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From the June, 2009
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Shock Value by Micah Mattix

Shock Value

Micah Mattix on Pro-Life Transgressions of the Avant-Garde

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I teach English, two events that took place during the same week last fall provided a stark insight into what may be the majority values of the next generation of Americans.

The first event was a new play put on by the local performing arts group. The play, which was based on Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), was billed as a “gender-bending” play that would push the limits of experimental drama in its exploration of human sexuality. The morning following the premiere, however, a story in the student newspaper, despite carrying the title “Sex Spectacle Shocks,” was careful to note that students were not, in fact, shocked by the play’s content—not even by a scene in which a topless actress simulated explicit sex acts.

While a few students left during this scene, most of them stayed for the duration of the play, and the paper provided a couple of quick quotes from students stating that the play, while challenging, was not so difficult that they would have left—to do that, they implied, would have been disrespectful. The executive director of the theater himself was not worried that the play would somehow be too shocking. “One of the great hallmarks of our audience,” he claimed, “is that they are risk-takers.”

Sudden Risk Aversion

That appetite for risk, however, disappeared two days later. The Carolina Students for Life erected several large Justice for All placards on campus, which contained pictures of unborn children being aborted. In striking contrast to how the play was received, the response generated by this display was overwhelmingly negative.

Unaware of any inherent contradiction in their reactions, many pro-choice students complained in the student newspaper that the pictures made them sick. They also complained that there weren’t enough warning signs posted about the display, and they objected to university money being used to help pay for such ideological placards. Some further argued that images such as these did not help facilitate a constructive dialogue on the subject. Caught up in the outrage of it all, even a number of pro-life students complained.

There is no doubt that the images were shocking, and I am not sure they were the best way of furthering the pro-life cause. However, I do understand the reason behind displaying them, which was to confront proponents of abortion with the full import of their position. While I think that a “constructive dialogue” is important, it is unfortunately the case that, where abortion and related issues are concerned, such dialogues are rare.

The reason is that the people who most often call for a “constructive dialogue” want nothing of the sort. For them, the first step in such a dialogue is for both sides to admit that the issue at hand is a matter of personal opinion rather than of basic human rights. Imagine someone calling for a “constructive dialogue” on the issue of murder, rape, or genocide, and the connotative meaning of the term becomes all too apparent. Too often it is a smokescreen for sophistry rather than a call for the pursuit of truth. Hence, the placards.

Indeed, what seemed to shock students most was that someone would dare call into question the genteel relativism upon which the pro-choice position is based. Letter after letter registered students’ rage at the idea that other people’s “opinions” should be imposed on them. While there were warning signs placed at key spots on campus informing students of the images so that they could have avoided seeing them if they wished, some students claimed that there were not enough warning signs or that the ones posted were not in the best places.

Still others claimed that the somewhat ambiguous signs warning them of “shocking images” encouraged them to visit the placards. They were outraged, of course, to discover that the images were not titillating, as they had hoped, but shocking in the proper sense of the word.

The Real Avant-Garde

This sort of outrage regarding the pro-life position, and other positions that uphold the natural family as the basic, most important unit in a civilization, happens all the time at universities across America. In this case, however, it was particularly ironic, given its juxtaposition with the play presented earlier in the same week.

In theory, at least, one of the goals of the avant-garde has been to attack the tastes and moral sensibilities of the bourgeois. It has thus presented works containing subject matter that was indeed considered shocking at the time, works that were created out of relativistic theories of composition. Gone was the notion that art represented, in imaginative form, images of beauty and truth. These were replaced—once again, in theory—with works that presented beliefs and morals as constructed.

The avant-garde theater at Chapel Hill, however, no longer attacks the sensibilities of the students, but rather provides them with the sort of work they want to see in the first place—work that does not challenge their moral paradigm, but confirms it—because the moral paradigm implicit in the avant-garde has now become the moral paradigm of much of the middle class. This, of course, is done in the guise of carrying on the tradition of the avant-garde. What is really avant-garde today, in the original, combative sense of the term, is to stand for life, for beauty, and for truth. Nothing shocks us more. •


Micah Mattix is a Lecturer in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the review editor of The City, a new journal of Christian thought from Houston Baptist University. He and his wife are members of the Church of the Apostles (AMiA) in Raleigh, North Carolina. They have four children.

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