Hillsborough, Heysel and the Availability Bias

One of my clearest childhood memories is of seeing images  of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster on the television news. Ninety-six Liverpool fans died in the crush, with an estimated 766 injured. I lived on the other side of the world, had never been to see a football game, and presumably had little comprehension of what the victims had gone through, yet the images of the crush, and of a few people being hauled to safety from it, made a strong and disturbing impression. Continue reading

Censoring Foetuses

In the US, Randall Terry is challenging Obama for Democratic leadership. Strangely, his reason for doing so is in order to be able to show graphic anti-abortion adverts  featuring aborted foetuses, holocaust victims, and a black person being lynched. Continue reading

Celebrity Culture

Every Saturday evening, and often on other evenings too, my daughters sit goggling at the TV talent show X Factor. Am I witnessing the long tentacles of the dreaded ‘celebrity culture’ we are said to inhabit reaching into my living room? I think not. I confess I find the show
tedious, but as part of a ‘mixed cultural diet’ it seems to me pretty harmless.

But doesn’t it encourage viewers to think that fame is a great good – perhaps the highest good? The view that fame is desirable is a very old one. Indeed it seems to me doubtful that our culture is any more celebrity-obsessed than many others. Reputation or renown (kleos) is a core value for Homeric heroes, for example. Of course, what one is famous for also matters. Had Hector stayed at home and not gone out to face Achilles, he’d have won a global reputation for cowardice and that’s just what he didn’t want.

But the X Factor is no different. The contestants want to be recognized as world-class entertainers. And since such entertainment has standards of excellence analogous to those in many other areas of human activity, and gives pleasure to many people, that aim in itself seems respectable enough.

But isn’t it what one is that matters? As Aristotle says, ‘honour appears to depend more on those who honour than on the
person honoured, whereas we surmise the good to be something of one’s own that cannot easily be taken away’ (Nicomachean
, 1.5).

Doubtless there are some people with enough faith in themselves genuinely not to care about whether their talents or achievements are recognized by others. They just get on with whatever they’re good at. But the vast majority of us want recognition, partly perhaps because we believe we deserve it, and because that recognition provides evidence of the genuineness of those talents and achievements. But another main motivator must surely be that people want to matter, to be important, and often enjoy that sense of importance. Fame can, then, make you happy.

But of course it often appears to make people unhappy, to be a ‘Dead Sea apple,mere dust and ashes in the eating’, as Sidgwick puts it (Methods of Ethics, 7th edn., p. 110), largely because of the pressures and restrictions our society imposes on celebrities, and the constant anxious struggle to remain in the limelight. Potential X Factor contestants might be well advised to consider Philip Larkin’s suggestion in ‘Born Yesterday’ that there’s a lot to be said for being ordinary, or even dull,

‘If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called’.

Murder in an English Village

Midsomer Murders is an ITV drama based around English village life: it pulls in millions of viewers and has been running for over a decade.   The co-creator of the series has just been suspended for saying he deliberately kept ethnic minorities out of the series.  “It wouldn’t be an English village with them”.   Cue outrage from all sides.  The executive is either an out –of-touch-bigot, or his suspension is ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Curiously, much of the furor has focused on the empirical claim that English villages are not generally very multicultural.   But if that’s what’s at stake, then the dispute can be quickly resolved by checking the demographic facts.   English villages are far less racially mixed than urban areas, and no doubt there are many English villages that are entirely, or almost entirely, white.   (On the other hand, if the executive’s aim was to reflect typical English village, then Midsomer Murders should be rewritten without the homicide).

It seems to me there are several considerations that should come into play in these sorts of disputes.

  1. Is there a range of programming across the spectrum that reflects a variety of lives and lifestyles?
  2. Is there a reasonable range of opportunities for actors from all backgrounds?
  3. Might the incongruity of the presence of an actor with a certain ethnicity hinder the drama?  Thus, unless it was making a deliberate dramatic statement to have a white actor playing a typical inhabitant of an Indian village would be silly.

If the answers to 1. and 2. are ‘yes’, we should be relaxed about a show containing only one racial group.   How much an audience is conscious of an actor’s ethnicity will depend on many factors, including conditioning.  Thus, the Royal Shakespeare Company now routinely has black actors, playing roles like Henry VI, and, thankfully, nobody seems to find this at all strange.

Joking about ‘the Unluckiest Man in the World’

The BBC and the production company Talkback Thames, after receiving a letter of complaints from the Japanese embassy in London, issued a joint statement of apology about an episode of the popular comedy quiz show QI featuring Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who had survived the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki and died last January at the age of 93. The QI host Stephen Fry introduced him as ‘the unluckiest man in the world’ and talked and joked about Yamaguchi’s experience with guest comedians. The news has sparked national outrage in Japan. The conservative Sankei newspaper said ‘any Japanese person would find this disturbing’.

The BBC is of course legally entitled to produce and show controversial programmes. But were they morally wrong to treat Yamaguchi’s story as they did? The answer is ‘yes, but’.

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Inviting invasion: deep space advertisments and planetary security

The Register warns that Dixons risks future of humanity with Star Wars-themed ads: the electronics chain, not satisfied with merely human customers also as a publicity stunt broadcast its ads into deep space, presumably for aliens to receive. This is done using the firm Deep Space Communications Network, who offers to beam messages into space using their satellite dish. Earlier this year an invitation to the Klingon opera 'u' was beamed towards Arcturus using a Dutch radio telescope. Are these stunts putting mankind at risk?

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The privacy of the shrew

Is it wrong for documentary film makers to film intimate moments in the lives of non-human animals? David Attenborough has used fibroptic cameras to obtain views of the inside of a platypus’ nest, providing never-before-seen images of the birth and feeding of a newborn platypus. But imagine that he had used similar technology to obtain pictures from a human home birth, or to take pictures of copulating couples in their homes? Brett Mills, a lecturer in television studies at the University of East Anglia has controversially suggested that animals may have a right to privacy that is breached by filming them without their consent.

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Are We Future Evil Aliens?

By: Julian Savulescu

Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge physicist, has recently argued, in a Discovery channel documentary, that alien life forms probably exist somewhere in the Universe, but we should avoid contact with them. ( His reason is, apparently, that if they are anything like humans, they are likely to be aggressive and either exterminate us or pillage our resources.

"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans," he said. "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet." 

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Should we be afraid of virtual reality?

authors like
Susan Greenfield and Roger Scruton have raised worries about the rise of virtual worlds such as Second Life, which
they fear might have a negative impact on human relationships, as people
increasingly spend their lives hidden behind an “avatar”. The movie Surrogates
, recently released, precisely pictures a future humanity that lives
as it were by proxy: the story takes place in a world where people stay at home
and send remote-controlled “surrogates” – androids that are typically younger
and better-looking versions of themselves – out in the world to do things for
them. In the same vein, American futurologist Ray Kurzweil
predicts that within a quarter of a century, virtual reality (VR) will rival the real
world: “If we want to go into virtual-reality mode”, he says, “nanobots will
shut down brain signals and take us wherever we want to go. Virtual sex will
become commonplace”. However, far from sharing the worries of people like
Greenfield and Scruton, Kurzweil believes this is a prospect we should look
forward to.*


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