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The Big Q
Poster Wars: An Ethics Perspective
Friday, Apr. 1, 2011
Mary puts up a poster on her dorm room door opposing gay marriage. James, a floormate, finds it offensive. What should happen?
The other responders to this case have covered several of the ethical issues, especially how to balance the right of free speech with the harm that may come from attacking someone else’s identity.
Identity has become an increasingly important part of ethics. For a long time, ethics was much more concerned with whether some isolated action was right or wrong, and not as concerned with who was doing the action—with the person’s history, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, core values, context, and all the other things that make us who we really are and that profoundly affect what we do.
While this new dimension of identity has been a boon for ethics in many ways, there are times when it has stopped ethical reflection dead in its tracks. This happens when identity becomes something unchanging, beyond challenge, unable to be discussed, and easily offended: I am who I am, and you have no right to infringe on my sense of who I am. When I speak, I am asserting who I am in a way that you may not question.
But identity can’t be locked down, definitely not in life and rightfully not in the swirl of conversation that is college life. We may affirm something constant about who we are, but we have to acknowledge that we are always changing, too. And speech—whether it’s a poster on a dorm room door or a discussion in class—is the great engine of this change. Could the poster on Mary’s door initiate a conversation in the dorm that changes the way that Mary and James see themselves? Perhaps that conversation leads them to change their opinions of Prop 8. Perhaps it leads them to re-affirm those opinions. Perhaps what emerges is an unforeseen, diverse community on a dorm hallway previously inhabited by separate, fixed identities of the too-rigidly assertive and the too-easily offended.
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