Archive for the ‘Morality’ Category

Far Too Great a Cost

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

I just don’t get it.  I’ve tried to wrap my head around it and I’ve failed every time.

I don’t think it’s because I didn’t go to a Division 1 school with a giant athletic program.  I don’t think it’s because I grew up in a family of Oklahoma State fans at a time when college football was something we tried not to think too much about.  (The Cowboys weren’t quite ranked #2 back then…)  I don’t think it’s because I am in any way confused about the details of what went down in the Penn State locker room.  So could someone please explain to me the outpouring of support and solidarity for Joe Paterno?

Throughout the end of last week I read many Facebook status updates with commentary on the Penn State news.  Some people commented that everyone involved deserved everything they were getting (indictments, firings, and the like).  But others were more equivocating.  More than one person opined in the vein of, “On one hand Paterno should be fired for what he was complicit in, but on the other hand I feel badly for such a tragic end to a legendary career.”  As I shared these sentiments with a good friend of ours over pizza Thursday evening he responded, “There’s only one hand in this story.”  I have to agree.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of people out there who see it differently.  There are many who believe that Paterno’s legend as a football coach in some way offsets his involvement in the Sandusky scandal.  They are rallying around him.  They were heartbroken to learn that he’d been ousted from his long-standing post.  And their allegiance astounds me.

On his blog The Daily Dish Andrew Sullivan compares these Penn State loyalists to Catholic parishioners who rose up in defense of their priests upon learning that they were sex abusers.  One of the comments cited by Sullivan comes from blogger Jessica Banks‘ (a Penn State alum) stunning post entitled “We Are… More Than Penn State.” As I try to understand why anyone could have compassion for Paterno in the wake of a scandal like this I am enlightened by Banks’ explanation:

The people who say that Penn State football is the local religion are not wrong. In fact, it’s a more apt comparison than they probably realize. The institution is storied and expansive, inextricably associated with the reputation of the school and anyone who has passed through it. Its financial impact is difficult to quantify: there’s no question the program has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, but there’s also no question that the school allocates resources to athletics that can and should be spent on the university’s actual mission of education. As such, Penn State students pay what amount to private school prices for a state school education … because it comes with a winning team.

She continues:

And while the edifice of Penn State football bears striking resemblance to the Catholic Church, its history and reputation has been largely constructed around a single person, much like today’s evangelical megachurches. Joe Paterno’s record may be the substance of Penn State’s athletic reputation, but his personality is the soul. Penn State doesn’t just claim a winning football program — it claims a moral one, a program that forms young men into admirable athletes and upstanding people.

So it sounds to me as though these people – the Paterno supporters – drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago.  Their loyalty to the school is inextricably linked to their affinity for the football program.  In a telling example of this a Penn State sports historian quoted in this video says, “I can’t tell you what I’d like to do to [Sandusky] now if I could get him.  He’s ruined Penn State.”  Not, “He’s ruined the lives of many young boys,” but, “He’s ruined Penn State.”  Lovely.

Even in light of understanding that for some people the value of the school and the football program are synonymous, I still struggle to get my head around that belief system in the first place.  When does a person make the decision that the quality of the football program matters more than the quality of the education?  When does a person make the decision that the rape of little boys is an acceptable price to pay for a winning football team?  Call me crazy, but I say it’s far too great a cost.

Sullivan sums it up similarly in another post on this topic.

If you want to understand the cult of Joe Paterno’s role in allowing a ten-year-old to be raped and his rapist never brought to justice, look at the scenes last night, as students rioted in defense of their demi-God. Winning football games morally trumps allowing a brutal child rapist to avoid criminal charges and go on to rape many more. …

That the structure of Penn State – and its creepy Paterno worship – allowed this to happen is bad enough. That the student body would rather side with a negligent football coach over a raped child is beyond belief.

I try hard not to judge people, truly I do.  But I am really dismayed by the people who find Paterno (or anyone else involved) the least bit defensible.  It’s football!  It’s a game!  It’s a decent reason to tailgate and wear face paint and eat far too many nachos in a single sitting, but that’s about it.

We’re All to Blame

Monday, September 26th, 2011

I get a lot of pop culture second hand.  For whatever reason most of “reality”-inspired entertainment doesn’t do much for me.  So it is via water cooler talk and magazines that I have, over the years, learned about who got voted off the island, which American Idol contestant was known for his crazy hair, and the fact that “real” housewives exist in various cities.

In this vein, I have never seen an episode of “The Hills.”  My understanding of it is that it is somewhat scripted, but still a reality show.  I see its stars pictured in red carpet photos, but don’t really know who they are or what they do.  I learned from a recent article though, that the answer to that is, “not much.”  Apparently I was missing very little.  Nevertheless, I wrapped up reading this article from The Daily Beast feeling sorry for two of them.

Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, I learned, were victims of both the reality television industry and their own stupidity.  If you have ever watched even one episode of their show then you know more about their exploits than I do.  But after reading The Daily Beast’s piece I can’t help but think that perhaps the couple’s current situation (out of work, unemployable, living off their parents, and with a mountain of debt) isn’t entirely their fault.

Today’s cult of celebrity has created the opportunity to become famous for nothing.  This is especially true of people who are young, dramatic, and attractive.  We tune in to see what antics they’ll put on each week.  We sit on our couches in pajama pants and cheer or jeer them, and they laugh all the way to the bank while we fast forward through commercials for Herbal Essences and Lean Cuisine.  The problem, though, is that we are a fickle lot.  The characters (for that is what these people are to us) that entertain us for a season or two become dull thereafter.  (What else do you expect when their fame is not tied to anything of substance.)  And yet they are led to believe – per Pratt and Montag’s 20/20 hindsight – that what they have is sustainable.

If the most glamorous and volatile of the human race were those people in their 30s or 40s perhaps the reality television industry never would have gotten off the ground.  By then we have more street smarts about us, more life experience, and more to lose.  For many (most?) of us, fame and fortune just aren’t big enough carrots to justify the sacrifice of one’s privacy and dignity.  Lucky, though, for the fast-talking Hollywood producers of the world, newly minted adults in their early twenties are much more captivating, and also much more gullible.

Montag and Pratt tell a sad tale.  They tell of cranking the publicity machine nonstop for several years, each year being required to generate more drama than the year before in order to keep us captivated.  Like any drug addict, the public needs more and more of a good thing until no amount can sate us.  At that point, instead of mortgaging our futures for one last hit we go cold turkey.  We walk away and say to Reality Star X, “Sorry, but you’re just not doing it for me anymore.  I’m on to the next Kardashian now.”  And the sad irony of it, at least in the case of these two starlets, is that it was their future we mortgaged, not our own.

It is at this point that I have to stop and point out that Montag and Pratt walked into this life with their eyes open.  Lots of people their age would have had more sense than to make the decisions they made.  They would have made some lasting investments in themselves (education and/or connections).  They would have saved a dollar or two.  And they wouldn’t have built a life of lies in order to keep a flighty audience engaged.  But I go back to the fact that they were young, largely stupid, and sold a very appealing bill of goods.

So I wonder about the larger cost of reality television.  I believe that the ultimate responsibility lies with the person who decides to walk in front of the camera and put his or her life on display.  No one forced these people to make this choice.  And if the end result is a life in shambles, well, it isn’t like the reality television landscape isn’t littered with warning tales.  Nevertheless, it makes me sad.  It makes me sad that we are a society that finds someone else’s personal implosion adequate fodder for our own entertainment; that we created this market in the first place.  And it also makes me sad that so many people are willing to sacrifice themselves for us, to lie down on the altar of a prime time air slot without regard for the damage that may ultimately be done.  Yes the stars are the most culpable.  But we are enablers of their bad decisions.  And I wonder why that doesn’t weigh more heavily on us.

The Open Letter Fallacy

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Earlier this week Jamie Oliver posted an open letter to the United Nations Secretary General regarding the global health risks associated with obesity and obesity-related illnesses.  After reading his letter, something about it didn’t sit right with me.  It’s not that I didn’t agree with his position.  I’ve stated quite plainly on this blog that I believe that education is a key and missing component of our nation’s obesity epidemic.  Rather than the content, it was the delivery mechanism that gave me pause.

The open letter.  Somehow it strikes me as passive aggressive.  It takes a dialogue that was presumably between two parties and makes it public, the sole intention of which can only ever be to bring public opinion into the fold.  If I have wronged you and I apologize in an open letter, then it seems I care more about redeeming my good name in the public eye than I do about expressing genuine contrition.  If I want to persuade you of something (as was the case in the Jamie Oliver letter) and I do it in an open letter, then I am likely trying to subject you to a much greater pressure than I can exert on my own, rather than to merely make you aware of my concerns.  Something about the open letter reeks of ulterior motives.

And yet, I suspect it is an effective means of communication.  Nevertheless, I wonder if there are situations where such a public vehicle undermines the message it carries.  (There must be.)  It would have required much more effort and finagling to get a letter like Mr. Oliver’s into the hands of the UN Secretary General exclusively.  By comparison publishing such a letter on a website is a slapdash affair.  Were I the UN Secretary General I think I might be inclined to take Mr. Oliver’s position more seriously had he gone to more effort and used more discretion in getting it to me privately.

I don’t question Jamie Oliver’s motives.  I think he truly cares about the long-term benefits of a healthy diet and the cultural supports required to sustain one.  But as I look at his tactics I see the influence of modern technology.  Lately we seem to believe that the widest net we can cast is the most effective one.  We deploy Facebook and Twitter and websites.  We seem to believe that merely by exposing our message to the largest number of people possible we will make the most progress.  But I can’t help but fear that the signal to noise ratio is getting smaller and smaller.  Had Jamie Oliver managed to secure a private 15-minute meeting with the UN Secretary General would it have done more to further his cause than to post an open letter and expect public pressure to do the heavy lifting for him?

So much communication these days is scatter shot.  We throw things at the wall, watch them stick, and assume that our job is done.  But not every message is best communicated on a  billboard.  Sometimes (likely more often than we think) a message comes through stronger and clearer when communicated with specific focus to a small number of people who have the means and interest to act on it.  The thing about this approach, though, is that it is much harder.  Twenty years ago it was easier to reach a couple of key people than millions of people with cursory interest.  Today the inverse is true.  We have so many types of information competing for our attention that it’s difficult for anything to cut through the din.  And that is why I think that far too often we overlook the impact of face-to-face communication.  We forget how compelling it is to hear another person’s perspective directly from his mouth.  It is easy to deliver a strong message from behind the shield of a computer screen.  It is much harder to deliver that message in person, without edit and proofreading capabilities, and with the risk of rejection on the table.  Live and in-person communication is frequently not easy, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t also frequently the best choice.

“Situation” Style Subsidy

Friday, August 19th, 2011

If you are anything like me, you try to keep any aspect of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” at an arm’s length.  If you do get into close proximity to anything “Jersey Shore” related you try to make sure that you have your irony hat affixed firmly to your head.  I know that the antics of the show’s cast fall squarely into the guilty pleasure zone of a lot of Americans, but they just don’t do it for me.

Nevertheless, I was tickled to read this article about one of the show’s main characters, “The Situation.”  As most people under the age of 40 know, Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino is a big fan of his abs.  As such, he is also a fan of lifting his shirt to show them off, frequently revealing the waistband of his Abercrombie and Fitch boxer shorts.  What can I say?  He’s a class act. 

Abercrombie goes to extraordinary lengths to maintain a particular brand image – an image based in no small part on the six-pack abs of its models.  Yet the company finds itself nervous about the erosion of that brand image due to their increasing connection to “The Situation.”  So, in a move that is as funny as it is probably hopeless, they have offered (quite publicly) to pay “The Situation” to stop wearing their clothes. 

I laughed when I first read this news.  As a marketing professional I know well the finely tuned dance that brand cultivation can be.  It’s easier to manage in the B-to-B world than it is in consumer markets, so I can only imagine what stress-induced gymnastics this “Situation” situation has caused the marketing folks over at Abercrombie.  Offering to pay someone to quit wearing your brand is unconventional, and likely would not have been particularly successful if done in private.  By making this offer publicly Abercrombie has signaled that “The Situation” doesn’t represent them.  They don’t even need him to take them up on their offer.  That is the genius of their move.

However, once I got past the initial chuckles, something about it didn’t sit right with me.  The thing is this: Abercrombie and Fitch has intentionally and publicly insulted someone.  They have effectively said, “We think you’re tacky and we don’t want you near our brand.”  Granted “The Situation” is a grown man capitalizing on the media fascination with his show and is cultivating a brand in much the same way that Abercrombie is.  But this still feels a little bit below the belt, and I think the reason for that is that it feels disingenuous of Abercrombie. 

Abercrombie’s models are highly likely to be wearing not a single stitch of Abercrombie’s clothing in many of the retailer’s seasonal catalogs.  It markets itself on a particular image – an image of toned bodies and lives of leisure.  If he were better looking in the face “The Situation” actually has exactly the type of physique that Abercrombie might put in the center of a black and white beach scene photo spread.  Whether or not they want to admit it, Jersey Shore types are their target market.  (This isn’t Brooks Brothers we’re talking about here…)  So to turn around and claim superiority hits a false note.

It’s not that I really feel badly for “The Situation.”  These days he’s laughing all the way to the bank.  But I find myself tsk-tsking at Abercrombie and Fitch.  They make a mint off of tanned and toned teens aspiring to have abs just like Mike Sorrentino’s, yet they’re willing to throw him under the bus to try to claim the high road.  And it is that move – while strategically clever – that ironically places them squarely on the low road, at least in my mind.

How the Supreme Court Broke My Heart

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

The Supreme Court hates women.

I realize that’s not exactly true.  But that’s what it felt like I was reading when I learned on Monday that the Supreme Court had thrown out the class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart filed by 1.6 million women claiming gender discrimination.  It broke my heart.

My understanding of the case is that it came down to single-store hiring discretion.  (Actually, with a 5-4 decision it came down to ideological lines, but that’s another discussion.)  Apparently store managers were given a great deal of latitude in their hiring decisions, which prompted the majority justices to rule that the 1.6 million plaintiffs weren’t eligible to be grouped together in a single class-action suit.  This riles me.

A giant, multi-national corporation somehow – either systematically or inadvertently (and for the record I don’t believe anything at Wal-Mart happens by chance) – managed to let hundreds of thousands of women earn less pay and exploit less opportunity for advancement and somehow emerged blameless?  I just don’t understand it.  Even if each individual store manager discriminated of his own accord, how is the corporation not liable for the behavior of its store managers?  What if each of the store managers engaged in racial discrimination?  What say you to that, Justice Thomas?  What if the store managers sexually harrassed teen employees?  What then, Justice Scalia (father of nine children)?

In a scathing editorial on The Huffington Post author Peter S. Goodman suggests that it’s easy for U.S. Supreme Court justices to disregard the concerns of 1.6 million underpaid women because they are not among them.  He writes, “In its appalling decision in the Walmart gender discrimination case handed down Monday, the justices supplied future historians with a brilliant symbol of how the United States has essentially become a giant gated community enjoyed by the powerful, with most of the citizenry living outside and struggling to nourish themselves.”  Justice Scalia’s kids aren’t working overtime at Wal-Mart, so why worry about the kids who are?

Beyond his cultural commentary Goodman points out that Wal-Mart’s power as the largest retailer in the world lies in its ability to negotiate with factories, suppliers, distributors, and transporters as a single giant entity.  Wal-Mart store managers do not negotiate for the product on their shelves.  The corporation negotiates on behalf of all its stores.  But yet, when employment policies come under scrutiny the corporation is absolved of any culpability.  Goodman comments,

“[E]ach Walmart is its own separate unit, for the purposes of the lawsuit. Walmart gets to be a behemoth when it is setting the prices for the patio furniture and volleyball sets that it purchases from factories in Mexico and China, but when its employees want to band together to address alleged abuses in the court system, suddenly the Walmart corporation might just as well be a collection of little mom-and-pop shops that happen to have the same name.”

As I said, it breaks my heart.

Moments like this one do not inspire my confidence in my country.  The plaintiffs in the Wal-Mart case are not being treated fairly by their employer.  And when they rose up to try to represent themselves their government failed them.  I doubt that this is what the founding fathers had in mind when they decided that King George was a tyrant and wanted a life free from the oppression of a ruler who didn’t represent or consider their interests.  In that vein, whose interests does our government represent these days?  Corporations?  Lobbyists?  Shareholders?  I wonder how today’s Supreme Court would rule on slavery.  Perhaps more realistically, I wonder how they would rule on the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.  Actually, I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that one.

Perhaps my disappointment at this ruling is making me a bit melodramatic.  I realize that one bad decision by the court doesn’t mean that the whole country is falling apart at the seams.  The Dred Scott case was eventually overruled by the Fourteenth Amendment 11 years later.  Perhaps in 10 years another 1.6 million women will try again with better results.  Our nation has recovered from mistakes bigger than this one.  I can only hope we’ll come to our senses yet again.

Mickey Mouse’s Get Rich Quick Scheme

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

When you learned of the death of Osama bin Laden, what was your first thought?  Actually, scratch that.  What was your tenth thought?  What was going through your mind the next day as the story unfolded and the details (many erroneous – tsk, tsk) spilled forth?  Did you weigh out whether or not you felt happy about the death of another person?  Did you marvel at the bravery and strategic mettle of our armed forces?  Did you shake your head in disbelief as you tried to put yourself in President Obama’s shoes with such a huge decision on the line?  Or did you see dollar signs?

I’m not a sociologist or a social worker or a shrink, but I’d wager that those first three responses were totally normal – universal even – given the magnitude of what had happened.  On the other hand, if you’d told me that within a handful of days you’d filed trademark applications for the name “SEAL Team 6″ (the illustrious group that executed the bin Laden raid), I might have, ever-so-politely of course, suggested that you were a sociopath.  And yet, that is exactly what the Walt Disney Company did.

Yes, my friends, in the wake of this national moment most of us grappled with a buffet of conflicting emotions.  We sorted out fact from rumor.  We sat in disbelief that this man, who had so long seemed a phantom, had actually been found in the flesh.  But while the rest of our heads were still spinning, Mickey and Donald and the gang trotted their way straight to the patent office and made sure they’d get a sweet payday out of the deal.

I’m no fool.  I know that Disney is not all princesses and fairy dust and Mouseketeers.  It is a behemoth, and an immensely profitable behemoth at that.  The Magic Kingdom may peddle a dream of childhood innocence, but the magic word here is “peddle.”  As in “sell.” As in “they’re not giving anything away for free.”  Not Disneyland admission.  Not movie tickets.  Not stuffed, flammable dolls of Minnie or Simba or Ariel.  So it’s not like I’m living in a dream world believing that Disney exists merely for the good of humanity.  But this?  I found this move a little unseemly even for a mega-corporation.*

Beyond my moral aversion to this news, I question both the legal viability of such a trademark as well as the business wisdom.  From the legal perspective, how can a corporation trademark the name of a U.S. military organization?  Surely names like Army, Navy, and Marines are owned by the federal government, that is if they do not supercede ownership altogether.  Does Disney really have a case here?  I asked a lawyer friend this very question and his answer was: absolutely.  He surmised that something as big as “U.S. Navy” is probably already trademarked,  but such a small and heretofore not-so-famous military squad may well not be.  And there’s nothing to stop Disney from laying claim to it if they get there first.

As for the business wisdom, I wonder what Disney’s intentions for this trademark are.  Will they merely ring up royalties any time a news outlet mentions the name of the SEAL team in question?  Or will they plaster it on lunchboxes and action figure sets available in every Target and Toys R Us nation wide?  If it is the former, wouldn’t royalty-paying types just take care not to use the name “SEAL Team 6″ (which, if we’re being persnickety, and clearly I am, was technically dissolved in 1987 and renamed United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group)?  And if it’s the latter, is there no concern that today’s lunchbox-toting set has zero recollection of September 11th, and further that their parents may be reluctant to purchase such toys for fear of thrusting the concept of terrorism at their kids too early?  Perhaps the opportunity cost of filing an application was too low to worry about such pitfalls.  Certainly products aimed at an older demographic (movies, video games, etc.) are more likely commercialization candidates.  But I still question whether the mere presence of a viable target market validates the creation of a product that, when you get right down to it, ultimately profits from acts of terrorism and revenge.

Much like the celebration itself that ensued after bin Laden’s death, this situation leaves me feeling icky.  So today I will force myself to be thankful for free speech and a free economy.  Because in moments like these it’s their dark side that shines the brightest.

*That is not to say that I think Disney is a fundamentally a bad company, or that I wouldn’t patronize them.  On the contrary, we, along with GAP’s entire family, are already planning a trip to Disney World for next year and I am quite looking forward to it.  Nevertheless, I find this particular decision unfortunate and unsavory.

Censoring a King

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Happy Monday.  I’m excited to announce a very special guest blogger today.  Many of you know my sister Anne from her time over at Life in Pencil.  Though she has recently stepped back from the blogging world, she knows she always has an open invitation to post here, should something thought-provoking speak to her.  I was thrilled last week when she mentioned a certain inspiration, and am honored to be sharing her words with you today.

It’s the kind of film the Oscars adore.  Pedigree cast, period costumes, and British accents.  The King’s Speech had Oscar written all over it, and win it did.  But added to the usual trappings of an Oscar-winning film, The King’s Speech had something else…mass appeal.  Beneath the thick London fog, there’s a crowd-pleasing underdog film we Americans love to love.  You can’t help but root for the stammering monarch, and his supporting cast of feel-good characters. This is one of those rare Oscar winners—unlike The Departed or The Hurtlocker—that you can truly call a “family film”.  Oh, wait.  Except for that pesky cussing and the R-rating.

If you haven’t seen the King’s Speech, then I have two things to say to you.  1)  See it.  You’ll like it.  2)  SPOILER ALERT!!  And with that, I’ll proceed.

In the film, Colin Firth’s Duke of York has to let go of a few inner demons (namely, Daddy) that plague his speech.  The straight-laced Duke cuts loose in front of his speech therapist and unloads some serious f-bombs with – surprise! – no stutter.  It’s not only funny, but illuminating.  It’s a moment that tells us as much about his character as maybe any other moment in the film.  But if you’re the ratings board, you don’t care.  It’s the F-word.  Rated R for, “don’t bring your kids.”

As it turns out, the Weinstein Company has a fool-proof plan to deal with the R-rating, open the film up to more families, and make caboodles of dollars.  They’re going to censor it.  Harvey Weinstein, usually a champion of artsy and gutsy films, has released a PG-13 version of the film in theaters, in which Colin Firth’s landmark cussing is softened and cleaned up. In this article, Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman discusses this decision, and presents it as a problematic precedent, mostly for artistic reasons.

I’ll admit I’m a fan of the well-placed cuss word, and not a big fan of awkward editing.  I don’t enjoy excessive cussing, and it can certainly become distracting if used poorly.  But when used correctly, the 4-letter word can also bear artistic merit.  Ever tried to watch Sex and the City on TBS?  Don’t.  Samantha is all but destroyed.  Numerous famous movie lines contain some colorful language, and one need look no further than another Oscar contender this year—True Grit—to find the famous Rooster Cogburn yelling “Fill your hand, you son of a BITCH!!” at a critical moment in the film. (No doubt riskier when it was uttered by John Wayne in 1969).  “Son-of-GUN” just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?  The language makes these scenes memorable and quote-able years later, and the words themselves also make a statement about the character and the moment that no genteel sentence can match.

If you believe this sanitization tarnishes a piece of well-developed character development, then you’re against the PG-13 release.  But how about examining it from a parenting perspective?  According to the Motion Picture Association of America, an R rating means, “Under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.”  So, what in the name of popcorn and jujubes, should prevent a parent from doing just that?  Why not accompany under-17 children to see the (otherwise squeaky clean) film, and then simply talk about the use of language if they’re concerned?  I’d venture to say there’s not a single word in the film that a kid over the age of 10 hasn’t heard before, and in a much less artistic and meaningful context.

Studios these days produce plenty of trash, but trash this isn’t.  It’s well-made, uplifting, and chock-full of fine acting and clever writing.  While the Weinstein Company just started marketing The King’s Speech as a “family film”, it was all along. No editing necessary.

Just Because It’s Legal Doesn’t Mean It’s Right

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Maybe this makes me a bad person, but I don’t believe in moral absolutes.  I don’t believe that any one action is right in every situation.  I believe that we are complex beings and that the maze of conundrums we face during the course of a life requires a palette awash in shades of grey.  Black and white is kid stuff.

Matters of life and death are about the stickiest wickets we can hope to pass through, and every such matter is mired in the nuance of discrete circumstance.  Is it wrong to kill?  Is it wrong to kill if your own life or that of another person is in danger?  Is it wrong to kill if you are a soldier fighting for your country and a cause you believe is right?  Is it wrong to kill if you disagree with someone?

It’s that last question that has me fretting lately.

Surely the answer is yes, right?  It should be wrong to kill merely over a difference of opinion; even if that opinion is strongly held.  Yet when I read about the proposed legislation in South Dakota and Nebraska that would legalize the murder of abortionists on the grounds of “justifiable homicide” all I see is: It’s okay to kill someone if you disagree with them about abortion.

I don’t mean to start a debate over abortion.  I really, really don’t.  I have my opinions about a woman’s right to choose, and you have yours.  For the purposes of this post I will assume that your position is well-thought-out and private.  I hope you will grant me the same courtesy, because abortion itself is not what this post is about.  This post is about moral inconsistencies and vicious cycles.

The pro-life platform is rooted in the belief that all life is sacred.  I get that.  What I don’t get, then, is how anyone who believes that all life is sacred can explain the decision to murder someone else simply because they believe differently.  Is that person’s life no longer sacred because their belief conflicts with yours?

The proposed South Dakota bill (which has since been shelved) only protected the pregnant woman, her husband, her parents, or her children in acts of “justifiable homicide.”  The Nebraska bill reaches further and protects all third parties.  The significance of that discrepancy is huge.  As explained by Melissa Grant of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, “In short, this bill authorizes and protects vigilantes, and that’s something that’s unprecedented in our society.”

State senator Mark Christensen proposed the Nebraska bill and, according to the article (linked above), “For his part, [he] insisted that his measure is not intended to target abortion providers. … [He] claimed that his bill is merely meant to allow pregnant women to defend their unborn children without fear of prosecution.”

This is where Christensen really loses me.  I have never – ever – heard of any abortion provider wanting or trying to terminate a pregnancy against a woman’s will.  When I was pregnant with IEP I had no concern that I might go about my day and inadvertently walk into some altercation with an abortionist and be forced to terminate unless I killed him.  It just doesn’t happen.  Perhaps some women – women who aren’t equipped to care for a baby, or whose babies have been diagnosed with severe illness or deformity – are encouraged to terminate.  Perhaps some of these women are unduly influenced by an overbearing clinician.  But I have never heard of any woman have to “defend her unborn child” against the malicious advances of an abortion doctor.*

Further still, what if one “justifiable homicide” begets another?  In a hypothetical scenario let’s say you have a pregnant woman pursuing abortion, an abortion doctor, and an angry boyfriend who doesn’t want the pregnancy to be terminated.  On the pro-life grounds that all life is sacred, the boyfriend can legally kill the doctor for endangering the life of the fetus.  Can the doctor’s wife then legally kill the boyfriend for endangering her husband’s life?  Can the boyfriend’s mother then kill the doctor’s wife for endangering her son’s life?  How many homicides are “justifiable”?  Where does it stop?

Finally (and I am not a lawyer but I’ll lean on common sense for this one), how can a state authorize murder over an act that has been legalized by the United States Supreme Court?  It flies in the face of federal case law.  If Nebraska wanted to say, “It is justifiable homicide to kill any black student who enrolls in a white school,” it would go straight through the appellate court system and all the way to nine esteemed justices who would take one look at it and declare it illegal.  How is this any different?**

The legal maneuverings of this issue are certainly interesting.  But to me they pale in comparison to the moral ones.  For all my wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth on this topic I just don’t understand how Life A is sacred, but Life B is not.  I don’t understand how murder (and the legalization thereof) actually solves any problem.  It doesn’t even address the issue.

So I will hope.  I will hope that the Nebraska legislation is abandoned as the South Dakota legislation has been.  If it is not abandoned I will hope that it does not pass.  And if it passes I will hope that no one actually has to be murdered in order for the constitutionality of this law to be challenged in court, and (again, hopefully) overturned.


*The only situation I can imagine where this kind of scenario might play out is one where the expectant mother is mentally handicapped in some way, is not equipped to make the decision herself, and is forced by some legal guardian to terminate.  I’m sure something along these lines has happened at some point.  I’m also sure that in this case – as in any other – murdering the doctor isn’t the answer.

**If we want to get technical about things, the difference here is that the nine particular justices on the Supreme Court bench today might see it differently from their Roe v. Wade-era counterparts.  The integrated school example was an easy one because there’s no chance that Brown v. Board will ever be struck down.  It made my point cleanly, but with a bit of oversimplification.