Why Not lie? Television talk and moral debate
The paper proposes that we aim to refine talk about issues in soap opera as a means of developing moral reasoning skills. It begins with a report of work at schools in New Jersey over 1996-7, during which excerpts of a popular soap opera, 'Party of Five' were used as the basis of a rigorous philosophical discussion of moral behaviour. The paper then turns to the distinctive role of soap opera as a locus of moral discussion, with an example of a Mexican telenovela. I suggest that children are already engaged in moral debate about soap operas and are eager to develop a more rigorous critical framework for the debate. My argument is that children appreciate the opportunity to flesh out the school yard gossip about soap operas with a philosophically sophisticated discussion.
The approach draws on the work of Matthew Lipman in Philosophy for Children, Neil Postman's critique of television and David Buckingham's analysis of children's responses to television.
PARTY OF FIVE
Claudia: No, uh ah, no way.
Claudia: No, forget it. That's, that is a terrible thing to do.
Julia: Yeah, it is. It is, but how else, Claude, I mean, how else are we going to get him here?
Claudia: I don't know, but that? No, you can't tell him that. You can't have him get in his car and drive all the way over here thinking that. You don't think this is the cruelest thing you could do to a person, I mean you're actually OK with this ?
Sarah: I know it'll get him here Claudia, so yeah I am.
Claudia: Well, I don't care. I won't. I don't care, you know, if you think it is such a great idea, you call him!
Julia: It won't make any sense coming from Sarah or me or Charlie.
Charlie: If it's you Claude, if you call him and say that you need his help and don't know what to do, then he'll believe you and he'll come
Julia: He's in trouble Claudia; I mean aren't you willing to do whatever it takes to help him? I am .
Claudia (dials) Bay Bay, um, it's Owen he, I wasn't looking and he and he he fell down the stairs and he, he hit his head, hard...............
I don't know, I don't know, he's breathing, but he, he's not moving.. Bailey and I don't know what to do. You just, you you gotta you gotta, OK, OK, but hurry
(Turns to group....) Shame on you
This brief transcript is taken from a popular evening soap opera, Party of Five. The soap deals with a family of five orphaned children, ranging in age from the eldest boy, Charlie, in his twenties, to a preschooler, Owen. Their struggles to survive, work and pass through youth and adolescence provide the structure of the episodes of the soap. In this episode the focus is the drinking problem of the teenage boy, Bailey. The family had decided to confront him, but he failed to come to the meeting. Now, the youngest girl, his special ally, Claudia, is being asked to phone him and pretend that Owen has been hurt. The excerpt is, at one level, a piece of effective television; at another it is a classic exposition of the debate between crude consequentialism, the view that what is moral is what has the best consequences, and Claudia's doubts about whether consequences can ever justify a morally distasteful action.
When this segment was shown to a group of Year 5 kids in a New Jersey classroom in early 1997, they exploded in discussion. (1) Some talked of their own experiences of having family members confront difficulty. One boy talked of his uncle, a crack addict, and the need to get him to talk. Others focussed on when it was right to lie. They struggled with the notion that the lie was 'for his own good' and the question of who was to judge what was good for others. But, with some subtle leadership from the philosopher running the group, the issue they finally focussed on was that of whether consequences can ever justify actions that otherwise would be reprehensible.
Later in the same year, I showed the segment to a group of graduates and graduate students of the Media Ecology program from New York University. (2) Their discussion, while conducted in more sophisticated terms, covered much the same ground as the Year Fives. There was some concern about the way the young Claudia was manipulated by her peers, but in general the issues were similar: when is it right to lie? How do we judge the higher good?
Both of these examples show that television can engender moral debate. I want to suggest that we should harness television more effectively for such purposes. But why use soap operas, rather than say carefully crafted pieces with appropriate moral messages? Soaps are, after all, the new opium of the masses, with very little to recommend them except their success in selling the products which are advertised during the breaks.
Soap opera was originally a label for the series and serials designed to sandwich soap powder ads. Indeed, soaps were and still are produced by the soap powder firms - Proctor and Gamble produce three leading soap operas now, including Another World (Canedy, 1997). They came into currency in the early days of commercial radio. The format was driven by the advertising needs: to keep the attention of the audience through the ads and bring them back for another ad- filled episode. Since the ads were for household goods, the focus of the stories was of the sort to appeal to those engaged in domestic settings. Long running family dramas proved most successful.
There is an extensive literature on the soap opera format, describing how it is structured, how new proposals are tested, how ratings determined and how sensitively - or insensitively - they are viewed. (3) I am using the term more broadly than some critics, who reserve the term for daytime shows, and label continuing similar evening programs 'drama'. With the advent of cable and the use of video, once rigid distinctions between day time and evening television genres have disappeared, and the evening soap is a common phenomenon.I take thetem to apply across genres as various as the Mexican telenovela, typically a nightly event for a nine month period, with a summary session on Sunday, through Bollywood to the Québecois téléroman
So defined, what soap operas share are a range of generic features: domestic settings, low production costs and romantic themes are frequent although not universal. What is common is the narrative structure of the genre. Soaps drag on as life does, with final closure rare, for closure means the series finishes. The familiar plot line of a love story, such as are found in Mills and Boone novels or the Sweet Valley High series which ends with all being well, will not do. Events, and particularly love affairs, tend to reshuffle and begin again.
In this sense, soaps are lifelike. The regular daily appearance of soaps, and the unpretentious domestic settings give the impression that they are realistic. Yet even the most cursory viewing shows how unrealistic the genre is: convenient relations appear from nowhere and others disappear to fit the timetables of actors. One example of the phenomenon can be seen in the Australian soap, Echo Point. Just in time for the Christmas break of 1995 and a suspension of the series, the long lost mother of a 14 year old boy turns up, announces that the supposed father and carer was unrelated ("But he's not your son") and goes on to admit she had killed the real father. Such extraordinary coincidences are part of the fabric of soaps, which are still registered as realistic by viewers.
Moreover, soaps often are seen as more real or life-like than life itself. The fictionalised life of soaps is in some sense more coherent and discussable than fragmented and all too private personal lives. Sandra Benitez' recent novel Bitter Grounds charts the role of a radio soap in San Salvadorean society between the wars. The novel tells of interrelated family groups, both wealthy and their servants, of the births out of wedlock, of the family rivalries, of infidelities and violent death. The soap opera reflects, in scarcely more garish tones, the dilemmas in the household. The refrain of discussion of who was right in the soap servers as a counterpoint to the lack of discussion in the household of their own difficulties. When the soap is interrupted by the announcement of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the reaction is one of irritation - would they ever know what had happened in the soap?
Much the same holds true of televisual soaps today. In the latter part of 1997, the Mexican State confronted a genuine political opposition, for the first time since the end of the Revolution. Huge shifts in the economic and political life of the country were under way. The PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) and its allies, including the huge television conglomerate, Televisa, are under pressure. At the same time, a series of confrontational soap operas were introduced by the new network, TV AZTECA. One was specifically political (Nada Personal) : another is the tale of the separation of a wealthy Mexico City couple, their children and their younger lovers, a controversial soap, Mirada de Mujer. Mirada de Mujer (roughly, 'a woman's glance') was shown every night at 9:30 pm and was at the higher end of the quality telenovelas. It dealt with a woman d'un certain age, Marie-Ines, whose wealthy husband abandoned her for a younger professional woman. Marie-Inés' entire life had revolved around her husband and children. In the process of reconstructing a life she took a younger lover, supported her children through unwanted pregnancy and her best friend as she died of AIDS.
In terms of the impact of television,Mirada de Mujer was an extraordinary phenomenon. The events of each episode provided a constant topic of conversation among the multitudinous middle classes of Mexico. The crises of Marie-Inés' life provoked almost as much debate in the quality Mexican press as the political changes which have happened over the same period. It was denounced as immoral. The very direction of the plot was influenced by the fury of the public reaction.
The Technological University of Monterrey (ITESM) held a seminar, broadcast direct to students across Central America ('Encuentran sus "miradas" Reforma 17 September, 1997) In that session, the producer, Epigmenio Ibarra, made it clear that the telenovela was intended to have the effect of encouraging debate, but denied that it would in any way undermine values. He said:
Ibarra's view of the role of the telenovela is that it should portray social issues which are exercising a society, but which for one reason or another are ignored. The actress who portrayed Marie-Ines, Angelica Aragón, put the point clearly:
The telenovela, that is, provides a testing ground for ethical attitudes and a starting point for debate.
There is a solid literature on the role of the telenovela in Latin culture (eg Maziotti, 1996). However, little of the literature comes to terms with the debate that soaps engender. The interaction between the soap opera and the audience is ignored. This is partly because of the nature of mass media: we cannot yet talk back to the television. But, in studies from the active audience perspective, the talk about soap has begun to be investigated. Recent studies (eg Steele & Brown, 1995) (4) fill out the anecdotal evidence of the role of soap opera in adolescent lives. One 15 year old, Chelsea, says of the soap Growing Pains
What is happening here? It would be simple to satirise the tendency to talk of fictional rather than real life events as escapism. Yet it is a familiar ploy. Moral dilemmas have long been a technique of training in the classroom, both at school and at college level. Using soap opera as an entree to a moral dilemma might appear to be a mere high tech way of doing what has long been accepted as a mode of developing moral talk. All too often such exercises degenerate into a dry rehearsal of options; television draws on the visual experience and the ability to identify with characters to make such moral dilemmas vivid.
At a more profound level, fiction and myth have always had a moral role. George Elliot's Mill on the Floss, like Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, not only produced social commentary, but provide a blueprint for making moral sense of the world. To debate over who was right or wrong is a way of uncovering moral attitudes. Television fiction plays the role of the great novel of the nineteenth century in this sense. It is no easy matter to judge guilt, for instance, or the worth of a presidential candidate. The fictional soap operas and situation comedies give us an impersonal way to begin debate about moral issues.
Moreover, soaps now constitute the common culture, much as a century ago, the Bible served as common culture. It is not a coincidence that much of the news has taken on a soapy flavour - news is structured to fit a soap opera genre. As Carlos Fuentes says (1998), the Lewinsky case is a global telenovela. The deaths of Princess Diana and J. F. Kennedy Jr. were too. Our culture is one in which the lives of soap opera characters play a role, and the conventions of life in soaps are what we expect of our political figures. This does not necessarily mean we take soap opera stars as models (although at times we could do worse), but that soap operas and other television products are essential to the shared global culture of a generation. Kids all over the world know 'The Nanny', just as they know 'South Park', Seinfeld and details of Clinton's sex life. If kids are to engage in moral debate it should be about their culture, an important component of which is television culture and the soap operas.
Of course, critics of television ethics have a point. While kids talk about television and soap opera, they rarely do so with a high level of reflective and critical attention. They lack the skills to interrogate content; to develop their ideas. The skills I refer to have had a major role in Western culture for many years, and have been developed over centuries of debate, and of debate about how debate should proceed - of reasoned philosophical questioning. In the case of Party of Five, the specific form of reasoning needed is moral reasoning; in other cases, other reasoned forms of talk.
Reasoning and Television
'Reasoning and television - an oxymoron' is a common reaction to the notion that reasoning can be taught through television. Television does not model rational behaviour. We see kids behaving bravely, adults behaving with sympathy, or dispassionately, but we almost never see people interacting as rational agents. This is as true of current affairs as it is of situation comedies and drama. However critical reasoning skills are required in order to filter and interpret the rapidly changing circumstances of the world around us - and those skills need to be relevant. Many students use television as their major source of information about the world and as the source of basic understanding of the world. The skills directly to criticise and analyse television's worldview must be incorporated in any educational program.
Democracy requires the skills of debate and disagreement, skills which are not obviously fostered by television (cf eg Gutman, 1987). This is not to say that television is all bad. Those who talk of the 'active' audience, such as Buckingham, Palmer and Nightingale, suggest that viewers are more engaged than old fashioned theorists assumed: viewers do not simply adopt the perspective of the producer; they react and interpret what they see. But audiences need training. David Buckingham, (5) perhaps the best know defender of models of research which valorise the understanding viewers bring to the media, talks of the danger of 'sentimentalising' children's grasp of television. He is aware of the need for critical views. I would argue, and he, it seems, agrees, that interpreting television is a skill, just as interpreting novels or music is. Among the most crucial of those skills are reasoning skills.
'Reasoning' as it is used here has a broad application, to skills which range from analysis through inference to evaluation. Reasoning thus conceived is far broader than the set of logical skills often caricatured by non logicians: it is rather, logical skills as conceived by many logicians and most informal logicians, as skills of interpreting and evaluating arguments, with all due contextual sensitivity. Reasoning, in this sense, is closely linked to descriptions of how we act - and rationalise our acting in the world. But it is also, and fundamentally, linked to discourse. I adopt the view that the most effective way to improve reasoning skills is by training kids to reason together - to argue in a coherent and defensible way. In this sense, then, the informal logician's notion of good argument is the basis of reasoning. Framing the rules of such reasoned discourse is extraordinarily difficult (cf eg Govier and van Eemeren for important recent approaches), but kids share an intuitive sense of what makes a good argument. Training kids in reasoning is training them to refine that intuitive sense, and to judge their own and others' remarks by standards of good argument.
To set standards of critical evaluation of the media for students, it is necessary to model the behaviour required. This involves a two part process - criticising content and argument strategies as they appear on the television or the internet, and training students to identify rational and irrational moves themselves. There are (at least) two major ways of training students to be rational. One method involves the use of logic exercises in a classical framework, which would in this case need to be applied specifically to television product. The model here is, for instance, to ask students to look for fallacies in advertisements, or to identify the argument strategies in a debate; or the moral position in a current affairs talk.
Another method is Socratic, involving a process of debate and inquiry in a group, in such a way that students become able to question what they and others say, according to criteria of rationality. This model is derived from Matthew Lipman's Philosophy for Children, although it has many other antecedents, including Dewey and Habermas. The aim is to encourage a particular sort of debate, based on television product - not the familiar style of prurient speculation or questions of 'who won', but a debate about the philosophical and logical moves made in television product. It is at this point that soap operas offer such fertile ground. The Party of Five episode is suitable for ethical debate for the same reason it is successful television: it makes vivid a disturbing moral dilemma. But moral dilemmas take us nowhere unless we examine the reasoning involved, to see how the lesson applies in other cases. It was obvious in the New Jersey classroom that kids wanted to engage in reasoning about the episode. After all, it is part of their culture.
It is well to forestall one objection at this point. It has been argued that print differs from other media in being uniquely well suited to logical thought. Postman (1993), for instance, suggests that the linear patterns of thinking may be undermined by the immediacy and impact of television. Eisenstein's (1983) finely worked analyses of the impact of print have been developed by some to suggest that television, with its plethora of clues, limits the imagination, and the demands made on the viewer. Print, on the other hand is both 'linear' and demanding - the imagination is working double time to think through images given in language, while at the same time interpreting the logical links explicit in written language.
Postman talks as a technophobe, decrying the impact of the new media. On the other hand, prophets of the new media, such as Douglas Rushkoff (1997) share Postman's assumption that television alters reasoning skills, but welcome the consequences. Rushkoff talks of the expectations of young viewers; of their inability to tolerate linear patterns of television viewing. He claims that the addiction to channel surfing and highly complex television product is evidence of the sophistication of what he calls 'screenagers'. He notes in particular the framing of MTV product, and its demands on the audience. As he puts it, television has changed: 'the linear story just broke apart as the programs reached turbulence' (1997: 45).
The arguments of Postman, on the one hand, and Rushkoff on the other, share the assumption that there is one canonical form of linear reasoning which is paradigmatically found in print. This is an error. Being reasonable is fundamentally a feature of discourse and action, not of written linear texts. It is only a contingent feature of our culture that extended patterns of reasoning do normally appear in print. It is an error to identify print alone as suitable for reasoning skills. Being reasonable is fundamentally a feature of discourse and action, not of written linear texts. It is only a contingent feature of our culture that extended patterns of reasoning do normally appear in print.
One feature of television leads to the thought that it is less logical than print, namely the fact that visual media evoke immediate and emotional reactions and hence are not as cognitively complex as print. Evidently, reactions to television differ from those to print, and may be more emotional. But it does not follow that emotional reactions are unreasonable or different in kind from reasoning.
Kids are longing to talk about television. But they do not want to be told that they are being manipulated by media conglomerates, advertising firms or the government. They want to talk about the content of television: the programs they watch and dream about, the people who, as much as their real life friends, inhabit their worlds. All too often media education programs repeat the stale messages of those for whom television is a trivial medium.
We have failed to listen to what kids are talking about. They are longing to find ways of talking about what they see. Our experience, in the New Jersey classroom, as elsewhere, notably with university groups in Australia, is that kids leap on the chance to add rigour to their discussions of television. At times, of course, particularly in mid flow of the plot, they will not want to stop and talk: they will prefer to think and wait to talk after a program has finished. But this is only to be expected: readers feel the same of literature.
It is important to note that the issues that kids want to talk of are often philosophical issues. When, in the style of Lipman's Philosophy for Children program, we ask of a television excerpt what is interesting, or what kids want to talk about; the response is often a specifically philosophical issue. Is it right to lie?, for instance. The philosophical density of television ranges across the board, from ads, with their conspicuous fallacies, through news and situation comedies and the sport programs. All are suitable for kids' discussions.
And not just for children. The debates generated by television are at the heart of social debate - of the public sphere as it is now constituted. Moral and ethical issues abound. Soap operas, in particular, are uniquely well endowed with the outlines of moral decisions taken in domestic settings. They provide the bones on which the flesh of moral argumentation can be developed. As Professor José Carlos Lozano of ITESM put it when discussing Mirada de Mujer:
Soap operas, like the novel of the nineteenth century, give the imaginative space in which moral debate can take place. Some are better than others as engendering debate - at outlining the moral possibilities. The impact of Mirada de Mujer was a function of its relevance, and its success in personalising the social issues which are so often ignored in Mexico.
It is not so much television product itself, but the debate about television programs which is important. The framing of the social debate in Mexico was significantly altered by discussion Mirada de Mujer: but the presentation of events does not end with the viewing. A view of the divorce in a soap is not an advertisement for divorce, but it does invite debate. The difficulty is according to what criteria the debate should be conducted. What is lacking is the framework of argumentation. It is at this point that philosophical traditions, and the sorts of questions philosophers raise, provide a structure for developing talk about television.
I finish with a New York gleaning, from a department store called Barney's. It is indirect evidence that Philosophy is what we need. I was wandering in the store when I saw a huge sign Philosophy. It was a trade mark for a range of cosmetic products - and I quote the booklet
philosophy is a fundamental physical science divided into five areas
our color division
our skin care division
our fragrance, bed and bath division
our charity division
our book and music division
(philosophy sales booklet, Barneys, 1996, p2)
Among the philosophical cosmetic gems, we have
'the naked truth spf 15' the naked truth is a revolutionary new product that takes the notion of tinted moisturisers to the next generation...so we're stretching the truth a little. after all perception is reality. (philosophy sales booklet, Barneys, 1996, p30).
Surely that claim itself needs debate. More relevant to the theme of this paper, we find a note on being reasonable.
what is reasonable and what is unreasonable
when it comes to skin care?
philosophy sales booklet, Barneys, 1996, p8
We are to be reasonable about skin care, it seems. Why not about soaps as well?
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Ang, I (1985) Watching Dallas Methuen, London
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philosophy(1996-7)philosophy advertising booklet http://www.philosophy.com, Barney's NY
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Reforma,(9/17/97. 9E) ' Encuentran sus 'miradas'
Rushkoff, D. (1997) Children of Chaos >*[Surviving the end of the World as we Know it] Flamingo, New York
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(1) I am grateful to Professor Matthew Lipman, the Institute for the Advancement of Philosopy for Children, and Montclair State University for allowing me to participate in their program. The article reports on the work of a student in the MA program at the IAPC, Darryl di Marzio, at a local school. The session mentioned here occurred on 3/11/97, Grade 5/6.
(2) Media Ecology Conference, Department of Communication and Culture, New York Univeristy 11/7/97. I am grateful to Professor Neil Postman for the opportunity to address the group.
(3) Allen, 1985; Ang, 1985; Berger, 1992; Cantor, 1983; Nightingale, 1990, to mention but a few
(4) I am grateful to Fisher Keller for this reference.
(5) Talk at New York University 02/25/97 'Teaching the Media', quoted with permission