Plato, Prejudice and the Power of Pop Culture
By Mark Rodgers"They see only their shadows, or the shadows of one another ... and to them, the truth is literally nothing but the shadows of their images."-Plato, The RepublicThere is nothing quite as disorienting and at the same time exhilarating than coming to the conclusion that what we had once believed to be true about the world -- something of deep conviction and consequence --- was untrue all along. This is exactly what happened 50 years ago when America was forced to confront its operative worldview that “all men were NOT equally made in God’s image.”In The Republic, Plato tells an allegory of a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been chained and held immobile since childhood; their heads held in place so they are compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which people walk carrying things on their heads "including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials". The prisoners cannot see the raised walkway or the people walking, but they watch the shadows cast by the men, not knowing they are shadows. The whole of their society is oriented around this perceived reality -- the shadows they see are the totality of their reality.But then a prisoner is freed and permitted to stand up. He sees the things that had cast the shadows, and although not initially recognizing them for what they were he comes to understand that what he thought was true were just shadows. He flees from the cave, only now to encounter an even more fierce light than the fire – the sun. Blinded by the light, it takes time for him to see that even the figures that were carried before the fire were just poor representations of their “real” – he understands that the sun is the "source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing."He remembers his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners. With this truth in hand, he returns to the Cave, to let them know that what they see is only a shadow of the full truth. Some are freed and believe, others are afraid, and others angry that what they believe to be true is being challenged.From my experience, challenging our false presuppositions is one of the most powerful roles popular culture and the arts can play in a society. It is also a challenge that is often unmet as our fragmented media allows us to niche content that simply reinforces rather than challenges our understanding.As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King’s march on Washington it is important to remember how cemented the assumption of white racial superiority was in our society. Thankfully, films like To Kill a Mockingbird, A Raisin in the Sun and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner helped challenge those assumptions, as did sports figures like Jackie Robinson with the help of manager Branch Rickey. Musicians like Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and the Philadelphia Sound used their platform to confront injustice. Does anyone remember Up With People? Episodes from The Twilight Zone and Star Trek took racism out of our cultural context and challenged our false assumptions by putting us in the place of someone else. In time, shows like All In The Family and The Cosby Show would alert us to lingering racism and counter it with parody and new visions of racial equality.
Pop culture now, through films such as 42 and the recently released Lee Daniel’s The Butler, is serving to remind us of this moment in our not-to-distant past. Popular culture has similarly played a critical role in making sure that we never forget how easily we can dehumanize people, whether it be through slavery or the Holocaust.We need more stories that challenge our culture’s false assumptions. This is why I cheer for films like the recent Austenland or last year’s Still Mine, which challenge false notions of romantic love in lieu of sacrificial love.There are plenty of false assumptions to challenge that dominate our society today: happiness comes from material accumulation, animals are just commodities, fetuses are a just a choice, religion causes hatred, business is bad, sex is just for pleasure.Challenging these false presuppositions and others is one of the most powerful roles culture and the arts can play in a society. My only concern is that the challenge will be harder to meet as our fragmented media allows us to niche content that “preaches to the choir,” simply reinforcing rather than challenging our beliefs that are just shadows of the Truth.