Virtue Vibes with Jarrod Blair

#17: Morally Corrupting Entertainment

January 24, 2024 Jarrod Blair Episode 17
Virtue Vibes with Jarrod Blair
#17: Morally Corrupting Entertainment
Show Notes Transcript

Is it wrong to watch depictions of evil in our entertainment? Can watching evil actions ever be beneficial? Can entertainment morally corrupt us? 

In this episode, I analyze some ways in which depictions of evil in our entertainment (books, movies, music, etc.) can be both valuable in some cases and morally corrupting in others. 

Outro music: ""Embrace" by ItsWatR on Pixabay

Intro music: "Lofi Heavy Chill Bass & Keyboard" by Phill Dillow on Pixabay

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Hello and welcome back to Virtue Vibes, the podcast where we think hard about how to be good. I’m your host, Jarrod Blair, and today we’re gonna think about some ways that entertainment can have a morally corrupting effect on us.  

So pretty much everyone I know entertains themselves at times with stories of some sort. The stories I’m talking about are shared in books, movies, TV shows, music, videogames, etc. And there’s so many great things to be found in these forms of entertainment; fun, relaxation, humor, inspiration, education, feelings of awe, or deep catharsis, the chance to see the world from a new perspective, the list goes on and on... But in our pursuit of these great features of entertainment, I think we can stumble across some stories and depictions that actually corrupt us morally. In other words, by consuming them, we become less capable of living a good life. So today, I want to think about how this corruption might happen, so that we have at least a rough understanding of what to look out for.  

I also wanna note that this discussion is going to leave out some important considerations concerning children and what kinds of entertainment they should be consuming. A lot of my points will still apply to children, but I think there are some additional concerns about their process of psychological development that I don’t fully understand. So today’s discussion will be about how entertainment can corrupt an adult mind, but some of my points are still relevant to children as well, even if it's not the full picture.  

Schweet, let’s get into it.  




To begin, I want to distance myself from those people who say that it's wrong to have immorality, or evil actions of any kind depicted in our entertainment. I’m sure you’ve met someone like this, someone who says, “there’s sexual immorality in that movie, or violence, or wickedness, so it’s wrong to watch it.” If the idea here is that it’s always wrong to consume depictions of evil, and that they will always corrupt us, then I would disagree. Later in this episode I'll describe situations where I do think entertainment can corrupt us, but I don’t think the mere presence of immorality, or evil, is enough to make it have that effect. In other words, not all depictions of immorality corrupt us, and it’s OK to consume some depictions of evil. 

When I was a kid, there were usually two kinds of shows playing on our TV. The first kind were those low-budget sci-fi movies about some killer mutant crocodile, or some alien invaders. The kind of stuff that plays at 8pm on the sci-fi channel.  There was plenty of violence, betrayal, and evil actions being depicted, and my mom was always angry at my dad for letting me watch them. She thought it was going to make me into a serial killer, haha. The second kind of shows were things that you would see on the history channel, especially movies or documentaries about war and the holocaust. There too I saw plenty of violence, betrayal, and evil actions being depicted, but this time it was about things that really happened.  

Is it wrong for us to pay attention to evil that is happening in the world, like the holocaust? Should we just avert our eyes whenever we see evil or violence happening? I think not, and I think most people would agree. One reason why we should pay attention to evil is that we might be able to do something about it, but another reason is that we can learn things by paying careful attention to immorality. Even the holy texts of various religions, which are a major source of ethical teachings, are filled with stories of evil and wickedness. By paying attention to immorality, we learn about the human condition, and its flaws, and we learn how to respond to our own wickedness, and how to fight against the wickedness of others in the world. And as I discussed in the last episode, titled “Is it wrong to judge,” we can look at the lives and actions of other people, including their wicked actions, to form judgments and a code of ethics that can help us to navigate similar situations in our own lives.   

But in addition to real world events, all of these benefits I just mentioned can also come from fictional stories that portray the darker sides of humanity. If done well, these fictional stories can capture some true and interesting features of human condition for us to reflect on. Sure, I probably won’t be encountering any killer mutant crocodiles or alien invaders in my lifetime, but I might still be able to learn something about bravery or cowardice in the face of these monstrous actions. I could learn about betrayal, or self-sacrifice, or cycles of vengeance that come about after one group of people is violated, and if the writers are skilled, I’ll be able to carry over some of my observations into the real world. So even though a lot of depictions of evil are lazy, or just out to get cheap shock-value thrills, I think it's possible to depict evil in an interesting and tasteful way, which leaves us with plenty of valuable things to think about when the credits roll or when the book cover closes. This is why I think that, when done right, some entertainment that depicts evil can actually be quite valuable.  




So now that I’ve talked about the value of having some depictions of evil, I wanna talk about some ways that these stories can have a corrupting effect. And my first point is pretty straightforward, which is this; it’s not good to be constantly surrounded by wickedness. If we’re surrounded by crappy friends, who are willing to behave in crappy ways, then we too become... crappy. Everyone knows this. And being surrounded by crappy people also darkens our view of the world. Without even being consciously aware of what’s happening, we might start believing that all people are just as selfish as our crappy friends and family, or just as willing to lie, cheat, steal, etc. Our worldview can become darkened with each passing day, in a slow and pessimistic drift, when we are surrounded by bad examples.  

But I think this concept carries over into our choice of entertainment as well, especially when it’s a significant part of our days. If all the shows we watch and all the books we read have characters who use other people like objects for their own pleasure, and if we have no good examples to contrast this with, then our psyche might drift in that direction. If all the music we listen to is about gang violence and shallow people who flaunt their wealth to get chicks and street cred, then we might subconsciously start pursuing that same lifestyle for ourselves. And if all of the books we read are about how awful it is to be alive and how twisted humanity can become, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we develop a gloomy and negative demeanor.  

However, in both real and fictional settings, if we have enough good examples surrounding us then we can stop this drift from happening. We can find depictions of noble and virtuous people who can inspire us to behave similarly, and who remind us of everything that’s good in the world. And once we’ve had enough of these positive examples set before us, we’ll even be able to more clearly see what exactly is going wrong when we do encounter examples of wickedness.  

So my point here is just that we need to be aware of the amount of evil actions we are consuming in our entertainment, and to make sure that we have a healthy serving of virtuous role models and themes to keep our minds from slipping into darkness.  




The last point I want to make has to do with the way that evil is being presented in our entertainment, and this is what worries me the most when thinking about corruption. So it’s one thing to present evil actions in a fictional setting, and to show the hurt, the pain, the emptiness, or the confusion that is typically brought about by those evil actions. But the thing about fiction is that it doesn’t have to adhere to the rules of the real world, because it’s just the artistic creation of someone’s mind. This is great fun to be able to imagine fantasy or science fiction universes which operate in ways quite different from our own. People can fly, teleport, turn into werewolves and back into humans just in time for the romance scene, etc. These stories violate all sorts of rules that govern our world, and it’s enjoyable to imagine these possibilities, but were probably not going to jump off a roof and expect our wings to sprout.  

However, the stories we entertain ourselves with can also come apart from the real world with regards to morality. Since these stories come from a writer’s head, rather than being observed in the real world, evil events that get depicted might not result in the usual signs of suffering that accompany them in the real world. Instead, the characters might be hardly affected by their wrongdoing, and simply go about their day. Or the people who were hurt, whose mental health should be shattered, or whose family has been destroyed through violent acts might never see anymore screentime. The writer gets to tell you the story that they want to tell you, and that story might trivialize various immoral actions in the way they present their fiction.  

Furthermore, the writer might do more than just trivialize evil and immoral actions. They might even present evil and immoral actions as being good and noble actions, and they might valorize the perpetrator and make them out to be a hero, or make them out to be the cool person. This can be done with the musical score that plays as someone get’s gunned down, or when the laugh track comes on behind a demeaning joke, or in the way that the protagonist gets rewarded for manipulating everyone into doing their bidding, while all of the real world consequences that would accompany these actions gets left out.  

In this way, the stories we consume can suggest all kinds of inappropriate feelings. They might leave us with feelings of a womanizer being cool, or the feeling of superiority around a manipulator, or the image of happiness being achievable simply by selfish ambition and materialism, and these are hard things to shake off, and our minds are not always on guard and ready to notice when we are being presented with immoral suggestions. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think writers or creators are intentionally distorting the way the world works, it just happens because they might have some bad ideas about ethics, or they might have become callous or darkened themselves, and their worldview shows up in their stories.  

So I think it’s worthwhile to seek out entertainment that we admire. We should seek out entertainment that resonates with us morally, which usually happens when the creator teases out interesting aspects of the human condition, rather than distorting them. This doesn’t mean we have to rid our entertainment of all depictions of evil, because as I mentioned earlier, even these can be valuable when done right. However, we should pay attention to how much immorality we are being exposed to, which needs to be balanced by depictions of goodness and virtue, and we should be particularly careful about consuming entertainment that presents evil as good and good as evil, which can have subtle corrupting effects on our perceptions of goodness and virtue.