Lowes vs “All-American Muslims” – A Way To View The Controversy

Leaving the realm of “Occupy” stories for a while, let’s see if we can apply the five moral dimensions of political decision making to another topic. I’m thinking of the controversy about the TLC show “All-American Muslims” and the fact that Lowes pulled out as an advertiser due to a “boycott” from an organization called The Florida Family Foundation.  There are several ways to approach this, and I’m going to cover several of them.

First, let’s just think about the situation and how impressive it is – there’s a TV show on a mainstream (cable) channel about Muslims in America that basically treats them as a normal part of American life and just another set of stories to tell about America. That’s impressive in itself – think about whether this would have been possible ten or 15 years ago.

And the response to the “boycott” has been impressive as well. The Florida Family Foundation organization is fairly fringe-y, and although it’s unfortunate that Lowes has pulled out due to the pressure of their boycott, the chances are that Lowes is the loser, much more so than TLC. The mainstream is aghast at Lowes’ response, and it’s clearly violated most Americans’ sense of right and wrong. And so we can recognize that we have made progress in tolerance as a culture, despite some fringe-y people amongst us (and not just in Florida).

What about the five moral dimensions that I keep talking about?

  • I think the “fairness” dimension is obvious, and I won’t spend much time on it
  • The “harm” dimension is also fairly obvious, except I want to point out that positions like FFF’s have led to things like the KKK – which in turn have caused lots of harm to Americans
  • The more interesting dimension is “group/other” – because of the extremity of the boycott, it has served to make American Muslims seem more “us”, and the Florida Family Foundation group seem more “them.” And that definitely puts Florida Family Foundation at a moral disadvantage in this case.
  • On the “purity/sanctity” dimension I think it’s really a wash – the Muslims on this show are clearly devout, but you have to give the Florida Family Foundation people credit for behaving in a way they think is pure.
  • But on the “authority” dimension, Florida Family Foundation loses out – if only because their opposition to having Muslims on TV is so clearly in opposition to the spirit of the Constitution. The Constitution is pretty clear – no discrimination on the basis of religion.

The other really great thing that All-American Muslims has going for it is that it’s all about stories. Stories are the other key dimension of political communication. The All-American Muslim stories, since they tie so strongly into the well-known tropes of earlier “all-American” stories, intrinsically bring you into a sense of group membership with both the teller of the story and the subject of the story.

A fundamental concept in liberalism is that your position should be judged on its merits. Unfortunately, that’s not the way that we, in America at least, judge positions. At least, that’s not the only way, and there is a big group for whom it’s only a part, if anything, of how their moral decisions are made. So it’s why we need to position our moral arguments in the right form. So if you wanted to do a “takedown” of the Florida Family Foundation, for example, in a letter to Lowes protesting their pulling their ads from American Muslim, you might structure it something like this:

  1. Open with a typical story about an all-American family having an all-American experience – the dad’s a policeman, the mom takes care of their four children.
  2. This family happens to be featured on “All-American Muslims.” You note that this all-American family is  under attack (harm) simply because they are Muslim by some members of a fringe fundamentalist sect-based group in Florida (“them”).
  3. Our (“us”) American ways of respect for diversity and individualism (group, fairness) and even our Constitution (authority) are being mocked by these attackers.
  4. Luckily, most Americans recognize that the Jaafars and the rest of the families on the show are just like us, and have responded with overwhelming support.

Lowes will be the loser in this fight if you continue to align with the fringe group rather than with mainstream America. I hope you see the error of this decision and come back into the mainstream and support this show.

That’s a good template for such a letter, although it’s rough, and quickly dashed out as an illustration for a blog post. The key point is that I am tying all of the key moral dimensions into the argument, instead of just relying on fairness and harm, which often happens in these cases.

Note that I’m not being “objective” about this story – I believe the Florida Family Foundation have just as much right to their opinions as I do to mine, but I don’t think that automatically makes their position equally valid. A typical trope in modern journalism is to treat both sides of a controversy as equally legitimate, even if they really aren’t. I don’t deny Florida Family Foundation the right to talk, but I don’t think that makes what they say valid.

Occupy Wall Street is Telling a Morally Compelling Story

(OMG – had the link to Jonathan Haidt’s TED Talk wrong! Fixed now.)

One reason the “Occupy” movement has resonated so well is that they are NOT making an “enlightenment-type” argument, with positions and statements and platforms. Instead, it’s a lot of people (group members, “people just like us”), sharing their stories (stories are much better for engaging other people), and showing how fairness has been violated, how authority (such as the Bible and the law, and of course how local police have often been seen as oppressive) has been violated, and showing how purity and sanctity have been violated (e.g., by doing a great job of cleaning up after themselves).

The story of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) – both from the OWS movement itself, as well as the attacks against it  – is totally aligned with Jonathan Haidt’s taxonomy of moral dimensions (link to excellent TED Talk) that I talked about in a previous post. (The dimensions are fairness, harm/safety, group membership, respect for authority, and a purity/sanctity dimension – liberals often focus on the first two and give short shrift to the last three). Looking at the OWS story, we see the following:

  • The “We are the 99%” message creates an “us vs. them” situation where more or less everyone can be “us,” and the “them” is a small but immensely powerful and privileged group. It’s a very effective story – nearly everyone can look at their paycheck and say “Oh, I’m definitely not making $1 million per year, and I’m a long way from that, too.”
  • And their own actions – cleaning up after themselves, being non-violent – is clearly respectful and sanctimonious, in the good sense of the word. They are clearly taking care of their environment, playing by the rules, cleaning up after themselves, and all that. So the purity/sanctity thing is happening.
  • Of course fairness is at the heart of the argument, and they’re all over that.
  • Their “respect for authority” is kind of a mixed bag – an area where they can maybe do a little better, honestly, but the underlying things are there. They have been working with the police and city halls – that’s the local authority. I think the Ten Commandments and its “Thou Shall Not Steal” is hugely resonant in this story – depicting the “them” as thieves is incredible positioning. And there are the laws and regulations – “we’re just asking for the laws to be enforced” kind of thing, about the financial regulations.

On the other hand, the attacks on OWS from the right wing can teach us a lot about how the experts on the other side make use of the same dimensions (relatively unsuccessfully in this case). First of all, the OWS people are accused of being hippies (dirty), who are having sex all the time (violating purity and sanctity). Earlier on, there was a movement to create another group, the 54% – to invalidate the “group membership” part of the OWS message, although it didn’t really work at all. Along the same lines, they are trying to portray the OWS’ers as students who can’t get jobs – meaning not members of “our” group, but members of a spoiled elite, which is meant to go against both the group membership aspect and the fairness aspect (“those kids had all the advantages, and now when they aren’t handed a job on a silver platter, they go and sit in and have sex all day”).

And there have been many attempts not only to portray the OWS protesters as law-breakers, but also attempts to bait them into taking unlawful action – which happily have so far failed.

The key point for those of us trying to improve the way progressives talk about our policies is that OWS is being incredibly successful, and very difficult to discredit, exactly because of how well it is aligning with the five moral dimensions, and how authentic that alignment is.

Why Fixing The Language of Progressive Politics Will Work, As Told By Steve Jobs

This weekend the Internet has been bubbling with an amazing and inspiring Steve Jobs quote, which I saw thanks to the amazing and inspiring Maria Popova of BrainPickings, that’s apropos of what I’m trying to do on this blog. Politics has been run the way it’s been run for its entire history. There have been changes over time, but for example, right now the pundits and political followers assume there are certain ways that candidates need to talk, certain notes they need to hit, in order to win. This is just the “conventional wisdom.” But as Steve points out, this is just the way things are now – not the way they have to be.

When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

The way language is used in politics today, especially the tropes of the right wing, are just some walls that have been constructed to form a very very small room with no windows. But they’re just walls – they can be torn down, and there’s a whole world out there. It’s up to us progressives to break down those walls. The Occupy movement is doing that in one way, with their meme of “The 99%”. I’m attempting to do that another way by giving progressives a way to talk about politics in a new, fresh, effective, and most importantly, non-reactionary way.