I have a special interest in heroes. A professional interest.
There is a neo-Aristotelean view that heroes are a very important way to teach morality. The view accepts that we are a social animal, and that the primary means of being social is verbal communication. I would add to those assumptions the claim that we think primarily in metaphor and analogy. Taking these three claims at face value, and extending them into Aristotelean ethics leads us to the not at all implausible notion that the best way to teach ethical behavior is not to teach complicated rules or lists of does and don’ts, but rather to make a list of character traits we believe people should have. We then treat these traits metaphorically. That is, rather than telling people to be brave, we tell them a story of someone who exemplifies this trait. We don’t tell people “co-operate!” we watch Pixar’s “Incredibles” with them. We don’t tell people to learn to be compassionate, we tell the the “Pursuit of Happiness” story.
The result is multifaceted in a good story. For all its failings, a story like the original Star Wars still has the potential to teach us multiple lessons in ethics. It can show that we should pay attention not just to the intellect but also the intuition. (Use the Force, and may the Force be with you!) It can show us that however far from being a good person we may feel we are, we can become better. (the entire tale is a redemption story after all) It can show us that there is a difference between appearance and character (you scruffy looking nerf herder) as well as action and motivation (the much maligned ewoks show this) in ethical behavior.
Such a view would suggest that the lists of rules in religious texts do almost nothing to make people behave, and in fact can cause worse behavior due to natural rebellion. However the stories in the various religions can have a profound difference on what a culture thinks is proper character, and this can actually teach us how to be good, and what a proper conception of the good life is.
Further, because stories are much more open to interpretation than a list of rules, old stories that were meant to tell us one thing, can still have value to teach us something else when the culture and time have shifted, and new character traits and mores and morals have emerged. The story of obedience from a time when kings rule can become a story of faith in a time that the idea of a king is immoral.
All of this is a very long winded way of saying that I see news of movies, comics, TV shows, art, popular books and graphic novels as a barometer that can tell an observant person things about the morals of the culture telling the story. Michelangelo’s “David” tells the keen observer a very particular story about the heroes, traits and morals of the time. Just 100 years later Bernini’s “David” has a very different tale to tell, because of a very changed culture. Despite the common story of the two works.
More importantly, the heroes of such stories are role models, and allow us to become something more than what we are, or would have been, by stretching to become what stories tell us we can be. You can’t become what you can’t see, but you can become better with a story to motivate you.
So I have been watching the reaction from both sides of the political spectrum with a great deal of interest as DC Comics has announced a gay Green Lantern.
On the left the reaction has ranged from uncaring (who pays attention to a comic book after all) to simple acceptance. “After all,” the thinking seems to be, “I have gay friends, there are gay characters in TV, movies, people I know at work… Why did it take comics so long to catch up?” In fact while comics have been slow to take this topic on, they haven’t been asleep at the wheel. Despite the media reaction, there are numerous gay characters in the comic universe already. Hell we have a lesbian batgirl! Batman as a character has spun off (been superseded by) a female lesbian redhead version of himself. A single gay character is hardly breaking news.
..except to the right.
The rights reaction is much more educational. On the right people have been huffing and puffing and rattling sabers and doing the usual chicken little impression (a story that the right could learn from BTW) since the first hint of the news that a gay character might have the nerve to exist! One of my favorite reactions from the rabid right has been the “but they just changed a character! He wasn’t gay before! How come he can just change? I thought people were born gay!”
Yes, as hard as it is too believe, some people have looked at a universe that took the term “reboot” from computer science and applied it to completely restarting a story line from scratch, and can’t believe “the Green Lantern” could change sexuality, because that is an inborn trait. The simple fact that the comic universe at present has dozens of universes and multiple conflicting back stories for multiple variations of characters is apparently more than their tiny minds can handle.
Ignore that the gay Green Lantern doesn’t even share his name with the original, and exists in an alternate universe. How is that changing a character? Anything to to allow them to spew hatred and ignorance…
Speaking of spewing hate, the poorly named “One Million Moms” (which appears to actually consist of about 11 people, with no proof any of them are mothers, save for in the pejorative sense) began foaming at the mouth early.
This is ridiculous! Why do adult gay men need comic superheroes as role models? They don’t but do want to indoctrinate impressionable young minds by placing these gay characters on pedestals in a positive light. These companies are heavily influencing our youth by using children’s superheroes to desensitize and brainwash them in thinking that a gay lifestyle choice is normal and desirable.
As cnet points out, the 11 mom Facebook page campaign is winning like Rush is winning the listener numbers war. “(B)efore the page could be monitored closely, it was full of pro-gay commentary, including such delightful gems as this from poster Meg Navitsky: “Looks like I’m gonna go buy some Green Lantern memorabilia from JC Penney.””
I may have to friend Meg.
While the raving lunies of the morally bankrupt right have part of the story wrong, it is amazing just how close they come to getting it right. Why would gay adults need comic heroes as role models? As I already pointed out, there is an ethical argument that role models in stories make us better people. And the more we can identify with them, the more the story stays with us, and thus the more effect it has. The message is that you can be a hero, stand up for what is right, struggle, battle oppression, and save the world. And your sexuality doesn’t matter. As it shouldn’t.
But the 11 mom complaint about “indoctrinating young minds” is much closer to reality. That is exactly what stories do. We tell kids these tall tales to “indoctrinate” them into believing that doing good things is desirable. We tell them about the little boy with super powers because he grows up to stand for “truth, justice and the American way” and that has an impact. You want your kids to grow up with ethics, tell them stories with ethics woven into the fabric of the tale.
Or do they really think the Bible stories they start reading kids at age two aren’t “indoctrinating?”
The problem is not that we “brainwash them in thinking that a gay lifestyle choice is normal and desirable.” Those children who are gay are not going to be brainwashed into thinking that. Rather they are allowed to think that they are human. Which they are. Their straight peers who grow up with gay teachers, gay politicians, gay friends, gay parents of friends, and yes, gay superheroes, grow up knowing that your sexuality doesn’t determine your humanity. A generation that accepts that human beings are sometimes simply born gay is a more accepting generation. Extending humanity to all humans is a moral concept.
Call that brainwashing if you will. But if teaching people to accept simple scientific facts about human development is “brain washing,” America needs 4-5 more rinse cycles.