Author Archives: Miranda Nell - Page 2

Our Father vs Big Brother

The tape of Mitt Romney speaking to his cohorts in what could be described as a proverbial back-room seems to have had a lasting effect – we’ll see if it turns out to make all the difference, but it certainly brought into focus the image of Romney as oblivious aristocrat.

But even more interesting to me than the specifics of this candidate’s attitudes was the evidence of a change in certain social and technological expectations. Many people responded to Romney’s comments by shaking their heads at the fact that he would say those things out loud, that he would speak so candidly. Sure, he was at a fundraiser with other super-rich political puppeteers, but he must have known the information could get out…

Of course, a couple decades ago, it probably would not have. Even if a member of the staff could afford a hidden camera it would have taken a lot of planning and setting up to get the material, and once it was on tape it would have taken a lot of work to get it nationally aired. It may not seem like that’s that much commitment, but it’s definitely active and organized: hide tiny expensive specialty technology beforehand, and then transfer incriminating material to a standard medium, and try to get a national news outlet’s attention without being dismissed as some kind of conspirator (in fact, many journalists back then might have rejected the tape as unethical just because Romney clearly doesn’t realize he’s being taped).

Today, a person does not even have to really care about the consequences – sometimes people will record things just because they can. In a room with a famous person and some number of non-guests with iPhones, it is not at all surprising that someone recorded Romney speaking and then put a portion of it on YouTube—there did not even need to be intent behind it. The ease of catching a person in the act has increased so monumentally that the very idea of a backroom deal is in trouble.* Anyone can tape the conversation and show it to a potential audience of millions, and they don’t even need to dislike you or want to cause harm. It’s just information sharing—the connotations or potential impact of the information is not always considered (this happens on Facebook all the time: a photo posted in fun in one context is evidence of a promise broken in another, for instance).

The idea that we are losing privacy, and even losing the desire for privacy, has been argued about since technology and the internet especially first began allowing for these new methods of disclosure. An angle I want to focus on is the concurrence this has with a rise in atheism. There are plenty of other reasons that the idea of God is not as popular as it once was, and technology and the internet can contribute to the phenomenon in other ways. But there’s a social, pragmatic level at which God is becoming obsolete that could be a factor.

One of the classic reasons to have a concept of God from society’s point of view is the same as a reason to have Santa: “he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” From an intellectual standpoint this may not be convincing – Plato, for instance, attempts to show why we can’t use God as a referee when discussing the question of ethics in The Republic. The story of the Ring of Gyges, a ring which allows its wearer to become invisible and thus get away with any sort of immoral behavior she chooses with no repercussions, leads to the argument that even if the wearer is invisible, surely the Gods still know and can still judge. The original argument illustrated by the story of the ring is that people only act ethically when they are being watched, and this comeback says, well, you are always being watched by God so the point is moot. God serves as an external conscience.
But in The Republic, this idea is debunked—God is unreliable, and can be appeased by gifts or pleas for forgiveness. If you do something wrong, you can always get back on His good side. In other words, your conscience may know you were unethical this once, but do something extra-nice next week, and you’ll feel it’s been evened out.

In that way, Big Brother is more effective. If a person wants to steal something in a store, but thinks “No, God will know what I’ve done,” they might stop themselves. But they may also imagine that they can bargain with the big guy and promise to never do something like this ever again. On the other hand, if they believe there is a camera coming at them in every direction it will be harder to make that kind of deal. Our increasingly Panoptic forms of life make it possible to see this particular utility of God being overshadowed, since people with videos are a lot more direct and aggressive.

I am not suggesting that would consciously affect beliefs, but if the fear of moral oversight were to shift realistically toward peers, one of God’s greatest strengths would be made irrelevant. Sure, no video can see into your heart: but if it becomes widely expected that everything that happens in a public or semi-public space could be broadcast, that knowledge could play the part of an external conscience just as well as religion.

It’s true that God was famously described as dead over a century ago by Nietzsche, and he too was concerned with moral issues. However, his focus was on the lack of cohesion or agreement in beliefs, whereas I am addressing the much more mundane but perhaps more convincing issue of the cohesion of facts. That is, Nietzsche thought the concept of God was coextensive with the idea of absolute truth, and as that became untenable, religion would die. It’s arguable to what degree that happened, but the issue here is not what is right, but whether the right thing has to be done. God as an externalized conscience becomes less effective when society is doing the job in a more obvious and graspable way (which doesn’t require that God isn’t real, just that His methods are less convincing).

It could easily be coincidence that secularism is on the rise at the same time as surveillance and general recording become the norm, but I’m suggesting that it is part of larger cultural shift, and that the notion of God just fits less easily into a world where we can already picture a very ordinary kind of “all-seeing, all-knowing” presence. What was once supernatural is now merely artificial.

*I wouldn’t want to imply that therefore people will start being ethical, however. There are always adaptations and ways around – the idea is just that a fear of being seen is becoming much more real.

Pro-Life Associative Thinking

The Republican convention is coming up in the US, and the party is about to confirm a hardline platform that includes an extreme position on abortion (though, as pointed out by various members of the party, it is not new). The platform calls for a “right to life” amendment and makes no mention of exceptions for cases of rape or incest, a position that many voters didn’t think much about until Todd Akin’s recent comment suggesting such a need would be unnecessary. It turns out that although about half the country identifies as pro-life, over 80% support exceptions in cases of rape or incest.

The position of Todd Akin (and VP Candidate Paul Ryan) that exceptions like this are wrong is more rationally consistent, however. If abortion is literally murder, then pre-approving exceptions is surprising, and it does seem a case of punishing the child for the sins of the father. Of course, if abortion were murder, then the deaths of fetuses would deserve death certificates, which implies they’d have birth certificate, which obviously a fetus does not have – so would we then start requiring conception certificates? This notion of “pro-life” is specifically an idea of beginning citizenship before most people even tell their friends they are expecting (well, in this form of thinking, they aren’t so much “expecting” as already parents). If the claim “abortion is murder” is taken seriously, it leads to a rather severe position.

Akin’s comment was offensive on its own terms, as it showed a lack of scientific understanding and implied that a woman impregnated by rape must not really have been raped after all. But it also seemed to suggest that a woman’s body knows better than a woman’s mind which pregnancies to keep, and even that it’s okay if the body wants to abort some of them, just not if her mind chooses to do so. Beyond that it showed a complete ignorance of women’s history, as it is extremely likely that rape has been a popular method of fatherhood in many times and places. A woman with no rights does not have the right to say no. She is at the mercy of men around her who may take an interest in her wishes and respect them, but who ultimately make the choices.

But all of this is specific to his attempt to avoid the actual question of whether there ought to be an exception for rape. If only there weren’t this problem of rape, Akin’s excuse seems to say, abortion could be argued as a case of fetal life without taking note of the vessel in which the fetus develops. But the case of rape – no matter if it is uncommon – reminds us how big a deal a pregnancy is for the woman herself. If it is unfair to burden someone with an unwanted pregnancy due to rape, is it fair to ask them to accept it when it is unwanted due to birth control malfunction? If the environment and options available are exactly the same and the only difference is whether the woman was sexually interested, the consistency begins to look weak again.

Considering the widespread rejection of Akin’s comment and the broad agreement that exceptions in the case of rape should be allowed, we can determine that many pro-lifers are more interested in a general social preference than the technical details. As we saw with Palin, they might claim to “choose life” without recognizing that in choosing they are not endorsing the position as it is written. To hope women don’t have abortions – to prefer to see a movie ending with a baby rather than a procedure – is different from desiring to outlaw something or change the status of citizenship.

There is a powerful element of self-expression in voting, even though the ballots are secret. Much like those who vote for third parties, some single-issue voters aren’t necessarily hoping to cause the outcome they are voting for to be realized. Instead, their intent is making a statement that the whole country can hear. Yet, some of the proponents do wish to implement those legal changes. While they merely preach their opinion, those who take the platforms to be serious, on both sides of the issue, are concerned for real consequences.

Response and Responsibility

I grew up at the end of the cold war so I think the image of the mushroom cloud was imprinted in me as a symbol of dread from a young age, and even now it shocks me to think that two atom bombs were used to end the Second World War. Sixty-seven years ago today, Truman was considering the need to drop a third. What’s more surprising, though, is that in that time, no U.S. President has visited the sites in Hiroshima and Nagasaki marking those nuclear explosions. Truman’s grandson attended a memorial this year, and Obama broke protocol two years ago by sending a representative, but the idea that the President would attend a memorial is still seen as an admission of guilt. For now, the U.S. just ignores it.

Although a nuclear disaster is about as likely as ever, I imagine today’s children fear plane hijackings more than annihilation and radiation, due to the images and ideas that come up when danger and evil are discussed. My parents did not intend to give me a particular impression but I learned from cultural background noise that nuclear explosions are terrifying long before I had specific reasons to think so. Unlike abstract formulations like “killing is wrong,” which could become complicated or unclear, certain aesthetic facts were absolute precisely because they were not arguments. Hitler was evil before I knew any history, just due to his salute, his mustache, his voice – and the bomb was horrific not because of numbers but because of a red button and a white cloud.

The feeling about Hitler remains in the public consciousness; he is still a standard representative of evil. But the atom bomb has a more complicated story and its level of terror has been reduced. From a consequentialist point of view the choice to use it can be defended with the claim that the casualty rate would have been much worse had the US gone in traditionally (and certainly it’s true if Allied soldiers are kept distinct), and that the war would have gone on indefinitely without the terror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to hit the point home (and the point was made not just to Japan but internationally). Other justifications are also offered, ranging from a right to punish the Japanese to a need to use the new technology once it had been developed.

But having grown up with that basic sense of horror about a nuclear bomb, arguments about the particulars are never quite convincing. Legalistically, terms may be set that show an action is allowable, but ethics can’t be boiled down so completely. There is some human component, a sense of self, of aspiration, of recognition, that will not fit into the equation. Abstract comparisons of right and wrong can be satisfying but when the story is intertwined with life our charts sometimes fade to the background. Agamben describes such a difference between the ethical and the juridical when addressing Auschwitz, claiming that ethical responsibility cannot be handled like a debt. When an ethical bond is broken, it cannot just be paid off. Ethical responsibility is of another kind, not another amount.

Of course no one would try to defend the need for Auschwitz. But were we to accept a consequentialist point of view, the primary difference between the two would be a question of debit or credit—Germany’s actions would leave them in terrible moral debt, whereas Hiroshima might not quite bankrupt the U.S. account thanks to moral credit earned for ending the war and stopping the aggressors. The question is simply, can an act be balanced out by an equal and opposite act, or are some values invaluable? Is ethics more like physics or art?

There is an argument against Agamben’s view that it merely results in a kind of infinite guilt or a burden that will never be paid off, but that is only when it is viewed from the utilitarian, almost economic, perspective. If responsibility is more like response or recognition toward those who have experienced wrong, and less a feeling of debt toward a given party, the notion of feeling responsible can be a source of connection. In this sense the purpose of ethics is more creative than restrictive – to be the best form of ourselves, rather than to negotiate acceptable boundaries.

Last weekend I saw the German filmmaker Wim Wenders in a one-on-one with Michael Moore, and they got into a conversation about what it was like to grow up in post-Nazi Germany. Wenders opened up to Moore and revealed his experience traveling in France as a young man where he was routinely ostracized for the association, and seemed affected when he spoke of one Jewish family that eventually forgave him.

Moore didn’t miss a beat – he didn’t dwell on how Wenders hadn’t even been born yet when the Nazis were in power – and asked how the family could possibly have forgiven him, considering what they went through. Nor did Wenders try to defend himself; he simply said the human spirit is strong, and sometimes forgiveness is for the ones forgiving.