Monday, January 29, 2018

P.T. Barnum, Cat People, and Our Legacy Of Exploitation

P.T. Barnum has been in the news again because of The Greatest Showman, a movie which has been getting some pretty harsh criticism not so much because of the movie as a movie but because of the man celebrated in it. Barnum hired ‘freaks', many of whom were forced into the work as children, and profited greatly from them, which was not uncommon at the time. He was probably a better man than many at the time; I did not read that he forced anyone into this. However, he eagerly bought out contracts and hired children as young as 5 to join his show. Even if he is better by comparison, that's a far cry from declaring him good.

However, there was a clear benefit to many of those who put themselves on display. “Many of his performers were paid handsome sums, some earning as much as today’s sports stars.” For example,
 General Tom Thumb” benefited handsomely. For around fifteen years, he was paid upwards of $150 per week ($4,100 today) for his performances, and, upon retiring, lived in New York’s “most fashionable neighborhood,” owned a yacht, and dressed like a dandy. A man Barnum named Zip, who was born with a head deformity, eventually make 1000 dollars a week in 1860’s money, lived in a very nice home Barnum bought for him, and retired in his 80’s a millionaire. Some Siamese twins who toured with Barnum joined as adults after running out of the 1.3 million dollars (in today’s money) they invested well. When they died, they left a fortune to their wives.  The Tattooed Man made the equivalent of $37,000 dollars a week and hired armed guards to protect him. The Dog-Faced Boy made out the best: “Throughout the 1880s, Fedor was among the highest paid performers in the business, netting $500 per week ($13,000 today). By the time of his retirement, his saving totalled nearly $300,000 ($7.6 million).”

In spite of this benefit to many of the freaks, the argument is that Barnum treated them unfairly to gain an unfair advantage or benefit for himself. He exploited them, right? No amount of money or fame could compensate for the dehumanization and commodification of other human beings so that Barnum could benefit.

We live in a world that condemns Barnum’s exploitation. But we also live in a world the has made consent a holy grail. So what do we do when these two things clash? Can the consenting – especially if they benefit well from a transaction – still be exploited? Most of the freaks agreed to it. In fact, most of them ended up pretty well off financially, far better off than they likely would have if Barnum had not hired them.

So, if they consented to work for Barnum, how is this wrong? An agreement was reached, a form of social contract; Barnum profited from them, but they did from him as well. Even if you make the argument he exploited them because he had an unfair advantage or treated them unfairly, it was “their body their choice,” right? As long as they were not coerced, we should be celebrating how these freaks took what society used against them and turned it to their own advantage. In today’s term, I think we would call that empowerment. Unless, of course, there is something about the very nature of what happened that is in some sense wrong.

Monday, January 15, 2018

It's Time To Talk About The Purpose Of Sex

The more I see all the headlines stamped on our news feeds about #metoo moments, the more I am
convinced we as a society have lost sight of the purpose of sex. It's a generally true observation that if we don’t know what something is for, odds are pretty good we will use it in ways we shouldn’t.

Sex is not exempt from this reality. And considering how the scandals range from the church to Hollywood to Washington to schools, it’s clearly a struggle that permeates every aspect of our society.

So, sex and purpose. What could possible go wrong in this discussion? 

I don’t expect everyone reading this to agree with me, but I do ask that you give serious consideration to these thoughts – and then, if you wish to offer serious thoughts in agreement or opposition, feel free!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Empires, Shires, And Incense To Ceasar

I have been reading The Benedict Option, a book by Rod Dreher that generated quite a bit of discussion after it was released just over a year ago. I'm trying to think clearly about the argument he is making, which is basically that "the culture war as we know it is over," and the church needs to focus on building strong communities that learn from and build on Benedict's monastic model.  

My goal here is not to support or critique his argument since I've not yet finished the book (or read a rebuttal). However, as I have been reading his chapter on Christians and Politics, and I have had a lot of thoughts bouncing around in my head.

So, if you are up for (perhaps) being unsettled, here are some excerpts from this chapter that will hopefully bounce thoughts around in your head as well - thoughts which I would love to hear either in the comment section on this post or on social media. I seem to remember reading that there is much wisdom to be found in a multitude of counselors...

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Consent Is Not Enough

Our culture needs to spend more time on two important questions that are increasingly being asked in the wake of the sex scandals rocking Hollywood and Washington, D.C.

First, is consent sufficient to grant moral goodness to any sexual act? After all, we don't simply assume that consent equates with morality or goodness other situations. Two people can agree to kill or cannibalize each other. The fact that they consented hardly makes it a good thing. One can certainly make a morally neutral act bad by coercion, but one can’t make a morally bad act acceptable simply by agreeing to have it done or by giving permission to do it. In terms of sexual activity, the goodness of an act can never include anything less than consent, but it must include more. Consent is necessary, but not sufficient.

Second, when is the one granting consent not actually granting consent? Think of the issue of minors engaging in sex with adults. If a minor is below the age of consent, the idea is that they are not even capable of consenting in any meaningful sense of the word, because they are not mature or rational enough to truly understand what they agreeing to do. That principle can be broadened:
  • What if someone who was abused has had his or her perspective on sex so badly damaged that consent is not a reflection of an affirmative desire at all, but of broken resignation?
  • I have read several articles (such as this one) and sobering books that take an in-depth look at the hook-up culture, especially how it exists on college campuses. If a woman gets drunk so that she can get over her natural inhibition or even dislike of what will eventually happen with someone she meets at a bar, is her consent really consent? She doesn’t really want to, but it’s how she believes the game must be played, so she numbs herself in order to say “yes.”
  • If two adults consent to actions that are degrading, perhaps even dehumanizing, and which will be formative in them and those who watch (if it is porn), is mere consent sufficient to give it our stamp of approval? 
  • What if two adults are in a relationship and one says, "Well, if you won't have sex with me (or if you won't have more sex), this relationship is over." If the partner fulfills the other one's wishes, is that truly consensual sex?

We must gain moral clarity on this. These questions matter not just for the individuals involved, but for the cultural mood that is created based on how we respond. Rather than give a prolonged essay on my view, I am offering a collection of excerpts from articles addressing this issue.