← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

WWIII?: Desensitization, Alarmism, and Anxiety

image of British WWII enlistment poster

With the recent American airstrike which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani the internet has been abuzz with talk of a Third World War. This includes plenty of talk on Twitter about an imminent global war as well as countless memes which address everything from the potential widespread damage to the possibility of being drafted. This raises an important ethical issue: is it justifiable to raise the specter of a Third World War over this matter and is it okay to joke about such things?

To recap the current situation, following attacks on the American embassy in Baghdad, American drones targeted Soleimani just after he was getting off of a plane in Baghdad killing him and nine others. In Iran, Soleimani was considered a “folk hero” for his long military history. Following the attack, Iranian officials called the move “a foolish escalation,” while the Iranian President has called for revenge. Because of this situation, there are now worries that open conflict between the United States and Iran is a real possibility and that this could be the beginning of a new World War. Comparisons have been made on Twitter between the death of Soleimani and the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assignation famously started the First World War.

While a war between the United States and Iran is possible, the outbreak of a world war is unlikely. Still, the use of the concept of “Word War Three” is ethically salient. For starters it is alarmist language that could cause some forms of panic. The website of the Selective Service System crashed on Friday because of the “spread of misinformation” as many apparently were concerned about the possibility of being drafted into military service. Secondly, the flippant use of the term “World War Three” can now be added to several other historical scares, and continued use of the term may not only desensitize us to the possibility of an actual future war but also to the First and Second World War. It is easy to label a conflict as a possible “sequel” to the two historical events, but it is much more difficult to review the historical record in order to understand why those two wars were world wars, why they came about, and how the world has since changed in comparison.

Beyond the rhetoric, there is also controversy because of the jokes and memes which the incident has inspired. Several of these make reference to the possible widespread death, being drafted, being imprisoned for refusing the draft, and becoming a prisoner of war. A recent article by Katherine Singh is critical of such posts noting, “people on the internet have pretty much not taken the issue seriously.” She argues that joking about the draft is rude to those who were drafted and had to serve in the armed forces prior to 1973. It is additionally rude to those who are currently serving in the Middle East and face a very real danger of potential harm; such jokes do not take into account the real effects of war and the threat to civilians in the region. She asks, “How horrible is it that we’re so desensitized to warfare that we make memes and jokes about the prospect of airstrikes and combat?”

On the other hand, joking or making light of a world war is hardly new. Many early recruits of the First World War jumped at the chance simply to escape the boredom of life at home as the possibility of going to France and meeting French girls seemed exciting. Recruitment stations often advertised a “free trip to Europe.” Once at the front “trench newspapers” would joke that the sport of hunting was “open season all year round” with “no permit required.” Pilots in the Flying Corps, who faced the real possibility of burning to death in their cockpit, would joke about “joining the sizzle brigade.” Such humor would not be out of place in the memes of today. In the Second World War the slow start was dubbed the “The Phoney War” and the “Sitzkrieg.” During The Blitz of London, as civilians died or lost their homes, the BBC broadcasted satirical pieces about fictional officials of the German Propaganda Ministry. The fact that people of the day could joke about such things does not mean that they were desensitized to war, but rather that humor can be a way of dealing with anxiety and stress.

The humor found in modern day memes about a hypothetical World War Three is not necessarily any different than the humor derived from previous world wars. They may not reveal a desensitization to war, but they may, in fact, be a symptom of real anxieties that younger people might have about their future and their control over it. If such a war broke out, it would be younger people who would be expected to do most of the fighting and would have to deal with the long-term consequences. Large global conflicts such as World War Two or even the Cold War are not part of the lived experiences of many young people, and so the possible threat of a break down in the global order may be a real source of anxiety over a future that they are not prepared for. This can be true of other cases like climate change or the rise of populist and nationalist movements as well.

One must also consider whether joking about avoiding the draft or about going to war is worse than mere indifference to these possibilities. If the reaction was a collective shrug, it might suggest that people are desensitized to the possibility of war. Everything requires perspective. In some cases, alarmist language and jokes about war can be ethically harmful and desensitizing. It’s easy to euphemize the assassination of a general by stating that “Bullies Understand a Punch the Nose,” but the analogy breaks down if the bully then decides to set your neighbor’s house on fire in response. On the other hand, making light of war can be a way of reminding us what is at stake and help us deal with our anxieties about global conflicts that we may have little control over.

What PETA Gets Right about Animal Metaphors (and What it Gets Wrong)

Sign that reads "if dogs tasted like pork, would you eat them? What's the difference?" bearing a PETA logo

Earlier this month, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) accidentally sparked several days worth of jokes on the internet after its social media accounts shared an image recommending that English idioms relying on animal metaphors be retired. Rather than saying that someone is “taking the bull by the horns” when she faces a difficult problem head-on, PETA suggested that we say she is “taking the flower by the thorns;” instead of calling test subjects “guinea pigs,” the posts proposed a metaphor like “test tubes,” and so on.

To PETA, such metaphorical language is another example of the deeply rooted speciesism in Western society; the idea that humans are privileged creatures that deserve special treatment over other creatures simply in virtue of our DNA. Often compared to injustices like racism or sexism, speciesism is an explanatory mechanism undergirding the mistreatment of non-human animals in arenas ranging from industrial farms to domestic homes. When some animal species are eaten or experimented on while others are welcomed as members of the family, it is often nothing more than human perspective that differentiates the animals in question; such a subjective position is not, some argue, altogether different from subjective social preferences that allowed some-but-not-all genders to vote or some-but-not-all races to use the same drinking fountains (abuses that pale in comparison to still-persistent patriarchal norms or the continuing legacy of the African slave trade). In a follow-up tweet, PETA explained that “Just as it became unacceptable to use racist, homophobic, or ableist language, phrases that trivialize cruelty to animals will vanish as more people begin to appreciate animals for who they are and start ‘bringing home the bagels’ instead of the bacon.”

On one hand, the comparison of the current plight of nonhuman animals to the historical sufferings of marginalized groups threatens to trivialize the victories won by reformers in the Civil Rights movement or in the post-Stonewall era. Certainly, it is difficult to compare, say, pre-suffrage women to present-day factory farmed pigs without risking insulting confusion at exactly what the comparison is supposed to be. Moreover, such analogies risk implying that the mission to promote equality amongst groups with variable sexual orientations, genders, races, or other factors has been fully accomplished (as if “that’s taken care of, so now we can move on to the animal issue”) – clearly, any hints of such a notion are false.

On the other hand, some might retort that it is precisely this attitude that balks at human-animal comparisons that PETA and other groups seek to alter; if we immediately write off animal concerns as unimportant or such comparisons as impossible because “humans are not animals,” then we unavoidably reaffirm the very undercurrents of speciesism that PETA’s original post was trying to highlight. It is true that the language we use matters when shaping public perception of a topic; consider, for example, an idiom drenched in racist connotations, such as the one used recently by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue to some outcry. The power of diction to affect the discourse remains true, even if the subjects used as objects in such language cannot understand the words in question.

Of course, a common sticking point in this conversation is the role of PETA itself. Much of the criticism the organization fielded in response to its graphic revolved not around metaphoric language per se, but on PETA’s own draconian policies on euthanasia or other seemingly-inconsistent positions on animal death that the animal-rights organization appears to hold. For many, PETA’s claimed position of moral superiority is undeserved in the face of widespread evidence that they support the execution of animals for any reason; for its part, PETA argues that its policies are targeted only to preventing undue suffering (although, admittedly, it is hard to see how this actually plays out on the ground).

Nevertheless, this short episode can serve as a useful example of some ethical implications for our word choices when framing conversations about larger ethical issues. And when it comes to animal rights, whether we’re beating a dead one or feeding a fed one, this horse should be considered carefully when going forward.

Mental Health, Information Literacy and the Slenderman Stabbing Case

A sidewalk chalk drawing of Slenderman.

On May 31, 2014, two 12-year-old girls lured a friend, also 12, into the woods with the promise of a game of hide-and-seek.  Once there, one of the girls pinned their friend down, while the other stabbed her 19 times with a long-bladed kitchen knife, causing serious injuries to major organs and arteries.  The young perpetrators then fled the scene, leaving their young friend to die of her injuries.  Miraculously, the victim survived.  She was able to crawl to a road where a cyclist found her and went for help.  

Continue reading “Mental Health, Information Literacy and the Slenderman Stabbing Case”