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Repeated exposure

The simple formula that can transform and desensitize an entire culture

Repeated exposure

Parish priest and Mrs. Muller in <em>Doubt: A Parable</em>( Joan Marcus/Bryan-Brown/Boneau/AP)

The play Doubt: A Parable (it was also a highly rated movie in 2008) both expresses disapproval of pedophilia, and floats it out there as a possibility. This, if you are vying for overturning cultural taboos, is all you need do at first: desensitization through repeated exposure.

The little old lady next door who is starting to “come around” to accepting homosexuals as ordinary decent citizens did not shed her youthful revulsion toward sodomy through Socratic introspection. She just got used to the idea by a barrage of television, radio, magazine, and billboard ads—and plays.

Doubt, which I viewed at a local community playhouse with a few girls from church, concerns a Catholic elementary school in the Bronx where a disagreeable principal suspects the parish priest of having an inappropriate relationship with the school’s only African-American student. The play ends inconclusively, and on the way home we argued about whether the priest “did it” or not.

Later it occurred to me: While the ladies and I were focused on the who-done-it question, the author was engaged in shadier business—like a pickpocket working the crowd at a public hanging. I rewound my memory tapes to the scene where the mother of the boy makes a visit to the principal’s office:

Mrs. Muller, in a 10-minute performance, surprises the audience (but we will be less surprised the next time, and even less the next) by not being shaken by the principal’s suggestion of priestly transgression. She doesn’t disbelieve it; she does not really mind. Her son is “that way” anyway, and at least the boy is getting attention from a male figure that he doesn’t get at home.

I told my son the plot, and he shrugged, “Well, the screenwriter is not saying he approves of pedophilia.” He doesn’t have to. No more than Ang Lee has to say he approves of homosexuality in Brokeback Mountain. He just has to put Heath Ledger out there in a saddle and let him steal our hearts. If not right away, then one movie at a time.

National Public Radio called Mrs. Muller’s scene in the 2008 movie “the film’s most wrenching performance …; Davis speaks plainly and quietly, and leaves no doubt that the moral high ground is a treacherous place to occupy in the real world.”

And what is this “moral high ground”? It is the strong, motherly affirmation of love in all its strange forms, over the hidebound, loveless legalism of the Sister Aloysius. We are presented with a false choice here, but nobody wants to be on the side of a “hater.” 

Mrs. Muller thinks she has come to this receptiveness toward man-boy love as her own original idea, but it’s the fruit of decades of patient product placement. While pedophilia is (for now) still an outlier to the morphing mores of America, homosexuality has moved safely inside the frame of the Overton Window and made good speed through the stages of “radical” to “acceptable” to “sensible” to “popular” to “policy.” (Two decades ago Joe Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy observed that on any question politicians consider only a relatively narrow “window” of policies to be politically worth their personal risk.) 

All of us know the experience of having our minds changed about people by nothing more than exposure. As a hitchhiker through Europe in the early ’70s, I pronounced whole countries friendly or unfriendly on the basis of one or two natives I was exposed to. How much more consequential our daily subtle immersion in unwholesome philosophies served up by culture? No wonder God warned Jeremiah of the potential danger when dispatching him as an ambassador: “Do not be afraid of them [literally, ‘do not fear their faces’]” (Jeremiah 1:8). He added: “They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them” (15:19).

This is always the danger—us turning to them rather than them turning to us; us coming to appreciate homosexuality rather than them coming to appreciate the radical holiness of Jesus Christ. Desensitizing is subtle. A woman of prominent position in my church recently told me that her two best friends in the neighborhood are lesbians. They are actually very moral people, she said: “One helped me set boundaries on my son’s video game habits.”

Email aseupeterson@wng.com

Comments

  • West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:10 pm

    When television first entered our homes as the highly favored guest of honor, an entire fifties generation sat and laughed as Sid Caesar performed his weekly show. Sooner or later Sid always dressed up like a woman and America laughed. Take a census of past television comedies and compare the numbers of shows featuring male comedians dressing up like women versus those which never did. It's amazing. In real life, I have witnessed public school elementary assemblies in which the invited performers call up male teachers and dress them like women. The little children find this hugely hilarious. I once was pressured in vain to participate in a teacher written skit that called for the male teacher to dress up like a woman.The students love when the male teacher does this every year. I've been at a church youth party in which a party game consisted of the most popular boys permitting everyone else to apply thick women's makeup to their faces. I've heard pastors during Sunday sermons occasionally do a three second gay imitation or tell a joke implying that they themselves might be gay. I've been told to "chill" by a pastor's wife. The plain truth is that what we laugh at today we will accept tomorrow, and when the following day our own children begin doing what once was reprehensible, we will speak of a tolerant love that accepts everyone for who they are. The day after tomorrow, those who disagree get persecuted. I believe the best action leading to the spiritual revival many churches seem to be praying for is to turn off the TV, remove it from the home, and live without it. People have always complained about the programming on TV, but how many have gotten rid of the TVs that dominate their homes? There is a direct line from television to the sexual impurity (and I have not even spoken of the heterosexual form of that which is every bit as bad) that has engulfed America and the rest of the world. While the media is culpable for their oft-repeated, hammered-in desensitizing, the people who sit and watch these shows are every bit as much to blame.

  • Christian_Prof
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:10 pm

    Well said Andree. Well said indeed.

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:10 pm

    I am printing this out and discussing with my kids.  I hope they (and we Christians) understand the significance of desensitization affecting our judgment of Truth.  Thanks for the reminder. 

  • JIMJ1316
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:10 pm

    I think the point is that the believer should not be attaching the word "moral" to individuals engaged in a habitual, ongoing sinful lifestyle.  It shows that the believer is starting to elevate a worldly concept of morality over a biblical one.  I would say the believer is conducting herself properly in engaging her neighbors in a social way and developing a relationship with them.  Perhaps she will "earn" the opportunity to speak some truth into their lives at some point.  In the mean time, she should stand strong in her own faith and commitment to a biblical standard of sexuality.  Unfortunately though, her view of morality seems to be undergoing a dangerous transition.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:10 pm

    Hollywood, as a mind-set, has been working on us for a long time.  We must often "renew our minds" by constantly prayerfully accessing  the effect our entertainment choices are having on us.  We are changed by what we tolerate and accept.  One of the problems with the homosexual agenda is they have made what they do into what they are.  That makes if very difficult to accept the person without accepting the behavior.  We know from the Bible that we and they can change but saying it produces rage because rage is working for them in achieving the change they want.  Great article!

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:10 pm

    I have long pondered why Jesus when tempted said "It is written..." rather than God said (He would have heard Him), or the Scripture ...etc. I am guessing that He said that to show that some things are there in stone, so to speak, for us, and the record of them is for us. Gay lifestyles may not cross any other moral boundary except the unambiguous Scriptural restriction on human sexuality to lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual commitment. In other words, it may be the defining moral issue of the day simply because it is solely the Scripture that proclaims it wrong - not society, not preference, not even obvious consequences (eg the lovely ******** next door). And for fifty years, the evangelical church could hide the root of its' disapproval behind obvious societal impact (eg divorce) or remain unchallenged because that disapproval went with the flow of societal sentiment (eg. alocohol abuse). Now, we can say nothing except "God said....". And we see the result of this position in the response of the world. 

  • Glouish
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:10 pm

    A necessary warning and wake-up call for me. Jesus said, "Watch and Pray." I desire to always Watch and Pray, throughout the day.

  • BethB
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:10 pm

    I get it.  So, how does the neighbor lady take the moral high road.That is the practical question.  On a day to day basis with nice male neighbors, what does change look like?  How do we neighbor with them?