Outsourcing Morality: Mormonism and the War Over Video Editing

Everybody has parts of movies they wish just weren’t there. Don’t agree? What if I said, “Jar Jar Binks?”

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

That’s what makes video editing services appealing. Instead of getting the film as the studio made it, you can watch the movie you wish they had made. This, of course, brings up tons of debate about censorship, art, and whether there’s a difference between using your remote to skip a scene or having a company do it for you.

Of course, any talk about offensive content being edited out is going to come back to the Mormons. Because Mormons.

The big name in consumer-facing video editing right now is VidAngel, which streams edited movies to users. Hollywood is pretty upset about this, not because of the censoring specifically, but because VidAngel has been streaming movies to users before those movies were distributed to actual licensed streaming services. The case is ongoing, but it doesn’t look good for VA.

In an effort to survive, VidAngel and other edited streaming providers took a cue from relative unknown and unfunded startup, Play It My Way, by instead offering to filter the already existing and, importantly, already licensed streaming service of companies like YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu.

The Play It My Way method of edited video streaming doesn’t sell you movies or stream them to you. Instead it is a plugin or app that interacts with your own Netflix program or YouTube page. The app skips, blanks the screen or mutes the volume as you watch a video in the streaming service you’re used to.

What I’m interested in, however, isn’t so much the technology — but the Mormon aspect. More specifically: can you be ok with paying somebody to do something you would never do yourself? Is there a technology solution for those who aren’t?

Movies, Mormons and Morality

Video editing services have a long history with Utah and Mormonism. VidAngel founder, Neal Harmon, is a Mormon. VidAngel, CleanFlix, and many other editing services are based in Utah. And a huge portion of the target market for this service is Mormons.

Heck, (see what I did there?) if you want to see VidAngel ads on Facebook, just indicate you are a Mormon. Ads promoting the service and defending its legality will bombard you.

But, as a practicing Mormon myself, I have to wonder: Is it really ok to outsource my morality?

In other words: why would it be ok to pay somebody to view the things I find morally objectionable?

The common argument is, of course, “well they were going to watch it anyway.” And I get that. But do their intentions make my actions justified? Sure, they were “going” to watch it anyway, but now they must watch it.

Moreover there’s an ongoing financial incentive for them to continue to expose themselves to things that their customers would consider to be spiritually or morally damaging in some way. If this person — the editor of the movie — ever wanted to, you know, repent and stop watching the things you know are bad for him, he’d have to quit his job.

I hope the ethical ambiguity of providing an ongoing incentive to a person exposing himself to bad media is obvious.

The Fasting Comparison

To take it one step further for my Mormon cohorts, I suggest that this kind of outsourcing accomplishes the opposite of a regular Mormon practice: fasting.

If fasting is one way we use money to provide something good that we have (food) to another who does not have it, then a service like VidAngel is a way we use our money and the service to provide something bad (sex scenes, violence, blasphemy, etc.) to another who does not have it.

Obviously this may be a little over-the-top and there’s a lot of grey area. I’ll leave it at that. But let’s talk about the technology. Is there a technology solution that also allows prudes like myself to watch edited movies without the nebulous burden of paying somebody to do my dirty work?

Crowd Sourced Video Editing

Let’s talk about Play It My Way again. At this point this software is even less than a start up, with no real resources or polished interface. However, Play It My Way offers something important to people like me:

The crowd does it.

You can log in right now and edit a video for somebody who wouldn’t want to watch the things that you’re ok with. For example, I’m not really bothered by language and violence, but I know others are. Play It My Way has an app. I’ve installed it in my browser so when I’m watching a video I can make edits that mute profane audio. I tag my edit and it becomes available in the Play It My Way library for others to watch.

I wasn’t paid to do my edit, and the person watching doesn’t have to feel like they’re supporting somebody in doing things they find objectionable.

A crowd-sourced library of video edits offers a number of advantages, in my opinion, not the least of which is the freedom from outsourcing morality.

Conclusion

I’m not naive enough to believe that goodwill and cooperation will carry a little bit of technology to prominence when facing down companies with much larger budgets and name recognition. (Especially in a litigious world like ours) But I hope that maybe there’s a few of us out there who feel like contributing to a group effort to clean up our media is more worthwhile than paying somebody else to do the dirty work.

I’ll never pay for somebody to do things I don’t agree with, but I’ll gladly donate my time to help others live in line with their standards, even if they differ from my own slightly.

What do you think?  Is it morally ok to pay for services like VidAngel? Do small crowd-based editing efforts have a chance?

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