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Who Can Help? Who Should? Being a Billionaire in a Suffering Society

Photograph of Jeff Bezos speaking at a podium and gesturing with arm

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and richest man in the world, announced on the 13th of September that he would dedicate $2 billion to finance a network of preschools and tackle homelessness in America.

This move is controversial for a number of reasons, perhaps primarily given the relative amount of funds dedicated to Bezos’ spectacular fortune of 164 billion dollars. The two billion dollars amounts to 1.2 percent of Bezos’ fortune. Bezos has long been criticized for his lack of commitment to philanthropic work, and is the only American in Bloomberg’s top 5 world’s richest people who hasn’t joined the Giving Pledge, which would commit him to donating at least 50% of his fortune to charity.

Andrew Carnegie, who was the richest man in the world in 1899, wrote about the moral obligation of the wealthy in an essay entitled The Gospel of Wealth: “The man of wealth thus becoming the sole agent and trustee for his poorer brethren.” Carnegie spend approximately 90% of his wealth on public programs and scientific discovery. It’s noteworthy that during that era, the tycoons who earned their massive wealth through monopolies and breaking labor unions operated in a society pre-New Deal, so that government assistance programs of the twentieth century were not yet established.The philanthropic work of the barons like Carnegie and Rockefeller that paid teachers and established libraries were a sharp contrast to the working conditions of their employees.

The conditions of Bezos’ own employees have been raked over in the news for years, creating a contrast between his wealth and the conditions of employees that allow his fortune to amass. Amazon floor workers have been reported to resorting to sleeping in tents in the warehouses in which they work and urinating in bottles in order to meet work quotas. Amazon is one of the country’s top employers whose employees receive food stamps. When those under Bezos’ direct influence are living in such conditions, his recent philanthropic announcement seems hypocritical or a media grab.

Beside concerns over publicity, the real impact of the charitable contribution of the mega-rich raises real moral questions. In a society that allows such drastic inequality that there are individuals that have amassed enough wealth to create programs to dramatically alter the lives of significant swaths of worse-off, is donating from their fortune a sufficient act of benevolence, discharging their moral burden for benefitting for the inequality-sustaining society? A recent critique by BBC news references Anand Giridharadas, “whose book Winners Take All tackles the so-called ‘charade’ of modern philanthropy, characterises Carnegie’s approach as ‘extreme taking followed by extreme giving.’ The super rich,” he argues, “stop short of ‘transforming the system atop which they stand.’”

To further complicate the moral evaluation of Bezos’ charitable actions, Senator Bernie Sanders recently claimed that Amazon paid no federal tax in 2017. This draws out the questions of responsibilities of corporations and businesses to contribute to society. While many of Bezos’ workers rely on government support programs, the corporation they work for does not support those programs.

In such circumstances, what obligations does the founder of the corporation, who can make nine billion dollars in two days, have to society, the government, and his workers? Bezos’ philanthropic move can be read as prioritizing private subsistence assistance, sidestepping government support that taxation would help, or directly supporting his employees by providing employment that would allow members of society to live without working multiple jobs and relying on government assistance.

With Bezos, the contrast between working conditions and philanthropic goals remains, but today it is less clear what the obligations of the wealthy are towards society en masse. The issue of what corporations owe to society is a complicated one in business ethics, for businesses are purportedly aimed at profit, not beneficence, but what obligations remain for the individuals that gain from the profits of the businesses like Bezos, Buffet, Musk, etc.?  When individuals have enough money to effectively run government programs of their own, while not paying taxes, the influence on society and the public good is significant.

When the public rely on the charitable feelings of the super-wealthy, and these wealthy individuals and their corporations can so easily side-step contributing to government programs via taxation, then problems of society become even more difficult to tackle. Public education, a long-term legislative log-jam, has attracted a number of uber wealthy, Bezos included. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has been most attended to by private charities rather than the government. Elon Musk is currently addressing the problem along with celebrities such as Will Smith, the Game, and Eminem.

The obligations of individuals with wealth are complicated. As Giridharadas points out, the origin of one’s wealth is morally significant, and if there are massive inequalities between the wealthy and poor, or if the wealthy continue to rely on an economically exploitative system, it suggests there are real moral obligations on the wealthy. It may be wrong to remain that wealthy, to not take action using that wealth to adjust the system to produce less inequality, and to ensure that the production of wealth does not rely on unjust working conditions. The ways in which private philanthropy can undermine government efforts further complicates these questions — when should individuals step in where government fails and when should individuals work to adjust the way that government is being sensitive to the needs of society so that it won’t fail in the future?

Individuals with great wealth must grapple with these moral issues. The Giving Pledge is an overt statement that it does not make sense (potentially morally) for individuals to have as much money as those that top the Forbes list currently do. The amount of money that it would be permissible to keep, and what to do with the surplus, is difficult to determine, perhaps, but these observations put pressure on the complicity of the wealthy in an economic and political system that could be more morally permissible.

On The Times Op-Ed: Ethics of Anonymous Sources

PHotograph of Trump at desk in Oval Office surrounded by people

In light of a recent op-ed published by The New York Times, the validity of using anonymous sources in journalism has once again been brought into question. The op-ed, released to the public on September 5, was allegedly written by a senior official within the Donald Trump administration, and details an underground resistance against the President within his own staff. “[M]any of the senior officials in his [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations,” reads the piece. “I would know. I am one of them.”

The author then goes on to detail why this resistance is being executed, saying that Trump has blatantly attacked conservative values of “free minds, free markets, and free people,” and that his notion of mass media as the enemy of the people is “anti-democratic.” Further, the anonymous writer stated the goal of the White House resistance as being “to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing.” Sometimes this could be as simple as swiping papers from the President’s desk. In his book, Fear: Trump in the White House, celebrated journalist Bob Woodward details how Trump’s ex-economic advisor, Gary Cohn, stopped the President from terminating a trade deal with South Korea by taking a letter off his desk in the Oval Office.

Perhaps more intriguing than the contents of the op-ed itself, however, is the shrouded identity of its author. A number of theories about who in the administration could have written it have surfaced, including opinions from filmmaker Michael Moore and former aide to Trump Omarosa Manigault Newman. The President responded to the breach in his administration’s loyalty by lashing out on Twitter and at public events, going so far as to label the op-ed as “treason” and a threat to national security. Trump also told reporters that he wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the source of the article.

Despite the current drama surrounding the Trump administration, however, The New York Times has refused to disclose the author’s identity. A statement preceding the op-ed reads:

The Times is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”

The Times’ refusal to give up the author has undoubtedly been met with criticism both by the President himself and by his supporters, boiling down to controversy over when it is permissible for publications to distribute anonymously-produced content and when it is not.

Anonymous sources are, at their root, tools for journalists to get closer to exposing truth to the public. Although not preferable, anonymity protects people who hold incriminating or scandalous information from consequences upon revealing this information, which may sometimes be the only way of getting those people to talk. However, in today’s era of intense beat journalism, anonymous sourcing can sometimes be used haphazardly. In May of 2005, Newsweek published an article using anonymous sources who claimed that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Koran to intimidate Muslim prisoners, which sparked a riot in Afghanistan resulting in the deaths of 14 people. Lawyers later disproved these statements from anonymous sources, and Newsweek retracted its article.

What separates the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times from Newsweek’s Guantanamo debacle are the articles’ respective intentions. Newsweek published their article to establish fact: interrogators at Guantanamo desecrated the Koran to intimidate Muslim prisoners. Conversely, The New York Times’ article, published as an op-ed, serves the primary function of declaring the author’s opinion: Donald Trump is failing as a president, and “there are adults in the room” who want to protect the rest of the country from his shortcomings. The point could be raised that op-eds deserve known sources as well. Opinion articles come with their own claims that, if issued by reputable publications, should be written by verifiable experts. The editors of The New York Times, however, know the identity of the op-ed’s author, and given their reputation as a responsible publication, can be trusted to have thoroughly vetted their source’s claims. Given that The Times is a left-leaning publication, some of this criticism may be indirectly stemming from partisanship. Had this op-ed been published from a right-leaning publication, its relationship with public trust may have looked different. Moreover, it could be argued that the article’s groundbreaking content and consequences that will arise if the author’s identity is compromised outweighs the need for a publicly-known source.

Whether one believes this to be an act of heroism or treason by The New York Times, it is difficult to refute that this piece could change the way the public and journalists view anonymous sources. An anti-establishment culture that has budded in the past few decades has heightened the need for anonymous sourcing in journalism, and facing this phenomenon is essential to rebuilding the relationship between mass media and the public. Even if The New York Times was wrong in publishing this op-ed, they sparked conversations around journalism ethics that need to be had outside of the newsroom.

 

Reflection on Responsibility: National Suicide Prevention Month

Photo of a sign at the Golden Gate Bridge that says "Crisis counseling - There is hope - Make the call - The consequences of jumping from this bridge are fatal and tragic".

Content warning: discussion of suicide

September is National Suicide Prevention month, and September 10th marked World Suicide Prevention Day.  Organizations such as the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the International Association for Suicide Prevention all hosted social media hashtags and encouraged everyone to spread awareness of suicide and how to prevent it. Suicide has long been considered an epidemic in the United States, but a recent study published by the CDC in July showed that the rate of suicide in the U.S. has increased dramatically in the past 20 years. By and large, suicide is considered negative in our society, often framed as tragic due to its preventability. Several pop culture idols have committed suicide since the beginning of 2018, including chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade. During this month, it is pertinent to examine exactly what our culture’s stance on suicide truly is. Does framing suicide as negative require us to make judgements about those who commit it? Does an anti-suicide stance require us to also oppose assisted suicide? And finally, who should we hold accountable for fixing and preventing the suicide epidemic; our culture, ourselves, or our public institutions?

As quite literally a life or death matter, the way that we talk about suicide is a delicate matter. In an article titled “Is Suicide Selfish?” Senior Director of Suicide Prevention and Postvention Initiatives, Shauna Springer, examines from a psychological perspective if we can truly hold those who attempt or commit suicide can considered selfish. While Springer doesn’t deny that suicide has consequences on those other than the victim, she holds that it ultimately is not a selfish act, due to the fact that “suicidal mode is an altered state of consciousness.” Because those suffering from suicidal thoughts “often have distorted perceptions of reality,” we cannot make judgements about their character and actions in a similar way that we would a healthy person. Others however, feel differently. In an article titled I Still Think Suicide Is Selfish And No, I’m Not Ignorant For Believing So” Lesly Salazer defends her position by using her personal experience with depression and suicidal thoughts. Salazer explains that growing up, she was told “‘There’s more to life than yourself and your sadness. You can’t let your emotions overpower your common sense. God has a plan for you, and killing yourself is just plain stupid.’” She believes that this attitude toward suicide saved her life, because she felt she was doing a moral wrong by killing herself. The traditional methods of hotlines and therapy did not work for Salazer, though she acknowledges they may help some. In conclusion, Salazer defends her belief that suicide is selfish on the basis that such a belief might prevent people from killing themselves. However, one could argue that such an attitude towards suicide might actually hinder people from finding help, because they do not feel like they can talk about their suicidal thoughts. While it might help some like Salazer, it has the potential to hurt many others.

If we decide as a culture and society to take a negative stance toward suicide, can we also consistently advocate for methods that make ending one’s life easier or less painless? The legalization of physician assisted suicide has been a debate in recent years, with states like Oregon and California passing legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide. But how do suicide prevention organizations view physician assisted suicide? In October of 2017, the American Association of Suicidology released an article clarifying that they, as an organization, do not considered assisted suicide as suicide, but instead as “death with dignity’ or “physician aid in dying.” The article explains that the organization “ does not assume that there cannot be ‘overlap’ cases, but only that the two practices can in principle be conceptually distinguished and that the professional obligations of those involved in suicide prevention may differ.” The organization goes on to list 15 key differences between physician-assisted suicide and the type of suicide that the AAS aims to prevent. The key distinctions AAS claims exist between suicide and physician-assisted death are medical and conceptual. One observation is that those seeking assisted suicide are often facing physical chronic illness, whereas those seeking to commit suicide are often plagued by mental illness, impairing their judgement and ability to make reasonable decisions. However, those against physician-assisted suicide argue that taking such a stance worsens the stigma associated with mental illness as not as serious or legitimate as physical diseases and conditions. Should the decision to end one’s life be treated differently or more dignified on the basis of physical or mental conditions? A previous Prindle Post article by Amy Elyse Gordon examines this issue. One could surely argue that in the case of terminal illness, physician-assisted suicide provides relief and control to those facing death. Additionally, this type of ending one’s life may not have the same adverse effects on family and friends as other forms suicide do.

If we accept that suicide is detrimental to society, whose responsibility is it to prevent it? This question is a difficult one, because it, in a way, assumes that suicide can be influenced by others, and that they in some way hold a moral responsibility to prevent it. At what level we hold people accountable can be difficult to determine. Giving the government the complete burden of preventing suicide may lead to its criminalization. Indeed, suicide was considered a crime in the U.K. until 1961, when suicide became framed less as a sin or moral wrong and more of a medical and psychological problem. However, the government can help prevent suicide in more ways than criminalization. A 2016 study found that rising poverty rates were highly correlative of rising suicide rates during the 2008-2009 economic recession. This study suggests that poverty and economic burden can influence the rate of suicide and if our goal is to prevent suicide, perhaps we should hold our politicians and government accountable for supporting those that are impoverished or enforcing stricter regulations on financial institutions to ensure economic stability. On the other hand, some might argue this alone is not enough.

Suicide is undoubtedly influenced by mental illness in many cases, regardless of external factors. Perhaps it is the responsibility of organizations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to help support those who feel suicidal and raise awareness about the topic. Some might argue this still is not effective enough alone because those who are considering suicide may not have access to these resources or may not have the motivation to seek out help.

So, we might then believe that it is every individual’s responsibility to prevent suicide. One example of the application of this type of thinking is the involuntary manslaughter sentencing of Michele Carter in 2017. Carter was a teenager suffering from mental illness, whose boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, committed suicide in 2014 (discussed in detail in this Prindle Post article). Text messages minutes before his Roy’s death show that Carter encouraged him to kill himself, texting him to get back in the carbon monoxide car after he had second thoughts about killing himself. Carter’s verdict implies that people can be held legally and morally responsible for their loved one’s decision to commit suicide. In the case of Carter, it was not just her failure to stop Roy, but also her encouraging attitude toward suicide that made her guilty,  according to the judge. If we decide to hold individuals accountable for preventing suicide, we may have to accept verdicts such as the one in the Michele Carter case. This becomes difficult, because it implies that those surrounding suicidal people, including loved ones, could be held legally and morally responsible for their death. Additionally, is assigning blame in the case of suicide really necessary or morally correct?

Suicide is not an easy topic, and probably never will be. The decision to take one’s own life cannot be boiled down to one or even a few causes. During September, we should all collectively think critically about suicide and how we are failing as a society to prevent it.

The Cost of Motherhood

Image of a woman holding a young child

Having a child is one of the most impactful decisions a person will make in their life. And yet, this decision affects women much more than it does men. From the physical act of birthing a child to the thousand daily needs encountered in a day, women frequently inhabit what Mary Mellor has called ”biological time”. ”Biological time” is distinct from remunerative, capitalist time in that it includes all the work that is necessary for the maintenance and flourishing of human life, from giving birth and palliative care, to feeding, clothing, providing emotional reassurance, interpersonal interaction, education, laundry, specialist appointments and play dates, birthdays and leisure activities, and health care. This means that women, far from possessing leisure time, have traditionally created it for men by taking care of the innumerable necessities of daily life, including child rearing.

In 2018, it seems strange that we still face a gendered division of labour that was first rationalized in Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle justified a labour division which grouped women (and slaves) as domestic workers – an arrangement he found reasonable in order to free up the male household head for self-development and the presumably nobler activities of studying philosophy and city governance.

Some strides have been made to close the gender gap in household tasks and caregiving. While the gaps have narrowed somewhat, they are far from closed. Men typically receive adulation and support for the parenting and adulthood tasks which they complete. A man taking his children grocery shopping will likely be perceived by bystanders as a swoon-worthy superhero, while a mother doing the same thing is more likely to be scrutinized. This unfair standard follows women into the workplace, where men who leave early to take care of family members are seen as responsible individuals, but women struggle to be seen as competent and professionally motivated when they do the same thing. White men who have children earn a fatherhood bonus, while women who have children earn 20 percent less in the long-term.

The design of the work week itself is not open to those who are responsible for giving care. Instead, the structure of contemporary labour presupposes a gendered division of labour whereby the worker is freed to devote eight or more consecutive hours daily without interruptions or crises from home. While economists have already critiqued the 40-hour work week, with evidence showing higher productivity and well-being among workers for less and more flexible work hours, companies are slow to follow the evidence. Even in businesses which have implemented these policies, women may avoid taking advantage of proffered flexibility to forestall being judged as “uncommitted”. On-site child-care remains a pipe dream for most professions. Even among Fortune 100 companies, which typically have generous terms towards its employees, only seventeen offer daycare.

Loss of leisure, earnings, workplace respect, and career opportunities are not the only penalties women face in virtue of having a reproductive body. Women bear intimate scrutiny, politicization, policing and even bans for actions regarding all their choices – from contraception to breastfeeding, while condoms, Viagra, and even public urination are taken for granted as essential.

Given these challenges, it is hardly shocking to surmise why young women are choosing to have fewer or no children. Young women realize that the idea that women can ”have it all” remains a cruel joke, and it seems they are responding with pragmatism to harsh facts.

But just as was the case with capitalism’s role in shifting gender roles (though in many cases by increasing women’s work rather than transforming it), we may be headed toward another shift. The post-recession economic challenges Millennial women face may place the zero-sum competition between career and family in a much starker light, to the degree that many are embracing their professional and leisure capacities fully to the point of declining parenthood.

It is clear that women, as individuals, are responding in creative and complex ways to competing social structures that combine to exclude them from ”having it all”. Women are negotiating their limited opportunities to make the best of their singular lives. Nonetheless, the struggles that they face reveal a society where lack of gender parity runs much deeper than numbers. When we look at women’s meager options, they reveal how the structure of late capitalism, imbued with patriarchal assumptions, has made absolutely no provision or priority for caring and the culturing of humans. Women are aware that they subsidize not only career and leisure opportunities for their partners, but also subsume the costs of producing workers, citizens and leaders of society as a whole. It is our collective responsibility to address the lingering absence of care in our economic and social structures that have so marginalized women from full participation in remunerative and political life, separated men from the responsibilities and the humanity of caring labour, and left our social structures and institutions so alienated from the needs of the human spirit.

How Should We Consider Brett Kavanaugh’s Sexual Assault Allegation?

photograph of a woman holding a sign with the slogan "kava-nope" and a picture of Brett Kavanaugh

For several weeks, coverage of the already-controversial proceedings surrounding the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has been dominated by the possibility of sexual misconduct on the part of the nominee. Prior to Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation, Kavanaugh was already regarded by many to pose a threat to women’s rights. Those voices have now redoubled, resulting in the nomination committee delaying a vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation until after Ford has testified before the committee. Kavanaugh has denied the allegation.

Given a standoff between two conflicting individual claims—and, as of yet, no formally presented evidence—there is no point to arguing about the validity of Ford’s allegation. Nor would it be fruitful to delve into anecdotes reflecting each party’s character: such a discussion may be interesting, but ultimately comes down to hearsay. Instead, let us take this moment to consider the full ramifications of Ford’s allegation. How should the nomination committee proceed to maintain its ethical integrity?

It seems clear that the decision to delay a scheduled vote in light of the allegation was a sound one. An appointment to the Supreme Court is a decision that will affect politics, policy, and therefore the lives of millions of Americans for years if not decades to come. Unlike the winners of elections, members of the Supreme Court are appointed for life; they will not be removed from their position except in the most extreme cases, let alone in the next election cycle. This suggests that any decision made by the Senate in this situation should be a deliberate rather than a hasty one. It is true that the United States government does eventually need a full Supreme Court to be operating as was intended, so there is a good reason to avoid indefinite delay, but the Court has managed for more than a year with only eight justices, and the court’s role in the government is rarely especially time sensitive—there is no reason to begrudge the committee another few weeks or even months in order to be sure of the correct decision.

When the committee has heard Ford’s testimony, allowed Kavanaugh to respond, and examined the available evidence, what should its reaction be? Perhaps more importantly, what should our reaction be? What are the circumstances that would justify denying Kavanaugh’s confirmation? The most extreme case would be if Kavanaugh were convicted of sexual assault. In that situation, most people would agree that appointing him to the court would be unethical. But it is worth investigating exactly why one would hold this view. Is it a problem to have committed any crime? Some would say yes, especially considering the Supreme Court’s role in interpreting laws for the national legal system. But should that include all crimes, including traffic violations? Most people would not hold themselves to the same standard. A compromise might be to take only felonies or violent crimes under consideration. And would this edict have a statute of limitations? The allegation against Kavanaugh is from when he and Ford were both in high school; can we entertain the possibility of dramatic changes in personality over the span of several decades? Then again, the case is mounting in favor of a pattern of unacceptable behavior on the part of Kavanaugh: a second allegation has been brought to bear, this time from Kavanaugh’s Yale classmate Deborah Ramirez.

Furthermore, should all public officials be held to the same standard? Is it only because Kavanaugh’s potential position involves the administration of law, or is it a matter of putting any kind of criminal in any position of power? The answer to this question would have major implications outside of this case, as allegations of misconduct are brought up in elections around the nation.

Another way of looking at this problem is to ask what is achieved by keeping someone off the bench because of a past crime. There are two distinct possibilities: either the crime compromises the ability of the perpetrator to carry out the duties associated with their position, or the denial of the Supreme Court seat is an extension of the punishment for the perpetrator’s crime. The goal is either to protect the American people from a dangerous agent, or to mete out retribution for a crime.

This conclusion informs our decision about less extreme hypotheticals around Kavanaugh’s case. He has not been convicted of a crime, and the assault alleged by Ford would have taken place when Kavanaugh was a minor, meaning that even if he had been convicted at the time, there would be no continued legal consequences in force today. If keeping Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court were only a form of retributive justice, it would be a difficult argument to support. However, if the aim is to judge Kavanaugh’s overall fitness for the court, taking Ford’s allegation under consideration might be prudent. While it could be argued that Ford’s testimony is very convenient to a perceived liberal political agenda, this fact alone should not be enough to disregard her testimony altogether. Her speaking out is no more politically expedient to the left than her silence would have been to the right. In a case outside of the political sphere, we would not assume ulterior motivation from an alleged victim of sexual assault.

“This Crazy Anxious World”: Racism or Political Correctness?

Photograph of tennis athlete Serena Williams with a crowd behind her

Last week a cartoon of Serena Williams appeared in the Herald Sun, a tabloid newspaper published in Melbourne, Australia. The subject was Williams’ dispute with the referee during the women’s US Open tennis championship final. The way cartoonist Mark Knight drew Williams has been compared to caricatures and illustrations of African Americans from the US during the Jim Crow era. The cartoon was picked up and shared widely on Twitter in the US where it dominated the media and was resoundingly criticised as racist, and it provoked widespread anger and condemnation internationally. In the wake of the response to his cartoon, Knight was subject to a torrent of vitriol and abuse on Twitter, and his account was suspended after threats were made against him and his family.

Knight is a Walkley Award winning, highly respected cartoonist and he reacted with surprise and trepidation to the response. Defending the cartoon he claimed that it was about Williams’ actions on the court and not about race or gender. He said: “The cartoon about Serena is about her poor behaviour on the day, not about race. The world has gone crazy.”

Meanwhile, in response to the controversy, the Herald Sun doubled down, republishing the drawing of Williams on its front page accompanied by other of Knight’s satirical depictions of public figures, with the ‘headline’ “Welcome to PC World.” In several editorials the paper defended Knight’s claim that his cartoon merely depicts Williams ‘having a tantrum’ (in Knight’s words). Many a pundit complained bitterly that political correctness is effectively censoring satire, and that there is a general overzealousness for finding grave offence where it is not intended. The outrage provoked by Knight’s cartoon was dismissed ass hypersensitivity. Cartoonist Paul Zanetti wrote: “that’s a default position of a lot of people to be triggered into being offended… it’s PC madness.”

Michael Leunig, another Australian veteran award-winning cartoonist wrote, in Knight’s defense:

It’s getting harder to be a cartoonist in this crazy anxious world – in this fragile angry humourless environment where leniency and understanding are in dangerous decline, and where psychic infections spread chaotically on social media with terrible consequences.

If a bit overwrought, nevertheless he strikes a chord. Knight’s defenders take him at his word that his drawing contains no allusions to the racist caricatures to which it is likened. We will return to the question of whether this defense can stand. Leaving aside Knight’s cartoon for a moment, whatever else it may be, this argument is a flashpoint for the political correctness versus free speech dispute that is becoming increasingly vexed in contemporary political and social discourse.

A certain disaffection with political correctness is breaking out on many sides of the political spectrum. From the left Slavoj Žižek complains, “there is something… fake about political correctness.” He thinks that “without a tiny exchange of friendly obscenities you don’t have real contact with another, it remains cold respect… we need this to establish real contact. This is what is lacking, for me, in political correctness.” He has in mind the kind of humorous exchange where people can make fun of each other – something that might be thought of as respectful disrespect. And he implies that such exchanges add colour and depth to our interactions with others.

On the other hand, from the point of view of the conservative right, political correctness is construed as a danger to freedom of speech – because it acts as an injunction on certain sorts of opinions being aired in public. This view was epitomised by George Brandis, erstwhile Attorney General of Australia, who famously proclaimed that “people have a right to be bigots”, reflecting a growing sense in some quarters that political correctness is a form of censorship threatening other rights.

Free speech isn’t absolutely free because it doesn’t licence hate-speech or speech inciting violence. Yet free speech inevitably leaves some possibility for giving offense. (The reason for this is rather more practical than ethical – in a pluralistic society people have different beliefs and values and also different customs of expression and idiom.) The question is where and how the line ought to be drawn. That is why, in terms of the importance of free speech for a free and open democratic society, the distinction between free speech and hate speech is so important.

Cartoons of the ilk of Mark Knight’s can be penetrating and revealing, and are almost always barbed. Knight has depicted Pauline Hansen, a populist Australian politician as a cane toad, Harvey Weinstein as Jabba the Hut and Donald Trump as a white-cat-stroking super villain with ‘stupid hair’. None of which is pretty. Satire as a medium walks the line between humour and ridicule, and it is usually offensive in some sense.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines political correctness as: “conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, esp. on social matters, usually characterized by the advocacy of approved causes or views, and often by the rejection of language… considered discriminatory or offensive.”

Given that, as the definition indicates, PC has usually stemmed from a socially progressive agenda, it has often been a source of irritation, sometimes outrage, for social conservatives.

Yet the core value of political correctness is about rejecting discriminatory and offensive language. Though the term has become somewhat pejorative of late, it is, at its core, about not causing others hurt and offense by not using words, idioms, images, etc. with intrinsically pernicious meanings – meanings that are often tied to historical iterations of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. Political correctness is concerned with rooting out casually degrading language from everyday discourse and in this it has been important to the social progress made in raising awareness of forms of degradation embedded in our social and cultural milieu.   

So, back to the Serena Williams cartoon: Knight claims that he was not drawing on the kinds of racist depictions of black Americans his cartoon has been criticised for resembling; he says that they were not on his mind as he satirised William’s ‘tantrum’.  But should they have been? It seems genuinely true that the cartoon was not drawn with malicious intent, yet looking at the drawing it is difficult to miss its likeness to those racist images, and difficult to escape the conclusion that Knight’s depiction of Williams is indeed connected with that imagery – consciously or not.

The salient point is that the images of black Americans from the Jim Crow era were produced and used as a way to humiliate and dehumanize an already deeply wronged people. They were used to enculturate and justify enforced racial segregation by perpetrating hateful stereotypes and so were part of the apparatus of oppression. Contemporary depictions of African Americans that resemble them are culturally loaded because of that history in a way that Knight was insensitive to.

Even if Knight doesn’t know it, his depiction of Williams is recalls the portrayals of black people that participated in their oppression. His cartoon is not divorced from that history. That is to say, racism is not only an actively pursued ideology; racism isn’t always manifested from a fully formed prejudice or conscious hatred (though, of course, in some quarters it is). It can also be manifest in a passive acceptance of a status quo which harbors stereotypes that are harmful. Part of the legacy of racism that we are still dealing with is the ways in which it is so embedded that sometimes it is simply not seen.

On Meat Eating: Cats, Dogs, and Carnism

Photograph of a person's hands holding a knife and fork with a piece of raw meat on a plate beneath the utensils

This September, the US House of Representatives passed the Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act of 2018, a bipartisan piece of legislation targeted to “prohibit the slaughter of dogs and cats for human consumption, and for other purposes” by specifically making it a felony to slaughter, buy, or sell a cat or dog with the intent to eat it. Although Jeff Denham, a Republican from California who sponsored the bill, admitted that rates of dog and cat meat consumption in the US are not high, “Adopting this policy…demonstrates our unity with other nations that have banned dog and cat meat, and it bolsters existing international efforts to crack down on the practice worldwide.”

On one hand, it’s unsurprising that a country where nearly 184 million cats and dogs make their homes as companion animals to humans would place a priority on preserving the lives of these creatures. But, on the other, the behemoth of American agribusiness and the record-setting diet of the average American consumer predicted to eat over 220 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018 might also lead one to ask: what is so special about these two particular animals? Why are we happy to eat pigs, cows, and chickens, but – if this new Act is eventually signed into law – may face federal penalties for eating comparably similar nonhuman creatures?

This is the question Melanie Joy takes up in her 2010 book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Joy argues that it is is simply a matter of cultural perspective which leads people in the US to view some animals as food and others as friends; empowered by a violent ideology labeled carnism, Joy explains how a variety of social and historical facts have developed over time into a system that conditions the majority of US citizens to simply take for granted that different species of animals are categorized in various arbitrary ways. It’s not the case that most meat-eaters have consciously chosen to eat some animals and not others; it is instead the case that, because carnism operates invisibly, most carnists have simply never actually considered the question of what they are actually eating.

Roughly twenty years ago, my family sat down to dinner in the home of a Saudi-Arabian national; as a normal part of the meal, a goat had been killed, prepared, and served on a large platter as a main course. Two decades later, my mother still tells the story of how uncomfortable she felt when the platter was placed directly in front of her, forcing her to face the empty eye sockets of her dinner’s skull for the duration of her meal.

The presence of the goat’s head on that dinner table remains memorable because it violated a key principle of carnism: invisibility. Normally in the West, animal slaughtering practices are removed from the public eye, allowing carnism to promote what Joy calls ‘psychic numbing’ as eaters mentally disconnect the animality of meat from its role as food. Trying to have a polite meal with a reminder of one’s dinner’s pre-mortem life as a centerpiece unavoidably grates against that invisibility.

So, because cats and dogs are less invisible to most Westerners, the thought of betraying our species-level relationship with them by treating them like food sounds reprehensible; doing so to other animals is contingently easier because they are socially removed from our general experience. Joy argues that such a disparity is ultimately inconsistent; pigs and dogs, for example, are far too similar in emotional, intellectual, and physical capacities to justify being treated so differently. However, raising the awareness of the current carnist state’s arbitrary conclusions will take time.

For now, the potential ban on cat and dog consumption still has several legislative steps ahead of it before it becomes a law, but with support from the Humane Society of America, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and cosponsorship from congresspersons representing eight different US states, animal rights advocates are celebrating this incremental step towards protecting vulnerable creatures. Whether or not similar legislation protecting other defenseless animals will eventually make its way to the floor of Congress seems unlikely given the strong ideology of carnism, but, as Shakespeare’s Richmond says in Richard III, “True hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings.”

The Dangers and Ethics of Social Media Censorship

"Alex Jones" by Sean P. Anderson licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Alex Jones was removed from Youtube and other major social networks for repeatedly violating the site’s community guidelines. Among other things, Youtube’s community guidelines prohibit nudity or sexual content, harmful or dangerous content, violent or graphic content, and most relevant to this situation, hateful content and harassment. While the site describes its products as “platforms for free expression,” it also states in the same policy section that it does not permit hate speech. How both can be true simultaneously is not entirely clear to me.

Continue reading “The Dangers and Ethics of Social Media Censorship”

Should We Romanticize the Dead?

"John McCain with supporters" by Gage Skidmore liscensed under CC BY 2.0

It seems as if it is human nature to disagree– to go against that which one doesn’t believe in. Often disagreements between people can elicit hostility from either side, causing individuals to simply dislike one another or purely hate each other. But what happens when one side dies? Does the living side rejoice in their opposition’s death or take the time to appreciate the life they lived? It’s almost as if choosing to decide is a decision between the lesser of two evils, for rejoicing in someone’s death is immoral, and relishing in their life seems hypocritical. To oscillate between these two choices raises the question: should we romanticize the dead?

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Is Google Obligated to Stay out of China?

Photograph of office building display of Google China

Recently, news broke that Google was once again considering developing a version of its search engine for China. Google has not offered an official version of its website in China since 2010, when it withdrew its services due to concerns about censorship: the Chinese government has placed significant constraints on what its citizens can access online, typically involving information about global and local politics, as well as information that generally does not paint the Chinese government in a positive light. Often referred to as “The Great Firewall of China”, one notorious example of Chinese censorship involves searches for “Tiananmen Square”: if you are outside of China, chances are your searches will prominently include in its results information concerning the 1989 student-led protest and subsequent massacre of civilians by Chinese troops, along with the famous picture of a man standing down a column of tanks; within China, however, search results return information about Tiananmen Square predominantly as a tourist destination, but nothing about the protests.

While the Chinese government has not lifted any of their online restrictions since 2010, Google nevertheless is reportedly considering re-entering the market. The motivation for doing so is obvious: it is an enormous market, and would be extremely profitable for the company to have a presence in China. However, as many have pointed out, doing so would seem to be in violation of Google’s own mantra: “Don’t be evil!” So we should ask: would it be evil for Google to develop a search engine for China that abided by the requirements for censorship dictated by the Chinese government?

One immediate worry is with the existence of the censorship itself. There is no doubt about the fact that the Chinese government is actively restricting its citizens from accessing important information about the world. This kind of censorship is often considered to be a violation of free speech: not only are Chinese citizens restricted from sharing certain kinds of information, they are prevented from acquiring information that would allow them to engage in conversations with others about political and other important matters. That people should not be censored in this way is encapsulated in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human rights:

Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The right to freedom of expression is what philosophers will sometimes refer to as a “negative right”: it’s a right to not be restricted from doing something that you might otherwise be able to do. So while we shouldn’t say that Google is required to provide its users with all possible information out there, we should say that Google should not actively prevent people from acquiring information that they should otherwise have access to. While the UN’s declaration does not have any official legal status, at the very least it is a good guideline for evaluating whether a government is treating its citizens in the right way.

It seems that we should hold the Chinese government responsible for restricting the rights of its citizens. But if Google were to create a version of their site that adhered to the censorship guidelines, should Google itself be held responsible, as well? We might think that they should not: after all, they didn’t create the rules, they are merely following them. What’s more, the censorship would occur with or without Google’s presence, so it does not seem as though they would be violating any more rights by entering the market.

But this doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse. Google would be, at the very least, complicit: they are fully aware of the censorship laws, how they harm citizens, and would be choosing to actively profit as a result of following those rules. Furthermore, it is not as if Google is forced to abide by these rules: they are not, say, a local business that has no other choice but to follow the rules in order to survive. Instead, it would be their choice to return to a market that they once left because of moral concerns. The fact that they would merely be following the rules again this time around does not seem to absolve them of any responsibility.

Perhaps Google could justify its re-entry into China in the following way: the dominant search engine in China is Baidu, which has a whopping 75% of the market share. Google, then, would be able to provide Chinese citizens with an alternative. However, unless Google is actually willing to flout censorship laws, offering an alternative hardly seems to justify their presence in the Chinese market: if Google offers the same travel tips about Tiananmen Square as Baidu does but none of its more important history, then having one more search engine is no improvement.

Finally, perhaps we should think that Google, in fact, really ought to enter the Chinese market, because doing so would fulfil a different set of obligations Google has, namely towards its shareholders and those otherwise invested in the business. Google is a business, after all, and as such should take measures to be as profitable as it reasonably can for those who have a stake in its success. Re-entering the Chinese market would almost certainly be a very profitable endeavour, so we might think that, at least when it comes to those invested in the business, that Google has an obligation to do so. One way to think about Google’s position, then, is that it is forced to make a moral compromise: it has to make a moral sacrifice – in this case, knowingly engaging in censorship practices – in order to fulfil other obligations that it has – those it has towards its shareholders.

Google may very well be faced with a conflict of obligations of this kind, but that does not mean that they should compromise in a way that favors profits: there are, after all, lots of ways to make money, but that does not mean that doing anything and everything for a buck is a justifiable compromise. When weighing the interests of those invested in Google, a company that is by any reasonable definition thriving, against being complicit in aiding in the online censorship of a quarter of a billion people, the balance of moral consideration seems to point clearly in only one direction.

Who and What is a Person: Chile Rivers

"Caleta Tortel" by Javier Vieras licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).jpg

In Chile, rivers are being dammed at an increasing rate. Activist citizens including authors, indigenous peoples, and environmental activist groups such as the Chilean free-flowing rivers network are advocating for granting special standing to rivers that would make such development more difficult. If rivers had the legal standing of “personhood”, they would have protections under the law similar to those of human citizens, with a higher burden of justification if corporations attempted to interfere with them.

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Why Blaming Ariana Grande for Mac Miller’s Death is Unethical

"Ariana Grande" by Emma is liscensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

On Friday, September 7, well-loved rapper and talented musician Mac Miller died of a drug overdose, according TMZ. The tragic loss of the 26-year-old musician was a painful shock to many, including singer and Miller’s ex-girlfriend, Ariana Grande. Grande, who is usually active on social media, has been understandably silent, posting only one image on her Instagram. Continue reading “Why Blaming Ariana Grande for Mac Miller’s Death is Unethical”

Marine Education in a World Without SeaWorld

Photograph of two orcas leaping with a crowd watching

The release of a documentary titled “Blackfish” took the world by surprise five years ago, as it outlined the grim lives of captive killer whales within the sea-park industry. The documentary explored the life of one particular orca by the name of Tilikum, who was suffering from deteriorating health due to a bacterial infection and would later die in 2017 at a SeaWorld park. Since then SeaWorld has managed to stay out of the limelight, after announcing that their current group of captive orcas would be the last generation in a longstanding tradition of capture and contain. Continue reading “Marine Education in a World Without SeaWorld”

What is the Cultural Cost of Urban Development?

Photograph of the historic city center of Perpignan, France

In the Saint Jacques district of Perpignan, France, a group of Catalan Gypsies (“les gitans”) made a stand last August for the preservation of their deteriorating historic neighborhood.  The city wanted to demolish and replace hundreds of buildings for the sake of the health and safety of these residents, but the residents argued that their cultural connection to the architecture was worth more than the benefit of modern buildings. The city backed down, but there is no reason to believe that the issue is settled. As buildings in cities all over the world begin to show their age, and as municipal governments realize that these picturesque neighborhoods are among their most treasured assets, the challenge of balancing heritage and progress is becoming increasingly relevant. What should cities be doing to preserve their cultural monuments while people are living inside? Continue reading “What is the Cultural Cost of Urban Development?”

Australia’s Moral Disgrace: Child Mental Health Crisis in Australian Immigration Detention

Photograph of a rally with a person holding a sign saying "Indefinite Detention is a crime against humanity"

The Pacific Islands Forum is a regional intergovernmental organization of 18 Pacific countries. Australia is the largest member nation, with a population of 25 million. This year, in the first week of September, the annual forum meeting is being held on the tiny island nation of Nauru. Nauru houses Australia’s only remaining offshore immigration detention centre.  That centre, a bastion of Australia’s implacably cruel asylum seeker detention policy, has again been in the news for the past several weeks as a crisis develops concerning the mental health of dozens of children detained indefinitely there. Continue reading “Australia’s Moral Disgrace: Child Mental Health Crisis in Australian Immigration Detention”

Combating Bias? Nicki Minaj and the Merit of “Twitter Beef”

Photograph of Nicki Minaj on stage holding a microphone

Four years since her last album, Nicki Minaj released her fourth album Queen on August 10th, 2018. According to The Observer, the album was scheduled for its release on June 25, and its delayed and surprising release has had fans reeling. The release of the album and the rapper’s personal life have been imbued in controversy, and considering the standards female celebrities are held to, it is not surprising. However, the Queens native has taken to Twitter and other platforms to declare that this time around, she will not be silenced. While there has been substantial noise and personal opinion regarding Nicki’s actions and Twitter posts, whether you agree or disagree with her approach, the rapper has raised several points that require further ethical examination. Among these points are the contradictory and inconsistent standards that female artists are held to by music critics, and the unequal treatment of female artists by streaming platforms.

Nicki has been greatly criticized for collaborating on “FEFE” with rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine (Daniel Hernandez). Hernandez was found guilty of using a child in a sexual performance, pled guilty in 2015, and has been arrested on multiple counts of assault since then. With this in mind, is it ethical to promote the fame and monetary advancement of  someone who has been known for abusing women? In an article for Pitchfork, Shanita Hubbard writes: “The choice to use her platform to further legitimize a sexual predator is in direct contrast with the nationwide, black women-led movement to silence music’s most infamous abuser [R. Kelly].” According to CNN, Spotify enacted the Hate Content and Hateful Conduct Policy, which included taking R. Kelly off all Spotify Playlists. This has been in part inspired by the #MeToo movement and the voracity with which sexual violence has been amplified and condemned on social media. Furthermore, the principle of non-maleficence would say that actions that cause harm should be completely avoided, and promoting the music of convicted sexual offenders causes an immeasurable amount of pain to people who have been affected by sexual violence: they might be forced to relive their pain when they listen to a sexual offender’s music. Not to mention that the tacit or explicit support of sexual offenders contributes to rape culture.

While the production of “FEFE” is arguably an ethical breach on Nicki’s part, Nicki points to a certain amount of hypocrisy within the criticism she has received. On Twitter, Nicki questioned the praise that Lady Gaga received on her collaboration with R. Kelly by Pitchfork. This leads one to wonder whether Black women are held to a higher standard when it comes to eradicating rape culture, especially considering how the #MeToo movement was started by Black women. Is an unequivocal repudiation of all art created by sexual offenders needed in order for criticisms, such as the ones Nicki is facing, to be just? Additionally, this speaks to what bodies can be “aggressors” and be granted “forgive and forget” privileges. Nicki points to the forgiveness with which Lady Gaga was treated; however, one could argue that at the time of Lady Gaga’s collaboration with R. Kelly, there weren’t as many efforts to boycott artists who engaged in unethical and illegal practices. On the other hand, one could also argue that R. Kelly’s problematic sexual conduct has been public record for decades, and collaborating with him is unethical regardless of the contemporary awareness the #MeToo Movement has created. Furthermore, when dealing with unethical actions, how can unequal responsibility be mediated? Nicki also claimed that she knew of people getting paid to slander her on different news outlets, and Tweeted, “I’m supposed to keep letting these ppl get money to bully me behind the scenes & not say anything. Yikes.” Through her Tweet, Nicki emphasizes how she is expected to keep quiet, even when she sees herself targeted unequally. This speaks to the ways in which women are commodified, especially in the music industry. Audiences want to consume their music and celebrity presence without humanizing them.

Nicki Minaj has also spoken out about potential foul play by the streaming company, Spotify. Nicki took to Twitter with this issue and stated that Spotify purposefully did not advertise her album sufficiently, since her album premiered slightly earlier on iTunes. She also pointed out that when Drake dropped his latest album, Scorpion, he was overwhelmingly featured on Spotify Playlists and promoted on the streaming platform. Some might suggest that Nicki is stirring controversy on Twitter to increase her album’s visibility (Queen was No. 2 on the Billboard 200, behind Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD). People who claim that Nicki is simply pulling a publicity stunt might be ignoring the historic silencing of women of color: protesting “peacefully” and “properly” is coded as something only white bodies can do. Furthermore, Nicki does call attention to the inequities that exist between men and women in the music industry, especially within rap.  Whether Spotify recognizes that they treated the release of Drake’s album differently than Nicki’s, an unconscious gender bias could have been at play.

Through her new album, Nicki  Minaj is making a statement: her contributions to rap will not be belittled because she is a woman. Nicki took to Twitter to protest in the quintessential 21st century fashion, and her Tweets and interviews have sparked debate and judgment with many arguing that she is uninformed, ignorant, and dramatic. However, this reflects the silencing that women of color experience when they share their perceptions and life experiences and are told to be quiet. Women of color also experience policing when it comes to their tone and choice of words, which is congruent with the criticism Nicki’s Tweets have received. Whether one agrees with “Twitter beef” and the increasing use of Twitter to settle disputes, it is important that audiences read between the lines. When a woman Tweets “injustice,” the immediate response should not be “exaggeration.”

Chance the Rapper came out in support for Nicki and Tweeted, “I cant [sic] imagine what it’d be like to literally not be able to show yo frustrations with actual inequities and subjugation. Without being called bitter or angry or a liar or crazy. Mfs a literally tell a BW ‘I feel u but u not goin about it the right way’… what?” Chance the Rapper’s Tweet is important, because it highlights the harassment women of color face when they call out oppression; however, it is important to consider the Chicago rapper’s positionality when examining his Tweet. As a man, Chance has the ability to influence a public audience with more credibility. On the other hand, Chance is using his position to uplift the voices of women of color. While justice demands that all voices are heard equally, on and off the “Twittersphere,” this is still not the case. Nevertheless, these are all factors one must consider when assessing the political potential of Twitter.

“Who Is America” and the Ethics of Comedy through Deceit

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen at a red carpet event

Last week marked the first season finale of Sacha Baron Cohen’s reality television show, Who Is America. The show, which premiered on Showtime early in July, is based on the premise of pranking American politicians, reporters, and even everyday voters into saying or doing embarrassing things on camera. Cohen’s victims have included former Senatorial candidate from Alabama Roy Moore, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, and football star and accused murderer O.J. Simpson.

Continue reading ““Who Is America” and the Ethics of Comedy through Deceit”

Facebook and the Rohingya Genocide

Photograph of a long line of people in a refugee camp

The Rohingya are a mixed ethno-religious group that have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine province for centuries. The Rohingya are mostly Muslim, though a minority of Hindus exist among their number. Both religious identities are vastly outnumbered by the 88% Buddhist population of Myanmar. Despite their long residence in the area, the Rohingya are not among the eight major ethnic groups recognized by the government. Instead, the Burmese government has systematically worked to strip the Rohingya of citizenship, characterizing them as ethnic and religious outsiders, chiefly referred to as “Bengalis.”

Stringent restrictions on mobility, employment, and eventually voting rights left the now-stateless Rohingya completely disenfranchised over a period of decades, leading them to be labeled “the most persecuted people in the world.” Amnesty International and Desmond Tutu described the Burmese treatment of the Rohingya as apartheid.

In 2016, men with knives and sharpened sticks attacked police outposts on the Burmese and Bangladesh borders, killing a handful of officers. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for these attacks as protest against the harms suffered by the Rohingya. The Burmese military retaliated with a full-scale pogrom against the Rohingya, culminating in the present day.

The military instantiated a reign of terror, using murder, rape, and torture against this already battered people. 392 villages were partially or wholly destroyed, while an estimated 10,000 Rohingya deaths are considered to be a conservative estimate of the bloodshed. 723,000 of the Rohingya (according to the UN’s count) have fled to neighboring countries.

Recent UN reports found evidence of a concerted, premeditated effort on the part of Burmese generals to engage in ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner who herself once suffered at the hands of the Burmese military, has long ignored or denied atrocities against the Rohingya, eliciting international censure. Buddhists monks like Ashin Wirathu, though idealized in the Western imagination as the Platonic realization of the pacifist, play a significant role in advocating violence against Muslims in the name of Buddhist nationalism.

In this systematic decimation of the Rohingya, Burmese authorities found help from a surprising quarter: Facebook. The UN ascribed a fundamental role to Facebook for the dissemination of hate and disinformation. For most people in Myanmar, Facebook is the only source of information. It was thus easy for military generals to deploy Facebook as a covert propaganda tool. Their efforts reached 12 million users (a large chunk of the national population of 51 million). Recently, in response to intense international scrutiny, Facebook finally announced that it was removing the accounts of twenty military individuals and organizations, provoking a greater outcry among the Burmese than the Rohingya genocide itself.

Facebook hate speech throughout the Burmese ethnic cleansing was not just a concerted military operation. It flourished among political parties in Myanmar. An analysis by Buzzfeed News found that, of four thousand posts by Burmese politicians, one in ten contained hate speech that violated Facebook’s community standards. Examples included “othering” comments comparing Rohingya to animals, misogynistic statements against Muslim women saying that they were “too ugly to rape,” claims that the Rohingya faked their tragedies and that Muslims were seeking to out-populate Buddhists, and direct threats of bloodshed. After months of inaction, when confronted by a Buzzfeed representative, Facebook finally began to take some of these posts down.

It is surprising that, in the words of writer Casey Newton, it took “a genocide to remove someone from Facebook.” It is slightly less surprising in light of Facebook’s policies and track record on dealing with hate speech on scales less than genocide. Through numerous shared user experiences, we see a picture forming of Facebook’s extraordinarily crude application of their officially “neutral” policy. Within the less extreme North American context, women regularly get suspended by Facebook administrators for calling out men who threaten them with rape and violence (while their harassers suffer no consequences). Meanwhile, black children are not a protected group, although white men are. Danielle Citron, law professor at the University of Maryland and expert on information privacy, notes that Facebook’s context-blind algorithms purporting to curb hate speech ultimately serve to “protect the people who least need it and take it away from those who really need it.”

Facebook possess the resources to hire experts on best practices in regulating hate speech and propaganda, even in highly volatile contexts. And yet, the social media platform falls wide of the mark in confronting hate speech, harassment, and disinformation even in stable democracies. What is holding them back?

Facebook’s culpable vulnerabilities to becoming a propaganda machine and fuel for unsavory regimes will continue unless civil society devises clear norms to demand of it and other social media platforms. We must work to translate social, scientific, and political knowledge about how hate and violence are generated in local contexts. We must also establish minimum standards for internal oversight on social media so that plausible deniability on the part of corporations can no longer be an option. Facebook is a reminder that corporations are not guided by the advancement of humankind but by markets and users. Being indifferent to outcomes, their platforms can nurture community building, the spread of knowledge, and skill-building, or they can foster intense group identification, disinformation, hatred, and government propaganda. As Facebook is currently the global giant of social media, synonymous with the Internet itself in Myanmar, it is up to us as members of the international community to hold them accountable with other players in this tragedy.


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Church Names and the Ethics of Reference

Photograph of the Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints temple at night

In August, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly referred to as the “Mormon Church,” issued an updated style guide indicating that it no longer wishes to be publicly called anything but its full and proper name. Russell M. Nelson, the current leader of the Church, explained that “The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Consequently, any shortened reference to the faith organization is no longer officially sanctioned by its leadership. Continue reading “Church Names and the Ethics of Reference”