This is a picture of a flyer I got in the mail on September 11, 2011. It’s from Ralphs. If you can’t read the text in the upper right, perhaps because the background1 is a little too visually busy, I reproduce it here in full:
On September 11, 2001, the lives of Americans were changed forever. On the ten-year anniversary of this tragedy, take a moment to reflect on the heroes who emerged that day. They were normal people who showed exceptional courage and strength that inspired a nation.
The rest of the flyer is mostly about how cheaply one might acquire chicken.2
I’m curious about how these sorts of things come about. Is there some authority figure in charge of these flyers who realized that it would be a travesty to let the tenth anniversary of 9/11 pass unremarked, and also that it would be a travesty if too much of the chicken were obscured, such that the remark must be confined to a corner about the same size as the “50% OFF” text? Was the job then delegated to the copywriters, who faced the unenviable task of figuring out how to sum up 9/11 in the space of a couple tweets?
Or was this a grassroots movement among one or more of the flyer’s workaday creators, under-employed writers and graphic designers who saw a chance to for once create something more than just a list of sales; a chance to use their skills not for choosing whether to use four or five different fonts3 or how large to make the “50% OFF” this time,4 but instead for triggering a genuine emotional response in the six or seven people who, burdened or blessed as they so happen to be with a valuation of their own time at about $4 worth of Zimbabwean currency, are the sorts of people who would ever stop and spend their time reading extraneous copy on a “Ralphs fresh fare” ad?5
What did the conversation look like, when they came to their supervisor? The boss was expecting just another meeting that fit the normal pattern: look over the proposed layout, suggest that the word ‘card’ be capitalized in the phrase “With CARD” because someone on the team subversively keeps changing it back to normal each week, then spend the rest of the time talking about pictures of chicken. Was the supervisor expecting a meeting they had all gone through weekly for as long as any of them had been working there, only to be met with a proposal to include something about 9/11? “We can do it in less than 50 words,” they might have said. “It won’t even take up 10% of the page. The pictures of chicken will be at least twice as large. Trust us. Support the troops. This will make those suckers at Vons look heartless. People will save this flier in the same place they keep the front page of the newspaper from 9/11.”6
Whatever its origin, the result itself is supremely weird. Whose idea was it to grab the red poppies from Memorial Day (and Veteran’s Day) to superimpose over the American flag in the background? Are red poppies now a symbol of heroism in all forms, rather than just military service? Or is 9/11 so closely linked to war in everyone’s minds that being a first responder counts as being a soldier on the front lines in the War on Terror? Is saying that “the lives of Americans were changed forever” really a great way to sum up a tragedy? The lives of Americans changed forever when New Coke was introduced, and then changed forever back again three months later with the return to Old Coke.7 Surely we can find more evocative language to describe 9/11 than simply noting that it triggered changes, especially since I’m pretty that Americans aren’t the ones whose lives were changed the most that day.
Most interesting, though, is that the flyer contains a crucial ambiguity. We learn that there were “heroes who emerged that day” who were “normal people who showed exceptional courage and strength that inspired a nation.” Nowhere does the flyer specify that the heroes were Americans, that the courage was demonstrated by rescuing victims, or that the nation was America.
At least since Socrates, philosophers have debated the question of the “unity of the virtues.” The question is whether the various virtues, like courage, temperance, kindness, and so on, all go together in a sort of package deal. Could you be courageous but unkind, for instance?
I think at least on its face, the unity of the virtues seems clearly false. Of course you can be courageous but unkind, or kind but cowardly. But you can understand the impulse to endorse the unity of the virtues by looking at how mad people got at Bill Maher and Susan Sontag when they both claimed that the 9/11 hijackers were courageous.8
Few wanted to admit (publicly, at least) that someone could show courage by killing thousands of innocent people. The hijackers were obviously lacking some virtues, so if we want to deny that they were courageous, one way of doing so would be to endorse the unity of the virtues, and note that they could not possibly have been courageous because they were not otherwise virtuous. I don’t find that very tempting, and I also can’t think of any more compelling way to deny that the hijackers were courageous.
I’m not sure how many eyes usually look over the proofs for these things before they go to the printer or whether any extra approval was required for the inclusion of a 9/11 memorial semi-semicircle cutting off the edge of a plate of chicken, but I have to imagine that nobody who signed off on this had my alternate reading in mind.9 Barring the clandestine operations of an al-Qaeda sleeper agent embedded in the Ralphs marketing department, the only explanation for the ambiguous wording here is that of all the people who read it, none of them managed to put themselves in the shoes of someone for whom it would not be utterly obvious that the only possible heroes of 9/11 were Americans and the only possible nation that was inspired that day was America.
It would not surprise me if the habit of keeping oneself out of those shoes, and the shoes of others more generally, isn’t confined to Ralphs employees, or just to Americans. And I can’t help but think that if we broke out of this habit more often, there wouldn’t be as many tragedies to memorialize. Whether or not it takes courage to hijack a plane and fly it into a building, or to invade a country thousands of miles overseas, I can’t imagine it’s very easy to do either of these things if one is liable to imagine oneself in the position of the people whose building is being flown into or the people whose country is being invaded.
- An American flag with red poppies superimposed on it. [↑]
- There is a small inset offering an attractive price on salmon fillets, either because or in spite of the fact that they have “Color Added.” [↑]
- They went with five, which I think is overkill for pretty much anything, including a supermarket flyer. [↑]
- Answer: really large. [↑]
- One of the benefits of joining this club is near infinite patience. As a member of the club, I can report that visits to the DMV are, for me, entirely stress-free. [↑]
- Since I scanned the flyer for posterity, that was a pretty good guess, I guess. [↑]
- It’s a miracle that The Coca-Cola Company managed to keep everyone from referring to Coca-Cola as “Old Coke.” If I had been alive at the time, I would have worked “Old Coke” into every conversation. “I see you’re enjoying an Old Coke,” “does anyone know if there is any Old Coke in the vending machine,” “do you serve Old Coke?” and so forth. [↑]
- ABC News has got the scoop. From this report we also learn that President Bush saw the hijackers as cowards, which is helpful information in case you were wondering whether Susan Sontag and George W. Bush have ever disagreed about anything. [↑]
- Maybe Ralphs only hires people who endorse the unity of virtues. This is why majoring in philosophy can be a good idea: it will prepare you for job interviews at Ralphs. If they ask about the unity of the virtues, you know what answer to give. [↑]