Moral Muting and the Iraq War Moral Muting and the Iraq War
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Moral Muting and the Iraq War

by Mark Peters

October 31, 2008

Why morality was a whisper in the press

Five years later, many Americans are still amazed and angered that the U.S. ever ended up in the Iraq War in the first place.For its pre-Iraq role, the press has been blamed for both hornswoggling the public and getting hornswoggled by the Bush administration. Either way, important parts of the story went through the collective legs of the Fourth Estate. A recent study pinpoints a previously unrecognized blind spot of the press that may explain why some aspects of the Iraq war were hardly heard: moral muting.According to the report-published in Discourse and Communication by Drexel University sociologist Douglas V. Porpora and Alexander Nikolaev, an associate professor of communications-moral muting takes place when a message or argument is constructed so that it obscures or downplays the morality of its subject. Moral content may be in there somewhere, but it's buried under more layers than a pre-schooler bundled up for a Buffalo blizzard.In looking at over 500 editorials and opinion articles written from August to October of 2002-a time bookended by Bush's first gee-I'm-feeling-invade-y announcement and Congress' sure-do-whatever-you-want vote-Porpora and Nikolaev found that journalists appeared to consistently diminish legal and moral concerns, while focusing on the so-called "prudential" (or practical) aspects of the proposed war. So mentions of weapons of mass destruction, potential terrorist threats, and Saddam Hussein's human rights record far outnumbered questions regarding whether or not we had the actual moral right to enter Iraq.Prudential discourse, by its nature, is self-centered. Prudentially, your humble columnist may have sound reasons for locking up a naughty mailman in the basement for one of grandma's homemade exorcisms. Legally and morally, justifications for going postal in this particular fashion are harder to make. But the prudential viewpoint is only focused on means and ends, and it's very utilitarian-i.e., what's in it for me (or, in this case, America).Moral muting occurs when moral and prudential concerns get lumped together or blurred. When "do the right thing" is sung in a chorus of eight other self-serving motivations, it tends not to get heard at all. In the study, the authors show how individual words create the kind of frames that linguist George Lakoff made famous--specifically that small word choices can bury moral considerations.For example, frequent use in op-eds of support as opposed to approval- when discussing the U.N.'s response to America's call for war-shifted discussion away from whether the international community would truly give its blessing to whether it would simply go along with invading Iraq, with an implied shrug of the shoulders. The weaker support leaves the moral considerations implied by approval out of the picture, as in this Aug. 2002 Wall Street Journal piece by Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security advisor under both Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush: "… should Saddam Hussein be found to be clearly implicated in the events of Sept. 11, that could make him a key counterterrorist target, rather than a competing priority, and significantly shift world opinion toward support for regime change."Porpora calls moral muting part of "the privatization of morality." Many views, faiths, and issues divide us as Americans, with so few common threads holding together the national blankie, making public discussions about moral issues difficult. Thus, morality is a roadside IED that writers of all stripes avoid. As Porpora told me via email, "The tendency of Americans is to limit morality to the private sphere-e.g., sexual morality-and to consider not at all the morality of their collective actions-e.g., war and torture."The emphasis on private morality over public morality is more than a tad terrifying. Sure, individuals can do all manner of wrongs-from put-the-lotion-in-the-basket-type horrors to biking on the sidewalk, where jackasses might run over my dog. As we've seen, however, there's no havoc quite like the havoc a country can wreak. Let's hope the moral puzzles of the future get a louder hearing; when it comes to right and wrong, using our inside voice just doesn't get the job done.(Photos: Mute button from Flickr user adactio; Dick Cheney on Meet the Press.)
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Moral Muting and the Iraq War