Rhetorics of Choice and Rhetorics of Freedom

I recently watched two documentaries, Hell House and Revolution OS, back-to-back and want to offer some insights I noticed about the different notions of choice and freedom that both of these films reveal.

Hell House is about a Halloween display put on by a church in Texas. The display is modeled on a haunted house, but instead of ghosts and goblins, the villain is sin. Of course, sin comes in a very conservative Christianist wrapper. Abortion, homosexuality, the ‘occult’, raves, suicide, and other detritus of contemporary American culture are read through a fundamentalist Biblical lens. The upshot of all this is to convince the visitors to Hell House to repent their sins, accept the glory of Jesus Christ as their personal savior, and become converts to evangelical Christianity. I think the movie is pretty evenhanded. There is no editorial voice that supports or condemns the work of these true believers. Instead their actions and words pretty much fill the whole movie.

There is one moment when the voice of a few critics is allowed in. A few of the teenagers who visit Hell House complain to the logistics manager about the stereotype portrayal of homosexuals and other groups. The response to this criticism is fascinating.

The manager appeals to one of the basic American argument frames, choice. One of his critics complains that raves aren’t anything like the portrayal at Hell House, which shows raves as places where young women are given date-rape drugs and then kill themselves afterwards because they can’t remember who raped them. A young woman in the film says that she has been to many raves and nothing like that has ever happened to her. The manager says “Good for you..you see it’s really all about choice..you made the right choice.” The dialogue continues for a few more moments and then the manager returns to his point about choice, “It’s all about choice”, he says, “if you make the correct choices you’ll be saved.” And in that moment, he contradicts his own argument. When he says the situations are about choice he’s lying. To him there is no choice, there is just the truth. And that truth is his truth. It is not about choice; it is about fear and punishment

When this church member says it’s about choice he’s appealing to the liberal belief that people are free to choose their destiny. But everything about Hell Houses implies the opposite. People are not free to choose, some things are punished and some things are allowed. It is Pascal’s wager filtered through Disney; a theme park ride with the message that you are going to hell unless you change your lifestyle.

But the sins/choices presented are very selective. There’s no depiction of people refusing to give shelter to the poor, no depiction of people turning the other cheek. The forgiveness of the New Testament is gone, conveniently forgotten for the expediency of making a political point.

I cringed at the final scene of the Hell House tour. After the audience has seen all of these ‘sins’ and watched the sinners writhe in the fake ‘hell’, a door is opened and a member of the church leads them into the debriefing room. He starts his speech with an apology about how much it hurts him to show the audience all these horrors, but there is a way for them to be safe. “Through this door,” he says, “you can find salvation. We are ready to pray with you if only you are willing to go through this door. I’m going to open this door and count to six. You can choose to go through it or not.” The door is opened and a light (the light of heaven, no doubt) shines into the darkened room. He counts, some people go through the door, others don’t. The manipulation is palpable. Everything is a setup, like some giant spiritual Rube Goldberg machine, to take away the choice of the audience.

Of course this message of damnation is nothing new. Jonathan Edwards made the same point during the First Great Awakening and he did with much better rhetoric. What’s different now is the cloak of choice. I say to these people: make your arguments, but stop pretending it’s about choice.

The other movie, Revolution OS, is about Linux and free software. It starts with Richard Stallman creating the Free Software Foundation in the 1985. Then goes onto Linus Torvalds creating Linux in the early 1990s, and on through the dot.com bubble of the late 1990s. The argument is that something truly novel is going on with Linux and other open source projects. A new form of production is being created that is based on freedom and sharing instead of the market. Stallman summarizes this in the phrase “free as in freedom, not beer.”

Here the argument for choice is completely different. Stallman clearly believes, deep down, that freedom to tinker with the source code for software is important. Eric Raymond, Bruce Perens, and others make the same point. It is all about the freedom to choose what you do with your computer and software. Read the ‘Right to Read.’

In both of these movies choice is a pivotal concept. For Hell House choice is used defensively. It is a rhetorical shield to hide behind. For Revolution OS choice is about changing the world, giving people freedom they might never have realized they lost before. In one everything is supernatural - the world is a symbolic veil that is read easily into the metaphors of the Bible. It is completely, and utterly Manichaean. Good versus evil. In the other it is decidedly mundane, but still spiritual. Computer code is the expression of our very human dreams for choice and free will.

The final irony is this: I can admire the believers in Hell House. They are arguing passionately for their personal beliefs. But the converse is impossible. The people of Hell House will never admire my beliefs, because to them my beliefs are anathema. This is why the separation of church and state is so important. I don’t want to purge the United States of these religious reactionaries. But the more I listen to what they say, the more convinced I become that they want to purge America of me.