Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the world’s largest retailer, recently directed all its American outlets to stop selling three British "laddie" magazines. A number of Christian groups had criticized the magazines and asked Wal-Mart to stop carrying them.
Wal-Mart’s decision was a purely commercial one. The company did not become the most admired company in America, according to Fortune Magazine, by accident. As described by David Brooks of the Weekly Standard, the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company has relentlessly promoted itself as "patriotic, community oriented, family-centered, rural and religious."
Its ethos is that of the small town: Avoid giving offense to those with whom you will be living for decades. In short, the exact opposite of the sophomoric "laddie" magazines, poking fun at all convention and garbing, in Brooks’ words, "old-fashioned leering with a patina of postmodern irony."
Predictably, urban sophisticates had a field day making fun of this new outbreak of Puritanism in rural America. Nadine Stroessen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that Wal-Mart’s market dominance in rural areas of the country gives its distribution decisions "the same practical effect as outright government censorship."
Michelle Charpentier, of Somerville, Massachusetts, while professing no particular affection for the magazines in question, complained, in a letter to the New York Times, that "too many customers are subject to [Wal-Mart’s] ideas of what it is appropriate for an adult to buy." Charpentier sympathized with rural Americans denied the same access to magazines specializing in "scantily clad starlets and bawdy humor" (to quote the Times news coverage) as their more privileged urban cousins.
I would be willing to make a substantial wager that Ms. Charpentier does not view Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on coal emissions as an unwanted restriction on the freedom of polluters. If presented to her as such, she would rightly reply that emission standards protect those defenseless against the exposure to pollutants.
Why, then, is she so sure that Maxim, Stuff, and FHM do not constitute a form of moral pollution that damages viewers, particularly the young? The answer is that we have reduced the world to only that which can be measured empirically. Physical pollutants can be measured; spiritual contaminants cannot.
The human soul too cannot be measured, and therefore does not exist, according to modern empiricists. We have come to view man as but a more evolved animal. Man’s superior intelligence only serves to allow him to satisfy more efficiently and in more ways the same basic instincts he shares with animals.
In part, our lack of consciousness of the realm of Spirit reflects a metaphysical reality. Ancient man lived with a constant awareness of that realm. At a certain point in human history, however, that awareness became too overwhelming and God diminished our access to Him. We had to become independent, as a child must learn to become independent of his parents, so that ultimately we would be able to enter into a deeper relationship with Him.
The Talmud describes this transformation of mankind’s connection to the realm of Spirit in terms of a concrete event. The Men of the Great Assembly are said to have slain the desire for idol worship. But with the end of perversions of spirituality, went the end of prophecy as well.
As our sense of ourselves as possessing souls rooted in a realm of Spirit diminished, the view of man as merely a sophisticated animal took hold. The more we act in accord with that view, the more desensitized we become to our potential for holiness and to the existence of anything beyond the physical.
Evidence of that desensitization is everywhere. Buying a newspaper in downtown Manhattan involves an inevitable confrontation with the covers of dozens of magazines with barely (if that) clad women on the cover. These images are in one’s face wherever one looks.
A 2001 Kaiser Foundation study found that 10% of all television shows depict couples engaged in, starting, or just finishing sexual intercourse. In half of those cases, the parties had no relationship with one another prior to sexual relations. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average teenage television viewer is exposed annually to more than 14,000 sexual references, innuendos and jokes, many quite explicit. On MTV, 60% of the clips portray sexual feelings, 31% present people in sexually provocative clothing, 27% include sexually suggestive movements, and 5% portray sexual sadomasochism.
The Torah view is that what we see and think leaves a lasting impact, and that the impact of visual images is particularly powerful. "Do not follow after your eyes" we recite twice daily in the Shema.
This ancient wisdom is backed by hundreds of recent scientific studies. The amount of TV watched (particularly MTV) was found in one study to be the best predictor of teenage sexual activity and the number of partners. The more TV a teenager watches, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics, the less likely he or she is to view non-marital and extra-marital relations negatively. That may offer one clue to the difficulty so many people today have establishing long-lasting, committed relationships.
TV advertising portrays human beings as little more than bodies for attracting other bodies, and has left teenage girls despondent about their own. By fourth grade most American girls are already dissatisfied with their body shape. Dr Anne Becker, a Harvard anthropologist, found that only 38 months after the introduction of TV to the Fiji Islands, where big was previously considered beautiful, 15% of teenagers were vomiting to control weight.
The impact of visual images has been demonstrated in numerous studies of the effect of TV on violent behavior. The average American child is exposed to 12,000 murders, rapes and assaults on TV annually. The linkage between the degree of exposure to TV violence and subsequent violent behavior, the U.S. Surgeon General declared in 2001, is as strong as that between smoking and cancer. Two University of Illinois psychologists concluded that the amount of television watched at age eight is the best single predictor of violent behavior at thirty. And a team of University of Washington epidemiologists, in a transnational study of the rates of violence, found a consistent pattern of sharp spikes in the rates of violence ten to fifteen years after the introduction of TV. (These statistics on the negative effects of TV watching are all culled from Lawrence Kelemen’s excellent To Kindle a Soul.)
It would take a lot more than removing a few salacious magazines from Wal-Mart’s to reverse the loss of our awareness of ourselves as beings created in the Divine image. The visual images assaulting us from every side are too powerful. Yet Wal-Mart’s decision to detoxify a small area of the public square is a welcome small step towards reversing the degradation of the human.