Archive for November 2003

Capturing the Limelight: Moral Relativism and the Movies

Andrew Jarecki is a documentary filmmaker – a wealthy one too since he founded Moviefone and sold it to AOL for $400 million. In a recent NPR interview at the Sundance Film Festival, he discussed his new documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, and stated that he wanted to make a movie about his subject that potrayed them “accurately”. “Bush likes to portray the people behind Sept 11 in black and white terms,” he said. “People aren’t like that.”

Evidently neither are his subjects – a multi-generational family of clowns with long histories of sadistic sex abuse. In his movie , he uses footage shot by the family itself to, in the words of film reviewer Geoffrey Gilmore “create a portrait which is complex, ambivalent, and absolutely engrossing because of video… Caught up in hysteria and with their Great Neck community in an uproar, the family undergoes a media onslaught. But they shot the really interesting footage themselves.

Given access to the family videos, Jarecki constructs his film as an investigation, but our expectations are constantly subverted. The film inquires not just into the life of a family but into a community, a legal system, and an era. By constantly changing perspectives and keeping the audience’s judgments and understanding in flux, Capturing the Friedmans embodies the difficulty of capturing the truth…” (italics added)

It’s interesting to note the italicized words above. An ambivalent portrait of sex abusers is apparently desirable. The Friedman family is “caught up in hysteria” – victims of irrational behavior from a community in an “uproar”. The film inquires into the life of a family – as if sadistic sex abuse was part of family life – and extrapolates from there to critique society. The director then uses the film shot by the family members to “keep… the audience’s judgments and understanding in flux,” the goal of moral relativism. The intentional obfuscation of events and judgments then “embodies the difficulty of capturing the truth”. Perhaps Truth would be a little easier to capture had not the director chosen to obfuscate it in the first place. Showing the Friedman family as a bunch of sick psychopaths would not have been artsy enough to qualify for Sundance, although I doubt that Jarecki allows the Friedman’s to babysit his kids.

Jarecki and the other proponents of moral relativism like to point out that things are never black and white – they are shades of grey. Everyone has a dark-side, and those we call “evil” also have some positive qualities. By stating that “People are not like that,” Jarecki believes that he is showing the complexity of people when he is doing the opposite. He is oversimplifying people in the exact same way that he criticizes Bush for doing. Whereas moral relativists view Bush as failing to see the complex nature of human beings, they themselves are ignoring those with a simpler and more straightforward natures such as Bush himself. A better statement for Jarecki to make would be that “some people are not like that,” – implying that some are. He would then reflect the range of humanity which he apparently desires to do through his film making.

Below is a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe – one of the 20th centuries great black and white masters.

Calla Lilly


Calla Lilly, 1988 – Robert Mapplethorpe


A moral relativist looks at this picture and sees everything in shades of grey. The dark areas? Dark grey. The very light areas? Light grey. By believing in the philosophy, he consciously has chosen to ignore the darkness of the photograph as well as the light areas. For the moral relativist, it is better to cling to the lie that black is dark grey because to leap from grey to black requires a judgement. The same holds true for letting go of the fiction that a white area is not extremely light grey – it is white.

The moral relativist loses the ability to judge, including that to decide the difference between right and wrong. It ignores the twin fallacies that underpin the moral relativist position – that one has to make a judgement that the act of making judgements is wrong, and that right and wrong must exist in order for the previous statement to mean anything. As Thomas Sowell once wrote, “Everyone is supposed to be ‘non-judgmental’ these days. But how can it be wrong to judge, when such a statement is itself a judgment?”
In moral relativism, Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King jr are the same. Hitler, after all united the German people whereas MLK jr cheated on his wife. Since judgements are impossible, organizing the systematic annihilation of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals has the same moral weight as MLK jr’s infidelity. Moral relativism shows its tendency to build-up the despised while tearing down the exulted, all in the name of “non-judgement” – betraying its infantile, ignorant and nihilistic core.

Capturing the Friedmans may titillate the artistic and incestuous bourgeoisie at Sundance; thankfully its core message will remain ignored by the rest of us in the real world – the one NPR chooses not to report about.