Every once in a while, a nation publicly speaks out in the name of justice and distances itself from acts of brutality committed by another government elsewhere in the world. Speaking out against such acts immediately sends out a clear political message to the government involved: ‘I, civilised country, disapprove of your repulsive activities’. In most cases, the nations that speak out are Western ones, which like to be referred to as ‘civilised’, as opposed to the nation practicing the injustice. But what are we supposed to think when these so-called civilised countries are in fact practicing repulsive activities that are similar to the ones they require another government to stop? Can the accused country do away with all the critique just by pointing back at the messenger and saying: ‘you also violate moral rules yourself’? Is this a valid reaction that gets to the heart of the argument? Logically speaking, the merits of a certain moral message have to be judged irrespective of the messenger. But for effective persuasion it helps if the country sending the message conducts itself properly.
A good habit
A recent example of a call for respecting universal rights by Western countries is the commotion surrounding gay rights in Russia. With the Olympics in sight, some Western countries – fortunately – reject the way in which Russia treats homosexuals. This international disapproval is shown in several ways: from state officials silently refusing to visit Russia during the Olympics, to sending openly gay athletes as part of the delegation (USA), to actually travelling to Russia with an important delegation, but also with the intention of ‘having a word’ with Vladimir Putin about gay rights (the Netherlands). The governments of the countries that send the moral message in this case do not prosecute or disadvantage homosexuals by means of official state policy. On top of that, they also act against violence against homosexuals within their national borders. So one might say that the aforementioned governments are in this case perfectly entitled to criticise the state of affairs in Russia.
Another clear example of international government advocacy concerns the different points of view on the death penalty in Europe and the United States. This example also shows that the political strategy of public disapproval is not necessarily a ‘West against the rest’-thing. As part of the official human rights policy, the European Union restricts the export of medicines that can be used to inflict capital punishment. This is a peaceful, but also clear and efficient way of saying that ‘we’, Europe, believe that the death penalty should be banned worldwide. Again, Europe is in this case perfectly credible in sending this moral message, because none of the member states of the European Union have the death penalty.
Credibility of the message
So what can we conclude from this form of international communication? We can say that, in order for this strategy to be effective, an international call for justice has to be credible. This means that there are two important and independent criteria that must be respected. One concerns the message, the other concerns the messenger. First of all, the message. The message that is being sent can only refer to universal values. Telling Russia that it is an American/British/Dutch habit not to prosecute gay people just for being homosexual doesn’t make a good argument. The specific thing we’re trying to tell Russia is that it is always and everywhere wrong to punish people just for their sexual orientation. That is to say: it is wrong in the USA, in the UK, in the Netherlands, and also in Russia.
Credibility of the messenger
Secondly, the messenger. The conduct of the messenger can directly affect the credibility of the call for justice. Although the message as such may be true or just, a hypocritical messenger can undermine the persuasiveness of a message. Imagine if China or Iran were to call for the United States to stop inflicting the death penalty, while at the same time practicing it themselves. The message here may be perfectly sound: the death penalty is always and everywhere wrong, but the hypocrisy of the messengers (China and Iran) affects their credibility and thereby the persuasiveness of the message.
Last week's finger pointing at Japan
Of course, most of the time nations don’t make the basic mistake of accusing another country of something they also do themselves. But, as is often the case, things are different when it comes to animal cruelty. In the past two weeks, there has been a lot of media attention directed towards the dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. During this Japanese yearly event that lasts for six months, dolphins are herded into a cove and held captive there. In the final part of this local custom (as the Japanese refer to it), some dolphins are slaughtered for their meat and others are sold to international aquariums. Apparently the terrifying sight of the seawater mixed with blood made a deep impression on some Western governments. British, German and U.S. state officials have strongly criticised the hunt and slaughtering of the dolphins. U.S. ambassador Kennedy even called it ‘inhumane’. Also, the Dutch parliament agreed on a motion proposing that the Dutch government must actively try to stop the dolphin slaughter in Japan.
So here they are, four civilised countries, telling Japan that it is absolutely wrong to slaughter or capture helpless animals for meat consumption and human entertainment. And they are right; it actually is wrong. The message they are sending is right. But what can we say here about the messengers: the USA, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands? Are these governments credible in saying that it is wrong for Japan to kill and capture those incredibly smart animals?
Unfortunately, we cannot say that these countries are strongly committed to banning animal mistreatment and slaughter within their own frontiers. They tolerate, and in some cases even subsidise, animal mass mistreatment within their own territory. The animal mistreatment in these ‘civilised’ countries is similar to, or even worse than the dolphin slaughter in Japan in relevant respects. In these Western countries millions of animals are held captive under horrible conditions, only to be killed for meat consumption after their short and miserable lives. Very smart animals are amongst them, such as pigs. Also, aquariums exhibiting dolphins and other sea animals that are captured from the wild are completely legal in those countries. So in fact these western governments snubbing Japan for violating animal interests is a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Hypocrisy affects the credibility of the messenger, not the message
It now becomes clear how important it is to precisely distinguish between a moral message and the messenger. The hypocrisy in the case of the Japanese dolphin hunt does affect the credibility of the countries doing the complaining, but it does not affect the message they are sending. The message as such is extremely relevant, sound and just: it is always and everywhere wrong to kill other animals for extravagant meat consumption or to mistreat them for human entertainment. This is not only true for Japan, but also for the USA, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. So preachers: please continue preaching, but also: start practicing what you preach.