Print

 

"So this is the little lady who made this big war," Abraham Lincoln perhaps said in a never confirmed remark.

 

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin lives as a novel that shook the moral sensibilities of many who read of the degradation and death of an enslaved black man. Her book probably helped to propel the War Between the States and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

 

As a result, students of media ethics have before them an example of a book that inspired people in the cause of human dignity. The Constitution of the United States and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights today confirm the moral value of human freedom for which Stowe wrote.

 

Did Uncle Tom's Cabin incite war or riot? The answer is unknown, and perhaps beside the point. Riots by or about slaves in the United States occurred long before 1852, when the novel first appeared in public. President Abraham Lincoln first decreed slaves to be free in 1862, while the Civil War was being fought. Should the book have been suppressed in wartime or before?

 

We hear now threats of death against writers, cartoonists, and movie makers who mock a religious prophet. Should such mockery be suppressed in wartime or before? Answers differ and might also be beside the point.

 

More than a century ago William James spoke and wrote on the "moral equivalent of war." He suggested that organized good works to tame nature could be a moral equivalent of an army at war. People together who sought to fight by building instead of destroying could be the moral equivalent of army troops at war.

 

Media workers might create a moral equivalent of war by finding ways to inspire and not incite in the causes of human dignity. The task seems difficult and delicate. A few novels, newspaper cartoons, and movies suggest that media are able to inspire and incite beyond the borders of a country in which they begin.

 

Sometimes a human right of self-defense is put against a human right to individual dignity. The will to strike back through media is keen. Media are available.

 

"Fighting words" are not protected by the Constitution. Such words are likely to harm or to provoke a fight or other public disorder. Should they be protected by ethical beliefs about an absolute freedom of expression in various media, if not by law? Could there be a careful, strong, and moral media equivalent of war?

 

But ethical intent to shock or to mock without harm also appears to be possible. You see examples in the media every day. Few object.

 

 

References

1. Bryan A. Garner (ed.) "fighting words," Black's Law Dictionary, 8th Ed. (St Paul, MN: West, a Thomson business, 2004), p. 660.

2. William James, "The Moral Equivalent of War," The Moral Equivalent of War and Other Essays, John Roth (ed.) (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1971), pp. 3-16.        

3. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (New York: Signet Classics edition, 2008).