According to St. Augustine, Alexander the Great had a rather interesting conversation with a captured pirate. “How dare you molest the sea?” Alexander demanded. “How dare you molest the whole world?” the pirate angrily replied. “Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief. You, doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor.”
I was reminded of this rhetorical exchange when I came across an article on the discrepancy in the media’s coverage of two acts of gratuitous violence. Over the course of the last couple of weeks, we have been privy to the barbaric banality of callous conversations with Planned Parenthood senior officials purportedly involving the illegal trafficking of dead baby parts. And more recently, it was reported that a beloved lion at an animal sanctuary in Zimbabwe was lured out, gunned down, and beheaded, allegedly by a Minnesota dentist.
And yet, according to the conservative Media Research Center, the network news programs gave the death of Cecil the Lion more coverage in one day than the two weeks of videos from Planned Parenthood. The discrepancy between the two events was not only the time allotment. While the Planned Parenthood videos were accompanied by measured responses, Cecil the Lion evoked “international outrage.” “There are no words,” were the comments from Good Morning America co-anchor Lara Spencer. Today host Matt Lauer noted the “outrage around the world,” and Jimmy Kimmel actually choked up while devoting nearly five minutes of his July 28 show to Cecil the Lion: “I’m honestly curious to know why a human being would feel compelled to do that?” he asked incredulously.
The moral outrage over the killing of a lion contrasted starkly with the ambivalent, nay, for some in the media, defensive posture taken with regard to the Planned Parenthood revelations. But what accounts for the media’s morally myopic indignation?
I think an important insight into the media’s discrepancy is what Enlightenment philosophers conceived of as a fact/value dichotomy. Before the modern age, the world was perceived as being filled with divine meaning and purpose, and thus all ‘facts’ about the world, its physical, chemical, and biological components, were infused with value; they were distinct yet interrelated manifestations of the divine reality of the cosmos.
However, with the advent of the modern age, and more specifically the advancement of modern science, knowledge became increasingly redefined in such a way so as to exclude any divine moral order. Modern science has supposedly uncovered the fact that the world is not governed by the gods or any kind of divine meaning, but rather by physical, chemical, and biological causal laws. ‘Objective’ values are merely culturally specific meaning systems contrived by humans and imposed upon an otherwise meaningless world operated by cause and effect processes.
Why is it that a public school student can believe whatever she wants when it comes to religion, God or the gods, and the purpose of life, but when it comes to math and science, the so-called STEM subjects, the course content is absolutely unquestionable? Because math and science involve facts, whereas religion and meaning involve faith.
It is interesting how journalists are particularly prone to this dichotomy. According to media historian Richard Kaplan:
Under objectivity, journalists adopt the pose of scientist and vow to eliminate their own beliefs and values as guides in ascertaining what was said and done. Supposedly avoiding all subjective judgments and analysis, the journalist strives to become a rigorously impartial, expert collector of information.
This fact/value split inherent in modern American journalism is the foundation for what is commonly referred to as the ‘liberal media.’ They perpetuate the notion that values are mere human fabrications and that all meaning systems are cultural constructs.
And yet, there is a terrible toll that has to be paid for this fact/value dichotomy: we’ve lost the basis for cultivating virtue. Augustine can again provide insight here. Augustine argued that virtue involved properly ordering our loves, or what he called ordo amoris. It is good to love a baby, and it is good to love a ham sandwich; but if both the baby and ham sandwich were falling off a ledge and I rush to save the ham sandwich, something is wrong with my loves. The order of my loves has been dislodged from the economy of goods that God has created.
We are living in a time when the transcendent basis for ordering our loves has been eclipsed by the fact/value dichotomy. We should therefore not be surprised to find that there are those far more concerned over the killing and decapitation of a single lion than with the slaughter and organ harvesting of an untold amount of unborn children. In a world devoid of divine meaning, our loves become deformed.
Perhaps this explains the ambivalence towards abortion among media elites. But what about the defense of Planned Parenthood in the face of such grisly revelations?
In his Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis recognized that the modern age does in fact have an economy of goods, the greatest good being man’s conquest over nature. If there is no divine meaning or purpose in nature, if it is only cause and effect processes that have no inherent meaning or purpose apart from what we choose to impart to it, then nature is simply there to be conformed, controlled, and manipulated according to our own wants, desires, and purposes.
And yet, such a conquest over nature and the promised benefits therein requires our trusting dependence upon a class of elites who have the expertise to so conform the world. These engineers promise us life without limit, health in perpetuity, psychological wholeness and wellness, the protection of group rights and bodies, unlimited educational and career opportunities and prosperity for all. Lewis recognized that the genius of this new modern division of labor is the success it has had in enslaving the masses by convincing them that the extent to which they are dependent on social engineers they will be free.
But what happens when we realize that humans are themselves mere biological, chemical, and physical processes? Lewis feared that such recognition, particularly among the engineering elite, increasingly consigns humans to legitimate objects of manipulation. If man is no more than nature, and if nature is by definition that which is to be conquered and controlled for our own benefit, then some humans will be controlled and manipulated for the benefit of those who have the power to do so.
Lewis gives the obvious example of contraception, where those who control nature in effect control other humans. And I would argue that this is precisely the driving force behind abortion, and why today there is a class of elites that sees abortion as more sacred than the Second Amendment. Abortion, unlike the Second Amendment, controls nature and thus embodies the greatest good of the modern age. This is why the practice of slaughtering and dismembering humans in abortuaries and harvesting their body parts – in the name of reproductive rights and curing disease – can be treated with the callous levity portrayed in the hidden videos. And this explains why the shooting and beheading of a lion can evoke such moral outrage. Baby parts promise cures, while lions are merely cute.
So now we can go back to Jimmy Kimmel’s question. He wanted to know: What kind of human being exploits nature for his own purposes?
Well, Jimmy, perhaps the kind of human that values a ham sandwich over a baby.
This article originally appeared at The Imaginative Conservative.
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 Richard Kaplan, “The Origins of Objectivity in American Journalism,” in Stuart Allen (ed.), The Routledge Companion to News and Journalism (Routledge: New York, 2010), 25-37, 26.