Halloween Costume Ethics

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Jason Sperber has some thoughts worth considering about when Halloween costumes are offensive and worth avoiding. Jason and I weren't close friends ourselves, but we had several friends in common during college, and we often sat at the same table in the dining hall. I don't think either one of us expected to have much if any contact with each other after we graduated, but I recently discovered that he's blogging in several locations, mostly in the context of race, and I found enough of it intriguing to add his blogs to my RSS reader. I've put up links some of the places he blogs in the sidebar, but I've been waiting for a post by him that I wanted to say something about so I could mention him in a post.

I think a lot of people who claim certain kinds of costumes to be offensive do an absolutely awful job of explaining why, and those who don't understand the reasons usually just write them off as being too over-sensitive. Sometimes maybe people can be over-sensitive and get offended at something they shouldn't. Other times maybe there is cause for offense, but it's not a grave enough concern to justify the kind of outrage you sometimes see, and besides there might be more productive ways to address such issues than complaining about one's rights being violated simply because one has been offended. Still, there are good reasons to avoid certain kinds of Halloween costumes, and Jason provides some good explanations (taken from tolerance.org) for why it might be bad to use a variety of different kinds of costumes. The reasons vary in kind and in degree of importance. I want to try to make the moral reasoning more explicit, since some of them go a little too quickly for my philosophically-trained ethical thought processes.

1. Some costumes make fun of real people. That's not good, and wearing a costume to make fun of real people (or putting a costume on your child to make fun of real people) is immoral.

2. Is a costume scary because it reflects real violence? If it helps promote violence, it's bad, even if that's not your intent. If it's insensitive to harm caused to actual people, that's similarly bad, even if that's not your intent. If it conveys that all members of a certain group are violent, that promotes a stereotype. If it's a false stereotype, that's bad. Even if it's a stereotype that relies on a general truth about many in a group, it might still be bad if it treats all in that group that way or if it promotes the expectation of people in that group being that way. It also might be capitalizing on the misfortune of a general trend in a group that we might better wish were not true, using that misfortune for fun.

3. Some costumes are meant to be historical representations by rely on false views of what historical practices really went on. There are a couple examples about Native American practices that costumes often misrepresent. This seems on the surface to be a consistency issue. If you want it to be a historical representation, do it right. Of course no costume can really get something perfect, so I don't think this is a strong reason to avoid these costumes, but I think there's a deeper consideration beneath the surface. It seems to do a culture an injustice if you use what might easily be viewed as a caricature of that culture for mere fun. Even if you do not intend to make fun, and even if you are not stereotyping in a harmful way, relying on widespread false impressions of a historical group serves to perpetuate those, and this seems to me to be a problem even if you aren't intending to be historically accurate.

4. If the costume displays something related to beauty or attractiveness, does it reflect a harmful standard of beauty the advertizing and entertainment industries are promoting as beauty? If so, then it serves to perpetuate a standard that causes all sorts of damage, especially to girls and women. It's not good if the costume says something about who counts as beautiful and thus perpetuates an artificial and harmful standard of beauty.

With some of these considerations, if you take the concerns too far, it will be hard to dress up as anything, but I think it's at least worth taking these factors into account when considering costumes. These are morally relevant factors, even if they aren't all absolute prohibitions, and I think it will take some work to think carefully about them while considering costumes. Those who engage in that practice (we don't, or at least we haven't so far, not that we have any serious objections to it) would do well to think through these considerations with some care.

12 Comments

Doesn't your ananlysis here merely skip over the fundamental questions: what is the purpose of a costume celebration like Holloween? Is it acceptible (or not) to have a day (or days) of the year when one is permitted to "be someone else"? Or, Is is acceptable to set aside a day for mockery evil forces and/or powerful public figures?

I don't really see the point of trying to proscribe HOW one celebrates Holloween prior to talking about what such a celebration is, what it means, and whether it is good and right to participate an such a rite. Or, put another way, if one were to set forth a positive doctrine of why we should celebrate Holloween and what exactly we are doing when we do so, then a great deal of confusion would, I hope, dissappear, making further clarifications much simpler.

On the other hand, if one held that Holloween is something we should NOT participate in, all the points would, of course, be moot.

Paul, I didn't skip over anything. If I were trying to speak to people who don't celebrate Halloween, arguing that they should do so but with these things in mind, then my argument would be incomplete. But this is a post directed to those who do celebrate Halloween, many of whom are not Christians to begin with, others of whom are simply Christians who aren't convinced by the arguments against celebrating Halloween (as I am not convinced by them). I thought it might be worth directing those people's attention to these concerns.

Those who do not celebrate Halloween will of course not see anything here applicable to what they do on October 31 (although it might apply to any other instances when they might dress up in costumes, which I'm sure many people opposed to celebrating Halloween will do from time to time). Those who do celebrate Halloween but call it something else (e.g. a Harvest Party) might also heed this advice if the Harvest Party involves dressing up as characters of some sort, as the one Wink reports in the above-linked post did involve.

Even if I were to take the time to work out exactly what reasons Christians might have positively to take part in Halloween celebrations (which I have thought about in the past but am not going to write a whole post about right now), I don't think that would automatically answer all these questions. At least the immediately Christian motivations would not do all the work of thinking through these issues. These issues might then be part of thinking through how to apply those motivations, but then what I wrote should be thought about, right? It would be part of that thought process. So I'm not sure what's wrong with raising these issues, which should indeed be thought through by those in that position.

Alright, let me put it this way: if (and lets just accept this for the sake of argument) Halloween stands in something of a continuous line with the carnival festivals of medieval Europe, then the general nature of such a festival is to set aside ordinary (ethical) behavior for the day. Thus the festival itself stands outside of "normal" ethical guidelines.

One might very well approach April Fools Day in exactly the same way. It is by its nature a day set apart for trickery, when the normal standards of truth are, by common consent and tradition, ignored. The question, in that case, of what sorts of trickery are acceptable are subsidiary to whether one should or should not observe the holiday at all, as well as a substantive account of what the holiday IS.

Getting back to Halloween, IF the holiday is taken to be an exceptional day (in something like the sense in my first paragraph), then any acount of what rules are to be followed need to take that into account, not to mention some sort of thought about the traditions involved.

So, for instance, regarding your point 1 in your post, if it is ordinarily immoral to "make fun of people", is that still the case under the exception of Halloween. If (and this may not be the case) it is an essential part of the Halloween tradition to wear mocking costumes (of the living or the dead (perhaps a relevant distinction?)), then either it is allowable to mock people during Halloween, or the festival itself is immoral.

We have discussed the ethics of April Fools before, in case you've forgotten.

I'm willing to admit that some ethical considerations might be suspended for Halloween the way they seem to be suspended for April Fools, but that only goes so far. Homer Simpson crossed the line when he put police tape around Ned Flanders' house and then told him his wife would dead, following it up with a comment that he was just kidding, then laughing at him because he had made him think his wife was dead. Aren't there similar concerns with Halloween even if some moral considerations are put aside? The question then becomes which considerations and why. I see no reason why such a debate can't take place, but I'd insist that the burden of proof is on those doing something that would otherwise constitute something morally wrong, just as it is in cases when considerations against lying are suspended.

I don't think it's an essential part of Halloween to wear mocking costumes, by the way. I'm not even sure there's any one thing that's an essential part of it at this point.

There is something morally relevant about dressing in costumes for Halloween, particularly when those costumes may offend others.

Your post dealt with dressing up as a particular person or as a particular member of some group. Over the last few years, when I've attended costume parties, several people have dressed as "events" (broadly construed) or "ideas" (again, broadly construed).

Two costumes stick out in my mind. First, three people dressed as the Salt Lake City Main Street Plaza dispute. Some background: the dispute arose because the LDS Church considered Main Street Plaza, which is open to the public, private property. The LDS Church prohibited women from walking through the Plaza if their mid-rift (spelling?) was exposed, prohibited bicyclists, skateboarders, etc. from riding in the plaza, etc., etc. One of the three was dressed as you might expect an LDS missionary to dress, one was scantily clad, and the other person had a picket sign noting that the LDS Church was infringing a person's 1st Amendment rights if they consider the Main St. Plaza private property. It strikes me that each of their costumes could be interpreted as mocking not only each side in the debate but also the Constitution.

The second instance was a woman dressed as an idea: "premarital intercourse." She wore a plain white t-shirt with strike marks denoting each of the six people she had had intimate relations with. Her costume seems to be more ambiguous than the Main St. Plaza costume. Is she poking fun of herself for having bedded these men before marriage? Or, is she proud of her promiscuousness? I'm not really sure.

My question is: what events or ideas are morally offensive? What criteria are there for determining whether events or ideas are morally offensive enough that we ought not wear costumes depicting these events or ideas?

In the LDS example you give, I don't see that they're necessarily mocking anyone. I'm not sure political parody is always making fun of people. You can fully respect LDS missionaries while dressing up as one to represent a policy you want to critique. I'm not sure it's making fun of anyone with an exposed midriff either, since this is supposed to be defending the right to dress that way. I don't see how the sign mocks the Constitution. It might be criticizing a particular interpetation of the Constitution, but that doesn't amount to mocking it. So I'm not sure I agree that there's anything offensive about that case.

The second instance is impossible to interpret correctly unless she tells you the significance of the strike marks. I'm not sure she's making fun of anyone in particular, and it's not clear if she's saying something about herself or other people. Given the ambiguities there, I'm not sure it could be offensive in that sense. The very idea of being premarital intercourse, or particularly being promiscuous intercourse, might be offensive to some people. Then again, it might be making a moral point that ought to be made, and it might be a good way of making it if the point were somehow made clearer than what this particular woman seems to have done.

If your analysis is correct, then I'm left to wonder why we should worry at all about dressing in costumes that depict events or ideas.

At first blush, I thought your argument was correct because dressing as neatly as an LDS missionary is not necessarily mocking them, but members of the faith may have some trouble with it. They may think that a non-LDS person is criticizing their socially conservative views. After all, the missionary's dress is a representation of their conservatism (if that's the right word for it). So, they may be offended precisely because the person is dressed that way.

If the missionary costume represents a side in a debate, as it appears to do in the event-based costume, and that side represents the majority of a population, then it could be that the person dressing in that way is attempting to offend.

Perhaps, and I think this is what you were getting at in your original response, it is all a matter of intention. If the person intended to offend, then we ought to hold the person morally accountable for their dressing just that way. Why wouldn't that explanation hold for all other costumes as well?

I'm not so sure it's just about intention. Intending to offend is bad. I don't think most people would debate you on that. But I don't think all cases when you don't intend to offend are ok. I'd separate those cases into the ones where you should reasonably have been expected to know that it would be offensive and ones where you shouldn't reasonably have been expected to know that it would be offensive.

I think there are cases that are offensive where it's not reasonable to expect the offender to know it would be offensive, and you might then excuse the person. (An example of this unrelated to dress is when a 60-year-old white American calls someone Oriental, a term than most white Americans over 50 have no idea is offensive.)

I think some kinds of costumes can be much more reasonably assumed to offend. If I dressed as a Native American but looked like the Cleveland Indians' mascot, I think that's easily more offensive than looking more like what you see in Dances With Wolves, which is at least a lot more accurate than the horrific caricature the Indians use for their mascot.

But it might be ideal if we seek to learn which kinds of things offend, and that was what I was encouraging people to do.

Why is it immoral to wear a costume to make fun of somebody? Is it immoral in general to make fun of somebody?

I thought I had make it clear that I don't think some of these issues automatically make it wrong. Whether it makes fun of somebody is morally relevant, I would say, but it isn't always going to make it wrong. Some ways of making fun of someone are immoral, particularly if it makes light of something that is inaccurate, blows something out of proportion, or is tragic rather than genuinely humorous. I would probably consider something like 75-90% of instances of making fun of someone to be immoral, but that's probably more a sign of the kinds of making fun of people that we're more likely to do than it is a sign of something intrinsic to the act of making fun.

Yeah, that makes sense.

Another thing I was thinking about, particularly in light of some of these comments: is there really a tight connection between being offensive and offending? Offending is a causal notion, right? Take that Cleveland Indians caricature. You suggest that wearing that costume is likely to be offensive, and that we should be careful to learn which kinds of things offend. But what if I know that nobody at the party I'm going to will be offended by the costume? Maybe I know that none of them care about dignity for Native Americans. I might be careful to know what would and wouldn't offend, and I might wear that costume with justifiable confidence that I wouldn't offend anybody.

Nevertheless, it seems that it's still an inappropriate costume for just the same reason as previously assumed. This suggests that this reason actually has very little to do with offending people.

Does that sound right?

Yes, that sounds right to me.

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