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Are You Offended by This Picture?

Are you offended by the picture below? Perhaps not but many people are.   It violates  a variety of moral foundations with respect to the interpretation of political messages  (see a review here).


The photo is of an American soldier hugging a Muslim woman in a niqab. It is an actual ad inspired by a real couple. At first glance it looks like a political statement with respect to American forces and their concern for local citizens in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the billboard is an ad for a throat spray that is supposed to help people stop snoring and thus keep them “together.” The ad does successfully pass the first rule of advertising which is to capture attention. But for some people this togetherness is too soon after 9/11, and for others it is shoving political correctness down our throats. Others find the ad endearing.

Some research did reveal that the soldier is real and one question that can be asked is why is an American soldier in uniform doing an ad for a commercial company? Well, that’s a good question but not what I’m interested in. It’s more interesting to examine the various responses to the ad and why some find it loving and inclusive and others distasteful and offensive. How you respond seems to be a matter of what sort of moral issues you are concerned with.

Jonathan Haidt of course in his book Moral Foundations Theory ( has explained how liberals and conservatives differ with respect to which moral systems they respond to. Haidt identifies six moral foundations and they are briefly: care/harm, liberty/suppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. I won’t elaborate on them all for space considerations but a few insights are worthy.

The care/harm distinction evolved from the need to care for children and is now stimulated by messages about suffering in distress. Compassion is a strong emotion here. For conservatives, however, that compassion is more associated with members of your own group than an outgroup. Conservatives are more likely to help members of an ingroup rather than an outgroup. For liberals, care and compassion are more universal and might be triggered by anyone suffering. There is a subtle element of this in the photograph as the soldier seems to be caring for the woman. Liberals who are more responsive to universal care are more likely to accept the photograph and find it less troublesome.

The sanctity/degradation continuum is also particularly important to those with a conservative ideology. Early in our evolutionary history there was a survival advantage to avoiding human waste, decaying food, and health threats of all types. Haidt argues that many objects as a consequence became sacred and we wanted to protect them against desecration, thus setting into motion “sacred” images, flags, and words. American conservatives tend to bestow sanctity quite easily on objects such as flags, ideologies such as capitalism, and desecration on the other things such as homosexuality and foreign objects. The image of the Muslim has become contaminated and clearly by many with strong conservative ideologies seen as a threat and something to be avoided. The most conservative viewers of the photograph are the most “put off” because they see the sanctity of the American soldier being degraded by contact with an impure other.

We respond to things not only according to our economic interests our moral ones. The argument that we have evolved these moral standards over time and as a result of evolutionary needs does seem to be defensible enough. A few of these moral standards such as “caring,” “fairness,” and “sanctity,” are clearly the divides that separate moral reasoning. A strong liberal will be more supportive of using government to level the playing field and achieve a sense of fairness; whereas, a conservative who is consistent with conservative values will defend traditions and infuse some objects and ideas with “sanctity.”

The soldier in the photograph is more sanctified than the woman and that’s why we immediately perceive his threat and express suspicion about her. So what you see and how you interpreted is certainly not an objective processing of an image, but an interpretive act that includes the interaction of your political predispositions with the object of interest.

What to Think about Syria

Maybe Saddam Hussein did not have chemical weapons but Bashar Assad does. Assad has always planned a murderous response to any sort of protest or revolt. Reports are that there are 100,000 dead Syrians, and that’s a number that is difficult to even think about. I would recommend the article below on Syria “to bomb or not to bomb.” It is a re-blog from the CNN publication called “This Just in.” The article lays out the issue pretty well with respect to a subject that does not pose any simple answers.

Like all political decisions in a democracy the answer is the result of debate and the particularly difficult problems are not easily solved. There is simply no way to know “for sure” that a military response to Syria will be successful or not. There is no way to know whether the result will be something better or worse. But that does not absolve us from the responsibility of making a decision and so it is incumbent on all of us to acquire the best information and make the best arguments. That’s why the reply below is useful. But here is the essence of my thinking.

One of the main arguments to strike Syria is that we cannot stand on the sidelines and allow such an odious act as the use of chemical weapons go unchallenged. People remind us of the 1930s and how Hitler went unchallenged until it was too late. I have grown tired of Holocaust and Hitler references over the years; it is usually a sign that the discussion is degenerating. But still, the argument does resonate. When you just stand by and do nothing than evil, as the saying goes, will prevail. Even though some people will hide their heads in the sand for a long time, you can’t do it forever.

A second argument is that nuclear and chemical weapons are considered particularly heinous and we have not seen use of them to any significant degree since World War I. And the reason for that is international condemnation and the surety of a punishment that will make their use counterproductive. I think we have to honor this historical convention. We just can’t let the use of the weapons go unnoticed; there must be a price to pay.

Third, is a moral argument. Such arguments usually fall on deaf ears and do not carry the weight of realistic foreign policy but there is a moral position to be taken based on the indiscriminate death that result from chemical weapons, and their violations of just war principles. A weapon in a just war should be a last resort and designed only to immobilize an enemy combatant – not used for psychological purposes or with a blind eye toward collateral damage, which is unavoidable in the case of an uncontrollable gaseous substance.

The leadership of the Syrian government is intertwined with some of the most anti-Semitic and violent terrorist groups and political regimes, namely, Hezbollah and Iran. Moreover, according to the New York Times the world looked away while Russia helped the Syrians acquire chemical weapons. Between Hezbollah, Iran, and Russian support Syria is on its way to being a combustible proxy state that could cause future damage to the Middle East and Israel in particular. If the Syrian regime cannot be taken down then it must be stabilized.

Assad is just a slicker version of Saddam Hussein. He’s essentially a replica of the Iraqi model where anyone who stood in the way was eliminated, and the platform of the major political party was designed to perpetuate a sectarian dictatorship. The Syrian government has been killing rebellious citizens for a number of years. And is one more example of the inconsistent application of force and foreign-policy pressure because it defies imagination how the left could call for intervention and control of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but seem to lose their integrity when it comes to intervening in Syria. Some sort of limited military intervention in Syria will not solve many problems or do much to change the situation. And, of course, the idea that the United States could get “sucked in” to additional military responses is a defensible enough point. But it is not inevitable. It is possible to maintain strong relations and diplomatic pressure and still find certain activities unacceptable and deserving of a military response. I think the use of chemical weapons satisfies anyone’s definition of “unacceptable”.


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