And The Winner Of The “It Would Be A Better World If Everyone Read Ethics Alarms” Contest Is…Aalst, Belgium!

From the BBC:

Israel, Jewish groups and Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès were among many who strongly condemned the costumes in Sunday’s parade in Aalst.  Some critics said likening Jews to ants was similar to Nazi anti-Semitism, which persecuted Jews as “vermin”.

The Aalst mayor’s spokesman told the BBC “it’s our humour… just fun”. Peter Van den Bossche said “there isn’t a movement behind it” and “we don’t wish harm to anyone. It’s our parade, our humour, people can do whatever they want,” he said. “It’s a weekend of freedom of speech.”

Aalst lies 31km (19 miles) northwest of Brussels – the heart of the EU…The city drew much criticism for parading caricature Jews last year – so much so that it was dropped from Unesco’s cultural heritage list in December. After the outcry, Aalst itself had asked to be taken off the list….

There were also people parading in Nazi SS uniform-

– despite the fact that, in World War Two, the Nazis deported about 25,000 Jews from occupied Belgium to the Auschwitz death camp, where most were murdered…In Sunday’s parade some caricature Jews posed with a mock-up of the Western Wall – often called Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, a holy site for Jews. It was labelled “the wailing ant”, in Dutch “de klaugmier”. The Dutch for “wailing wall” is “klaagmuur”.

“This doesn’t encourage anti-Semitism; the reaction last year was over the top,” Mr Van den Bossche said. “Two hundred percent it’s not anti-Semitic.”

What’s going on here?

I think Hanlon’s Razor is useless in this case. Stupidity cannot explain such an organized, transparent exercise in deliberate anti-Semitism—not in Belgium, not at a time when anti-Semitism is having a frightening resurgence across Europe. Nobody’s that stupid. This is malicious. A strong argument can be made that no culture on Earth has developed a better sense of humor, including self-deprecating humor, than the Jewish people.

Let’s ask Mel Brooks if he believes this is “Two hundred percent not anti-Semitic.”

Giving Aalst’s head-explosion-worthy cultural event more benefit of the doubt than it deserves, let’s assume it is all intended as just fun, with no malice aforethought. Even taking that perspective, the Second Niggardly Principle applies:

“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”

There is no necessity of  targeting the most vulnerable ethnic group in Europe, as well as the most historically persecuted, in order to stage a satirical and irreverent parade. Thus it is the Second, and not the Third Niggardly Principle

When, however, suppressing speech and conduct based on an individual’s or a group’s sincere claim that such speech or conduct is offensive, however understandable and reasonable this claim may be, creates or threatens to create a powerful precedent that will undermine freedom of speech, expression or political opinion elsewhere, calls to suppress the speech or conduct must be opposed and rejected.”

…that must prevail.

What’s going on in Aalst is really organized and audacious anti-Semitism, cloaked by its organizers and supporters in a multitude of rationalizations. The primary one, obviously, is #55. The Joke Excuse, or “I was only kidding!”:

This is a common backtracking strategy when someone has been caught making a hurtful, unfair, false or otherwise unethical statement. …When non-comedians try the joke excuse, it is usually recognized for the lie it is. For example… comedian Wanda Sykes applying the joke excuse to her purely mean-spirited comment about Rush Limbaugh at a White House Correspondents Dinner, when she said “I hope his kidneys fail.” What a knee-slapper! As a general rule, “I hope you die” is not a joke, no matter who says it.

Even when it is a joke, the jokester is still accountable for how people react to it…..There should be few, if any, limits and barriers, but crossing into dangerous territory requires both guts and talent.  Nobody should accept the defense that “it was a joke” if it wasn’t a good enough joke to compensate for the damage it did, the people it hurt, or the trouble it will cause….Making a joke, after all, is a little like shooting a gun: whether or not it hits the mark, you’re responsible for the result. “It was a joke” is not a justification in every case, never when it really wasn’t a joke, and often even when humor was the intent.

The Mayor also foolishly runs for shelter under the bogus protections of  two more rationalizations on the list:

#24. Juror 3’s Stand(“It’s My Right!”):…We all have a right to do many terrible, unfair, wrongful and harmful things. People have a right to have children they can’t take care of, for example. They have a right to be unfaithful to their spouses, to misrepresent their affections to partners who think they are loved. Parents have a right to warp the values and education of their children. People have a right to accept jobs that they are unqualified to do well; they have a right not to retire long after they know they have become incompetent. We have a right to be biased, to be prejudiced, and to hate irrationally. …Yes, we often have a right to do something wrong. Using rights that way, however, is to abuse them.


#24.A.  Free Speech Confusion: The most frequently used variation on #24, so frequently that it earns its own title, is the assertion that unethical conduct in the form of speech, including incivility, genuinely hurtful or misleading speech and outright lies, are ethical because “we have Free Speech in the country.” Indeed we do, and what a boon it is for reckless, mean-spirited, dishonest people who chose to use their right of expression to deceive, disrupt and injure—though usually short of the extent that would be criminal or justify civil damages. The First Amendment is the bulwark of  our freedom; it also is license for people who want to use their rights irresponsibly to be jerks, or worse. Free speech is a right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is right.

These are hardly revolutionary principles, and are generally understood, except apparently in some small Belgian towns. Permitting such a vile parade also relies on many other rationalizations, such as,

1. The Golden Rationalization, or “Everybody does it”
2A. Sicilian Ethics, or “They had it coming”
4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.”
8. The Trivial Trap (“No harm no foul!”)
8A. The Dead Horse-Beater’s Dodge, or “This can’t make things any worse”
13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
13A The Road To Hell, or “I meant well” (“I didn’t mean any harm!”)
14. Self-validating Virtue
21A. The Criminal’s Redemption, or “It’s just a small part of what I am!”
22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”
23. The Dealer’s Excuse. or “I’m just giving the people what they want!”
33. The Management Shrug: “Don’t sweat the small stuff!”.
43. Vin’s Punchline, or “We’ve never had a problem with it!”
50A. Narcissist Ethics , or “I don’t care”
58. The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!”
59. The Ironic Rationalization, or “It’s The Right Thing To Do”
61. The Paranoid’s Blindness, or “It’s not me, it’s you.”
65 .The Pest’s Justification or “He/She/They can take care of themselves”

I’m sure I missed a couple. There is one more rationalization from the list at work, a really ugly one. The BBC tells us, “Unesco – the UN’s educational and cultural agency – was also satirised in the parade on Sunday. Other floats mocked UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brexit, climate activist Greta Thunberg, and Jesus Christ on the cross.”

Clever, Aalst! Now you have plausible deniability thanks to Rationalization1C. It Happens To Everybody, or “You’re not alone!’

This is yet another variation on the Golden Rationalization, “Everybody Does It,” but the transitive version. The theory is the same, that somehow the ethical nature of an act is changed by its frequency, or, in the case of #1C, how many victims the unethical conduct has claimed. This one is so frequently employed that it doesn’t register as a rationalization, perhaps because the one who weilds it is often a third party. “Don’t feel too bad,” the nice person patting your head says, “You’re not the only one.” The swift answer to this should be, “So what?” Should I feel less raped because others have been raped? Should I feel less lied to because others have been deceived? Should I feel richer because others have been robbed?” Even if it is offered in kindness, this is a rationalization that aides the wrongdoer. Arguing that as long as the misery inflicted has company, what was done isn’t as bad as it was.


Pointer: Althouse

10 thoughts on “And The Winner Of The “It Would Be A Better World If Everyone Read Ethics Alarms” Contest Is…Aalst, Belgium!

  1. “Unesco – the UN’s educational and cultural agency – was also satirised in the parade on Sunday. Other floats mocked UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brexit, climate activist Greta Thunberg, and Jesus Christ on the cross.”

    What was the point of this parade? Was this the “Most Offensive Parade in Europe” contest? Is this a delayed reaction to Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit ‘Prejudice’?

    • Their “Nazi” costumes appear to be mocking representations as well. Maybe the whole thing is a scattershot defience of good taste and taboos. “You can’t wear that costume; you can’t mock Jesus (or St. Greta)…”! “Oh yeah? Watch us!”

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