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Homeric Ethics and Media Bias: Breaking the Beauty-Goodness Link

June 13, 2016

Advertising executives’ favourite people are those who believe that they are not influenced by advertising.  This must include everyone.  Have you ever met anyone who admits to being influenced by advertising?  Do you admit being influenced by advertising?

Come to think of it: have you ever met someone who admits to being influenced by any kind of media?  I doubt it.   Everyone thinks that they make up their own mind in a rational, unbiased, independent manner.  

I doubt that, too.  

But I am not going "uber-Descartes" here and casting radical doubt on the existence of unbiased judging. 

It is probably true that people can become better at recognizing their own biases and reduce them so as to approach the ideal of being a rational, unbiased decision-maker.  That better be true since we have powerful people in society, like judges, who are expected to make rational and unbiased decisions.  These powerful decision-makers can even curtail the power of our elected politicians.  Of course, nobody is perfectly unbiased and so we have courts of appeal and our supreme court is an odd-numbered group of judges, not just a committee of one. 

In a recent article on media bias, it was noted that photos of individuals accused (and sometimes convicted) of crimes demonstrate a strong racial bias.  Simply put: if the accused is white, the accused’s photo is typically flattering.  For example, convicted rapist Brock Turner was always represented in the media by his dressy yearbook photo and in some cases by a photo of him engaging in healthy competitive swimming.  When the accused is black, however, the photo is pretty well always the typical unflattering mug-shot.  

No doubt that there are racist motivations as to why a flattering photo is used in some cases and an unflattering photo is used in others.  This is an important social issue, but not the focus of my discussion here.  So I will put that to the side for the time being.  I would like to consider just why these photos have certain effects on people seeing them. 

I am not considering all the effects of the photos.  I am only looking at the effects that the photos have on people who see them in newspapers and online.

To begin, flattering photos engender different feelings about the accused than unflattering photos.  We have all experienced something like this even about ourselves.  “I hate that photo of me; it makes me look like a criminal.”  Or, if we are lucky, we actually like our passport picture and don’t shy away from showing it at airports. 

What is going on here?  It seems to be something like this.  A picture of a person that presents that person as clean  and well-ordered automatically leads us to think that the person is a good person.  On the other hand, a picture that presents a person as dirty and disheveled automatically leads us to think that the person is not so good.  Admittedly, the previous is an over-simplification, but the general point seems sound: that an aesthetically pleasing photo of a person leads us to think that that person is a good person.  An aesthetically unpleasing photo of a person leads us to think that that person is a bad person. 

When you see an aesthetically pleasing photo of a person and the person is accused or convicted of a crime—and if you immediately think something like “well, that’s a shame” or “does he have to really be punished all that much for a moment’s indiscretion?”—you are thinking along the lines of some of the ancient Greeks, both humans and gods. 

This link between beauty and goodness is old—and well-entrenched.  When Achilles, the Greek demi-god had killed his rival Hector, and then dragged Hector’s body several times around the city of Troy, everyone was outraged.  The gods were also furious.  But after a committee meeting atop Mount Olympus, the gods proclaimed that Achilles, who was so beautiful and such a talented fighter, simply couldn’t be all that bad.  They let him off the hook. 

Fast forward to the present: how many times do people who possess aesthetically pleasing properties end up being excused for bad behaviour?  A highly talented athlete who deliberately injures another usually ends up with very little punishment, if at all.  Two minutes in a penalty box?  Beautiful celebrities who drink and drive don’t spend much, if any, time behind bars.  Beloved politicians, who present images that the public adores, can commit deeds and simply utter an apology and all is forgiven.  Even Donald Trump, whose mannerisms and talk are taken by some as pleasing—examples of power and decisiveness—can then say outright racist things and still be excused by some as “not really all that bad of a guy.”  Innumerable examples of the link between beauty and goodness can be found in our newspapers, online and in general society. 

Again, this is nothing new.

Perhaps one of the most horrifying ramifications of the beauty-goodness link is when certain skin colours—in and of themselves—are regarded as aesthetically pleasing while others are not.  In this case the beauty-goodness link becomes even deeper and ultimately much more intractable and the consequences are so profoundly disturbing. 

The link between beauty and goodness was, in many ways, a foundational aspect of the morality expressed in Homer’s Iliad.  But Homer does not endorse the link.  Instead, Homer in fact warns us against accepting this link since it is very dangerous and so easy to do.  It's so natural and right to make the link that even the gods do it.

Now, with this in mind, go and read the Iliad.  You will see that in many ways it looks like it was published yesterday.  Parts of it could easily be passed about as insightful Tweets. 

There is no general answer, I hold, to the problem of human bias.  But it can be lessened.  We can all start by consciously trying to break that insidious thinking that automatically assumes that beauty and goodness are always linked.  In some cases they are, but that link is accidental only, never necessary.  Aesthetics must not be allowed to silently determine our morality.  

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