Monday, April 18, 2011

America: Land of the Free, Home of the resultant moral ambiguity

I've been hovering around this idea of morality and "rightness" and a kind of absolutism for a few weeks now, so I hope that you can bear with me as I continue to do so. I haven't yet been able to put a finer point on why it's a constant element on my mind, but I can tell you that, by Jove, it certainly has been coming up a lot. A lot.

Of especial import today was a documentary I watched on netflix. I owe a huge debt to Netflix, as it's recently allowed me to reach unprecedented levels of both "hip" and "smarts" that had been hitherto unreachable at such a low rate, price, and convenience. I barely have time to read books because I'm so busy watching things I never knew existed!

So the film was called "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" with the asterisk cryptically stating "the side effects of being American". It's a documentary about the demonization of steroids and steroid use following a number of high profile cases in the world of professional sports, both in America and on the world stage. It begins innocuously enough: a few vignettes about the director/writer's home life, growing up in the 80s with movie star influences like "Rocky", "Rambo", and "Conan the Barbarian." From this start I was already hooked. I'm a sucker for 80s nostalgia and navel-gazing. Although I was born in '85, I feel very attached to many of the icons and iconography of the 80s, and much less that of the 90s (though I did love Animaniacs.) Even if this documentary ended up being a heavy-handed, rant-and-raving, "F** the man" propagandaganza, I had a feeling I'd enjoy it. They even had a clip and an interview with an extra from Sly Stallone's "Over the Top". How could I lose?

What it ended up being was a surprisingly insightful, honest look at morality in America. Where morality comes from, what morality is for, what morality does to the psyche of young people who eventually grow up to be adults that then use that morality as a compass for how certain behaviors should make them feel. All of this is in the context of steroid (actually more about "performance-enhancing drug") use, which does an amazing job of being an adequately controversial and complex substrate for the concept of morality to chew on. He also does an adequate job of making distinctions between the types of steroids and their various uses (but I wouldn't cite it for a paper). Some of the greatest moments in the film come not from the stats though; they come from the candid questions he asks to his parents, his brothers, and to steroid advocates and opponents.

While the film was primarily impelled by the statistics, legislation, and sound bites of media coverage during these controversies, it very much found its substance in the midst of these aforementioned candid conversations. The issue at hand was about much more than the simple questions of "is using steroids cheating?", it often turned into questions about why these individuals chose to use steroids, when and why is the same action considered cheating in one context and not another, why do some people feel a moral repulsion to the idea of steroid use, and how do these individuals justify the use of these technically illegal substances. The answers ran the gamut of "everybody's doing it" to "you can't win without it". What's interesting is that he goes as far as to bring up the not-too-afar-off issue of "gene doping", which involves the manipulation of a person's genes to essentially imbue them with "the qualities that mother nature didn't." That in itself raises the always controversial issue of "playing God", but beyond that, it highlights the increasingly blurred lines between what would be considered cheating (and ergo morality) and "playing fair".

While it's definitely easy to counter some of the simpler arguments for moral relativity and an amoralist view, it's harder, for me, to shake the notions and consequences that technology often brings to the table that are undeniably relevant to notions and beliefs heretofore considered inscrutable or unchallengeable by virtue of their complexity. It's a paradox: My belief in a rational creator logically implies that creation itself can eventually be understood, and in turn manipulated and controlled. However, once we reach this point, will it perhaps point to something else that's not very rational at all...?

I want to believe it won't. I mean, of course, on paper it makes no sense that it would. But, Lord knows I've been wrong many, many times before.