Friday, August 19, 2005

Michael: On the vanities of moral attention

Perhaps moral exhibitionism plays some role in selection of heavily-covered media stories? We all want to think of ourselves as moral and good people, even if we're not. People tend to gravitate toward narratives that cast them, or a proxy for the self, in a positive light.

The story of Ali Abbas, who was brought to England for medical aid after having his arms blown off by an American missile during the invasion of Iraq, was headline news for months because it played directly to people's moral exhibitionist tendencies. "Our invasion may have killed thousands of innocents, but we care enough to save Ali!" There is now even a book about him. Through Ali's story we were allowed to share in a collective and largely undeserved good feeling about ourselves and to reaffirm our essential morality in the midst of a vile war.

The Niger famine, however, is a bad story from a moral exhibitionist standpoint and thus receives scant attention, even though the 'human interest' angle is far more dire than Ali, if less personal. Western nations do little or nothing to prevent or allieviate the suffering of the Nigerians and people like them. One is prompted to ask, "Shouldn't I do something about all those starving people? Shouldn't we all do something?" One cannot derive moral satisfaction from failure or inaction. But without the pricking of our collective conscience, we may never do anything to ameliorate the suffering of so many.

The media flatters their readership's moral vanity by allowing stories like the Niger famine to fade from view after a respectable mention; such stories make people feel bad about themselves, and we can't have that. But does the media miss the opportunity to make us a kinder and more moral society by catering to our moral vanity in this way? There must be a reason why America spends only one-tenth of one percent of our nation's budget on humanitarian assistance - several times less than what other affluent nations give. Perhaps the media's coddling appeals to our moral vanity are part of why our foriegn policy has strayed so far from our moral compass?

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