“I’ve been mystified by this. You have to understand that we’re not writing foreign policy. This is a dramatic television show, and Jack threatening to blow someone’s knees off because he wants information is a dramatic device to show how urgent or desperate a situation is. It should not be taken as this is what we think the CIA should be doing.”
—–“24” star, as “Jack Bauer,” Kiefer Sutherland, expressing his bewilderment at criticism of his show for depicting a hero who resorts to torture repeatedly, in an interview with United’s in-flight magazine, “Hemispheres.”
We shouldn’t criticize actors for not being rocket scientists, or even ethicists. Nonetheless, this comment shows a remarkable ignorance of how a society passes on values and virtues, and the role played by literature, legends and pop culture.
Sutherland is the hero of his show, one of the good guys. What our society depicts the good guys as doing, the values they hold, the virtues they display, the goals they seek and the methods they use to achieve them, both reflects the values of our culture and sends the message that these are the kinds of conduct that the culture wants to encourage. Celebrating as heroes individuals who routinely kill when they are not protecting themselves or the innocent, engage in cruelty, theft, or the abuse of others, or unapologetic law-breaking encourages our younger generations to regard such anti-social conduct as defensible, or even the norm.
Does Sutherland really not understand that? This is why an earlier generation’s pop culture heroes openly endorsed strict moral and ethical codes of conduct, unwritten, as with Superman’s scrupulous dedication to “truth, justice and the American way,” or written, like Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code, or spoken, like Green Lantern’s oath to battle evil. Now, what are referred to or treated as the heroes of movies, TV shows and video games display the ethics sensitivity of the sociopath, like Raymond “Red” Reddington, the charismatic hero of “The Blacklist” who is also a liar, a terrorist, a killer, a torturer and a hit man. Another criminal-hero is Walter White, from “Breaking Bad,”whose character was written to make drug dealing appear, if not exactly good, sort of noble. On “House of Cards,” Kevin Spacey’s juicy portrayal of the ultimate “ends justifies the means” politician (he is now President of the United States) would undercut any civics class, and these are just a sampling of a large, ethically repugnant—but exciting and entertaining!— group.
I am willing to believe that Sutherland is really clueless, or at least reluctant to criticize his bread-and-butter. I do not believe that Hollywood executives and writers suddenly forgot what the industry knew and enforced for decades: that it was important to our society’s health to promote virtuous behavior and represent heroes as good citizens, admirable human beings, and inspiring role models, and not as the opposite. They still know that is important, but it’s just not as important to them as making money. If it makes future American generations cynical, mean, and willing to shoot someone in the kneecaps to get what they want, well, too bad.