Last month, Albion College’s Dr Jeremy Osborn told ScienceOmega.com that those who believe in televisual portrayals of romance are less likely to be committed to their spouses. This, his results suggest, is an example of television’s capacity to adversely affect real-life relationships, but what of the medium’s potential to make a positive impact? In the following article, Professor Tim Dant, Head of Lancaster University’s Department of Sociology, explores television’s capacity to keep us in touch with the moral order of society…
Professor Tim Dant
The recurring theme of many genres is essentially morality: how should people act towards each other? What is good? What is bad? What sanctions do bad actions warrant? How do good actions lead to good outcomes?
Professor Tim Dant
A little while ago a friend gave me a copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sophocles’ Antigone
(Burial at Thebes
, Faber 2004). Now, I’m not a great reader of Greek tragedies but I’d played a god in one once and this was beautifully written so I read it with great pleasure. From one perspective it is about a historical society that is very different from ours concerned as it is with despotic rulers, rituals, wars and death… well, maybe not so different then. But what did resonate was not so much what people do in the play but the moral motivations of their actions. King Creon decrees that Polyneices, a traitor, should not be buried but Antigone cannot bear that her brother isn’t properly washed and buried and eventually she, the king’s wife and his son go so far as to kill themselves for shame at Creon’s insistence on leaving Polyneices unburied. Shame and honour, the obligations and ties of family, loyalty to one’s country and respect for humans who are dead, are the moral themes that drive some rather extreme actions. For standing up to the tyrant Creon’s disregard of traditions about burial, Antigone is a hero for the people of Thebes. The last word goes to the Chorus who put it like this:
"Wise conduct is the key to happiness.
Always rule by the gods and reverence them.
Those who overbear will be brought to grief.
Fate will flail them on its winnowing floor
And in due season teach them to be wise."
Creon’s obstinacy and insensitivity to the moral order leads to a number of deaths, including that of his loved ones, and he also loses the respect and support of his people. It is a story that when read or performed reminds us of the ties that bind a society, the rules of association and respect for each other that are ignored by the powerful at their peril.
Modern societies still have theatres in which dramas play out moral themes (there even was a ‘modern dress’ production of Antigone
at the National Theatre in the spring of 2012). Often movie theatres provide their audiences with stories of heroes and villains that take on the modern role of reminding society of its moral order. But it is on television that morality is explored nightly for a viewership that runs into millions; it includes classic plays (the last UK television version of Antigone
was broadcast in 1984 – it’s probably due for a new one), adaptations of books, modern dramas, soap operas and fictional content of all sorts, much written specifically for a television audience. The recurring theme of many genres is essentially morality: how should people act towards each other? What is good? What is bad? What sanctions do bad actions warrant? How do good actions lead to good outcomes?
Perhaps the most obvious genre of television programming that undertakes this task of reviewing moral issues and reminding us of the moral order of our society (which is in many respects very different from the world of Sophocles), is that of police and detective dramas. They often take the narrative form of a ‘whodunnit’ in which an act of violence that is fascinating if horrible to contemplate, is the responsibility of a mystery transgressor. The detective who unravels the mystery takes a role somewhat akin to the blind seer of Greek drama (such as ‘Tiresius’ in Antigone
) who progressively gains insight into the moral complexity of action and consequence. Other characters – perhaps a superior officer or a junior colleague – take the role of intermediaries who interpret from a greater distance to provide a broader perspective, much as the chorus does in Greek drama. The dynamic of the narrative is often a crime that needs to be solved but the dramatic revelation that keeps us, the audience, interested is the morality of the characters and how they relate to each other. A drama series like The Killing
explores families, communities, institutions of power, corruption and politics. Grief and mourning are as much a part of the content as is the difficulty for the detectives in identifying exactly who is responsible for what. The high prevalence of serial killers allows for exploring the peripheral morality of key characters from a number of different dimensions. And a popular theme is the moral failings or limitations of the detective themselves (DSI Peter Boyd in BBC’s Waking the Dead
for example, or DCI Jane Tennison in ITV’s Prime Suspect
). The good are often revealed to be not as bad as the bad, although not quite as good as we might hope they would be.
But once you notice that much television is interesting to a wide audience because it explores moral themes, you realise that it doesn’t stop with police procedurals or crime thrillers. Soap operas focus less on criminal transgressions and more on how to live according to contemporary mores – respect, politeness, obligation, caring, customs, rituals – usually most emphasised as they are breached. Romantic dramas tend to circle around the difficulties of achieving a loving relationship that does not hurt other people, often because existing relationships are compromised. But the moral order of modern society is also just under the surface of documentaries, reality shows and other non-fiction programmes that put the lives of ordinary people in the spotlight. The audience is entertained by watching how the decisions that participants make and how they act, leads to how they are judged by others; how they produce their identity and how it is perceived, received and responded to. And we who watch at home enjoy judging too and we take those judgements into our lives, as we reflect on how we
would act in that situation, what would be right way of doing things and what the consequences would be. As there are changes in attitudes towards homosexuality, gender roles, sex, foreigners and family obligations as well as those occasions deemed appropriate for humiliation, approbation, shame, incarceration and even punishment by death, so we all need to be kept up to speed with new moral ideas and values. The Greek tragedies like Antigone
have survived for nearly two millennia because of their literary poignancy and it is unlikely that much of today’s television will survive so well. But the cultural importance of consuming representations of the lives of other people hasn’t changed much in two millennia and television will carry on for some time yet being good for keeping us in touch with the fine tuning of the moral order of our society.
Professor Dant’s latest book, Television and the Moral Imaginary: Society through the Small Screen, is published by Palgrave Macmillan and is available at leading book retailers.