Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Seinfeld and God

Seinfeld was the most successful sitcom of the 90's, and has since been denounced as one of the most morally bankrupt pieces of art of the generation. The "show about nothing" to many critics became "nothing matters."

This is completely wrong, and instead Seinfeld provided a valuable contrast between morality and ethics, two words often used interchangeably but importantly different.

There are endless articles about the nihilism of Seinfeld. This is the conclusion from the most well written one by Chuck Klosterman

Seinfeld was never a show about nothing, even when nothing happened. Seinfeld simply argued that nothing is all that any rational person can expect out of life. It was hilarious, but profoundly bleak. By consciously stating it had no higher message—the creators referred to this as the “no hugging, no learning” rule—it was able to goof around with concepts that battered the deepest tenets of institutionalized society. It was satire so severe that we pretend it wasn’t satire at all.Most episodes of Seinfeld circuitously forward two worldviews: The first is that most people are bad (and not very smart). The second is that caring about other people is absurd (and not very practical).

This all sounds very convincing, but also feels completely wrong when watching the show. It's easy to say "there was no moral in that episode" or whatever, but that fails to investigate what is actually going on, scene to scene. In what way were these people being bad, what were specific examples, how did the scene make us feel? Give me an example where Jerry was just greedy and caring about someone was just absurd, and is that all that was going on in that scene?

(The entire point of this blog is to subject media to "atomic analysis" - instead of saying something like "Star Wars means classism", it's to zoom in on an individual scene, character, or shot and say "What is going on in this image? Oh, classism.")

And watching Seinfeld, this definitely isn't a universe without rules. Every goddamn episode has several rules of society the cast obsessed over. The third episode contained an extended scene about the rules of rock paper scissors and how you claim dibs on a New York apartment.

Perhaps an episode will find Jerry falsely accused of picking his nose. Or Elaine considering rules of contraception. Or George will be trying to gift a damaged sweater. Or Kramer will more often break a rule, and the others will have to explain to him why it was bad of him.

And this, more than the "nastiness" of the characters seemed the eternal appeal of the show. We all live in a society with countless unwritten rules that define whether you are a good person, or a bad person. And Seinfeld was a show where these rules were dissected, and played with, and discussed openly. That is about as fun and addictive as TVtropes to many people. These "rules" were the heart of the show.

And the cast did not take these rules lightly. Quite the opposite, they lived in constant fear of being caught breaking a societal rule. Sure, they knew they were good, reasonable people who should be considered polite members of society, but they were worried that at any moment someone else would think they were rule-breakers, the worst of the worst. Like Jerry just scratching is nose, but it looked like it was nose-picking from the side, and so someone might think of him as a nose-picker, and this would cost him a relationship with a hot model.

The wikipedia definition of morality is "the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are distinguished as proper and those that are improper"

Morals are the set of rules you follow to be a good person. Seinfeld talked more about "morals" more than any other television show in its decade.

Despite taking them very seriously, the characters would frequently be talking about how to find loopholes in the rules, or why their motives to evade the rules were pure and acceptable, or how unjust it was to be treated like a rulebreaker by the good members of society. They were like tax lawyers, who took it very seriously never to violate the letter of the law, but had zero investment in the spirit of the law. This sort of perspective was helped by all the times they were falsely accused of rule-breaking, or when an episode would start with one of them making a faux paus that broke some rule they didn't know about, but the other cast would condescendingly inform them of.

What was the source behind these rules? It was never religion, or a reasoned philosophical system, or what their heart told them - all rules were just social constructs, supported by the entirety of Society, in all of its terrifying ubiquity. When a rule was broken, every person the cast member encountered would begin treating them harshly, like some sort of unconscious outcast. The characters were entirely motivated by some Big Other who was judging them - and often judging them incorrectly ("I was only scratching my nose!")

Of course, never breaking a rule was impossible. Either you might not know it (there were hundreds, enough to feed eight seasons of episodes, after all), or you might be misperceived as having broken a rule, or you might have think you could get away with it but you embarrassingly get caught. This just led to a constant anxiety, which fed the spirit of the whole cast.

The show wasn't just amoral, it was outright anti-moral. Why would it be okay, or at least sympathetic, to treat morals like this?

The wikipedia definition of ethics is "the branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct."

Ethics are the why behind any rule. And in the Seinfeld universe, the answer to every why is "because God says so". Not literally, these were all Jewish atheists, but they were appealing to a source of authority that was as vague and inscrutable as God: "other people," with no specificity or limit. Sometimes they would throw in "without rules everything would be chaos!" type justifications, but that's no explanation for why this specific rule.

In fact, Seinfeld gave us the fantastic Moops rule of legal interpretation:

The plaintiffs’ argument is that the direct language in that single line is all that counts, and the language in the rest of the law does not. This is a legal argument that has no chance to win over judges who aren’t desperate to latch on to any rationale to gut Obamacare, and only a tenuous chance to win over even judges who are. The argument is, Democrats in Congress made a typo when you wrote Obamacare, so ha-ha, you lose. The card says “Moops.”

Lesson: rules of morality without deeper justification are just fucking terrible.

But this does not mean there is no right or wrong in the Seinfeld universe. The scene above clearly indicates George is behaving wrongly: he is ignoring truth, and he is being a jerk to a medically disabled kid. But neither of those things are written in the rules of the game, so they are not the focus of his morals.

But the moral rules in Seinfeld are worse than arbitrary, they are enforced by the social order. They are a source of fear and anxiety for the cast, and actively push them to adhere to letter-following instead of spirit-following. There is no room for compassion, or truth-seeking, or whatever fundamental ethical drive should motivate human behavior, when they already have a labyrinth of strictures to keep track of.

And this is the existentialist problem with God. It's not that God couldn't exist. It's not that God couldn't even provide rules for human behavior. But what if He did? Humans would just be obsessed with trying to follow these rules, in fear of when they'll be caught or misperceived (by God!) for breaking a rule when they really didn't mean to. Humans would quickly go from Jesus' message of universal compassion to, well,the last 1500 years of the Catholic Church.

This is not a post to laugh at silly Christians worshiping a false idol. For almost every culture, something as big and vague as God comes to stand in for that judging force, the one who gives us these arbitrary rules and is waiting for us to slip up. In communist Eastern Europe it was the State, in 1990's New York it's the Other of society, when we are children it is our parents.

1 comment:

  1. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. / And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. / For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me...