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The Higher and Lower Pleasures of the French Culture Pass

image of stacked comic books

French president Emmanuel Macron recently introduced a “culture pass,” what amounts to €300 for each 18-year-old in France to spend on cultural activities – like going to the movies, seeing a play, or going to a museum – or for buying items that are of cultural or artistic value – such as books, art materials, membership in classes, etc. The French youth need only download an app, and then they have 2 years to spend the funds on whichever of the above they see fit. Some have praised the initiative for encouraging youths to experience more cultural activities after a long lockdown, as well as for stimulating the creative sectors of the economy; others, on the other hand, have taken a more cynical stance, denouncing it as nothing more than a vain attempt at wooing France’s younger voters.

There has, however, been a different kind of criticism, one that concerns what the culture pass users are spending their money on. A headline of a recent article in The New York Times, for instance, reads: “France Gave Teenagers $350 for Culture. They’re Buying Comic Books.” The article outlines how many are using their culture pass to buy manga, specifically, with some in the French media even dubbing the culture pass the “manga pass”, instead. While the Times article is, in fact, largely supportive of the initiative, it’s clear that there is some subtle judgment going on in the title.

Others have been less subtle. For instance, in a recent opinion piece at The Telegraph, the author disparagingly compares the culture pass to the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), funds that are available to youths in the UK for educational purposes:

“The EMA was a great scheme, but young people don’t always do what they’re supposed to with the resources that they’re given. This is a lesson now being learnt by the French government, with the news that Emmanuel Macron’s ‘culture pass’ is being used by its young beneficiaries to stockpile graphic novels instead of opera tickets… It’s no wonder that many French kids are spending their €300 on the instant gratification of an entertaining comic, not challenging themselves with an arthouse film or a three-hour play.”

Here, then, is the concern: giving youths money to spend on culture is really only worthwhile if they spend it on the right kind of culture. Art galleries and opera are cultural activities that will challenge you and open your mind to new artistic experiences; comic books, on the other hand, will not.

Is this mere snobbery, or is there something to this argument? There does exist philosophical precedent for making a distinction of this kind: John Stuart Mill, for instance, famously stated that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” According to Mill, that this is the case is the result of there being “higher” and “lower” pleasures: those of the former type exercise our more complex capacities – say, by challenging us to use our reason or engage with difficult subject matters – while those of the latter appeal to our more animal nature – e.g., those pleasure that come along with eating, sleeping, and our more carnal desires. Mill also argued that there was no way to balance the lower against the higher: in other words, even though you might enjoy a greasy fast-food meal, no number of such meals could ever outweigh the much more quality pleasure of visiting an art museum.

It’s not clear how convincing Mill’s view is. After all, it seems to be dependent on the individual as to what one gets out of any particular experience. For instance, while one might think that going to see an opera is more worthwhile than, say, going to see the new Fast and the Furious movie, I might get more out of the experience of appreciating the excellent cinematography of the latter, especially if I’m bored to tears by the former. Something similar is no doubt the case when it comes to what one will get out of different reading materials: while one person might not find anything of value or interest about manga, others will no doubt get much more out of the experience of reading it. There doesn’t seem to be a good way, then, of clearly categorizing certain cultural or artistic experiences as objectively better than others.

Nevertheless, one might still think that there is at least a sense in which the 18-year-olds of France shouldn’t be spending all their culture pass money on manga. Here, then, is a different kind of argument: one could perhaps make best use of an initiative like the culture pass to experience a diversity of cultural activities. This is not to say that there are any specific cultural or artistic experiences that are any more valuable than any others – as we saw above, there is no specific reason to rank opera above manga. Rather, there is value to be had in the diversity of experiences itself.

There is perhaps something common both to the argument that there is value in a diversity of cultural and artistic experiences, and the one that says that the French youth are wasting their culture pass buying comic books: if all one is doing is buying more comic books, and this does not make one’s cultural experience any more diverse, then one should consider spending their money on something else instead. Where these arguments differ, however, is that if there is value in diversity, then perhaps some people should, in fact, be buying more comic books. For instance, if you’re the kind of 18-year-old who grew up listening to classical music, going to the opera, and reading Dostoevsky, then diversifying your cultural experience might mean that you should really go out and buy some manga; after all, you might learn something new.

Hilaria Baldwin and Fake Identities

photograph of Alec and Hilaria Baldwin at event

For years, tabloids, newspapers, and even apparently her husband, reported that Hilaria Baldwin was from Spain. The perception of Baldwin’s Spanish identity shattered in late December, when an anonymous Twitter user outed her as a grifter. A frenzy to dig up facts about Baldwin’s past ensued, and she opted for a New York Times interview to clear the air. Baldwin claimed that she never intended to mislead the press or the public about her nationality. However, her occasional accent, previous uncorrected biographies, and statements made on a recent podcast have given many the impression that she did indeed desire to be perceived as a Spain immigrant.

Was Baldwin’s implication that she was Hispanic comparable to trans-racial scandals? Could her impersonation be considered cultural appropriation?

Baldwin’s impersonation as a native Spaniard has been criticized as unethical due to the underlying implication that she is a Hispanic immigrant. Onlookers have compared Baldwin’s Spanish self-identification as comparable to those who self-identify as a different race. Is it fair, for example, to compare Hilaria Baldwin to Rachel Dolezal? While not the first instance, the exposure of the ex-NAACP chapter President, Rachel Dolezal, brought trans-racial topics into the modern consciousness. Some have compared Baldwin’s trans-national identity to Dolezal’s trans-racial identity. To others, Baldwin’s Spanish identity may have played on ethnicity and language but should not be seen as comparable to trans-racial scandals. (Baldwin has clarified that she is white, and many native Spaniards are also white.)

If Baldwin is not claiming to be a different race, why do so many people find her self-proclaimed Spanish identity and allegedly fake accent racially dishonest and unethical? Baldwin’s accented English and Spanish self-identification have effectively mimicked a Hispanic identity, which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, denotes “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.” Discriminatory attitudes toward Hispanic people have permeated U.S. culture for hundreds of years. Much of this oppression was directed in the form of racism toward indigenous people and Latin Americans who spoke Spanish. Hispanophobia, or the “fear, distrust of, aversion to, hatred of, or discrimination against the Spanish language, Hispanic people, and/or Hispanic culture” is well-documented in the U.S. Though today 65% of Hispanic people in America are white, the notion that Hispanic denotes race is still common. Experts, such as Dr. Jhonni Carr, have contended that Hispanophobia is less about language, and more about “the association of language with race, with socioeconomic status, and a lot of times with cultural values.” One modern example of associating Hispanic identity with race occurred in February 2020, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences mistakenly labeled Spaniard Antonio Banderas as a person of color. It should also be noted that many self-identifying Hispanic people consider their Hispanic background as part of their racial background.

The association of the Hispanic identity with race is commonly pointed to as the reason that Baldwin’s false identity is unethical. The woman who first called out Baldwin for faking her Spanish identity did so through an anonymous twitter account, @leniebriscoe. “Briscoe” said in a recent interview with The Daily Mail that Baldwin’s impersonation was “offensive and wrong.” Baldwin claimed that she was once stereotyped as a nanny to her children after speaking Spanish in a public park. Briscoe argued that this was offensive as that phenomenon “is something that happens to moms of color who actually have an accent.” In essence, many of Baldwin’s critics have a problem with her appropriation of the struggles which come from a Hispanic identity. Baldwin has shown that she can switch between accents depending on her mood. Baldwin’s ability to “opt-out” of a perceived Hispanic accent is an indicator of cultural appropriation since she is able to walk away from a cultural identity when it no longer suits her.

So how should we assess the morality of Baldwin’s Spanish cultural impersonation? It might be good to start by examining her potential profits, as well as the signs of cultural appropriation or dishonesty.

Did Baldwin use her false identity as a Spaniard to profit? Revisiting the comparison to Rachel Dolezal, Baldwin’s gains are hard to pin down. While Dolezal clearly used her false racial identity to pursue social and career opportunities within the NAACP, it is unclear what Baldwin has specifically sought or gained from her cultural identity. As an influencer, Baldwin relied upon her identity to build a community of followers which she could then monetize through advertising. Her self-identification with the Spanish language and culture could have contributed to the followers, popularity, and wealth she has gained, but it is hard to decipher exactly how much her Spanish identity financially and socially enriched her. Actions which are more clearly immoral might include those in which she took opportunities only afforded to her due to her perceived status as a Hispanic immigrant, such as her feature on ¡Hola! Magazine, among others.

If we assume that Baldwin did not gain anything from pretending to be a native Spaniard, was her decision to adopt a different cultural identity inherently wrong? Adopting a different cultural identity for personal gain might be considered wrong as both a form of cultural appropriation and an inherently dishonest act. By taking on the accent, language, and culture of native Spaniards, Baldwin arguably committed cultural appropriation. Regardless of her intent, Baldwin might still have had a negative impact on native Spaniards or other Hispanic people by claiming the culture and ethnicity as her own. One Twitter user pointed out that Baldwin’s use of a fake-accent is particularly egregious due to the fact that many Hispanic people are denied opportunities because of their accents, and studies support the contention that accent perception can have a significant influence on social and socioeconomic opportunities.

Even if Baldwin’s adoption of the Spanish identity is not cultural appropriation, it might still be considered dishonest, depending how one defines cultural identity. If Baldwin intended for others to believe she was born in Spain and immigrated to the U.S., she was clearly acting dishonestly. However, if she simply intended to imply that a large part of her cultural background shares a loose association with Spain, her dishonesty becomes less clear. Defining one’s cultural identity is a deeply personal matter, and Baldwin has claimed to have grown up in both American and Spanish cultures. Though some have implied that Baldwin’s only ties to Spanish culture is from vacationing with her family, her father has made clear that Spanish culture has influenced his identity for the better part of 30 years. Growing up with a parent deeply engrossed in the Spanish language and culture likely had an impact on her identity. Additionally, her parents have also lived in Spain for nearly 10 years, casting more doubt onto the assertion that Baldwin’s ties to Spanish culture are clearly dishonest. Ultimately, the case against Baldwin on the grounds of cultural dishonesty alone is difficult to argue. Detractors who criticize Baldwin’s actions face difficulty in morally distinguishing her actions from those of immigrants and expatriates, especially considering her various geographical ties to the region.

Unlike others caught and “canceled” for faking their identities, Baldwin has refused to admit that she is not culturally Spanish, or that she has done anything wrong. After her New York Times interview, Baldwin uploaded a video on Instagram where she earnestly stated, “I’m proud that I speak two languages, and I’m proud that I have two cultures… I’m proud that my family is that way. And I don’t really think that that’s a negative thing.” Despite weeks of media attention, Baldwin clearly does not see, or chooses not to see, why so many see her Spanish impersonation as potentially wrong. It is likely she will exhibit a similar lack of understanding if anyone ever decides to challenge her yoga business.

Decisions for the Dead: The Moral Dimensions of Body Disposal

Photograph of a graveyard overlooking hills and plains

When Monique Martinot died of ovarian cancer in 1984, her husband, hoping to achieve immortality for his wife through cryonics, placed her body in an industrial size freezer in his chateau in the town of Neuil–sur–Layon, France.  When the husband, Raymond Martinot, realized, years later at the age of eighty, that his own death was imminent, he conveyed to his son that he would like to be frozen alongside his wife until such time that their bodies could be revived.  French courts objected to this method of body disposal and demanded that both bodies be removed from the freezer and disposed of in a method consistent with national law—the bodies must be buried, cremated, or donated to science.

Dead bodies are objects, but they are objects of a fascinating and unique kind—they were once possessed by autonomous beings.  Autonomous beings, according to every known moral theory, are deserving of moral consideration. Once the being has left its erstwhile vessel, does some lingering moral status remain?  Once a person is dead, what, if any, relationship exists between that person’s autonomous choices and the body-object they have left behind? Is there a moral obligation to honor the wishes of the deceased with respect to what should be done with their body after death?  Should Monique and Raymond have been allowed to rest unmolested in their modest freezer without intrusion by the government?

Under certain conditions, dead bodies can be a threat to public health.  If the deceased died of an infectious disease, the infectious agents may still be active and can be transmitted after death.  Because of the threat posed to the public in these kinds of cases, some control by the government over the disposal of dead bodies may be morally justified.  In at least some kinds of cases, then, if an individual has a right to determine what happens to their own body after death, the right of the government to protect the public against threats to general health trumps this right.  It’s worth noting, however, that the commonly held belief that all dead bodies pose public health threats is a myth.  Belief in the myth has carried with it some fairly tragic consequences.  In the aftermath of natural disasters and other mass tragedies, unidentified bodies are often buried in mass graves to get rid of the “threat to public health.”  As a result, many individuals never learn what happened to their deceased loved ones. It seems, then, that the government’s right to intervene may rest on the contingent fact that some bodies spread disease.  In a possible world in which infectious disease is eradicated, we’d need to revisit the question of whether the government can tell its citizens that they can’t keep their dead loved ones in freezers in the basement or under the rose garden in the backyard.

If the government’s right to decide what can be done with a body after death can supersede the wishes of the deceased individual in some cases, might there be others in which governmental intervention is justified?  Consider the case of organ donation. There are currently 114,555 individuals on the waiting list for donated organs in the United States. Twenty people die every day waiting for a donated organ.  Fifty-four percent of people in The United States are registered organ donors.  This might sound like a pretty impressive number, but it is dwarfed by the percentage of the population that donates organs in countries that have an “opt out” process for organ donation.  In these countries, everyone is automatically put on the organ donor list, with the option of “opting out” if they decide they’d rather not donate. In those countries, 90% of the population is on the list of registered donors.  Only 3 in 1,000 people die in a way that allows for organs to be successfully transplanted, so the more donors the better the odds that lives will be saved.  If the government is justified in determining what happens to dead bodies when their goal is to promote public health, would they be justified in enacting “opt out” policies?  After all, the need for donated organs is also a public health issue. It’s far from clear that the “rights” of the being that once occupied the dead body are a more pressing concern than the lives lost when the organs are wasted.

There are other reasons for the government to step in when it comes to disposal of the dead. The practice of burying the dead in caskets is terrible for the environment.  Many unnecessary resources are wasted in the process, including precious trees for caskets and water to maintain pristine lawns in graveyards. During the embalming process, formaldehyde—a known human carcinogen—is pumped into human bodies.  When those bodies are buried, that carcinogen eventually seeps out, polluting soil and groundwater. Burying bodies also takes up lots of space. The practice is unsustainable. Cremation is arguably better for the environment, but not much. The practice releases harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.  We aren’t without options; there are some eco-friendly ways of disposing of human remains.  Bodies can be destroyed using a process of alkaline hydrolysis, used to liquefy human flesh.  The remaining bones can then be ground into ash in a way that uses fewer resources than cremation.  Bodies can also be encased in pods that eventually grow into trees or sealed into a ball that is then sunk to the bottom of the ocean where it will feed coral reefs. These are far more environmentally friendly ways of disposing of human remains.  Given that climate change poses serious threats to public health, would governments be justified in mandating that bodies are disposed of in more environmentally friendly ways?

It seems unlikely that changes to our organ donation or funerary practices would be met with swells of public support.  This reticence should give us pause. Many variables inform cultural practices involving dead bodies. Humans have the capacity to reflect on their own mortality, and, unsurprisingly, many of us find it terrifying.  Fear, grief, and love are powerful and crucial emotions, but they have the potential to motivate the formation of superstitious rituals and guidelines for cultural practice that are ultimately indefensible when challenged.

The Duality of Hip-Hop: An Examination of Mumble Rap

A photo of mumble rapper Lil Yachty at a concert

The definition of hip-hop has changed since its birth in 1973 at a birthday party on the West side of the Bronx, New York City. The music genre has morphed since merging with mainstream society, as a myriad of different artists have adopted hip-hop and made it their own sound. Now, over 40 years have passed since hip-hop’s beginning, and it seems as if hip-hop has been split down the middle between its listeners. Older listeners of hip-hop criticize the current state of the music genre and blame new hip-hop artists.

Recently, the lyrical style “mumble rap” has gained popularity among listeners, blurring the lines of what the standard for quality is in modern day hip-hop. The divisive nature of the current state of hip-hop raises the question of whether the criticism it has been receiving is warranted. If so, does it mean that rap and hip-hop are declining?

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Will Chief Black Elk’s Canonization Address Native American Oppression?

A photo of Catholic bishops during a 2014 canonization.

This past week, a Mass was held to formally open up potential sainthood for Chief Black Elk, a Lakota chief known for his life and work as a dedicated catechist. Black Elk was born sometime between 1858 and 1866, and died in 1950. He is known for combining Native American spirituality and Christianity, making it easier for his congregations to accept the Catholic Church. Bishop Robert D. Gruss from Rapid City, South Dakota, states that “for 50 years Black Elk led others to Christ often melding his Lakota culture into his Christian life.” Bill White, a diocese and member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on Pine Ridge Reservation, is leading Black Elk’s sainthood case.

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Defunding America’s Cultural Institutions: An Exercise in Absurdity

Editor’s note: The Prindle Institute for Ethics, which hosts The Prindle Post, has recently been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the institute’s director has engaged in advocacy work for the National Humanities Alliance.

The logic of President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget has left even some of his supporters scratching their heads. First, there are the cuts to programs including the New York Police Department and airport security programs – proposals that are especially perplexing, given Trump’s longstanding emphasis on keeping America safe. Then there are cuts targeting programs widely seen as both uncontroversial and beneficial. Such programs include Meals on Wheels, an organization that delivers food to the elderly and the poor. While many expected Trump’s budget to reflect a hard-line conservative approach to federal spending, cutting programs like Meals on Wheels has taken even some GOP members of Congress aback.

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Belief in the Paranormal: Harmless Superstition or Moral Escapism?

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Despite increasing secularism around the globe, belief in ghosts and other paranormal phenomenon remains prominent in many cultures. 42% of Americans believe in ghosts, and 52% in the United Kingdom. Many more believe in ghosts in other parts of the world, particularly in Asia, where ancient cultures still thrive – superstitions and all. Regardless of whether or not ghosts are real, belief in the paranormal has important societal functions. Belief in the paranormal helps humans assign order to an increasingly chaotic world, create social bonds, and even boost physical and mental function (another reason to keep knocking on wood.) Although belief in the paranormal can seem like a harmless pastime, is there a downside to having superstitions?

Shortly after WWII, Winston Churchill had a paranormal experience in the White House. Stepping out of the bathtub, he was reportedly confronted by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Singular paranormal experiences such as Churchill’s can be explained by stress, fatigue, and dim lighting. Could this paranormal experience have been triggered by the stress of leading the West during WWII? People who experience paranormal phenomenon on a daily basis are less easy to explain, and are now said to be “shielding” themselves from feeling out of control. In times of chaos, the human brain searches for patterns of meaning, and humanity’s anthropomorphist nature wants to assign control to seemingly random or unexplainable events. It is easier for the mind to imagine a tragedy being caused by malignant spirits than by complete randomness. Arguably, using belief in the paranormal as a shield functions similarly to playing immersive video games or watching television dramas every week.

In folklore there is a method of storytelling called ostension, or legend-tripping. In this style of folklore, storytellers act out the legend they reiterate. Ghost hunting is arguably a type of legend-tripping. Similar to folklorists re-telling a legend, participants take the task of unveiling the truth about ghosts quite seriously. This immersive legend-tripping experience can become a distraction from everyday life, which has both positive and negative consequences. One example is that belief in the paranormal offers a reason for traumatic events like disease, death, and natural disaster. Holding such a belief helps one feel more in control of the world around them. However, holding such a belief could make it harder for someone to face the unpredictable world around them.

However, if ghosts are eventually proven to be completely fake, an entire structure of meaning will break down. Justin McDaniel, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania explains just how important this structure of meaning is for many cultures: “People in Asia have kept their belief in ghosts despite the rise of science, skepticism, secularism, and public education… Even hyper-modern and liberal Scandinavia has a high percentage of people believing in ghosts.” Even with the advancements in science to explain phenomenon that was previously considered to be paranormal, including out-of-body experiences and sleep paralysis, paranormal explanations persist. Sleep paralysis is still interpreted as a ghost experience in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Newfoundland, Canada. The belief in the paranormal functions as an important structure of meaning that unites people around the world, whether it is through watching a favorite television show in the United Kingdom or sacrificing and eating a hog at a family ceremony in Asia.

Despite these important social functions, the downside of belief in the paranormal is the growing inability to mentally process an uncontrollable world. Pursuing the paranormal through television shows, weekends out ghost hunting, or holding superstitions about disease and disaster is a form of escapism that can have negative consequences in the long run. For example, a family with a child suffering from epilepsy may choose to perform an exorcism versus getting medical treatment, which may have negative consequences for the child. Also, an individual who believes natural disasters are caused by a deity may blame themselves for natural disasters, thinking that the deity is angry with them. Both of these are examples of how belief in the paranormal, particularly in its potential forces on the world around, can be more harmful than believing the world is ruled by happenstance.

Christopher French, a professor of psychology at the University of London, comments on the reasons people choose to believe in the paranormal: “There is also the emotional motivation for these beliefs. The vast majority of us don’t like the idea of our own mortality. Even though we find the idea of ghosts and spirits scary, in a wider context, they provide evidence for the survival of the soul.” Belief in the paranormal can be a way to escape one’s own mortality, which contributes to a Western perspective on death, one of fear and avoidance. Furthermore, holding superstitious beliefs and pursuing answers about the paranormal takes away time that a person could spend on important tasks in the present as opposed to the afterlife. Ghost hunting takes away time one could spend volunteering at a local non-profit or participating in political activism. However, one could also argue that ghost hunting is as harmless a hobby as browsing social media or scrapbooking. If ghost hunting is considered a form of escapism that is detrimental to one’s connection with reality, other hobbies arguably could have the same effect.

Although many psychologists explain paranormal encounters as minor hallucinations or dim lighting, belief in ghosts does not seem like it will dissipate in the near future. At the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine, the Division of Perceptual Studies investigates phenomena that current scientific methods cannot explain. Dr. Jim Tucker at DOPS focuses on finding evidence that human personalities persist after death by examining children who report memories that are not their own. One young patient started having horrific nightmares at the age of 2 about plane crashes, and started reporting memories consistent with a WWII fighter jet pilot. Some would explain this phenomenon in the child as minor brain damage, a plea for parental affection, or shielding from growing up. Others would hail this example as modern day reincarnation. Although opinions are still divided on the existence of ghosts and other paranormal phenomenon, it is clear that belief in ghosts has important cultural functions that should be taken seriously.