Archive for March, 2010

We Started it, but it’s not a Fire

When discussing the rightness or wrongness of a certain chain of actions, it’s best to talk, in the active voice, about choices made by moral agents (like, “Person X then chose to plant and detonate a bomb”). It’s less useful use the passive voice and refer only to events (e.g. “At that point a bomb went off”.)

  • A. Bob lit a fire in an occupied building, which led to the deaths of X people.

Sentence A is fine. It identifies the moral agent (Bob) and his choice (to light the fire). Once the fire is burning, there is, morally speaking, nothing more to say; neither fire nor the forces acting on it are moral agents. Thus, Bob is to blame for the deaths.

  • B. Bush and Blair started the war, which led to the deaths of X people.

Debate the justness or lack thereof of the Iraq war for long enough and you’ll see a sentence like B. It starts off OK, by identifying moral agents (Bush and Blair) and their decision (to start the war). But, unlike A, once the war is underway, there’s plenty more to say. The problem is, B, partway though, slips into the passive voice and treats war like sentence A treats fire – as a force of nature. But war isn’t like that. War is, in moral terms, a collection of actions by moral agents. The majority of deaths in Iraq owe to the deliberate slaughter of innocents by insurgents. Sentence B seeks to conceal this fact – to short the moral circuit – by failing to mention these moral agents and attributing deaths to a fire – the inanimate “war” – which, in turn, was consciously started by Bush and Blair. When the latter part of B is expanded and the moral agents properly identified, you get something like this:

  • C. Bush and Blair, in starting the war, caused the deaths of innocents, unintentionally if foreseeably. Additionally, certain insurgents opposed the war by murdering as many innocents as possible. Between the two groups, they killed X people.

So, B contains a rhetorical trick. It’s a way of redirecting blame away from the true culprits and toward whomever one chooses. In fact, it’s is even worse than that, as it attempts outright moral inversion: to loop the blame for the deaths back onto the very people trying to stop them.

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Debate Space: Churches, Mosques and Synagogues

See the comments section for a debate on Churches, Mosques and Synagogues.

Photogogy

Imagine you’re a journalist at a reputable newspaper writing an article on how pupils of a Spanish primary school (after some slanted pedagogy, one guesses) sent pro-Palestinian postcards – some of which trespass into anti-Semitism – to the Israeli embassy in Spain. Also suppose you need to illustrate the story with a photo. Presumably, you would choose, if possible, a picture of the postcards in question. Failing that, you might pick an image of the school, of the embassy or of the ambassador making the complaints. At the very least you could go for the “middle-east conflict map” in which Israel is one colour, bordering Arab states another and the Palestinian territories an intermediate shade.

What you would not choose, I would have thought, is an image of a Palestinian woman standing in the remains of her home after it’s been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, nor caption said photo as if you were drawing a comparison between the destruction of Palestinian homes and the sending of the postcards.

A-Palestinian-woman-surve-001

A Palestinian woman outside her destroyed house after an Israeli air strike in Jabalya in northern Gaza. The Israeli embassy in Madrid has complained of antisemitic postcards from Spanish schoolchildren.

You wouldn’t do that as it would suggest you are partial, editorialising and sneering at the seemingly-legitimate complainant. It’s possible I’ve loaded this thought experiment by using the term “a reputable newspaper”, but that, anyway, is what the Guardian chose to do.

(Via Normblog)