Being and Nothingness

The new ads for Calvin Klein’s unisex cologne are just what we’ve come to expect from Mr. Klein: Bored, unkempt twenty-somethings stare at us out of stark, black-and-white photos. The tone is gritty and world-weary. But the tag lines that accompany these ads are even more disturbing. One version of the ad tells kids: "Be bold. Be shy. Just be." Another version says: "Be good. Be bad. Just be." By putting out these two versions of the same ad side by side, Calvin Klein is promoting a very destructive message: that being good or bad is not fundamentally different from being bold or shy—that moral choices are no different from variations in personality. What makes this message so subversive is that it denies the very existence of moral categories. We would all agree that kids can be either bold or shy and that these things are merely a matter of personality traits and individual differences. What the Klein ads do is reduce moral categories to the same level. They imply that deciding whether to be good or bad is akin to deciding what kind of public persona to adopt. Some of us are outgoing, some are quiet, some of us hold moral convictions, some of us rebel against the rules. But, hey, what’s the difference? What Calvin Klein is doing here is taking a page out of the tattered textbook of values clarification. In a Newsweek interview, Sidney Simon, the guru of values clarification, says that when values are taught in public schools, "responses are never judged right or wrong." Moral decisions are treated simply as a matter of personal taste—like choosing between Coke or Pepsi. Now the relativism kids get in public school classes is being mirrored in Calvin Klein commercials. We need to help parents teach their kids to resist this sub-biblical view of morality. It’s true that many choices we make are not moral—just as Adam and Eve were given the freedom to eat from almost any tree in the Garden. But God drew a line in the sand—a moral line—and said: "This tree you may not eat from." He laid out a moral boundary that made this tree different from all the other trees in the garden. We often think the cultural battle is over whether certain activities are right or wrong, such as abortion or homosexuality. But the real battle is over whether it is meaningful even to talk about right or wrong. We’re beginning to lose moral categories—the very notion of good and evil as a distinct category of being. Morality has dissolved into categories of taste, preference, and personality differences. Questions of right and wrong have disintegrated into little more than the decision whether to take a paper or plastic bag. Christian parents and teachers need to help our kids understand the subtle philosophical messages advertisements convey. If you see one of those "Just be" ads, ask your kids if they understand what the ad is teaching. When it comes to advertisers’ philosophy lessons, we have to teach our kids to be aware, be critical, and above all, never to "just be."


Chuck Colson


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