Review of 2013: The Ethics in the Headlines

2013 was an eventful year to say the least: from an ethics perspective, we saw a wide range of issues explored in the headlines of the year and chatted about around the water coolers.


A review of these events are useful because at the time we do not fully see the issues being played out. So, below is a look back at the big stories of the year that were tinged with ethics. You might be surprised at the huge scope of ethics you have been thinking about and discussing over the last year – not only in this small selection of headlines, but also in the variety of other news stories which have not made this list. For a country addicted to reality TV we’re a lot deeper than we like to pretend!



Animal Products: A Horse too Far?


The first major headline of the year, for us Brits at least, came in the form of the horse meat scandal which kicked off in January. We saw the media debate animal ethics at length: how dare big companies put horse meat into our cow meat products?


Many believed this to be a debate about animal ethics, but the discussion rarely even touched that subject. This itself was probably a wise move, given that there is no relevant moral difference between a horse and a cow: this debate would have quickly turned to a question of why we aren’t outraged about killing cows for food when we can get the relevant nutrients in beef from various plant foods without causing pain and suffering. Instead the debate centred on a more widely approvable issue: informed consent. The consensus was that eating horse is not wrong, it is simply wrong to sell it to people when labelled as something else.


As a result the topic became relatively arbitrary. Of course it is wrong on some level to sell the wrong type of meat in lasagnes, but the media failed to grasp the really interesting debate on why we eat animals at all.



Syria: A War in Progress


I intentionally put the topic of the Syrian Civil War second on this list, even though it was already raging on the 1st January, to showcase a point. Whilst the horse meat scandal ruled the column inches for much of January, a war which this year progressed to a death toll of 130,000 was largely relegated in importance behind many of these kinds of stories. One also would find it difficult to imagine that January saw more coffee time discussion of Syria than of horse meat.


This is understandable given our growing familiarity with war; the last decade has seen media coverage of conflict rocket skywards, helped by a growing affordability of technology. The shock we have toward news coverage of war diminishes every year. Whilst Chomsky wrote that we should blame the media coverage for not showing enough of foreign atrocities, it’s clear that the fault isn’t with media alone. We appear to be less shocked by war, and we might even argue that our desensitivity to violence in this way is a factor that nourishes war in the first place (be it the selling of arms to militants, or the ignorance of immoral leaderships until they threaten us).


These are interesting debates that should be had, but either way, the continuing Syrian civil war has cast on us the perennial moral debate about war, along with a fresher discussion about how we cover it and how we stop it happening altogether.



Debating Death in the Spotlight


The world lost two politicians with very different images this year, which resulted in two very different discussions about death. In April the first, and somehow still the only, female British PM Margaret Thatcher died. Thatcher was divisive to say the least, and whilst most mainstream politicians paid tribute, those areas of the UK which most felt the wrath of her Conservative ideology of spending cuts showed genuine signs of elation. This was a woman, remember, who caused great suffering to a great many people: necessary or not (a debate which still continues). Street parties and elated interviewers sparked huge outrage: is it right to celebrate someone’s death in this way? Should we not be concerned about her family and friends’ feelings? Do entire communities have a right to find solace in symbolic events, and does this outweigh the suffering of her loved ones? These are all tough moral questions.


Worlds apart, in almost every sense, was the death of Nelson Mandela in December. As opposed to Thatcher who was primarily a symbol of divisive political policy, Mandela was a symbol of great human achievement: a spearhead of the movement against apartheid, and the icon of its defeat. Indeed it was difficult to find anyone with anything negative to say about him. Even more interesting ethical discussions raged: why do we not see heroic figures in politics anymore? Have we created systems where politicians cannot take unpopular but moral stands? Is it right for the media to celebrate the life of a man for one achievement, whilst opposing and ignoring his other vocal views (such as on liberal politics, or membership of communist parties)?



Religious Terrorism Continues


In nightmarish scenes, April’s Boston Marathon was disrupted by two pressure cookers bombs which killed 3 people and injured around 260 others. The culprits were said to be motivated by ‘extremist’ Islamist beliefs.


In May, British Army drummer Lee Rigby was run down by two men in Woolwich, before being stabbed and hacked to death. Chilling scenes of the aftermath were captured on a mobile phone by a passer-by. The assailants were motivated by ‘extremist’ Islamist beliefs.


These are relatively isolated cases in the West, but there is no doubt that the events are spreading. Russia, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Philippines, Indonesia, Israel, Nigeria, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Afghanistan and China all saw religiously motivated suicide bombings, attacks or other mass murders. The vast majority of these countries saw multiple actions, most stretching into double figures.


Without doubt, the most common assailants tend to be Islamist groups. However the debate in the media, at least in the UK, largely focuses on ‘extremist’ Islam: they ask how we can stop young Muslims being indoctrinated into this ‘extremist’ wing of belief?


A more historically accurate opinion would show that it isn’t just Islam, and it isn’t just ‘extremists’ either. All religions – built as they are on the suppression of critical thinking and the valuing of belief without evidence – inherently ask followers to not be swayed by rational debate, and to hold certain beliefs regardless of what other opinion or facts are shown to them. For most religious people, these ‘steadfast and untestable’ beliefs go no further than a belief in a creator or an afterlife, however it is absolutely no shock that other religious people stick steadfastly by other beliefs in the holy books (such as the murder of non-believers or the doctrine of an eye for an eye). The question ‘how do we get Muslims or Christians to keep their harmless religious beliefs but drop the harmful ones?’ presupposes that you could teach every person to devalue rationality in one area, but value it in another, thus picking and choosing the beliefs we want them to pick and choose when discovering religion. This is certainly possible as a theoretical matter, but impossible in practice.


As already noted, the real hotspots of terrorism are not in secular countries: if they were, the task would be easier, as society has a base of rationality with which to influence beliefs. The hotspots for terrorism are in countries where the base is religion (particularly Islamic, in the modern world) so there is no base of rationality or critical thinking with which to moderate the harmful religious views.


We still experience the odd Christian terrorist act, but these have all but disappeared as secularisation increased fast enough before technology could arm every extremist Christian to do significant damage. The moral question on the subject of religious terrorism should be how do we effect great secularisation both here and abroad? Perhaps, also, how do we promote and extend secularisation without the use of aggressive tactics of forcing our opinions down other culture’s throats?


If there is one story left to explore on this topic – one that supports the call for a change in debate – it is the interesting case of the Taliban’s letter to Malala Yousafzai, the girl whom they shot in 2012 aged 15. In what appeared to be a bizarre attempt at PR, senior member of the Taliban Adnan Rasheed showed signs of regret at her shooting. It was interesting to see the mainstream media cover this, as we are so used to seeing the Taliban portrayed as evil people from foreign lands. To see them as a religious sect, like any other, trying to foster support for their faith through the media, was to see that they are really no different to any other religion. Increasing secularisation in the West has meant that Christianity almost always has to act through the media – through pen and not sword – else face even faster dwindling participants. But whilst Islam runs the politics and media in so many countries, there is no doubt that it will manage to continue doing the opposite. The debate for secularisation must continue into 2014 and beyond.



A Very British Celebrity


July saw the start of a very different news story, completely manufactured by the media itself. Katie Hopkins, a celebrity famous for nothing more than being a contestant on TV, shocked the country after being invited onto a TV interview to air her comments that she would affect her children’s choice of friends based on those friend’s names.


To our credit, we unanimously reacted how we were expected. We disagreed vocally: what does a name have to do with the content of a character? This was not so much a debate, as an almost universal declaration that we no longer want to judge people based on irrelevant factors. Wait, did we all watch her interview just because we wanted to judge and disagree with her…and why are all these Essex and Geordie Shore people on our TVs all the time…perhaps we’re not there yet!



Doctoring the Record Books


Continuing the TV theme, the BBC decided to smash various records and just generally show off with a globally synced screening of a Doctor Who Special in November. Even in this the ethics is hard to ignore, as I wrote about not long after its screening. Doctor Who, and his trademark principle which the episode focussed on, tell us not only a lot about what we believe, but also about where we want society to go. Doctor Who, like any other TV superhero, is of course popular because of his amazing abilities and interesting character. But the values of superheroes reflect the values of society: Captain America, upon his invention, reflected our fear of communism just as Doctor Who now reflects our will to not settle for moral ‘grey areas’.


Further reflection on this topic also leads to a stark realisation that we currently live under political systems that are incapable of allowing us to create a society which we truly believe in. We currently settle for ‘the least bad’ political party, with little to no interest, and have even less faith in the decisions our governments make. Far from making us apathetic, why shouldn’t this make us hopeful and willing to change things? Revolution is not the only way to sway society to a better place, so a Doctor Who-led debate on our moral viewpoints should be welcomed in 2014.



A Traitor or a Hero?


Whilst this title could easily describe Thatcher’s death, it relates to two very different people in a very different situation: Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Depending on how the world changes, history will remember Assange and Snowden either as freedom fighters or as divisive trouble makers.


Assange continues to reside safely in the Ecuadorian embassy, amid a storm of personal allegations which many suspect are methods of attacking his Wikileaks program of publishing government secrets. Snowden, on the other hand, was unknown before 2013. In June he came to prominence as the architect of one of the most important information leaks in US history: one which has caused tension between the US and Europe on the subject of US privacy breaches.


The moral debate these two continue to cause is huge. Should governments ever attempt to mine information without the subject’s informed consent? Should someone ever be punished by the state for telling the truth? Is the person who publishes the secret as guilty as the person who mines the information? Indeed, how can the important area of investigative journalism survive if journalists themselves are subject to coercion (such as in the case of Glenn Greenwald, who published Snowden’s leaks)?



Feminism Still Ignored by the Music Industry


Any review of 2013 wouldn’t be complete without one further foray into ‘popular culture’, though that two word phrase may be one too long to describe Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus. Almost as if to make it easier for my review to segway into feminism, these two performed together in August at the MTV VMA awards, probably filling more column inches than the entire month devoted to Syria’s tragic and on-going war.


After Cyrus’ performance with Thicke, she entered a media fuelled battle with Irish pop star Sinead O’Connor in which O’Connor warned her not to let the music industry “make a prostitute” of her. Cyrus angrily responded in an inappropriate fashion, referring to O’Connor’s mental health problems. Cyrus finished the year having stripped and lap danced on stages across the world, fellating sledge hammers, grinding over-sized fingers and creating further soft-core porn with which to promote music videos.


‘Twerking’ aside; Thicke caused controversy all over the place with his blatantly sexist song and video, Blurred Lines. Student Unions across the land banned the song, for its seeming rape-promoting lyrics and sexually objectifying video, whilst Thicke simply claimed what post-modern feminists have been claiming in the face of feminists for years: what you think is sexism is actually feminism as well!


The positive debate to come out of all this is about feminism. Whilst feminism has progressed in wider society, sexism is still a huge problem. Women are still paid less for the same jobs, are still the victims of sexual and physical abuse, etc. In the music industry, women are largely still seen as sex objects and eye candy while the men get on with being respected. No doubt there has been various debate on what is sexist and what isn’t – what harms women’s interests and what doesn’t – but at least it’s being talked about in the music industry, which is one of the remaining bastions of sexually objectifying women for profit.