Sunday, October 24, 2010

Michael Kinsley is fond of pointing out the contradiction between anti-abortionists' moral absolutism and their rejection of its natural consequences. If abortion is, as pro-life groups routinely claim, morally indistinguishable from murder, he notes, then violence in defense of murder victims--murder of abortionists, for instance--ought to seem eminently justifiable to the entire movement, rather than just to a tiny fringe. Kinsley concludes, quite plausibly, that anti-abortion activists can't possibly believe their own absolutist rhetoric.

I have a similar reaction to the celebrity video and subsequent apology published by a British environmental group called 10:10. The video presents several vignettes in which people are encouraged to volunteer to reduce their personal greenhouse gas footprints by 10 percent...and those who refuse are shown being blown to pieces in blood-spattering explosions at the press of a big red button.

Opponents have responded with outrage, suggesting that the film exposes the brutally totalitarian mindset of the 10:10 group in particular, and the environmentalist movement in general. The apology reassures readers that the whole thing was intended to be funny, not threatening--the script was, after all, written by Richard Curtis, the screenwriter behind such wildly successful comedies as the Blackadder series and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Here's where Kinsley's point comes into play. Let us assume, for a moment--and I see no reason to doubt it--that the film was, indeed, meant to be humorous. What does that say about its creators? Certainly not that they're wild-eyed totalitarian fanatics--such people might find the idea of blowing up opponents heartening and praiseworthy, but they wouldn't consider it particularly funny. On the contrary, blowing up dissenters only comes off as humorous if the punishment is understood to be wildly disproportionate to the crime, rather than commensurate with it.

In particular, the premise of social annoyances--queue-jumping, inconsiderate driving, loud and disruptive cellphone use and the like--being punished with over-the-top violence has been a stock comedy theme for years. In the 2000 horror film spoof, "Scary Movie", for example, a disruptive moviegoer is murdered by a masked killer, to the applause of annoyed fellow audience members.

And indeed, the 10:10 film never depicts anyone either justifying or acting on environmentalist principles--the rigidly enforced social norm it depicts requires only vocal embrace of the general idea of "saving the planet", and a cheery promise to do something concrete toward that end at a later date. The gory fate imposed on those who dare dissent isn't argued for or justified--it's simply a Scary Movie-style comic exaggeration of the cold disgust that we all feel towards those whose behavior we find unacceptably rude, crass or tasteless.

The 10:10 movement's critics' rants about bloodthirsty totalitarians are thus badly off the mark. The filmmakers have in fact shown themselves to be nothing more than shallow conformist trend-followers, for whom failure to pay nominal lip service to fashionable environmentalist cant is intolerably rude and inconsiderate, in the same way that talking loudly on a cellphone in a movie theater is intolerably rude and inconsiderate. If they really believed that shirkers who neglect the 10:10 commitment deserve to die, then they could never have portrayed the idea of killing them so lightheartedly.

No comments: