge logical leap on her part.

MTV is, of course, secular. Those seeking religious programming on cable television have a number of options from which to choose. But to call any secular endeavor humanist is really quite a misnomer. The one aspect of MTV's programming that comes remotely close to a humanist philosophy is its "Free Your Mind" public-service announcements. The network runs thousands of these spots each year, which address such things as racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Yet, although the "Free Your Mind" pieces promote free thinking, their other (perhaps main) function may be to comfort potential advertisers. The "social responsibility" component of MTV's programming actually brings it closer to the ideological center in the eyes of some advertisers. If heavy metal and gangsta rap frighten you, they will seem less shocking in a context where the audience is also being told to vote, not to take drugs, and to be more tolerant. It's just good business.

For these reasons, the profound mistrust and dislike of MTV on the part of many Christians is misguided and misplaced. This is not even a debate on values, because MTV does not represent humanism. If the religious moralists are looking for substantive opposition on a higher intellectual plane, they'll just have to wait for a 24-hour humanist cable network.
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
Article Details
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Author:Hamerlinck, John
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Words:782
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