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Parish priest and Mrs. Muller in <em>Doubt: A Parable</em>
Joan Marcus/Bryan-Brown/Boneau/AP
Parish priest and Mrs. Muller in Doubt: A Parable

Repeated exposure

Culture | The simple formula that can transform and desensitize an entire culture

Issue: "Day of reckoning," June 14, 2014

The play Doubt: A Parable (it was also a highly rated movie in 2008) both expresses disapproval of pedophilia, and floats it out there as a possibility. This, if you are vying for overturning cultural taboos, is all you need do at first: desensitization through repeated exposure.

The little old lady next door who is starting to “come around” to accepting homosexuals as ordinary decent citizens did not shed her youthful revulsion toward sodomy through Socratic introspection. She just got used to the idea by a barrage of television, radio, magazine, and billboard ads—and plays.

Doubt, which I viewed at a local community playhouse with a few girls from church, concerns a Catholic elementary school in the Bronx where a disagreeable principal suspects the parish priest of having an inappropriate relationship with the school’s only African-American student. The play ends inconclusively, and on the way home we argued about whether the priest “did it” or not.

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Later it occurred to me: While the ladies and I were focused on the who-done-it question, the author was engaged in shadier business—like a pickpocket working the crowd at a public hanging. I rewound my memory tapes to the scene where the mother of the boy makes a visit to the principal’s office:

Mrs. Muller, in a 10-minute performance, surprises the audience (but we will be less surprised the next time, and even less the next) by not being shaken by the principal’s suggestion of priestly transgression. She doesn’t disbelieve it; she does not really mind. Her son is “that way” anyway, and at least the boy is getting attention from a male figure that he doesn’t get at home.

I told my son the plot, and he shrugged, “Well, the screenwriter is not saying he approves of pedophilia.” He doesn’t have to. No more than Ang Lee has to say he approves of homosexuality in Brokeback Mountain. He just has to put Heath Ledger out there in a saddle and let him steal our hearts. If not right away, then one movie at a time.

National Public Radio called Mrs. Muller’s scene in the 2008 movie “the film’s most wrenching performance …; Davis speaks plainly and quietly, and leaves no doubt that the moral high ground is a treacherous place to occupy in the real world.”

And what is this “moral high ground”? It is the strong, motherly affirmation of love in all its strange forms, over the hidebound, loveless legalism of the Sister Aloysius. We are presented with a false choice here, but nobody wants to be on the side of a “hater.” 

Mrs. Muller thinks she has come to this receptiveness toward man-boy love as her own original idea, but it’s the fruit of decades of patient product placement. While pedophilia is (for now) still an outlier to the morphing mores of America, homosexuality has moved safely inside the frame of the Overton Window and made good speed through the stages of “radical” to “acceptable” to “sensible” to “popular” to “policy.” (Two decades ago Joe Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy observed that on any question politicians consider only a relatively narrow “window” of policies to be politically worth their personal risk.) 

All of us know the experience of having our minds changed about people by nothing more than exposure. As a hitchhiker through Europe in the early ’70s, I pronounced whole countries friendly or unfriendly on the basis of one or two natives I was exposed to. How much more consequential our daily subtle immersion in unwholesome philosophies served up by culture? No wonder God warned Jeremiah of the potential danger when dispatching him as an ambassador: “Do not be afraid of them [literally, ‘do not fear their faces’]” (Jeremiah 1:8). He added: “They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them” (15:19).

This is always the danger—us turning to them rather than them turning to us; us coming to appreciate homosexuality rather than them coming to appreciate the radical holiness of Jesus Christ. Desensitizing is subtle. A woman of prominent position in my church recently told me that her two best friends in the neighborhood are lesbians. They are actually very moral people, she said: “One helped me set boundaries on my son’s video game habits.”

Andrée Seu Peterson
Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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