Friday, November 25, 2005

Rethinking Pinocchio

During a lecture on the topic of conscience, one of my professors shared the following article he had written:
A "Jiminy Cricket" Conscience?

While I highly recommend you follow the link and read the entire article yourself, I'd like to highlight a couple points below. I should note that by drawing your attention to this article I don't hope to rally the troops for a Disney boycott; despite some problematic themes and understandings (even in such benign stories as Bambi), Disney still does put out much that is worthwhile. The upcoming release of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is one such example. But I do think it's important to note where certain cultural understandings fall short of the truth.

The dialogue in Pinocchio which begins the problematic treatment of conscience is:
Blue Fairy: "You must learn to choose between right and wrong."
Pinocchio: "How will I know?"
Blue Fairy: "Your conscience."
Pinocchio: "What’s conscience?"
Jiminy Cricket: "Conscience is that still, small voice that people won’t listen to. That’s just the trouble with the world today."
Blue Fairy (to Jiminy Cricket, kneeling before her): "I dub you Pinocchio’s Conscience; Lord High Keeper of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong; Counselor in Moments of Temptation and Guide along the Straight and Narrow Path."
And this is what Dr. Twellman had to say about it:
The flaws in Disney’s understanding of conscience begin with Jiminy Cricket’s description of conscience as a "still, small voice." This phrase clearly evokes 1 Kings 19:12 where the voice of Yahweh speaks to the prophet Elijah. But the "still small voice" that "people won’t listen to" is, according to the Blue Fairy, something fundamentally external to us that imposes itself upon us in the process of moral decision-making, here, the voice of Jiminy Cricket, whom I can summon when I "give a little whistle." This conception of conscience is reinforced by Blue Fairy’s description of Cricket’s new title, "Lord High Keeper of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong; Counselor in Moments of Temptation and Guide along the Straight and Narrow Path." It is an understanding of conscience that depends on a mystical voice, the "word" from beyond. But if conscience can be seen as a "voice" at all (and I’ll suggest below some problems with that approach) it should at least be the voice of God (Gaudium et Spes 16, quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church 1776), in other words, a voice intrinsic to our very being.
In traditional Catholic teaching, conscience (Lat., conscientia), rather than being something imposed from the outside, is "a judgment of reason whereby a human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act" (CCC 1778). The source of this judgment is not to be found in something extrinsic to our being such as a list of rules or a personified voice. Rather, in the properly informed conscience, in the words of Pope John Paul II, "The primary and decisive element for moral judgment is the object of the human act, which establishes whether it is capable of being ordered to the good, and to the ultimate end, which is God" (Veritatis Splendor 79, emphasis added).
To illustrate the separation between Jiminy Cricket as "conscience" and the notion of it being ordered to universal truth, it is helpful to consider the scene where Jiminy finally catches up to Pinocchio at Pleasure Island. Jiminy rebukes Pinocchio saying, "How do you expect to be a real boy? Look at yourself, smoking, playing pool . . . !" Notice that Jiminy Cricket makes no appeal to objective standards such as to divine, natural, or even human law. Instead, Pinocchio is merely supposed to follow a set of arbitrary, extrinsic rules communicated to him from an independent agent, and this is what will accomplish the realization of his ultimate end. It is heteronomy, pure and simple. The best Pinocchio can hope for is an extrinsically applied (and in his case, personal) influence, one not necessarily consistent with his nature.

The point which is important to make here, that we can apply to all of our lives is: how often do we view right and wrong through the prism of just being an arbitrary set of rules? How often do we, when we convey to others right and wrong, just frame it for them in terms of such a set of rules? If there's one thing evident about human nature, its that humans have a hard time avoiding bad behavior if they don't understand that it really is in their best interests.

John Paul II taught us that the key victory for Satan in the Garden of Eden was that he was able to make Adam and Eve doubt God's love for them. In other words, he was able to make them think that God's law (do not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil) was merely an arbitrary rule by a God who didn't truly care for them, rather than being the command most in keeping with their true good. There's a lesson here, easily applicable to our lives.

  • When our four year old is climbing her way into the cookie jar, do we just tell her not to do that "because mommy says so"? or do we also let her know that mommy loves her and doesn't want her to lose her appetite for the nutritious food that is cooking on the stove?
  • When we teach our teenagers about sexual intimacy, do we just tell them not to have relations until they're married? Or do we go the extra mile (uncomfortable though it may be) and try to instill in them a good understanding of the connection between love and sexual intimacy, and how waiting until marriage is the best way to both give and receive love? If they don't understand that part of the equation, they are not likely to heed our advice.
  • When we're trying to convey to someone why homosexual activity is wrong, do we merely tell them "the Church says so" or quote for them a few lines from scripture? Or do we put in the extra effort to try to show them why their ultimate happiness is union with God, and that such activity is not in keeping with their human dignity and harms their relationship with God, thus preventing them from truly being happy?

All too often in our society, we don't see the connection between moral precepts actually being good for us. They merely are a nuisance, which serve to keep us from having a rip-roaring good time. In a previous post, I talked about being a leaven in the world. This is one such area where we really can be a leaven in society, and help others see this connection. And we can start by making sure that we see the connection in our own lives, too...


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