My wife and I have been watching the excellent BBC series “Grantchester” which just completed its latest season with the usual cliff-hanger. The series is extremely well done and focuses on a young Anglican vicar in Cambridgeshire back in the late 1950s who befriends a policeman and helps him solve crimes. Old hat, perhaps, but the intricate personal stories of the two men are what hold the series together.

It turns out that the Vicar, Sidney, is in love with Amanda, a woman he has known most of his life and whom he would have married except for his strained financial situation and the fact that the woman’s father would have none of it. He forces her to marry a wealthy man whom she doesn’t love and together they have a child. But she is also in love with Sidney and as the series progresses it is clear that the two of them will be drawn closer and closer together.

Throughout the series, focusing on the relationship between these two people, the struggle is the ancient one between “want and will.” Sidney is a man of the cloth and in the 50s when these events are supposed to have taken place he cannot marry a divorced woman. Thus, even if  Amanda leaves her husband who is cold and remote Sidney would have to leave the Church in order to marry her. And what is he to do? He is well-loved and much relied upon by those in the Church, including his housekeeper and the young Curate (who happens to be gay, another taboo of the times and a fascinating story in its own right).

Sidney begins to lose his faith in the Church and to have serious doubts about his abilities to carry out his duties as head of the small Church. He finally decides to resign and move to London with Amanda and her daughter. The move is planned and he has written his letter of resignation when he begins to realize that his duty is to those people who depend so much upon him in the small village and especially within the Church itself. He chooses duty over love, though it hurts him to the core.

On the face of it, this is pure melodrama, and the crimes that Sidney helps his detective friend, Geordie, solve seem almost incidental. But it is so well done, and we become so involved in Sidney’s life and in the lives of those around him, that we are drawn in as if it were quicksand. And in the end, it forces us to an awareness of how different was the age in which these events took place — just over a half-century past. There were social and churchly taboos that have been largely removed in the interim. But also missing is the sense that each of us, especially the spiritual leaders among us, have duties that take precedence over the desires of the heart. Ours is an age in which what we call “honesty” demands that we not only know what we want, but we pursue it with all the vigor at our command. Duty has become a notion that grows fainter with each passing day. It will soon become a word very few will be able to understand — a word in a foreign language.

The series was fascinating to me especially because of the very battle I recount here, the battle between what Sidney wants so dearly and what he knows to be his duty. It is a battle that is the core of Immanuel Kant’s ethical system which has played so important a part in my philosophical development — and a struggle I have written about in previous blog posts. Kant thought the very center of all ethical decision-making was this very struggle between what we want and what we ought to do. Ethics is about trying to be clear about what it is we should do and then somehow finding the courage to do the right thing.  But, as I say, this struggle is now only the topic for a television series about an age gone by and about the struggles of a man who must seem a total stranger to so many in the audience, so many who have no idea what it means to struggle to do the right thing because they are busy doing “their own thing.”


Frozen Planet

The Discovery Channel is running a series on the effects of climate change on the poles and it has generated some interesting controversy. A recent story includes this most intriguing comment: The vast majority of scientists agree that human activities are influencing changes to the climate — especially at the poles — and believe that the situation requires serious attention. That scientific consensus is absent from “Frozen Planet,” for reasons that shed light on the dilemma of commercial television, where the pursuit of ratings can sometimes clash with the quest for environmental and scientific education, particularly in issues, like global warming, that involve vociferous debate.

In a word, because the Discovery Channel was worried that covering the scientific debate about global warming might damage the ratings, they chose not to mention it, lest it drive potential viewers away. Worse yet, it might drive sponsors away.  People really don’t want to know about such things, which says something about us as a society. And it says something about our commodified culture. Profit drives the machine. If there is information we need to know in order to survive, it will be withheld because we might find it upsetting. Worse yet, we may not watch it at all. As the story quoted above goes on to say, “In private, some people involved in the production said that Discovery and its production partners, including the BBC, were wary of alienating any of the potential audience for “Frozen Planet.” Think about it.

The show is one of the more popular shows to be aired recently on the Discovery Channel averaging 1.1 million viewers for each segment. But as this article suggests, one must wonder if it would be nearly as popular if it did engage in the scientific debate about the causes of the melting of the polar ice caps instead of High Definition film of the fact itself, with polar bears and penguins trying to survive on shrinking ice surfaces We will never know, because the decision-makers (including the BBC!) have decided that we are not mature enough to be asked to think about what it is that is causing this calamity. The President of Discovery Channel defended her decision not to engage in the scientific debate by noting that  “First and foremost, Frozen Planet is a natural history documentary. The series seeks to entice viewers with footage of seals, penguins, polar bears and other animals of the polar regions. Here’s the visual evidence, it asserts, of a warming planet; make of it what you will.” Furthermore, to raise the scientific issues, she noted would have “undermined the strength of an objective documentary.”  She may have been right.  But she was most assuredly wrong to avoid entirely the discussion of possible causes.

Years ago Robert Hutchins expressed his regret about the direction TV was taking. Some time later, Walter Cronkite — who was by no means an academic — echoed Hutchins’ concerns. Here was a tool that many thought invaluable as an educational device, able to inform and provoke thought in millions of viewers at once. And we were witnessing its educational value devolve into mere entertainment, and entertainment of the most mundane variety. In the process, the sponsors took over and focused on delivering their message, which is the only one they cared about because it translated into profits. Education be damned.

It would seem that the same message is being delivered today in the trend in the schools toward vocational training in place of education. I am not a conspiracy theorist, though I am at times tempted to become one. But this does suggest a coherent pattern designed to guarantee that we think as little as possible. We will be shown pictures of the disappearing ice at the top and bottom of the earth, and we will be trained in school to do a job. But you can be damned sure no one will be asked to think about why the ice caps are disappearing, or why we are doing the jobs they ask us to do.

And then we hear complaints (but not very loud ones) about the fact the people running our companies cannot use their minds. They cannot give a coherent and persuasive speech, write a clear memo, or read a document and tell us what it was about. In a word, they cannot do the important things. But if we really cared about that, we would have to see to it that they got a real education, and that might be dangerous. And it would certainly involve raising disturbing questions in the minds of TV audiences.