Thursday, June 30, 2011

Faith in the Private Sector

I've always been baffled by those who argue that corporate health is a measure of the nation's financial or social health, that we need to get government off the back of business, that less regulation means a more prosperous nation.

It was revealed yesterday that Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where twenty-nine miners died, kept two sets of books in order to keep government regulators from knowing about all of the safety violations at the mine. They killed their workers by cutting corners.

If you eat Spam or care about American workers or our food supply, please make sure you read this article about the way that Hormel set up its Spam operation in a way that exposed immigrant workers to plumes of vaporized pig brains and gave them a degenerative neurological disease and then forced them to sign waivers that let Hormel off the hook for most of the cost of the treatment, leaving these workers sick with next to nothing.

We have a presidential candidates who say we have a "gangster government." It turns out that it is indirectly true, but for the opposite reason she intends. It is not big government that is the threat to the American people and the well-being of the nation, but the influence of corporations run by scum like this. These people gather with Republicans at meetings held by groups like ALEC where corporate interests write legislation that shields them from oversight or responsibility for their horrendous actions. When the history is written and we look back on what ended the American century, this is the sort of story that will be told.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Midsummer Day's Blog Post: Is Shakespeare Still Relevant?

Today is the 398th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the original Globe Theatre. I've been thinking a lot about Shakespeare lately because the less short of the short people read a book a month or so ago in which a modern child and a child of Shakespeare's time magically changed places so that the child of long ago could receive medical care to save her life. The book was shot thruogh with references and allusions to A Midsummer Night's Dream. As a result she became interested in the play and Shakespeare's writings more generally and so has had my collected works volumes in her room, trying to read through some of the comedies.

No doubt, at her age, she is getting little in terms of plot and less in terms of literary devices. But it seemed an interest that was worth facilitating. It is shocking how many standard utterances to this day trace back to Shakespeare's writings. Shakespeare and calculus are the twin pillars of "high learning" in high school, the subjects that mark those who have received advanced, serious pre-collegiate educations.

But is Shakespeare still the key to culture that his (or her or their...) works have always been held to be? Is high school the proper place for their introduction? It seems that Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird are subtly being worked into the niche that had been reserved for Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. Is this a problem? Should Lady Macbeth tell Scout Finch to get out, out of her damned curricular spot? Is Shakespeare still relevant to the education of contemporary children?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pat Robertson Meet Karl Popper

As if one could not have predicted this, Pat Robertson is declaring that the legalization of gay marriage in New will lead to the destruction of American culture:

“I think we need to remember the term sodomy came from a town known as Sodom and Sodom was destroyed by God Almighty and the thing that they practiced was homosexual activity and even they tried to rape angels who came down there, so that’s the kind of people they were,” Robertson said. God “sent an angel down there and He said to Lot and his family, ‘get out now because I’m gonna destroy this whole area.’”

“We’re heading that way as a nation. In history there’s never been a civilization ever in history that has embraced homosexuality and turned away from traditional fidelity, traditional marriage, traditional child-rearing, and has survived. There isn’t one single civilization that has survived that openly embraced homosexuality. So you say, ‘what’s going to happen to America?” Well if history is any guide, the same thing’s going to happen to us,’” he predicted.
Never mind true or false, is this meaningful? Karl Popper points out that for a sentence to be menaingful it needs to be falsifiable, that is, you need to be able to specify what observable states of affairs would count as falsifying instances. What would be Robertson's falsifiers? Suppose we're still here in 10 years, 25 years, 100 years, would that just mean that God hasn't gotten around to us yet?

And then there's the other direction -- no culture has survived that embraced homosexuality. Of course, no culture has survived that hasn't. All cultures change, fade away, and new ones take their place. Is 18th century American culture the same as our current culture?

I'm used to disagreeing with virtually everything Pat Robertson says, but this time I'm not sure if there is actually content there to disagree with.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Are Multicultural Nations Inherently Unstable?

Today is Canadian Multiculturalism Day, something not terribly well-embraced by Quebec nationalists. Canada prides itself on having two national languages -- French and English -- but some of the French speakers want autonomy. Yugoslavia used to boast as well about its multicultural nature -- but now a review of the proceedings at the Hague only leaves one depressed. Are multicultural groups inherently unstable? Will we always find an excuse to tear ourselves apart? Is this an unavoidable human dynamic or is a diverse community capable of more than just temporary social stability?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Pain and Boredom as Endangered Emotions?

The shorter of the short people is a catcher and in a game last weekend he took two good foul tips off the glove arm, one on the bicep and one on the forearm. You could see the tears welling up behind the mask, but both times he shook off the coach who came out to check on him. I was very proud that he is learning to play with pain. They weren't injuries, they just hurt. He's learning that displeasure is tolerable, a lesson that will serve him well.

We follow the 19th century utilitarians in taking pain to be intrinsically bad. Pain is something that is disappearing from modern life. We have pads for kids in every sort of activity. We have medications and alcoholic beverages that alleviate pain.

I think this is a problem. I'm not making a sort of Fight Club macho, pubescent argument that pain brings life, or a Lao Tzu whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger type of argument, or even a martyr's through pain comes cleansing point. Rather, I'm simply pointing out that life hurts. Pain is a part of life and by living in irrational fear of it, it keeps us from doing what we could or should do. For example, I heard a young woman the other day who was so afraid of the pain of labor that she was saying to a friend she had no desire for children. Maybe that will change later in life, maybe she does not want kids for another reason, but the fact that this is even a thought that goes through someone's head seems culturally worrisome.

Similarly with other undesirable states like boredom. We can play on our iphones and computers 24 hours a day. We have tv channels in the hundreds that never go off the air. We gain entertainment, but we lose the stretches of time that encourage creativity and reflection.

We eat fewer and fewer natural foods, the tastes that are not our favorites or that have not been augmented with sugar, I'm sorry, I mean high fructose corn syrup and salt. Everything has to be super sweet. As a result, we as a culture eat lousy and make obesity and diabetes a normal part of life.

Marketers seek out any displeasure and try to remedy it, but, of course, it cannot all be eliminated. But we have the expectation to the opposite, the sense that we are entitled to be pleasured all the time.

Is this a naive view? Do we have places where displeasure is made part of life? Horror movies and right-wing talk radio seem to be two. Others or is this a real phenomenon?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Videotaping Police

With cellphones having the capability of capturing video wherever and whenever, anytime something out of the ordinary occurs it gets captured. Anything that involves the police is out of the ordinary, so there have been more and more instances of police conduct that have been recorded.

This is something that the police do not like. Indeed, a woman in Rochester, New York was arrested for videotaping police conducting a traffic stop from her front yard. The officer had clearly been trained to inform the taper that he did not "feel safe" with the person making a record of his work in public and when she declared that she was well within her rights to record from her own property in a way that in no way affected the proceedings she was witnessing, he took her away, charging her with obstructing governmental administration.

After these incidents, the officers are required to fill out a report, and their word has generally been taken as decisive as the official story of what happened. But with the existence of alternative records that are more objective, false statements in police reports can be shown to be such. Further, any misconduct on the part of the officer will be more than he said/she said hearsay. Police officers are rightly entrusted with a lot of power, but that power can -- and certainly in a number of cases, is -- misused. When you are used to having power, the last thing you want is to have it checked.

So, some states are now making it illegal to videotape police working. The argument is that it minimizes interference and makes the police more effective. The argument on the other side is that the possibility of being taped will make police less likely to abuse their power, whether it is running over the rights of those involved or using unnecessary brutal force.

There also seems to be a free speech concern here, although one could make the case that it is a "fire in a crowded movie house" type exception.

So, should videotaping police activity -- assuming it is not for use in planning a crime -- be legal? Are the laws banning it unconstitutional?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Value of a Ball

The Old Man took me and LilBro to ball games as kids and now I take my short people, but as many games as I've gone to, one thing I've never done is come away with a ball. There are four ways a fan gets a game ball -- catch a foul ball or home run, have someone near you catch it and give it to you, have a player flip the ball to you, and have the ball boy or ball girl flip one to you. Would a ball you caught yourself mean more than one that got flipped to you? Would it mean more to get one from a ball layer than from a ball boy or ball girl? Or is it something that is so scarce that the means are irrelevant? Anyone here ever actually caught one?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Is There Nothing Duct Tape Can't Fix?

Have a wart? Say goodbye drug store, hello hardware store. According to several studies (here's one), duct tape is as or more effective in treating the common wart than the standard approach of freezing them off with liquid nitrogen. There are other studies that have failed to corroborate these results, but the fact is that whether it pans out or not someone had to apply for that first grant. How many times do you think they had to send out applications before someone gave them the funding for that one?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Heart Breaker or Blowout?

The shorter of the short people's ball team lost a tight one this weekend. In the championship game of a tournament they were playing, they lost by one run with the tying run on third and the go ahead run on second in the last inning. After the long weekend, talk turned to the age old question -- if you had to lose, would you rather lose a heart breaker or a blow out? Which is preferable, to not be in the game and feel like you were just outclassed from the start or to play tight and be left with the "what ifs" afterward, but have been competitive to the end?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Comic Flashes

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend is Joe Piscopo's 60th birthday. Joe Piscopo was a member of the Saturday Night Live cast in the early 80s and his comedy enjoyed a run of popularity that precipitously ended. This is not something that is unusual in the world of comedy. So this weekend, let's ask who are comics who disappeared too quickly, who had a short, but great run.

My suggestion would be Kevin Meany. I always loved his stuff. Here's his classic bit "big pants people."

Others whose time in the comic spotlight was too short?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 17, 2011

Privacy, Democracy, and Deliberation

This week marked the 40th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the classified, massive report outlining the full history of American involvement in Vietnam to the New York Times who ran portions of it. It was the act that led Nixon to create "the plumbers," a group of covert spies working for the White House whose job was to sabotage the lives and work he saw as enemies.

Interestingly, this week, we also had a CIA operative come out and admit that the Bush administration told him twice to investigate Juan Cole, a political science professor at Yale whose blog offered the strongest and most well-reasoned arguments against the Bush administrations claims during the march to war against Iraq. This Nixonian behavior from an administration who was simultaneously arguing quite vociferously that all discussions with the President by anyone offering advice needed to be kept confidential so that the President would receive "unvarnished" recommendations. If the discussion could be made part of the larger discourse, then people would not really speak their minds, but say what would be popular, not what they really believed.

Our representative democracy is at root based on an Enlightenment concept that a well-informed electorate will make the best decisions. As such, for the people to decide whether an office holder is doing a good job and deserves re-election, we need to be well-informed about his or her decisions. Does this information include only the decision and the results of the decision or does the process leading up to the decision also need to be made public? Would such a move damage the deliberative process in the way the Bush folks claimed? If so, we have a conflict between democratic values and the ability of democratically elected representatives to effectively govern. Which ought to take precedent here?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Just Desserts

Why have liquid mainstays of the confectionery landscape like the malt, the phosphate, and the egg cream (and, to a lesser extent, the float) disappeared? Fast food has turned the soda and the milkshake from desserts to meal accompanying drinks and there was a revival in the flavored soda (vanilla and cherry coke), but their formerly popular cousins are nowhere to be found. Why?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Are Participation Trophies Meaningful?

Woody Allen famously said that "Ninety percent of life is just showing up." While that may be true, it doesn't necessarily mean you should get a trophy for it.

Both of the short people played organized sports this spring and neither team came close to winning their respective divisions. Yet, both have trophies commemorating the seasons. It has become standard operating procedure in youth sports to give out participation trophies. The champions get bigger trophies or special t-shirts, but everyone comes away with some trophy.

The idea behind it is to make sure that we celebrate everyone's achievements during the season. All players grow as a result of these seasons, both in terms of their skills and hopefully in terms of their personalities. It is often those who had the longest way to go who went the farthest. Surely, this deserves recognition just as much as the most stacked team in the league clobbering everyone like everyone knew they would. Add in the idea that coming away with a trophy makes one feel special and when you combine the positive effects of a strong self-image for kids and the increased likelihood that they will return to the sport the following year making for a healthier league in terms of finances and registrants, everyone wins.

But in sports, not everyone wins. Part of what sports teaches is the ability to play hard and lose gracefully, a skill that will be needed in the rest of life outside of the chalk lines. This is a move away from that important lesson. We make everyone feel like winners all the time, so we never have to face ourselves honestly and appraise how we need to work to improve. By recognizing everyone, you in effect recognize no one. Participation trophies are not celebrations of the advances of each child, they are pieces of cheap, gold-colored plastic that don't mean anything to anyone. They are wastes of resources and energy for no purpose. They collect dust on shelves and are never admired or appreciated. They only reinforce our worst cultural vices -- the ideas that you don't play for the joy of playing, but to get something and that everything must be rewarded with something material.

Are participation trophies meaningful and valuable or pernicious and wasteful?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

D.U.C.K. -- Should Einstein Have Been a Brain Surgeon?

"Seemingly Trivial Unanswered Problems In Discourse," which goes by the acronym D.U.C.K., is an exercise in which we take a question that should not be asked, a question that seems to have no answer or a perfectly trivial answer and actually have a discussion about it for no good reason.

Who are smarter, rocket scientists or brain surgeons?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sex and Power

Anthony Wiener is just the latest in an on-going string of political sex scandals. Is the correlation between politics and infidelity real or apparent? It seems there are four main possibilities:

1) The rate of inappropriate sexual behavior for politicians is higher than in the general population because the power and celebrity involved in being a politician creates more opportunities. Given more opportunities, it is natural that there will be more cases.

2) The rate of inappropriate sexual behavior for politicians is higher than in the general population because politics self-selects for a certain personality type which is more likely to engage in such behaviors. These are people who constantly seek self-aggrandizement and pursue their goals relentlessly and these tend to make infidelity more likely.

3) The rate of inappropriate sexual behavior for politicians is higher than in the general population because of the nature of the job. One is working very closely with a set of associates, often on the road with them, often away from family. The close-knit and care-based relationships that politicians have with their aides and staff and the large amount of time they spend away from their spouses leads to a larger number of instances.

4) The rate of inappropriate sexual behavior for politicians is not higher than in the general population. It just seems higher because your neighbor's affair does not make national or local news and so you may or may not know of it. Politicians are celebrities of a sort and the appearance comes from the fact that it gets reported and re-reported.

So, which is it?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Manna from Comedy Heaven

My Fellow Comedists,

You know, you hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, but sometimes the Cosmic Comic sends a set-up so easy you wish for a challenge. Crotch shots by Congressman Wiener. The only thing easier IS Congressman Wiener. It leads to the obvious question, what is the easiest set-up you ever received.

I was teaching an ethics class and discussing the difference between moral precepts and social mores. When a student asked "Steve, what are mores?" I simply responded, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's a more."

What's the easiest set up you ever got?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 10, 2011

Anonymous Anonymous

Today is the 76th anniversary of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. While there is considerable debate in the public health community about its efficacy, the model has been applied to virtually all other forms of addiciton, from Narcotics Anonymous to Gamblers Anonymous, from Sexaholics Anonymous to Workaholics Anonymous. So ubiquitous is this approach that some are considering beginning Anonymous Anonymous for those addicted to attending 12-step meetings. The first step is admitting that you are powerless over you ability to stop admitting that you are powerless about admitting that you are powerless.

You have some like psychiatrist Thomas Szasz who question the very category of addiction. While that's a good conversation to have, I want to assume that addiction is a real psychological problem, but ask whether it ought to be seen as a psychological or sociological concern.

Given that certain substances and activities cause changes in brain chemistry that lead some people to alter their behavior in irrational and undesirable ways, are there social structures and institutions that create an environment where we would expect an increasing number of addicts to be created? Since there is a significant amount of profit to be made from the sources of addiction, whether it be nicotine, slot machines, alcohol, or cocaine, and since we live in a culture where money is equated with political speech and influence, should we be sending individuals to programs or should we be starting a regulatory 12-step program to a healthier society? Are there things that we could do to create a culture that is less likely to create addicts? We say that this is the land of the free and that we love liberty, but with fast food chains and sugared cereals advertising to our children, with payday loan sharks and liquor stores populating our poorest neighborhoods, with Starbucks as the go to hangout for the cool and busy, aren't we setting ourselves up to make all of us dependent on this or that? Is addiction a foreseeable and preventable tragedy of modern cultural structure?

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Does God Hate Right-Wing Christians or Is Global Weirding Real?

We've had a lot of significant weather events lately from flooding along the Mississippi and in the Dakotas to tornadoes through the South and Midwest. What is interesting is that the places where these weather events are occurring are also the places where we find significant support for conservative Christian right-wing politics. When Katrina hit New Orleans, we heard from some of these folks that it was God's revenge for the Big Easy's sinful ways. Similarly with 9/11 in which they said that it was NYC's liberal essence that led to its destruction. If this is true, then surely the fact that we have repeated tragedies in the Bible Belt should be place for the same sort of inference. Could it be that God despises right-wing fundamental Christianity and is showing his disapproval with these weather events?

I suppose we could look elsewhere for explanations. Global weirding, the increase in unusual weather events, is predicted as a consequence of global warming. More warmth means more energy in the system and that added energy has real effects. That might be one way to account for it, but then, of course, you'd have to allow for global warming and that would make you one of those evil, lefty, moonbat, eco-freaks...or a scientist...

Maybe they're both right. Maybe God designed the Earth with a very specific climate and the fact that we're changing it and making him uncomfortably warm ticks him off and what we're seeing is a message sent to those who are opposing action on reducing our overall carbon footprint. If you don't want any more Joplin, Missouris, we better enact cap and trade soon.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

How Transparent Are Our Minds?

In a conversation last week, a gay colleague referred to an acquaintance as so deeply closeted that he (the acquaintance) never realized himself that he was gay. It struck me as an interesting thing to say -- a case of purported false consciousness -- and it's rattled around as I've worked this week on an explication of Descartes' writings.

According to Descartes, an evil demon may be fooling me about everything I believe, even controlling the thoughts I have, but I cannot be wrong about two things: first, that I exist, and second, that I know what I am thinking. What I am thinking may be false, but I cannot be wrong when I assert that I am thinking it. Since wanting is a form of thinking, I'll always know what I want and that I want it. On this view, our minds are transparent to us.

Freud most famously contended the opposite, that the conscious mind was but a small bit of the full mind and that beneath the surface lots of activity is happening that leads you to think you want certain things, when in fact you are merely displaying displaced desires, suppressing your true wants and replacing them with something more acceptable. The trained psychoanalyst occupies a special place where he can glimpse elements of it and tell you about it, but many of our true desires remain hidden to ourselves.

Who is closer to right here? Descartes or Freud? Do we know our minds or do we only think we do? Or do we only think that we only think that we do?

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Fairness, Logic, and Scarce Resources

I teach logic every fall semester and being one of the more challenging courses, the college allows me a peer tutor, a student from the previous year's class who helps out by giving attention to students who desire it. It's not only helpful to the logic students, but something nice for the tutor -- a little extra cash in pocket and a nice line on the resume, especially for someone looking to go to graduate school. To have experience in a TA-like position, to have had the trust of a faculty member, and to be able to display mastery of a tricky part of the field are all pluses in a tight field of folks trying to get into Ph.D. programs.

This coming year, I've got a good one, someone who did very well in the class, is very patient and personable, and is seriously thinking of grad school. I've never had to face this type of situation, but suppose one year I had two candidates who both did equally well in the class. One is more articulate, creative, or outgoing -- traits that are useful when dealing with students who are uptight and frustrated. This one candidate who would have the edge all other things being equal is not thinking of graduate school in philosophy, but the other candidate is. The second candidate would certainly be qualified and if the leading candidate had not been in the class, I would have no qualms making candidate #2 the peer tutor. He just wouldn't be as good as #1. But in the long run, having been the tutor will be more useful for #2. I could write him a stronger letter of recommendation, he could say things in his application that would help him get into difficult programs, he would increase the likelihood of fulfilling his goal which I share -- he'd make a fine philosopher someday.

Should this be part of the criteria for deciding who gets named peer tutor? Is that fair to #1?

Monday, June 06, 2011

Is Facebook Making Class Reunions Obsolete?

When the VCR first hit the market, movie theater revenues were in a slump. Given the industry's tough times, the idea that people could now skip the cinema altogether and watch films cheaper in the comfort of their own homes led many to predict the collapse of the multiplex era. But, in fact, the opposite happened. The convenience of the VCR reminded people what they loved so much about movies and suddenly ticket sales climbed dramatically.

It is against this backdrop that I watched the class reunions on campus at Gettysburg College last week. The fun of a reunion is to see the folks you really liked, but fell out of contact with. Is he bald yet? I wonder what she's been doing for the last couple years? Do they have one child or two?

But with e-mail lists and especially Facebook, we are less and less losing contact with those folks. People I would never contact on even an annual basis, I now get frequent updates about. I know when their kids have thrown up, when they went to the gym, even when they divorced that really cool person whom I frankly liked better than them. In a sense, Facebook and other online tools and play toys serve the purpose of the class reunion.

Does that mean that there is less reason to go to the reunion, making it an obsolete institution or, like the VCR case, do you feel so much more connected to those in your past that it makes it more likely that you'd want to spend face time instead of just Facebook time with them?

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Funny Final Words

My Fellow Comedists,

Leslie Neilson's gravestone has been put into place and at his request, here's what it says:Nothing like going out with a fart joke. While it is not there, W.C. Fields had asked for his to say, "All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."

There's a certain level of comedic devotion to have your final linguistic representation on Earth be funny.

The, again, having your mates do it for you is another level altogether:

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 03, 2011

Fill in the Blank: Whom Should We Be Reading?

The department has launched a new class we call "Reading _________," where the blank is filled in with the name of someone who is not considered part of the standard philosophical canon, but whose writings hold deep interest in terms of the history of ideas. Last year, I had a seminar reading Darwin and a colleague has done it with the works of Gandhi. Next year, I'll be doing it with Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, founding fathers of sociology. What other figures can you think of whom we don't usually consider to be philosophers, but would be fun to study philosophically?

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Does Teaching Require Sacrifice?

I was in the doctor's office yesterday reading an old copy of Smithsonian and came across a fascinating article on chimpanzee behavior. While tool use has been observed many times in many contexts, learning is transmitted through an apprenticeship model where younger chimps observe older ones at work and then figure it out through trial and error on their own. What has never been observed is chimpanzee teaching. Technology is transmitted passively, never actively.

For a behavior to be considered to be an instance of teaching, primatologists contend that it has to satisfy three criteria:

(1) It has to be goal-directed on the part of the teacher with the goal being the acquisition of knowledge or a skill by another.

(2) It has to have an assessment element, that is, there must be evidence of reward or positive sense given for good work, correction or negative feedback for mistakes, or some sort of corrective action when the learner is off-track.

(3) There has to be some sort of price or loss for the teacher. The behavior must keep the teacher from getting the pine nut to eat him/herself or it must keep him/her from being able to do something else that would be more personally beneficial.

As a teacher and a primate myself, the third criterion struck me as odd. I began to wonder whether I satisfied that condition as a collegiate instructor. Do I suffer at all from teaching? I suppose there is other stuff I could be doing, but frankly teaching is one of the things I enjoy most. For some reason, they pay me for doing it, so rather than a loss it is a gain -- now, sure, there's probably something to be said about philosophers' salaries, but relative to the philosophers' work load (I can't believe I just typed that phrase)...

It certainly doesn't seem to fit the graduate student/thesis director relationship, but perhaps that is to be considered indentured servitude instead of teaching. While that was in part meant to be sarcastic, it does seem appropriate to rule that out as teaching. The condition does seem to come from the intention of separating out training underlings to do your bidding from the act of teaching which should be more purely other-directed, that is, an activity undertaken for the sake of the learner, not for the sake of the teacher.

But is that really necessary? Do I have to give a darn whether the class members are improved? Can I be teaching in a completely selfish way? Suppose there's a book I've always wanted to read and I know that I'll understand it and appreciate it better by breaking it down in a fashion that looks just like a lecture and classroom discussion? Did I teach the book if I gained rather than sacrificed?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Boobies, Ta-Tas, and the Ethics of Titillating Advertising Tactics for Non-Profits

Schools have been having issues with the breast cancer awareness campaign in which bracelets are sold with the slogan "I love boobies." Similarly, cars across the country sport magnet signs urging us to "Save the Ta-Tas." There is no doubt that we need more research into the causes and treatment for breast cancer and to promote awareness in order to detect treatable cases earlier. Seemingly, anything we can do to foster this good end would be desirable.

Those who consider ways in which to raise this money no doubt realized that they had something that colo-rectal or esophageal cancer advocates didn't -- they had a part of the body that Americans are obsessed with. The earlier approach based on "it's about your mother and sister, and don't you love them, let's all wear pink" was effective, but surely "boobies" and "ta-tas" could -- and did -- become a cultural phenomenon. Given the attention we pay to breasts, shouldn't they use it to help save lives?

Or is the use of such objectification only further entrenching it? The breast cancer folks are not the first to use these tactics, consider, for example, PETA's Naked campaign in which they got famous actors, male and female, to pose nude under the tagline, "I'd rather be naked than wear fur." They are using cultural elements that are not ethically healthy for the society, that undermine unhealthy approaches to sexuality. No one is saying that breasts or nudity are inherently problematic, there is nothing wrong with either, but the folks running these ads know they are doing it in a fashion that is consistent with a certain approach to them -- it is cheap titillation, something that works every time. They are making themselves the Porky's of non-profits.

The response to such a line is often, "Lighten up." Maybe that's a valid response. It's just a joke, it's not hurting anyone, and it's helping people. Or is it subverting deeper virtues that need to be emphasized in the name of caring for those in need? Is there a problem here or is it just good advertising?