Friday, April 26, 2013

Mad Men vs Breaking Bad: How sin gets started

When we don't want to understand sin, we inflate it. My church has a flyer up right now advertizing a "documentary" about the porn industry. It promises revelations about a huge and organized group of exploiters who crush the women who do porn. It's not unlike the various exposés we see from time to time of "the white slave trade".

Now the first thing to understand is that these things do happen. There are a few women working in porn and prostitution who have been manipulated into the job by vicious uncaring bastards (of both sexes). But those cases are a tiny minority. The overwhelming majority of women who go into porn and prostitution do so with their eyes wide open. Prostitution exists everywhere on the earth and has existed everywhere in history. That doesn't happen with activities that people don't do naturally. There is nature—human nature—at work here.

Prostitution and porn (and porn is really just a kind of prostitution) are just like games, families, tribal groups, leadership hierarchies and private property. Anywhere and everywhere you have human society, these things tend to follow.

And that is why it is so damaging to imagine that the porn industry must be this giant conspiracy to undermine civilization. Yes, exploitation of human beings finds porn the way flies find garbage but it never starts that way.

The other problem with this sort of inflation of sin is that it tends to put men in the drivers seat of the great bus to prostitution and porn and treats women as helpless passengers. In economic terms, it explains these things entirely in terms of the demand side. But it always takes two to tango and there are always women keen to supply these things.

All of which is a rather roundabout way of getting to what's wrong with Breaking Bad. The set up is completely artificial. Even fans of the show grasp this on some level for they will acknowledge that the the whole meth lab thing is too far over the top to be credible. And that is true but there is a much deeper problem and that is that it is also psychologically incredible.

Anyone old enough to remember the early days of the abortion will remember this argument:
Think of the poor woman with six children she can't afford to feed who finds herself pregnant with a seventh.
That's a close relative to the story to that of Walter White. A good person in a very tough place is faced with a a seemingly impossible new consequence chooses to do a bad thing. There are lots of others like them.

Here's the thing though, abortion has been legal a long time and we know quite a bit about who gets abortions and, guess what, it's not women who already have six children. By an overwhelming margin, the majority of women who get abortions are single women with jobs. No matter whether you believe abortion should be legal or not, you cannot seriously pretend that abortion is typically a choice made by women in desperate circumstances. The numbers alone tell us this: there are hundreds of thousands of abortions every single year.

To go back to the hypothetical woman who cannot afford to feed the six children she has: women in her place almost never choose abortion. Seeking an abortion is not in character of someone who has already had six. The same problem applies to Walter White. Yes, he is feeling trapped, helpless and (most importantly) unmanned but his whole life speaks against his making the choices he makes in the show. If he's put up with the humiliation he has put up with so far, he'll put up with more.

All of this is important because we don't sin the way Walter White sins. How do we actually sin? Well detraction is a good example. I call up a friend and suggest we meet for coffee. Over coffee I tell him about a third friend. "I'm really worried about Karen," I say. "she's having an affair with someone she met at work. I'm sure this is all very exciting about her but she's put her marriage and children at risk."

It all sounds soooooo concerned but it's absolutely vicious. Why am I talking about this? Or, rather, Why the ____ am I talking about this? That's the nature of sin. It's not someone in a situation so desperate that what would normally seem like an insane choice starts to feel reasonable. Sin always starts with someone in a very comfortable situation making a choice that is so easy that they can just do it, like snapping their fingers. David sees Bathsheba and thinks, "I could have her." Bathsheba thinks, "Wow, the king called for me and my husband is away at battle." The choice to sin is so easy, it feels like an idle choice.

Next week, if Breaking Bad isn't about sin, what is it about?

1 comment:

  1. You make some very good points here. The whole point of Breaking Bad is very implausible and requires a suspension of reality. Nonetheless, I agree that sin is often an idle choice, and I think a lot of people sin without even knowing it, or that there is something bad about what they do. Which raises the question is it really a sin if they don't grasp the seriousness of the matter, and then consciously and willingly choose to do evil? The Church makes a distinction between doing what is objectively evil and moral culpability. I don't think many people think about these things a lot if at all when they do something bad. This is such a complex issue but I like the way you are peeling away the layers.