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Avatar CSR

Critics who tirelessly pan Avatar’s (2010) message as a recycled, retrospective Dance with Wolves-like’ (1990) analysis of the white man’s treatment of indigenous peoples miss the point. James Cameron is not simply creating a descriptive message of corporate social responsibility (CSR) but prescribes a call toward action to stop repeating the tactics from our collective past. He does not seek to hide the brutal treatment of the Na’vi at the hands of a commercially backed paramilitary brigade devoted ad nauseum to the profit motive. Parker Selfridge, the passive-aggressive head administrator of the Resources Development Administration (RDA) reveals Pandora’s bottom line:

This is why we’re here−unobtainium−because this little gray rock sells for twenty million a kilo. This pays for the whole party.

Jake Sully, the self-reflective ex-marine, resigns himself to his role among the Na’vi: a warrior dreaming he could bring peace. Sooner or later though, he has to “wake up.” Jake openly embraces the connection that the Na’vi have with their Pandora home and the contradictions between his own values and actions.

Giant transnational corporations (see Shell Petroleum and the Ogoni) who use the very same tactics portrayed in Avatar to placate their Boards and shareholders continue to threaten and harass indigenous peoples. Usually there is some nuanced benefit derived from the corporation and descriptive ‘diplomatic’ solutions do not wind up solely as public relations window dressing. However, Cameron’s not-so hidden, ought-not prescriptive message in Avatar is straightforward: the treatment of indigenous peoples for sake of the profit motive is unethical and needs to stop.

Does Plato Wear Prada?

In The Devil Wears Prada (2006), a young woman who shuns the latest styles comes to New York and nonchalantly lands a job as an assistant to the ruthless Miranda Priestly, the city’s biggest fashion magazine editor.

People often retreat into an all-too-familiar glazed look when exposed to either the technical details of the garment industry or, in our case, the subtle distinctions of grand ethical theories.

Miranda rebuts this kind of thinking when she ‘dresses down’ Andrea for scoffing when one of the fashion designers holds up two nearly identical belts and asserts that they are so different:

I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet, and you select out . . . that lumpy blue sweater . . . But what you don’t know is that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.  You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent who showed cerulean military jackets . . . and then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down to some tragic casual corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, and it’s sort of comical how you think you made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of ‘stuff.’

Andrea makes the mistake of referring to Miranda’s serious work as “stuff.” The fashion industry sows, the academy deliberates, and the masses reap the long-term consequences. The results remain similar regardless of the industry, profession, or movement. Miranda’s rant illustrates the descent of modern cerulean and, to a larger extent, the implications of ideas that filter their way from the ivory tower down to the city streets.

Men, women, and their grand ideas renowned in their tight-knit circles: Aristotle’s observations on virtue, Thomas Hobbes’ egoism, David Hume’s influence on relativism, Immanuel Kant’s deontological imprint, John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, and Carol Gilligan’s recent reflections on care all shape modern ethical thought and moral decision making.

Our ethical beliefs may seem as if they are fished out of some moral clearance bin, but they actually represent timeless principles which have outlasted their respective historical principals.

It is a devilish, Platonic, Pradaic (sic) effect that ideas do matter and leave lasting consequences.