Is it Morally Wrong to Manipulate Emotion?

There was this moment in the live performance of the musical The Scarlet Pimpernel where the clever devious Pimpernel is with his group of men sailing on a ship to France on one of their most important missions. As the song unfolds the story, the men are moving around on the ship getting into disguise. And then, right at the moment when the music hits its climax, the men turn around revealing to the audience, their disguise. They are all dressed as women. The timing of the music, unexpected and lightness of their plan, and the performers turning to face the audience is exact and perfect, and it works. The audience eats it up. It sent chills down my back. My dad, who was sitting next to me, stood up clapping, in the middle of the song! and he wasn’t the only one. It was masterful combination of music and choreography. Listening to the soundtrack of the Scarlet Pimpernel in my car months and years after watching the live performance, whenever I would come to the song “Into the Fire” it would transport me back to the theater evoke that same enthusiasm causing me to cheer on the Scarlet Pimpernel and his men.

Years later I went to see the Scarlet Pimpernel again. It was preformed by the same theater and even the same actor who had played the Scarlet Pimpernel that first time I had watched. I waited with anticipation for that moment in the song, but it didn’t happen. It was the same song, the same theater, even the same man playing the Pimpernel, but the moment lacked the same dramatic excitement. It was like opening that one mysterious gift under the Christmas tree that you had been eyeing for a long time, and then to finally open and discover that it was just sock. Plain white ones too.

The arts create and manipulate emotion. That’s what we want it to do. That’s why some people are drawn to Hallmark Christmas shows and why some are drawn to horror. It’s why I find myself watching Ellen DeGeneres and James Corden clips on YouTube, because I want to laugh. Motivational music is played during moving scenes of Olympians overcoming tremendous obstacles, and the combination of the story and the music allows us to connect. But is it ever wrong to manipulate emotions?

When I was in my twenties I went on Christian mission for my Church to Brazil. One of the things we would teach about was about the Prophet Joseph Smith and his vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ. There is a beautiful hymn with a sweet melody that tells the story of Joseph Smith’s vision. My companion had the idea that while we were teaching about Joseph Smith, one of us would tell the story and just before we got to the part of God appearing to Joseph Smith, the other one would start humming the tune to the hymn. Her goal was to get the people listening to our story to feel emotional. I refused to participate, to me it felt fake and like we were trying to fabricate emotions to get them to believe what we were telling them.

So what’s the difference? Why is it morally acceptable for the director and choreographer of the Scarlet Pimpernel to manipulate my emotions though the perfect artist combination of music and acting, yet at the same time it is morally untrustworthy to manipulate someone’s emotions when talking about something that you feel is good and true?

December 2, 2019

Time writing this thought: 1 hour

Total time writing on this blog: 158 hours