Google Doodles, Easter, and Cesar Chavez: Sometimes It’s About Competing Goods

(Warning: this is a long one. I just couldn’t get it in a short post. But the short version is that the argument that Google is anti-Christian doesn’t hold up in the light of reasonable moral analysis. In the end, there are simply times when actions that you don’t like turn out to be morally neutral or differently good.)

To say that public discourse in a religiously fraught country is difficult is an understatement. Anyone who is trying to live a publicly religious life in a diverse culture certainly knows this. As does anyone whose job connects even remotely to religion. Sunday, that meant Google, who raised a bit of ire when it posted a Doodle about Ceasar Chavez on Easter Sunday.

Now, here at Rewiring Virtue, I tend to stay away from issues that will really make people mad. There are lots of places online that people can go to vent their anger, so we don’t really need another one. That and—if I’m honest—I have a pretty thin skin, so I have tended to dig into issues where people haven’t necessarily made up their minds. That keeps the “light to heat” ratio more to my liking.

That being said, the whole controversy surrounding Sunday’s Google Doodle is too close a connection between religion, ethics, and technology for me to pass it over. I am going to assume that you already know about the controversy. (If not, check out the links in the previous sentence.) In the barest outline, some Christians were upset because Google Doodled about Cesar Chavez rather than Easter.  Most of the folks complaining feel that the Doodle is an intentional insult by Google against Christianity. To have any doodle aside from something about Easter on Easter is a slight that reveals an anti-Christian foundation at the center of the “don’t be evil” facade.

Hmmm…

It’s Understandable…

Now, let me start by saying that I can understand that perspective. As a Catholic, I am a fan of my religion. (Ok, duh.) And think it is fair to say that I would love it if everyone were to have a spiritual home, an experience of God, and a concern for suffering akin to what I have had as a Christian.  So, it makes sense to me that people feel slighted when others overlook their religion/faith or when they criticize it directly. As a Theology teacher, I deal with that on a daily basis in the classroom.  No matter what it is—a favorite band, a football team, or your spouse—when others don’t have the same love for the thing you care about, it is hard. The more you care, the harder it is.

I also think that it was poor form for Google to do the Chavez doodle this year.  Cesar Chavez was an amazing man whom I admire greatly.  His commitment to suffering workers improved our nation by reminding us that we must treat everyone with dignity—spraying pesticides directly on workers is not an ethically respectable way to treat human beings. That his drive was grounded in his Christian faith makes him all the more compelling to me. Honoring him is great.

Realistically speaking, though, it should not surprise anyone that this was seen as a bit of slight against Christianity. While he isn’t the only linguist I like, Claude Lévi-Strauss had a great point when he noted that a very basic level, we know things by what they are not.  Differences are revealing, and are a central way that we come to understand the nature of things.  Google played right into this human tendency by setting up a perfect dualism: Christ vs. Chavez.  This was strengthened (or made worse) by its alignment with other popular dualisms.  Jesus is a conservative hero while Cesar is a liberal hero. The tech industry is cozy with Hollywood and Democrats while religion is the friend of Republicans. Neither of these dualisms hold up under scrutiny, but they are common themes these days. Google unnecessarily poked the bear. And the news media has done its best to make sure it was seen as bear baiting.

Google could have easily waited a year for the Doodle when the birthday would not have coincided with Easter.  Spectacularly bad timing.  Certainly something that suggests a lack of sensitivity and, in pure market terms, due diligence.

…But Not Warranted

All of that being said, it seems to me that arriving at the conclusion that Google committed a moral failure takes a few leaps that I am uncomfortable with as an ethicist.

1) We don’t know Google’s intentions: Some critics argued that Google acted with bad intentions, namely to harm Christianity.  Within most religious and philosophical traditions ethics, intention is very important to the morality of an action. It matters that someone harmed another on purpose rather than accidentally. Actions that intentionally seek the harm of others are considered wrong.  Indeed, within the Catholic tradition, knowledge of an expected harm is one of the key things that differentiates venial (less serious) from mortal (more serious) sin.  That distinction is also seen in the law, where we make a big distinction between manslaughter and murder.

So, it would be telling if we could say that Google had bad intentions. But, as it turns out, we actually have no knowledge of the intentions of those who made the decision about the Doodle. None at all. Intention is really hard to figure out from the outside. If you have ever called in sick for work, you have relied on this fact. Did Google mean to slight Christians? Don’t know. Didn’t they not realize people would be upset? Don’t know. We can guess based on evidence, but it is still only a guess. And it is difficult to claim moral evil based on the criterion of bad intention in the absence of someone disclosing an intention.

2) Google hasn’t shown a history of anti-Christian Doodle-ism.  Short of Google confessing bad intention, some have tried to argue that there is evidence of anti-religious intention in previous Doodles.  This argument tends to suggest, too, that Google treats Christianity worse than other religions. But even a cursory search search of the Doodles shows this to be unsupported by the data.  There have been Doodles for the two major Christian holidays.  There were 2 for Easter, and there have Doodles every year since 1999 for Christmas (they are labeled “happy holidays,” but all of the iconography is Christmas). But if you look for other religious holidays, they are pretty much totally absent. There are no Doodles for Jewish holidays like Passover and Yom Kippur, and only 1 for Rosh Hashanah. There are none for any Muslim holiday.  They’ve only done 1 for a Hindu holiday (Diwali).

Just going by the numbers, they have done the most Doodles for the world’s largest religion. They ignored number 2 and slighted number 3.  By that metric, Christianity is by far their favorite religion!

3) Some of the moral argumentation doesn’t fit the demands of logic. The third assertion that critics of Google are making is essentially that not recognizing Christ is a rejection of Christ.  Yet, anyone who has studied basic logic knows that an absence of an argument for something is not the same of an argument against it. Just because you don’t give money to feed the hungry doesn’t mean you hope they starve. Failing to send money to support unwed mothers doesn’t mean that you are pro-abortion. Logic doesn’t work that way!

In part, this “for or against” view may be grounded in a biblical text from the Book of Revelation. In it, the narrator (John) is relating the words that God has asked him to relay. In book 3, verses 15-16, John repeats God, who says:

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

A big and pretty clear dualism there.  Either you are for God or not.  But it is difficult to directly apply this passage to the case of Google. This prophecy is directed to the “the angel church in Laodicea.” But we aren’t in Laodicea. Nor is Google a church. And who is the angel? Revelation is a notoriously complex book. Applying a prophecy aimed at a particular person at a particular church in a particular location to the group actions of an economic entity may not work very easily.  I mean, maybe the Googlers really are good Christians in their personal lives and the passage is about personal, not corporate, acts. On the other hand, maybe it is about business ethics.

The importance of the Bible notwithstanding, my guess is that this “for or against” view speaks less about scripture and more about the contemporary stance of cultural combat that we find ourselves in. We live in a country that prizes polarization.  The media loves conflict because it raises ratings.  Advertisers have to make huge distinctions out of negligible differences to drive sales.  Moderates aren’t compelling, so political parties paint themselves and their opponents as profoundly different. People of faith and atheists alike paint people who think differently—whether within or outside of one’s own religion—as being either evil or stupid. In a competition environment, the success of anyone else is a failure for you.

Short of clear evidence from intention or practice—neither of which we have—an absence of celebration can’t be read as a condemnation.

Choices Are Often About Competing Legitimate Goods

Given the gaps in the arguments, I think that it is really difficult to conclude that Google hates Christ and/or Christianity.  They may, but the evidence just doesn’t prove the point. I’m not even sure it suggests that they did anything evil.

What Google really did was choose a different good.  According to Google:

Doodles are the fun, surprising, and sometimes spontaneous changes that are made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers, and scientists.”

They’ve done about 1000 of them, and the lion’s share of things don’t celebrate holidays.  Rather, they celebrate people who have made contributions to science, technology, and the arts, but are often all but unknown in the general public. And let’s be honest, Easter doesn’t really need any press. Everyone knows what it is, even non-Christians.  Only 1 of my 80 students this semester didn’t really know what it was all about.  I’ll tell you after class Wednesday, but my guess is that maybe a handful know who Cesar Chavez is.

Google Doodles is one of the best general education program out there, especially free ones!

Simply put, sometimes actions that you don’t happen to like end up being morally good. There is nothing wrong with educating people about a social figure. Indeed, education is a legitimate good.  There are definitely times when companies do harm—even evil—and in those cases, it needs correction. But just because I would prefer a different good doesn’t make the good evil.

Perhaps this broad view of the good can be chalked up to my Catholic upbringing. Sociologists have long recognized a “Catholic imagination” that focuses on drawing connections between different parts of our distinctive experiences.  Or perhaps it is my Jesuit training, which instilled in me deep kinship with St. Ignatius’ desire to see God in all things. Or maybe I’m just wishy-washy.

Google’s timing was less than optimal.  But, in the end, I do think Cesar Chavez is a great example of how the resurrection of Christ can transform individuals and society by striving to create a healed world—both spiritually and physically.  If Google reminds people of that, nicely done.

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