Monday, December 23, 2013

American Hustle Meets Postmodern Ethics

A quick little reflection that happened on the ride home from seeing American Hustle.

There is an obvious quote from the movie that reflects postmodern ethics: There is no black and white, just a whole lot of gray (I'm paraphrasing since I can't find the original online).

I think we've all heard something similar to that before. It's almost a platitude by now. But that idea gets a little more teeth to it later on in the Jennifer Lawrence/Amy Adams bathroom scene where Lawrence's character, as inebriated as she is, points out that "maybe all you've got in life are f***** up, poisonous choices." I think that gets to the heart of the matter.

It is very hard to reflect ethically on someone's situation when there are no good choices -- they are all messed up and poisonous. Sure, we must be accountable for our prior actions, some of which maybe have put us in our current poisonous position. But that doesn't change anything going forward.

I think the key to recognizing that there is an awful lot of gray out there is the ability to put oneself in another's position, as much as that might be possible. To feel the suffering and the pain of their situation. Not to attempt to remain completely objective and external to their situation, but to insert ourselves into it. That is empathy. And that is where 21st century ethics takes us.

The idea of poisonous choices isn't new, Lawrence Langer spends a good deal of time talking about it. It seemed almost a sport of the Nazis to manufacture situations in which there was no good choice. Sophie's Choice and exorcist: The Beginning offer two such examples (I don't mean to turn to Hollywood instead of history to illustrate the point -- just the most recognizable).

For me, this idea of having no good choices is the definition of tragedy. This is an idea I got from James Childs although I'm not sure which book or where to reference. We are often faced with tragic situations. I suppose the only option is to choose the least bad choice. But more importantly, I think it is important to recognize when others face these tragic situations and to empathize with them instead of damning them.