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Cardi B and the conservative’s dilemma

When conservatives rail against a profane video, it gets more views. How can they protest something without promoting it?

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Rapper Cardi B attends the the Road to “Fast & Furious 9” Concert at Maurice A. Ferré Park on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Miami, Fla., left and Ben Shapiro attends Politicon at The Pasadena Convention Center on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Pasadena, Calif., right.

Scott Roth and Colin Young-Wolff, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Conservative columnist and podcaster Ben Shapiro is appalled by the new Cardi B song, reportedly the most sexually explicit song to reach the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Top 100.

The rapper is thrilled.

“They keep talking and the numbers keep going up. At the end of the day, whatever they’re saying, the numbers speak for themselves,” the singer, whose real name is Belcalis Marlenis Almánza, said in a recent interview.

Shapiro is not the only person to speak out against the song and video — Fox News host Tucker Carlson and some politicians did, too — but Shapiro became an unwitting target for Cardi B fans when he read some of the lyrics of the song on his podcast Aug. 10. Twitter users, who dismissed objections as “puritanical pearl-clutching,” then made videos using Shapiro’s voice set to images of Cardi B and collaborator Megan “Thee Stallion” Pete dancing.

The response illustrates a dilemma that social conservatives face as American pop culture becomes more accepting of art that is widely considered profane, what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, called “defining deviancy down.”

If they don’t speak out, they are seen as complacent or even complicit in what they see as a coarsening of society. When they do speak out, they bring attention to the thing they find offensive. This tension envelops both social conservatives and people of faith.

In his 2017 book “The Benedict Option,” conservative author Rod Dreher argued that Christians should sequester themselves from an increasing secular culture and build communities where they can practice their values.

Others, however, maintain that conservatives should continue to joust on the battlefield, to be “in the world, but not of it.”

Is it possible to do both?

Pick your battles

Dreher, the father of three, said that conservatives should be selective about what they choose to criticize.

“We have to be prudent. Not every offensive thing that comes up is a hill to die on. Conservatives should pick their targets carefully, and aim their criticism with precision. Nobody likes a moral scold.”

“But this Cardi B. song was, and is, massively popular. The fact that a song so utterly filthy can have 63 million views on YouTube only a few days after being released says something depressing about our country and its popular culture,” he said.

The fact that song was already getting attention is a further justification for conservatives to have spoken out, said Josh Wester, who serves as chair of research in Christian ethics for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“You don’t want to elevate the profile of something you think is corrosive or bad for society. But in this case, Cardi B is one of the most recognizable names on the planet, or at least in the United States, and as soon as it was released, even though I don’t follow her or her music, I knew about it. It was trending on social media; it was already out there.

“So I think conservatives and Christians should have total freedom to speak to it regardless of the extra attention this might bring to it.”

That said, he added, “I would caution anybody against going to find lesser known or more obscure cases just to point at as an example of cultural or moral degradation if it’s likely to point other people to it.”

Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University who specializes in persuasion, said that people who want to weigh in without drawing attention to the song could use language such as, “I am disturbed by the recent trend toward increasingly explicit lyrics in popular music.”

“For those who already know what this refers to, the condemnation holds and the person is ‘on the record,’ and for those who don’t, there is not enough information to Google it.”

‘It starts at home’

Dreher, whose new book “Live Not By Lies, A Manual for Christian Dissidents” will be published next month, said that “conservatives don’t get very far clutching their pearls and saying, ‘Isn’t this just awful?’” but need to make a deeper point when they speak out.

“In this case, the raunchiness of the Cardi B song speaks directly to the contempt for women’s dignity that is a powerful theme in our popular culture, concealed, as in this case, beneath a shiny, thin veneer of sexual empowerment.”

Music video producer Robby Starbuck elaborated on that concern in an extended thread on Twitter, saying he has two daughters and believes that men will treat them less respectfully in a culture where songs and videos exploit women and sex. He called the Cardi B song trash but went on to exhort people build stronger families.

“If we all unite, we can be a force for incredible good,” he tweeted. “Where does that start? It starts at home. Turn off the trash. Take your kids, cousins, family outside. It might be uncomfortable at first, but you will fall in love with doing real things together.”

Dreher, who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, agreed that parents have a role in combating negative influences in pop culture by raising kids with consciences, in effect giving them antibodies against obscenity.

“We cannot control the culture at large, but we can control how we react to it,” Dreher said.

He had firsthand experience in the effect of corrosive art as the chief film critic for The New York Post in late 1990s. Then, he was watching 8-10 movies every week, but that fell to 2-3 a month after his first child was born and he changed jobs. Looking back, he says, “It was incredible to see how my own moral sense returned” when his movie consumption decreased.

“It felt like what I imagine a chain smoker discovers when he quits smoking, and can suddenly taste and smell things again. I found that despite my moral conservatism and my Christian faith, the simple fact of exposing myself to so much gross stuff in the process of doing my job dulled my moral sensibilities considerably. That lesson never left me, and it has helped me with raising my kids.”

Wester, with the Southern Baptist Convention, said conservatives should keep in mind that it’s the culture, not necessarily an individual performer, that is to blame when a profane song becomes popular.

“Recognize what’s going on here: This is a person made in the image of God, who is valuable and who matters. But she lives in a culture that is willing to praise her and help her succeed financially because she is willing to exploit her body.”

Cardi B has said she was surprised that anyone objected to what Slate magazine called “the dirtiest No. 1 in Hot 100 history.”

“I didn’t think the song was as vulgar as they said it was,” she said in an interview. The remark seems to validate Dreher’s point that immersion in a culture poisoned by the profane can lead to a sort of moral callousness, in which nothing seems inappropriate anymore.

One columnist for The Washington Post said the song and video were “among the filthiest things I’ve ever seen in mainstream American popular culture” and admitted that young people are its target audience, yet argued that “we could use more culture that isn’t appropriate for everyone.”

Others have suggested that the song, which contains more than 40 curse words, is a triumph of feminism, that male rappers have recited similarly obscene lyrics for years, and that misogyny is behind criticism of the song. A columnist for NBCnews.com called it “a glorious gender role reversal and the triumph of delicious filth.”

Conservatives shouldn’t expect the culture to reflect their values, Wester said. “The best thing that Christians can do in this moment is hold up a mirror to people, without being angry, and say, this is the kind of culture you are glorifying for you children right now.

“If we could have more people who, in a compelling way, can hold up a mirror, that can make a great difference,” he said. But do so nicely, and choose your targets carefully, Dreher said. “Nobody likes a moral scold.”