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Sex, Drugs, and Hijabs on Netflix

CASE STUDY: Is Elite a Case of Creative Freedom or Muslim Stereotyping?

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eliteTeenage sex, illicit drugs, and a school ban on hijabs. The plot twists in the fictional life of Nadia, a Muslim character in the Netflix series Elite, lead reflective views to an ethical dilemma: the creative freedoms of entertainment producers seem to conflict with the need to avoid potentially harmful stereotypes in mass media. Set in the private prep school Las Encinas outside the bustling city of Madrid, Spain, Elite tells the coming-of-age story of rowdy students tempted by drugs, steamy affairs, and illegal activity. Nadia is one of three new students who interrupt the status quo when they receive scholarships to attend Las Encinas after their public school is destroyed. Elite touches on controversial issues that face teenagers around the world, such as HIV, socioeconomic discrimination, and Islamophobia. The show has received both praise and criticism for its portrayal of Nadia, who is Palestinian. Out of this debate emerges an important question: does Elite portray Nadia as a heroic feminist or harmful Muslim cliché?

According to the show’s writers, Nadia embodies the struggles Muslims face as they integrate into European society. For example, the show depicts Islamophobic comments from Las Encinas student Lucrecia, who calls Nadia derogatory names such as “Miss Palestine” and “Taliban.” And in the first season, Nadia is told she cannot wear her headscarf and faces expulsion from school. Nadia’s dilemma represents a real issue emerging in Europe. In 2004, French public schools banned the use of all religious accessories, and a Muslim girl reportedly missed a week of school in 2016 after refusing to remove her headscarf. Once Nadia removes her hijab, to the disappointment of her conservative father, she begins making friends, and even catches the eye of a fellow classmate, Guzman. Meanwhile, Nadia’s good grades earn her the top of the class, eventually winning the approval of her parents.

The co-producer of Elite claims the character of Nadia communicates “something that is happening in Europe … the reality we see every day.” Arab News applauds the series for its depiction of Nadia and for showing the struggles of Muslims integrating into Europe. Some Muslim Elite fans agree, commenting on the show’s Instagram that “they have really respected our culture” and claiming that Nadia is a fair depiction of Muslim women. “Nadia is a fighter,” they say, a feminist hero, and “she doesn’t need a man to be strong.” But others question how the storyline of a conservative Muslim girl having sex in a private school bathroom with a fellow classmate unfolds. Nadia goes from being preoccupied about taking off her headscarf to participating in a steamy affair with her love interest, Guzman. Muslim journalist Mariam Khan believes Elite does deserve credit for including a Palestinian girl as one of the main characters but takes issue with how it seems to communicate that only by denouncing her religion can she truly be free to enjoy herself. Khan claims the affair with Guzman frames the story of Nadia within a white savior complex, in which a white student rescues Nadia from her oppressive religion.

When the show’s Twitter account posted a video of Nadia confidently walking into a discotheque in Spain without her hijab and titled it “QUEEN,” the response of the Muslim Twitter community was divided. One Twitter user commented, “this is gonna be my fav scene. We stan [support] queen Nadia.” But another wrote, “A muslim woman who removes her veil to be free? IT’S AN ISLAMOPHOBIC CLICHÉ,” while another commented, “can Netflix hire a Muslim woman so she can write Nadia a good storyline empowering her without -taking off- her hijab and drinking?”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values might come into conflict when entertainment media portray members of various ethnic or religious groups?
  2. How do we judge whether a show’s depiction of an ethnic or religious minority is ethical? What role do the motives of a show’s creators play in evaluating this ethical conflict?
  3. Does there need to be a Muslim woman writing the story of Nadia in order to fairly depict the character?
  4. What ethical responses are available to media consumers when they deem a show to have committed an ethical breach? Is it ethical to enjoy an ethically-flawed show?

Further Information:

Alameri, R. (Oct. 6, 2018). “New Netflix drama ‘Elite’ explores Islamophobia in Europe.” Retrieved from https://www.arabnews.com/node/1383426/art-culture

EliteNetflix. (Sep. 6, 2019). QUEEN pic.twitter.com/2cXM9KVRPe. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/EliteNetflix/status/1169928317098745856

Gomez, I. (Nov. 7, 2018). “There’s a Problem with the Depiction of Palestinians in ‘Elite.’ Retrieved from https://i-d.vice.com/en_us/article/d3bz8x/theres-a-problem-with-the-depiction-of-palestinians-in-elite

Khan, M. (Nov. 15, 2019). “TV needs to stop ‘empowering’ Muslim women by removing their hijabs.” Retrieved from https://metro.co.uk/2019/09/13/tv-needs-to-stop-empowering-muslim-women-by-removing-their-hijabs-10723969/

Middle East Eye. (Sep. 10, 2019). “Is Netflix Stereotyping Muslim Women?” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TpVNV0giOeM

Authors:

Michaela Urban, Justin Pehoski, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas
September 21, 2020

Image: Netflix / Official Trailer


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational settings. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.

Freedom Of Skepticism and the Social Responsibility of the Powerful

CASE STUDY: Trump’s Refutation of Expertise During the Covid-19 Pandemic

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trumpnewsAs of September, the United States has seen over 170,000 deaths due to the spread of the coronavirus (The COVID Tracking Project, 2020). These figures have shocked many into taking precautionary measures recommended by health experts such as self-quarantine and wearing face coverings in public in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. However, there have also been a number of skeptics who argue that the scale of the pandemic has been exaggerated and the lockdown prolonged for too long (Black, 2020). While these “COVID deniers” may be written off as conspiracy theorists that no one will listen to, in reality some of them are high-profile figures with large platforms – including the President himself. Donald Trump has had a variety of responses to the COVID-19 outbreak as it has progressed, such as referring to the virus as a Democratic party hoax attempting to distract from the November election, accusing hospitals of hoarding medical supplies, and suggesting Americans ingest disinfectant as a treatment (Egan, 2020; Milman, 2020; BBC News, 2020).

Perhaps most concerning is Trump’s disregard for the advice of medical experts and scientists. For example, “Trump and some of his aides have begun questioning whether deaths are being over-counted” while Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases as well as the chief medical advisor of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, indicated that “the opposite could be true: that coronavirus deaths are being undercounted as people die at home without going to hospital” (Liptak & Acosta, 2020). Fauci has also suffered “sustained criticism from the President’s allies in conservative media for his willingness to directly refute Trump and counter his more optimistic rhetoric about the pandemic” (LeBlanc, 2020). This has resulted in a number of Trump’s supporters taking to social media and calling to “#FireFauci;” though Trump has not said the same directly, he did passively retweet one of these calls on Twitter (Duster, Acosta, & Liptak, 2020). Similarly, federal immunologist Rick Bright recently filed a whistleblower complaint, arguing that he was ousted from his position as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) for political reasons after raising concerns about the development of what he claimed a “questionable” coronavirus treatment endorsed by Trump. While the President simply dismissed his case as that of a “disgruntled employee who’s trying to help the Democrats win an election,” Dr. Bright expressed “I am frustrated at a lack of leadership. I am frustrated at a lack of urgency to get a head start on developing life-saving tools for Americans. I’m frustrated at our inability to be heard as scientists” (Segers, 2020).

The President’s resistance to medical expertise presents us with an interesting ethical challenge to consider: Does Trump, or any other political leader, have a social responsibility to affirm the opinions of professionals and specialists? On the one hand, all U.S. citizens (regardless of occupation or leadership status) have a right to their own beliefs and to free speech, including the right to question, challenge, and criticize authority. In fact being skeptical, rather than just accepting information at face-value, is generally considered an important aspect of critical thinking. Furthermore, some may argue that despite their extensive education, experts are not infallible. In fact, there have been plenty of times throughout history when professionals in a variety of fields have been wrong in making predictions. For example, renowned economist Irving Fisher famously declared that “stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau” just three days before Great Depression stock market crash and even various ship-building experts believed the Titanic to be “unsinkable” (Bukszpan, 2011). Even in medicine, there have been times when experts have given unsafe advice. In the 1960’s for instance, some OBGYNs began to recommend thalidomide to alleviate their pregnant patient’s morning sickness, only to later discover that the drug caused severe birth defects (Fintel, Samaras, & Carias, 2009). In this sense, skepticism appears to be a healthy reaction, since too much uncritical trust in anyone might prove dangerous.

On the other hand, others insist that this is a case where the experts are clearly right and, rather than being merely skeptical, Trump is in denial. Beyond this stance, unlike the recommendation of thalidomide, the coronavirus precautionary advice causes no harm in the case that experts are mistaken. Even if COVID-19 isn’t as serious as experts claim, the argument goes, wearing masks and staying home cannot hurt anyone – isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? Regardless of Trump’s personal beliefs and the legal right to express his doubts, perhaps the larger issue at hand is if doing so is ethical. “COVID acceptors” believe that the powerful have a social responsibility to tread cautiously and defend the recommendation of medical specialists due to the large influence they have over their followers. Unlike ordinary skeptics of COVID who have no platform, the example set by the President matters for those watching his actions and words. A recent study found that republicans “are more likely to view the President’s response to the pandemic more favorably. Holding the view that the virus is not a threat or severe may lead more republicans to engage in unsafe behavior such as congregating in larger groups of people and taking fewer health precautions” (Johnson, Pollock, & Rauhaus, 2020, p. 260). Thus, political leaders must consider the weight of their words and actions as they have a direct impact on those who look up to them. Indeed, it was this exact reasoning that actress Holly Marie Combs held Trump directly responsible for the death of her grandfather, tweeting:

In her tweet, the Charmed star suggests that had the President confirmed the seriousness of the disease and advocated for preventative measures as outlined by health experts, her Trump-supporting grandfather would have taken his advice and might still be alive.

Though Combs’ loss and the many others like it are tragic, it is difficult to place ultimate responsibility for one’s own health on anyone but that individual. Like the age-old question parents ask of their children: If your friend jumped off of a cliff, does that mean you would do it too? In other words, just because we admire someone, doesn’t mean we have to follow their lead. Just as some citizens choose to follow the advice of experts, others may choose otherwise and that is exactly what Comb’s grandfather did – the President did not force him out of his home-based quarantine.

While experts may be “powerful” in the sense that they are recognized authorities of knowledge and their recommendations are taken seriously by their followers, they do not have platforms nearly as large as the President of the United States nor any material power to require, enforce, and aid citizens in isolation efforts – only political authorities have such power. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we must consider what obligation political leaders have toward professionals and how much skepticism they should display in attempting to disrupt accepted authorities and narratives. Skepticism of received views, or of views that have traditionally been in the mainstream or held by those in power, has often been seen as a hallmark of critical and independent thinking. But here, Trump’s skepticism might please his supporters while plunging them into great risk: since seniors are not only the most likely to be harmed by COVID-19 but also more likely to vote republican, Trump’s massive influence over this particularly vulnerable population could risk thousands of lives (Johnson, Pollock, & Rauhaus, 2020). Should powerful individuals like Trump err on the side of following the experts of the day or in evincing a certain amount of skepticism about traditional knowledge sources?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the central values at stake in this case?
  2. What distinguishes healthy skepticism from harmful habits of denial?
  3. Do you agree or disagree that politicians have a social responsibility to uphold the professional opinions of experts? Why or why not?
  4. Does anyone with power and a large platform (e.g. celebrities or Instagram influencers) share this responsibility? Why or why not?
  5. How does the setting of a global pandemic impact your evaluation of Trump’s actions? For example, do you think the powerful should always affirm expertise, regardless of their own beliefs, or do you think such a responsibility is only required in times of crisis?
  6. How can ordinary citizens strike a balance between trusting expertise and uncritically accepting anything from educated, yet imperfect, people?
  7. If Trump acted against his own skeptical beliefs and advocated for following medical officials’ advice, would he be lying or acting dishonestly? Why or why not would such a circumstance be considered deceptive or inauthentic?

Further Information:

BBC News. (2020, April 24). Coronavirus: Outcry After Trump Suggests Injecting Disinfectant as Treatment. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52407177

Black, C. (2020, May 8). Fear of COVID-19 Is Overblown, It’s Time to Get the Economy Moving Again. National Post, Available at: https://nationalpost.com/opinion/conrad-black-fear-of-covid-19-is-overblown-its-time-to-get-the-economy-moving-again

The COVID Tracking Project. (n.d.). Available at: https://covidtracking.com/

Bukszpan, D. (2014, August 27). 14 Spectacularly Wrong Predictions. CNBC News. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2011/05/19/14-spectacularly-wrong-predictions.html

Duster, C., Acosta, J., & Liptak, K. (2020, April 13). Trump Retweets Call to Fire Fauci Amid Coronavirus Criticism. CNN News. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/13/politics/donald-trump-anthony-fauci-tweet/index.html

Egan, L. (2020, February 29). Trump Calls Coronavirus Democrats’ ‘New Hoax.’ NBC News Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-calls-coronavirus-democrats-new-hoax-n1145721

Fintel, B., Samaras, A. T., & Carias, E. (2009, July 28). The Thalidomide Tragedy: Lessons for Drug Safety and Regulation. Helix. Available at: https://helix.northwestern.edu/article/thalidomide-tragedy-lessons-drug-safety-and-regulation

Henderson, C. (2020, April 29). Holly Marie Combs Blames Trump for Grandfather’s COVID-19 Death: ‘He Believed Every Lie.’ USA Today. Available at: https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/celebrities/2020/04/28/holly-marie-combs-blames-trump-grandfathers-covid-19-death/3045687001/

Johnson, A. F., Pollock, W., & Rauhaus, B. (2020). Mass Casualty Event Scenarios and Political Shifts: 2020 Election Outcomes and the U.S. COVID-19 Pandemic. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 42(2), 249–264.

LeBlanc, P. (2020, May 5). Fauci Says Calls for His Dismissal are ‘Part of the Game.’ CNN News. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/04/politics/fauci-coronavirus-cnntv/index.html

Liptak, K., & Acosta, J. (2020, May 13). Trump Privately Questions Whether Coronavirus Deaths are Being Overcounted as Fauci Projects the Opposite. CNN News. Available at:  https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/13/politics/trump-fauci-coronavirus-deaths/index.html

Milman, O. (2020, March 31). Seven of Donald Trump’s Most Misleading Coronavirus Claims. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/28/trump-coronavirus-misleading-claims

Segers, G. (2020, May 14). Ousted Virus Expert Rick Bright Warns of ‘Darkest Winter in Modern History.’ CBS News. Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/rick-bright-whistleblower-hhs-testimony-house-of-representatives-coronavirus-research-today-2020-05-14/

Authors:

Kat Williams & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin

September 17, 2020

Image: Charles Deluvio / Unsplash / Modified


This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational settings. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.

Gaming Platforms and Shocking Speech

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Speech Regulation on Twitch

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gamingTwitch has become one of the largest digital platforms for live-streaming videogames. In December 2018, the site reached a highpoint of 15 million daily active users (Smith, 2019). These users come to watch – and chat with – the millions of “broadcasters” mostly streaming their video gaming exploits. With the rising popularity of the multiplayer “Battle Royale” genre, exemplified by games like Fortnite and Apex Legends, Twitch has attained massive success as audiences flock to watch streamers virtually brawl with others. Much like YouTube stars or Instagram influencers, Twitch streamers often adopt a unique online persona in order to attract audiences, hold their attention, and give them a reason to come back or watch more content. For the Twitch community, some find fame by adopting a “heel persona,” or by cultivating the sort of edgy and potentially offensive character that might “elicit strong emotions from a fan base… that loves to trash talk them for their outrageous behavior and controversial takes” (Asarch, 2019). World of Warcraft streamer Helena Karamanidou is one of many Twitch users who embraced the heel persona and found that using unfiltered speech in the form of raging, flaming, and “roasting” viewers who left rude comments in her streams raked in an overall larger viewership (Asarch, 2019). In an interview with Newsweek, Karamanidou stated “I started thinking that maybe that’s what my content should be since so many people liked it” (Asarch, 2019).

Though the HelenaLive channel was popular enough that streaming became Karamanidou’s full-time job, her controversial heel persona led to her banishment from the platform for hate speech – twice on a temporary basis in 2016 and 2018, leading to an eventual permanent ban in 2019 per Twitch’s “three strikes, you’re out” policy (Asarch, 2019). After receiving notice from Twitch that her partnership was terminated for comments “offensive towards the transgender community,” Karamanidou took to other forms of social media claiming she was banned without warning for saying she believes there are only two genders in an open dialogue with her viewers (Doyle, 2019). Karamanidou’s ban sent a clear shockwave across the Twitch community as many streamers now realized that Twitch was not shy in strictly enforcing its community guidelines which indicate that “any hateful conduct is considered a zero-tolerance violation and all accounts associated with such conduct will be indefinitely suspended” (Twitch, 2019). Regardless of one’s stance on gender identity, the Karamanidou controversy clearly raises ethical issues concerning the regulation of free speech on the internet. Is it ever ethical to silence those who may have differing opinions, no matter how offensive or wrong others might consider their views to be?

On one hand, many have expressed their support for making Twitch a friendlier platform by banning or forcing “edgy” content creators to change the way they stream. Streamer Kang Gaming expressed his opinion defending Twitch’s stance on hateful conduct, arguing that “freedom of speech has never meant freedom of consequence. Anyone has the right to ban you from their channel and Twitch has the right to ban you from their platform. Simple as that” (Gaming, 2018). Especially if Karamanidou had already been temporarily banned for hateful conduct in the past and never made an effort to improve her speech, the argument goes, then her permanent ban is more than justified. Overall, supporters of Twitch’s enforcement of regulating hateful content on the site hope that it ultimately makes the streaming platform more inclusive for everybody.

On the other hand are those who believe Twitch is not living up to the ethical value of allowing individuals to speak their minds freely. Not only is this infringement problematic in general, but it directly conflicts with the established culture of the platform. Asarch argues:

Twitch expects streamers to adhere to a strict set of vague guidelines that can be at odds with its popular creators and its legacy. Since the early days of Twitch, then known as Justin.tv, edgy content has been a constant on the platform. Amazon’s acquisition of Twitch changed the landscape, and once-dominant edgelords suddenly found themselves running up against moderators and bans. There will continue to be bans and confusion as long as Twitch tries to reconcile a system that punishes creators for being edgy and offensive only after it rewards them for doing exactly that.

Streamers like Karamanidou who rely on curating edgier content to make a living may have their careers “cancelled” for the very heel persona that make them attractive in the first place. In this sense, it is unfair to expect these creators – who in many ways are responsible for the platform’s success – to suddenly change their content “in order to make Twitch more palatable for sponsorship from bigger companies” (Tonner, 2018).

Finally, there are also those who take a middle road, arguing that Twitch’s mission to prevent hateful conduct isn’t the problem, but that banning Karamanidou was an unfair and overly severe punishment. Here, there are concerns that Twitch does not have controls in place to make sure their banning procedure is fair for all, arguing that discipline “is never unbiased because some of these streamers develop relationships with staff” and that Twitch was extra strict on Karamanidou in order to “make an example out of Helena” (DSGunner, 2019; Doyle, 2019). Karamanidou took this position herself apologizing for hurting others’ feelings and Tweeting: “I had no idea it was such a problem. Greece is detached from the world and if I knew how controversial I was coming across I would have never said anything [or] at least worded it better” (Karamanidou, 2019). Karamanidou claimed that because English is her second language, and transgender issues are just barely becoming visible in mainstream society, that confusion between the terms “sex” and “gender” may have caused harm through miscommunication, even though she intended none (Karamanidou, 2019). How can one learn about unfamiliar perspectives if censorship makes many unable to discuss it?

In the end, with the continuing growth and success of digital live-streaming platforms such as Twitch, streamers are held beneath a microscope now more than ever. Livelihoods made on the platform could be gone in an instant due to violations of Twitch’s community guidelines, especially if such rules are vague or subject to change with transitions in platform ownership. Failure to regulate the streaming site could result in certain users feeling unsafe or driving them away, whereas regulation could drive content creators away if they fear punishment for expressing their stances on controversial issues.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the central values at stake in attempting to regulate speech on Twitch?
  2. Should community guidelines or moderators include considerations of intent when judging online speech for hateful conduct? How could this be done systematically?
  3. It is unlikely that everyone with access to the internet also has the means to create their own website, leaving most individuals online susceptible to the will and judgement of platform owners and moderators. Is Twitch obligated to help its users find their voice and platform for speech?
  4. Is there a place for offensive or edgy speech in “outsider” communities, like that of gaming, or should these be held to the same moral standards as business or journalistic communication?

Further Information:

Asarch, S. (2019, February 22). HelenaLive Offers Her First Interview After Being Banned from Twitch. Newsweek. Available at: https://www.newsweek.com/helenalive-twitch-ban-there-are-only-two-genders-1329214

Doyle, A. (2019) Twitch Streamer Permanently Banned for Saying ‘There Are Only Two Genders.’ Available at: https://twentytwowords.com/twitch-streamer-permanently-banned-saying-two-genders/

DSGunner. (2019, February 6). DSGunner on Twitter (@DSGunner). Available at: https://twitter.com/DSGunner/status/1093233025708642312

Gaming, K. (2018, February 8). Kang Gaming on Twitter (@KangGaming). Available at: https://twitter.com/KangGaming?ref_src=twsrc^google|twcamp^serp|twgr^author

Karamanidou, H. (2019, February 6). helena on Twitter (@HelenaLive96). Available at: https://twitter.com/HelenaLive96/status/1093229913363152906

Marwick, A. E. (2017, January 5). Are There Limits to Online Free Speech? Available at: https://points.datasociety.net/are-there-limits-to-online-free-speech-14dbb7069aec

Smith, C. (2019, January 16). 55 Amazing Twitch Stats and Facts. Available at: https://expandedramblings.com/index.php/twitch-stats/

Tonner, K. (2018, February 9). Twitch Community Guidelines Changes Splits Fanbase. Available at: https://www.dbltap.com/posts/5973390-twitch-community-guidelines-changes-splits-fanbase

Twitch. (2019). Community Guidelines. Available at: https://www.twitch.tv/p/legal/community-guidelines/

Authors:

William Cuellar, Kat Williams, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin

September 14, 2020

Image: Sean Do / Unsplash /Modified


This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational settings. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.

Angry for Change

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Politicized Outrage

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outrageDespite its reputation as a less-than-desirable or even destructive emotion, numerous studies have found anger to be a driving force in the United States that has led the way for positive change. In 2011, University of Michigan political scientists found that anger played a “vital role” in engaging Americans politically, particularly by increasing motivation to participate in the electoral process. The study’s lead author, Nicholas Valentino, and his team of researchers found that from 1980 to 2004, angry citizens were more likely to partake in visible political acts such as wearing a campaign button, volunteering, attending a rally, etc., compared to those driven primarily by feelings like enthusiasm or anxiety (Valentino, 2011). Though this study was fairly recent, it may even be safe to say that anger has been deeply embedded in American culture since the country’s founding. From historical moments like the Boston Tea Party where colonists rebelled against unfair taxing, to traditional myths like the American Dream which encourages citizens to ‘fight’ for their ideal life, perhaps the U.S. “political system was [always] cleverly designed to maximize the beneficial effects of anger” (Duhigg, 2019). Yet, as contemporary politicians, pundits, activists, and everyday citizens continue to harness outrage as a force for social change, ethical considerations arise as to whether this practice should be sustained or laid to rest.

For over two thousand years, some of the world’s greatest minds have debated the utility and morality of action through anger. In her work regarding “Anger, Virtue, and Oppression,” Macalster Bell discusses how most literature on feminist moral psychology and philosophy defends anger in four ways: (1) Calling out wrongdoing and oppression, (2) disvaluing the disvaluable, (3) motivating overall social change, and (4) providing new knowledge about the world (Bell, 2009). This final point, also known as the “direct epistemic value of anger,” refers to the idea that “those who experience anger have knowledge that the non-angry lack.” Based on how an individual’s anger is perceived by the world, one can gain a socially-induced understanding of their expected role in society (Bell, 2009). For example, during the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans were able to further validate their lack of equality when their calls for desegregation were met with extreme hostility and violence. Though their anger was largely expressed peacefully, the perception of that anger by white Americans resulted in excessive responses to crush disobedience and keep Black Americans in their place of inferior status, thereby further motivating their push for equality.

Numerous studies have found anger useful not only because it provides new knowledge, but also because it reflects greater levels of competency, powerfulness, and strong leadership capabilities (Duhigg, 2019). Besides simply calling attention to injustice, those experiencing oppression may find new power when they embrace their outrage. Especially when seeking to establish and gain greater respect, articulating anger may be necessary for those addressing widespread injustices. African American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde illustrates this exact point in her piece “The Uses of Anger.” Here, she describes how her internal anger transformed into outward action as “a liberating and strengthening act” when her expressions of passionate rage forced others to listen and take her concerns about racism and sexism in America seriously (Lorde, 1981). Thus, Lorde’s anger actually provided an avenue to be heard as both an individual in pain and a leader with ideas on bettering the world around her.

Furthermore, political philosopher Amia Srinivasan contends that public anger can also invoke greater empathy that may develop into “more nuanced moral concepts” (Lepoutre, 2018). For example, during the California Labor Movement, farm worker and activist Cesar Chavez sought positive change for Latino grape pickers through the cultivation of a “righteous rage” – A form of anger that Srinivasan argues has the ability to produce a boost in morale for those experiencing oppression and those complacent as oppressors. By identifying as victims of the economic and social systems which unfairly harm immigrants, Chavez’s fellow farm workers not only transformed their fear into anger, motivating them toward rebellion over submission, but also encouraged previously silent Americans to stand in solidary, as they now understood farmworkers’ anger as justified. Thus, anger proves to be a noble force in creating an unshakable sense of cohesion that can bring diverse populations together and pursue higher moral codes as a collective humanity.

On the other hand, while the use of outrage has proved powerful in American civic life, many philosophers known as “anger-pessimists” argue the emotion is more dangerous than it is useful, at both the individual level and throughout society as a whole. The Roman philosopher Seneca criticized anger as a “departure from sanity,” in which the uncontrollable nature of such a strong emotion would be unable to effectively focus on a particular target and thus become a threat to justice, even when the rage is righteous (Bell, 2018). Though he died around two-thousand years ago, Seneca’s theory regarding anger has certainly manifested in various moments of U.S. history. For example, some might argue that while President Harry Truman may have understandably been hurt and angry at Japan for attacking Pearl Harbor during World War II, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on his command was misguided – rather than seeking equal retribution on a Japanese military base to directly engage combatants, critics emphasize that Truman targeted civilian cities and killed millions of innocent people. Perhaps only anger could justify this specific way of showing the imperial forces America’s awesome new weapon. For these skeptics, the events of 1945 embody Seneca’s exact fears of threatening justice through rage-fueled actions.

Perhaps in a less extreme way, concerns of anger negatively affecting the U.S. have even continued into present day media ethics. As emotionally-driven news content has become increasingly popular and profitable, expressions of outrage in the mass media have likewise grown exponentially. In noticing this rising trend, two professors at Tufts University found “talk designed to provoke emotional responses in the audience (anger, fear or moral indignation, for instance) through the use of overgeneralizations, sensationalism, inaccurate information and ad hominem attacks” in 100% of cable news programs watched by the nonpartisan research team (Berry & Sobieraj, 2014). What worried the authors most, however, was that this finding “suggests that outrage poses a threat to some of our most vital democratic practices,” including a reduced tolerance for others or opposing viewpoints at the individual level, institutions pressured to avoid any form of compromise, the drowning out of more moderate or peaceful voices, and ultimately, U.S. legislators who are heavily swayed to please the most outraged citizens “highly engaged in the political system” (Berry & Sobieraj, 2014).

If anger creates more problems than it solves, what should replace it? Martha Nussbaum, perhaps anger’s most prominent opponent, believes that rage in America should be replaced by attitudes of peace and civic love. According to Nussbaum, while anger may draw attention to a cause, the divisiveness and hostility that often accompanies intense rage overwhelmingly distracts and detracts from all pursuits of reconciliation necessary in seeking justice (Nussbaum, 2019). Acknowledging the power of peaceful change makers of the past, such as Nelson Mandela, Nussbaum argues that rage can exist in non-retributive forms that seek no vengeance. For example, she says Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the ideal leader to follow in that he kept “the good part of anger, the protest part” but had “to get people to abandon the destructive payback part in favor of an attitude of love, brotherhood, constructive work and a determination to work with others” (Nussbaum, 2019). Recognizing the potential of anger to drive both helpful and hurtful political change, thinkers like Nussbaum argue it is not the presence nor absence of rage in itself, but the fittingness of one’s anger that should be examined in determining the emotion’s ethical worth. To Aristotle, justified anger is that which is directed towards “the right thing toward the right people in the right way at the right time” (Bell, 2018). Nevertheless, this precise criteria that would define such appropriateness is also a matter of debate.

In the end, whether one speaks for or against the use of emotive messages in activating and promoting political change, wide-spread feelings of anger and distrust nonetheless continue to grow in significance in modern day America. Despite its effectiveness in motivating political action, uncertainty remains about how much heat or light emotions like anger bring into our democratic discourses.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What ethical issues does the debate of anger and democracy involve?
  2. If anger can create meaningful change, does this mean the emotion is ethically justified or should be further encouraged? Why or why not?
  3. How can a political figure or activist produce and encourage ethical rage?
  4. What are the ethical responsibilities of politicians, pundits, activists, and the media in using outrage as a force for political motivation?
  5. Would America’s democracy be better—or more just—with less anger? Explain how you would relate anger to our ideals of democratic community.

Further Information:

Bell, M. (2019). “On the Ethics of Anger.” Emotion Researcher. Available at: https://emotionresearcher.com/on-the-ethics-of-anger/

Berry, M. & Sobieraj, S. (2014, January 3).  “Are Americans Addicted to Outrage?” Politico. Available at: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/01/angry-politics-americans-addicted-101735

Duhigg, C. (2019). “The Real Roots of American Rage.” The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/01/charles-duhigg-american-anger/576424/

Lepoutre, M. “Rage Inside the Machine: Defending the Place of Anger in Democratic Speech.” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. Available at: https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/275818

Lorde, A. (1981). “The Uses of Anger.” City University of New York. Available at: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1654&context=wsq

Marcus, G. (2019, May 21). “How Fear and Anger Impact Democracy.” Available at: https://items.ssrc.org/democracy-papers/how-fear-and-anger-impact-democracy/

Nussbaum, M. (2019, May 3). “Fear and Anger in American Politics.” The University of Chicago Law School. Available at: https://www.law.uchicago.edu/recordings/martha-c-nussbaum-fear-and-anger-american-politics 

University of Michigan. (2011, June 8). “Anger motivates people to vote, study shows.” Available at: https://phys.org/news/2011-06-anger-people-vote.html

Authors:

Chloe Young, Kat Williams, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin

www.mediaengagement.org

September 7, 2020

Image: Heather M. Edwards / Unsplash / Modified


This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational settings. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.

Meet the Research Scholars: Michaela Urban

urban meiheadshotMichaela Urban is a sophomore Plan I Sustainability Studies and Iberian/Latin American Languages and Cultures double major at the University of Texas at Austin. After taking Dr. Stroud’s Communication Ethics class, she became interested in exploring and applying moral theories, such as those proposed by Kant, to expose the ethical issues of diverse situations. She hopes that the MEI internship will strengthen her critical writing skills and she is particularly interested in connecting issues in communications with current issues facing the environment.

Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholars earn credits and research experience by working with the Media Ethics Initiative to promote reflection on media ethics among students and faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. They gain valuable skills by assisting the organizing and promotion of Media Ethics Initiative events, as well as by researching and writing case studies in media ethics. Interested UT Austin students can sign up for a 1, 2, or 3 credit internship for the fall or spring semester. For more information on the Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholar program, visit here. The Media Ethics Initiative is based in the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.


 

Meet the Research Scholars: Rachel Moore

img2059813943Rachel Moore is a third year Radio-Television-Film and Advertising double major. Rachel studied abroad the summer after her sophomore year and took classes that highlighted the importance of looking at global issues through an ethical perspective. Since then she has been interested in the ethics of advertising, especially as it pertains to technology, interactive media, and influencers. As a Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholar, she is excited to deepen her understanding of ethics in the everyday world of advertising.

Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholars earn credits and research experience by working with the Media Ethics Initiative to promote reflection on media ethics among students and faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. They gain valuable skills by assisting the organizing and promotion of Media Ethics Initiative events, as well as by researching and writing case studies in media ethics. Interested UT Austin students can sign up for a 1, 2, or 3 credit internship for the fall or spring semester. For more information on the Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholar program, visit here. The Media Ethics Initiative is based in the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.


 

Meet the Research Scholars: William Cuellar

wcWilliam Cuellar is a double major studying Corporate Communication and Accounting at the University of Texas at Austin and is from McAllen, Texas. His interest in ethics was sparked after learning about how various moral theories could lead to different conclusions across issues in communication media. William wants to explore ethical issues that pertain to film, the gaming industry, and the internet. As a Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholar, he hopes to get people to think more critically about current issues in the world.

Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholars earn credits and research experience by working with the Media Ethics Initiative to promote reflection on media ethics among students and faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. They gain valuable skills by assisting the organizing and promotion of Media Ethics Initiative events, as well as by researching and writing case studies in media ethics. Interested UT Austin students can sign up for a 1, 2, or 3 credit internship for the fall or spring semester. For more information on the Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholar program, visit here. The Media Ethics Initiative is based in the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.


 

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