The Failure of Successful Complaints

Easter is near and that seems to mean that certain Christians assume the Meerkat position, scanning the horizon for anyone who dares to give the Way a hint of disrespect during this the most holy of holy seasons. As usual, they could care less whether damage to the faith accrues as a net result of their actions, as long as no one gets the idea that it’s OK to mess with us. Or — a defence I’ve actually heard Christians make — as long as the Muslims don’t outstrip us in zeal. That’s the height of our ambitions. Sigh.

Red Bull ‘Jesus’ Ad

The ad has been removed from YouTube, so I’ve not seen it, but Gateway News gives a thorough description. The ad suggests that Jesus’ water-walking miracle was a matter of walking on stepping stones, which is not really funny, but given the usual level of humour employed by Red Bull, it’s at least recognisable as comedy.

Following this, the Jesus character stumbles and exclaims, ‘Jesus!’. I would agree that this is actually offensive and not nearly clever enough to warrant the risk. Red Bull claims they never meant to hurt any feelings and regret offence caused, but that’s hard to believe. Ads go through multiple levels of review and approval before reaching TV; there is zero doubt that its offence level was well discussed. Red Bull merely gambled on it being funny enough to outweigh any upset. I’m amazed that 90% of Red Bull ads weren’t sent back to the drawing board for being utterly rubbish, and Red Bull should apologise for that too, but they should not pretend to regret anything.

Having said all that, Christian response has been typically ridiculous, displaying utter inability to bear the slightest offence. For example:

  • Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute says: “Red Bull wouldn’t dream of mocking religious figures of other religions [the 'why aren't we as scary as the Muslims?' argument again]… FPI is launching a nationwide boycott of Red Bull products in response to this blasphemous attack on the Lord Jesus Christ.” [Source]
  • Cardinal Wilfred Napier of the SA Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) said, “While the Red Bull adverts are characterised by their cleverness [obviously he hasn't watched TV in a while]… we suggest that the marketing team and their advertising and public relations companies make a serious effort to attend sensitivity training… [After advocating that Catholics should abstain from Red Bull until Easter] Red Bull SA will understand that the idea that there is ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ is dangerous territory when it comes to mocking religious symbols.” [Source]
  • The African Christian Democratic Party says that the ad undermines the Christian faith, with Kenneth Moshoe saying that it denies “the miracle of Jesus walking on water” [although undermining the Christian faith through pettiness or stupidity seems not to count]. [Source]

All of the above also called for the immediate banning of the ad. This was duly done after the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against the ad, which included these among its reasons:

  • The commercial is offensive as it makes a mockery of Jesus Christ by portraying Him in a blasphemous manner. Peripheral arguments to the allegation of offence relate to the fact that the commercial implies that the miracle of Jesus walking on water was all a sham.
  • Christians believe that Jesus Christ is alive and sitting at the right hand of God and as such His express permission should have been obtained before being featured in the commercial.
  • The advertiser should apologise publicly and should be fined as well to indicate the level of offence caused.
  • Creates a bad example for children.
  • Its misleading as it creates an impression that the product existed during the time that Jesus Christ lived. [Source]

(Assuming that the source is reliable) seriously, advertisers need Jesus’ ‘express permission’ before he is referenced in an ad? And people might think that Red Bull was available in 1st Century Palestine (wait a minute! I thought it was a product from the time of Icarus, because of that other ad of theirs; I’m so confused)? Was this application a joke? An attempt to make Christians look like morons? My ASA application would have read:

  • Using ‘Jesus’ as an expletive is offensive to Christians. This should be cut from the ad.
  • It’s yet another unfunny entry in Red Bull’s 20-year-long one-note campaign. The account manager should be publicly executed.

You know, reasonable requests. Why was it necessary to pad out the list with other manufactured and intellectually insulting reasons?

Hot Cross Buns

Having cut ‘Joy’ magazine from its shelves, Woolworths agreed last year to restock the rag due to outcry from Christian sectors (who obviously hadn’t been buying enough for Woolies to bother stocking it, but who liked the idea of it being there). This season, Woolworths has received complaints — and even warnings that God might shut them down — because their hot cross bun packaging has Halaal certification printed on it.

Jacques Rousseau has written pointing out that this has been the case for years, and is in any case stupid because Easter and Christianity has no monopoly on cinnamon fruit buns (or even crosses, for that matter). You can read his post here.

I began writing this post because I am concerned that Christian oversensitivity is wearing out any goodwill that society has (but is under no obligation to have) towards us. My brief digging around provided instant confirmation of this. Here’s a quote from a blogger:

However, for me, it’s just another nail in the coffin as far as christian credibility is concerned. And to be honest, we’re running out of space on the lid now. When members of a religion (or any other group) display such stupid, irrational (shock) and intolerant behaviour, there comes a point when society will simply stop listening. (6000.c0.za)

As I have pointed out before, such Christians seem not to realise that society owes us nothing, and constant ridiculous bleating from our corner about how pained we all are is not going to have the outcome they they subliminally imagine (society realises how respect-worthy Christianity is and bow in hushed reverence / abandon pluralism / spontaneously convert and usher in the Kingdom). Rather there are two much more likely extremes towards which policy makers are going to be pushed.

  • They will tire of listening to the Christian voice because of how uniformly annoying it is when attention is paid to it (much as 6000.co.za suggests), which will leave us with no voice on issues that matter; or
  • They will try to minimise offence by making it illegal to display or promote religious content altogether, making religion completely private. Now if you want to approach the Day of Judgement with the defence, ‘I stopped everyone doing the Great Commission, because it was more important for me not to be offended,’ be my guest.

Axe Excite Deodorant ‘Angels’ Ad

Finally, going back a few months now, there was another case of Christians having an ad banned from TV; this time Axe Deodorant was compelled to remove its ‘Angels’ ad. You can see various versions on YouTube, so look it up if you want, but all of them have beautiful women with wings and halos dropping from the sky and eventually surrendering their angelness because of some guy wearing deodorant.

Cape Times of October 28, 2011 reports the extremely tongue-in-cheek apology rendered by Axe South Africa, who again, remarkably, were not apologising for the quality of the ad but the religious content:

We have… made sure the seriousness of the matter is understood by our angels… From now on [the angels will] try their very best to resist the seductive powers of the Axe effect. Those who are continuing to use Axe Excite in the hope of seducing angels, please note — whilst there is no individual danger of disciplinary action from the ASA, the angels have been known to come in at quite a speed, and the use of Axe Excite is completely at your own risk.

The report adds that the company apologises to offended viewers (i.e. ‘You’re idiots, but sorry’). Their statement above (to their credit, in my opinion) is not an apology, it is an exercise in polite mockery:

  • the promise to communicate with the angels, keeping up the pretence that the angels are real, is an ironic reminder that the ad is communicating on the level of fairytale
  • the reassurance that users are not liable for disciplinary action highlights the absurdity of the action that was taken

It is absolutely true that angels are not exclusively Judeo-Christian beings. They may or may not have originated there, but for some time now they have been part of mythology in general. For one, biblical angels are not female; and it is not as if every Hallmark Valentines card featuring Cupid is an attack on the Faith, or that there is an outcry every time a cartoon character dies and becomes an angel. There are no religious grounds therefore for Christians to be offended, let alone to file an official complaint. And so the over-sensitivity and thoughtlessness of the complaint justifiably meets with Axe’s sarcasm-doused ‘apology’. Score another victory for the embattled reputation of Christ.

Compassion in Torah

It’s typical these days to caricature the Old Testament as brutal and intolerant. Of course there is some reason to take offence at its violence and the harshness of some laws, especially when passages are torn from their theological context.

"Thou shalt... what?... defend the right to bear arms? Sure, OK, you got it."

Yet, I suspect that such caricatures owe just as much to the general revulsion towards modern hyper-conservatives and fundamentalists of all sorts of religions, whose attitudes get super-imposed back onto Biblical text. I wonder if people don’t perhaps assume that the Torah must be like Zionists and Taliban clerics. After all, the Old Testament is old, and conservatives like the old ways. Most religious extremists have beards, and Charlton Heston wore a beard when he was in that Ten Commandments flick.

However we’ve come to the conclusion that the Torah is backward and brutal, looking at its details frequently throws up surprising challenges to that view. The following is one that I noticed recently.

In Deuteronomy 27, as Israel prepares to enter Canaan, Moses commands that representatives of each tribe should pronounce curses upon immoral behaviour, one curse for each tribe. The intention seems to be that breaking the law in heinous ways brings curse upon society as a whole. Each member of each tribe — as member of a theocracy — has a responsibility to choose blessing and the good, rather than evil and curse.

As you’d expect, the twelve evils that bring on curse include serious cases of lawbreaking, such as incest, bestiality, and stealing land from one’s neighbour.

What strikes me as entirely unexpected is that within the collection of the top twelve sins that bring on curse, Moses includes, ‘Cursed is the man who leads the blind astray on the road’ (27:18).

If we were to construct a list of things that are to be forever associated with curse, we would presumably make it a collection of the worst things that you can do, or relate it somehow to the the most important constitutional laws. It is strange then that this list includes something that is neither especially harmful or illegal. I’d be surprised if such behaviour made it into even the top 100 curse-worthy things we could think of; it’d be somewhere near ‘dawdling while in rush-hour traffic’, I’d suspect. Nevertheless, here it is in Moses’ list of twelve.

The reason for including it is not hard to see; it’s just not as crusty and Old-Testamenty as we may have expected. Enshrined in Israel’s foundational blessing-and-cursing material is the idea that there is something fundamentally abhorrent about exploiting the helpless, even just for fun. Taking even relatively harmless advantage of the weak, just because you can, invites the curse of God. Put positively, one of the major lessons that ancient Israel were meant to learn before they entered the Holy Land was that blessed, law-abiding people ought to be characterised by compassion and kindness, otherwise they had not understood what it means to be like their God.

It’s a shame that people are quick to single out God’s acts of judgement as evidence of vengefulness of character, when there is so much evidence to the contrary. The theme of kindness to the enemy runs throughout the Biblical material. There is a tension to be felt between God’s judgement and mercy to be sure, but that’s just it: to miss that tension (by discarding either side) is to miss the point.

Animal Abuse

Is it right to condone animal abuse just because the creatures involved are barely sentient? Should we allow creatures to live dreadful lives just because it benefits us to do nothing?

A group of puppies were recently discovered that had been kept in a basement since birth, and had never been allowed outside. The cellar that they were kept in was extremely small, not allowing them enough room to exercise, and it was rarely cleaned. As they grew, there was eventually insufficient space for them to move around at all.

The animals were left with a huge supply of food, but the room was artificially lit and lights were turned off for only short periods at night. As a result the puppies had little to do but to eat. With no exercise and little care and attention, they became obese as adults, and suffered a number of physiological problems. Some of the animals had developed blisters, rashes from the poor cleanliness, and some were virtually unable to walk. The animals with mobility problems were often unable to reach drinking water and were badly dehydrated.

The animals were discovered when the owners were in the process of transporting them. They had shackled their legs and dumped them in the back of an estate car. The dogs were handled poorly and one of the dogs died on the journey. The owner had planned to slit their throats before he was interrupted and the remaining animals were rescued.

****************

I’m not really one for sob stories, and this isn’t one of those email chain letters that tell you how many more puppies will die if you don’t fwd it to ten friends. There are probably more heinous cases of animal abuse every day.

The thing is that this story is in a way fictitious. I made it up, and no poor little puppies were harmed quite in this way. The story is nearly true though. To make it a true story, you would need to add that the animals were not rescued, they were killed; the owner was not interrupted, he was paid; you would need to extend the size of his group of animals from ‘a few’ to ‘billions’; and you would have to change ‘puppies’ to ‘chickens’.

The fact that the scale of chicken farming is so huge seems to give us licence not to think of them as animals any longer, or at least not as our problem, but if people were deriving entertainment from treating a room full of pets in the way that we treat chickens, we would cry foul. As soon as we get a slightly stupider, less cuddly animals involved and add that it’s for food, we pretend that these creatures are some sort of senseless crop, unfeeling and eager to surrender themselves to the knife.

I can’t see any compelling reason why people at large should get all misty-eyed about puppy abuse and angry that certain Eastern nations enjoy a nice chunk of Maltese Poodle now and then, and in the next minute tuck into a bucket full of pre-abused chicken.

Notes and Caveats

  • I’m not arguing that we should turn the whole world free range.
  • I’m not suggesting every farmer loves punching chickens in the face.
  • I’m not suggesting that alarmist animal welfare groups have all their facts straight.
  • I’m not suggesting all chickens are abused.
  • I am all for (responsible) scientific involvement in food production.
  • I am suggesting that we have double-standards about animal treatment.
  • I am suggesting that we ought to be more concerned than we are about what our food has to go through to get to our plates.
  • I am suggesting there is a duty to be responsible with our consumption.

So what then?

Myth-busting websites, such as ‘http://www.safefoodinc.org/‘ (run by America’s beef and poultry people. Hmm…), helpfully raise issues about the problems with free range. However, their reasons are not exactly above criticism. They say (if animals were treated less like walking food),

  • Food prices—especially meat and poultry prices—would rise dramatically because of the increased costs of their inefficient production approaches.
  • Vast amounts of land would need to be used to raise livestock and poultry in free range systems.
  • The environment would suffer from open systems lacking environmental controls.
  • Many fresh fruits and vegetables, which are seasonal in nature, would become unavailable in many areas of the country for much of the year.
  • Imported foods like salamis from Italy, Danish hams and many other items would become “politically incorrect” because of the distances the products travel

That’s all true, and all based on the assumption that human consumption levels (and habits) are an unchangeable factor in the calculation. It is unthinkable that people should consider not eating a gazillion tonnes of KFC and hamburger; it is unthinkable that people could survive without tangerines and strawberries all year round.

Of course we all have to eat, but we pleasure-eat more than we realise. Maybe we should be less tolerant of the argument that we have to farm animals in abusive conditions, because there are too darn many of us waiting for our third helping of Buffalo Wings.

 

Ethics: No Harm No Foul?

I recently wrote criticising the Democratic Christian Alliance for being over-sensitive in the matter of the slightly-sexually-suggestive DASO poster. In the same post, I also hinted that, according to my moral outlook, sex belongs only within a marriage relationship. A reader complained that, in implying that certain sexual acts are immoral, I was demonstrating that I actually agree with the CDA position that I claimed to oppose. This is my attempt at explaining how the CDA and I differ.

The difference between my approach and that of the CDA is the difference between public and private ethics. In a pluralistic society, there is likely to be (or ought to be) a difference between what one personally considers to be morally right, and what one considers to be morally binding on everybody else. The CDA response to the ‘immoral’ poster was out of line because as a political organisation they need to demonstrate why their moral opinions should be binding on all; they ought not to be making accusations without evidence and on the basis of their preferences.

The harm principle

Public morality—at least in the hands of liberal politicians—tends to be governed by the harm principle. It says that one is permitted to do nearly anything, so long as no one gets hurt (against their will). It is not too different from that common moral teaching, ‘Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you’. It is a good principle in the sense that it gives wide and satisfying scope for individual freedom, and it is also a reasonably simple and practical guideline for public behaviour.

I am in favour of the harm principle as the criterion to which members of society should be held. While it makes it highly unlikely that the wider public will ever live in a way that I consider moral, it also means that no one will force their ideas about morality on me. Furthermore, the same principle gives me the freedom to practice Christianity even under the rule of non-Christian governments, it allows me to tell people what I believe, and it allows us all to change our beliefs if we wish. Even if I wanted a government that forced Christian standards upon all citizens (I don’t), I would undoubtedly be at war with a government that attempted to force me to live according to another religion. If I would find this government interference to be evil when it goes against me, how could I consider it good and loving to others to support such interference just because the moral preferences suit me?

So I find the principle of harms to be the best way of accommodating the variety of belief present in pluralistic society, but I don’t think therefore that it is an ideal moral system.

The problem with harms

The harm principle is something of a lowest common denominator. I strongly believe that there are moral criteria that extend beyond merely inflicting pain on others.

For example, when conservative religious parties complain about sexual immorality (such as with the DASO poster), the usual response from further left is that the act involves consenting adults acting within a relationship of love, they are harming no one, and so who has the right to tell them that their behaviour is immoral? It seems to me, however, that this line of reasoning is abandoned by nearly everyone when one of the lovers also falls in love with a third consenting adult. There remains a relationship of love between both pairs of consenting adults, and yet the first lover experiences it as betrayal.

As far as I’m aware, infidelity (or is this just premarital polygamy?) doesn’t violate the harm principle. There is no compelling reason why you have to feel hurt when someone loves  you and someone else, and certainly there is no intention to inflict pain. Either way, it is the absence of the positive virtue (fidelity) that defines this sort of action as immoral, rather than the presence of a negative (harm). Sleeping with someone else remains immoral, even if your spouse could not possibly find out and never does.

So, as a public-policy-defining moral basis, the harm principle is good. But as an actual standard of moral ideals, it leaves out too much. Morality, for example, ought to include positive virtues.

The love principle

Rather than ‘harm’ as the main idea, I prefer ‘love’ as the basis for morality, even though that may sound vague or hackneyed. Instead of ‘not doing to others what you’d not want done to you’, the moral ideal should be ‘do as you would have done to you’. It’s an active principle of doing good, rather than merely avoiding evil. Furthermore, the love principle incorporates the principle of harms; as St Paul says,

Whatever commandments there may be are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law. [Romans 13:9-10]

Love allows people of different beliefs to coexist in freedom, but it also demands more, both in responsibility to others, and in the limiting of one’s own freedoms for the sake of higher goods, such as fidelity.

Qualities such as ‘love’ and ‘the good’ are difficult to define and harder to legislate, but nevertheless, an individual’s moral judgements should be informed by avoiding immediate harm, positive application of virtue, positive action for the good of others, consideration of function and purpose, and willingness to intervene to prevent present or future harm to the individual or to society. Love, as they say, must sometimes be tough, and so this principle may prove more restrictive (in some ways) than harms does, but nevertheless, morality is always a higher calling than what we do by nature.

Me, the CDA, and sex outside of marriage

So, like the CDA, I believe that promiscuity is immoral, yet unlike the CDA, I don’t believe that it is the responsibility of officials and organisations to agree with me or to insist that the wider public must. This is especially true of issues that we consider immoral because they are against God’s commands. If something is to be binding upon everyone, then there needs to be strong support for it beyond ‘It’s against my beliefs’. After all, I wouldn’t want to be punished for having a birthday party or refused a blood transfusion for my child just because a Jehovah’s Witness happened to be in power.

While I believe that adults should be free to engage in sex outside of marriage if they wish, I consider it immoral for reasons in addition to divine command. To be moral, sex needs to conform to the principle of love, and therefore be suitably other-person-centred, yet sex can easily be selfish behaviour that can be extremely unloving.

Because the sex act involves unparalleled levels of intimacy and trust between participants, and because participating in it (generally speaking) includes the possibility of bearing children, there is a level of commitment implicit in the act. If one is truly acting in a loving way towards one’s partner, then one should be able to precede sex with an act of commitment that matches the level of trust implicit in sex. If you’ll commit in word to be faithful, but not in deed (by actual contract), then what good is your word? You may well argue that the commitment of marriage is disproportionate to the one implied by having sex, but that’s a matter of opinion. Sex is a powerful emotional force that can do damage if abused, and especially if one adds a pregnancy to the equation, then the willingness to commit to a relational environment built to cope with such consequences (i.e. marriage) no longer seems that extreme. Again, if you can’t take responsibility for those kinds of consequences before sex, are you sure that you will after? So I’d agree with the Biblical judgement that premarital sex has a tendency towards self-gratification rather than the other-person-centeredness of love, and is as such immoral.