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Christmas Music and Emotional Manipulation

blurry photograph of decorated Christmas trees

There is a predictable pattern of reactions to Christmas music every year. First, stores start to play it much too early – typically right after Thanksgiving, or maybe even right after Halloween – and people comment on how stores are playing it much too early. Then there’s that sweet spot, where for a few weeks the songs are fun and comforting to listen to, and Wham’s “Last Christmas” is still tolerable. Inevitably, though, patience starts to run out as holiday stresses mount, and by the time the season’s over pretty much everyone is ready for another 10-month break from Christmas music.

There is, however, one class of song that is particularly difficult to tolerate no matter what time in December: the preachy Christmas song that doesn’t celebrate the spirit of giving so much as it seems to chastise you for having been a terrible person all year long. Two such songs stand out: John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (that’s the one with the “War is over/If you want it” chorus) and Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (that’s the one with the “Feed the world/let them know it’s Christmastime again” chorus).

While both songs come from a place of good intentions – Lennon’s song was written partly in protest against the Vietnam War, while Band Aid were attempting to help raise awareness for a famine in Ethiopia in the early-to-mid 1980s – I doubt they make many people’s holiday party playlists. And for good reason: I don’t want to feel bad about myself during the holidays. And although I didn’t really do anything this past year to try to put an end to war or famine, do I really have to be reminded about my many moral failings?

If you think that I’m being too hard on these types of songs, then you should know that I’m not alone. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has been criticized repeatedly, for many different reasons. Perhaps most damning of all is its ill-informed message about what was happening in “Africa” at the time. Consider, for example, the following lyrics, which describe Africa as a place:

Where the only water flowing
Is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

While undeniably schmaltzy, it’s also bizarre to talk about all of Africa in a single breath. As Bim Adewunmi at The Guardian writes:

“There is a humourless danger in taking song lyrics too literally, but I can’t help it: yes, they do know it’s Christmas time in Africa because huge swaths of that vast continent are Christian; the greatest gift anyone can have is life; and actually, it is more likely to be water, not just “bitter tears”, flowing across Africa’s 54 nations.”

Adewunmi also argues that the song perpetuates a narrative in which the people of Africa need to be “saved” by those in the west, and ignore the efforts of those actually living in countries affected by some of the problems that “super groups” like Band Aid are meant to draw attention to.

So not only is it emotionally manipulative, but it’s patronizing as well. Is there any good reason to keep playing this song around Christmas?

Well, perhaps there’s one: the song and subsequent concerts put on by related act Live Aid have raised a good quantity of money for charity. Although the original Band Aid song was released in 1984, subsequent re-releases – including Band Aid II in 1989, Band Aid 20 in 2004, and Band Aid 30 in 2014, with updated rosters of contemporary popular musicians – donated a portion of profits from sales of the single each time to various charities in Africa, approximately £40m worth – although there has been debate about the overall benefits or detriments of the original Live Aid efforts, with some arguing that unforeseen political consequences of Live Aid’s donations may have caused a significant amount of harm, as well.

Whether the consequences were overall positive or negative, we can also ask the more theoretical question of whether it is appropriate to solicit charitable donations by means of emotional manipulation. Clearly the song is meant to make the listener question their relative position of privilege – especially when they are told to “thank God” it’s “them” instead of you who are suffering. We might then be motivated to donate to the Band Aid cause not out of legitimate concern for the suffering of others, but instead to assuage our own guilt. We might worry, though, that while it’s overall a good thing to donate to charity, one should be motivated by actually helping others, and not just to try to feel less bad about oneself.

That being said, if it does indeed help distribute some of the wealth and goods from those who have a lot to those who need it, it is hard to see how a little emotional manipulation in the form of cheesy Christmas songs could hurt. And while it might be close to another year before you hear “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” again, next time you do it’s worth thinking about the best way to assuage that year-end guilt.

Passing the Mirror Test and the Wrong of Pain

Photograph of a striped fish called a cleaner wrasse in front of coral with another different species of fish in view behind

In mid-February, scientists announced progress in developing an understanding of consciousness. An international team collaborating in four countries discovered patterns of brain activity that coincide with awareness. Consciousness has long been a mystery, and there are many reasons to explore and figure it out. It seems like creatures who have some form of consciousness make up a special club, experiencing the world with more layers, perhaps with more complex agency, perhaps uniquely making up the moral community.

These potential steps forward in understanding our brain-based and embodied consciousness come alongside a purported broadening of the group of animals that scientists claim pass the mirror-test for self-awareness. As we try to put our fingers on what it means to be conscious, in the last century Western philosophers have become open to the idea that there is a rich arena of animal perspectives alongside our own. The variety of ways that we can imagine experiencing the world has grown with our study of human and non-human animal experiences. This has interesting implications for who we include in our understanding of our moral community and how we understand the ways we can harm these members.

Though it is pretty intuitive that causing harm is bad, explaining why can be notoriously difficult. One route is appealing to the negative experience of harm – primarily how bad experiencing pain is. This focus unites human and non-human animals that can feel pain into one morally relevant domain. If what is bad about causing harm is that it brings about this negative experience of pain, then we need to identify the sorts of creatures that experience pain and avoid bringing about those states without outweighing reasons. Thus, consciousness will be morally relevant insofar as it delineates those creatures that are in some way aware of their experiences.

There are two responses to this line of thinking. One direction argues that this grounding of the badness of causing harm is too narrow: there are harms that we don’t experience, so this understanding misses morally relevant behaviors. Another direction claims that this line of thinking is too broad: not all pain is morally relevant.

Consider the (false) common conception of the perspective of a goldfish, where their understanding of the world resets every 10 seconds. Would causing pain to a creature who would very quickly have no memory of it have the same moral relevance as causing pain to something that would incorporate it into its understanding of the world indefinitely? Take the faux-goldfish example to its conceptual extreme and imagine a creature that has the experience of pleasure and pain, but only has instantaneous experiences – it lacks memory. Presumably, it wouldn’t matter to the creature a moment after it felt pain that it felt pain a moment ago because it had no residual impact from the experience (unless prolonged damage was done). If you share this intuition, then something more than the mere experience of pain is involved in the morality of causing harm.  

The way to make pain morally relevant is to focus on the perspective of the creature experiencing the pain – that there is such a perspective extended in time that experiencing the pain will impact. We can imagine the fear of a non-human animal in unfamiliar circumstances and consider the anxiety that may develop over time if it is continuously exposed to such circumstances. Such creatures have a sort of “self,” in the sense that their experience of the world develops their mode of interacting with the world and understanding of the world over time.

There is an even more advanced way of being a creature in the world beyond stringing experiences together in order to have a perspective extended in time: a creature can be aware that it has such a perspective by being aware that it is a self.

A key experiment to check the development of a self-concept is the mirror-test, where an animal has a mark placed on their body that they cannot see by moving their eyes. If, when they see the mark on a body in a mirror, they come to the conclusion that their own body has the mark, then they “pass” the mirror test because in order to come to such a conclusion the animal must use an implicit premise that they are a creature that could be so marked. The mirror-test is thus meant to indicate that an animal has self-awareness. It relies on a variety of competencies (vision and figuring out how mirrors work, for instance), but has long been thought to be sufficient for indicating that a creature is aware that it exists in the world.

Humans don’t pass the mirror test until they are toddlers, and only some primates also are able to pass the test, along with sundry birds and other mammals. However, this past year a tiny fish – the cleaner wrasse – seemed to pass the test. It is a social animal, considered to be relatively cognitively advanced, but the scientists who advocated for the results of the mirror-test suggest that while yes, this is a smart and advanced fish, this may not mean that it is self-aware. The success of the small fish has raised issues in how we test for morally relevant milestones in non-human animals.

One interesting facet of the mirror test is that animals that perform well are social, which is often a morally relevant trait. If morality is a matter of treated others with the sort of deference they are due, then a sort of sociality for members of the moral domain makes some sense.

In defining our moral community, most theorists include some non-human animals, and most consider it relevant to identify the way creatures experience the world. These latest advances in mapping consciousness and advancing our interpretation of self-awareness tests will help us understand the spectrum of relationships possible in the animal world. 


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

Seeing the Olympics

Early in his classic Being Peace, Thich Naht Hanh says the following:

Meditation is to be aware of what is going on-in our bodies, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world. Each day 40,000 children die of hunger. The superpowers now have more than 50,000 nuclear warheads, enough to destroy our planet many times. Yet the sunrise is beautiful, and the rose that bloomed this morning along the wall is a miracle. Life is both dreadful and wonderful. To practice meditation is to be in touch with both aspects.

Continue reading “Seeing the Olympics”