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Beyond the Bubbles

Sodagate reminds us good vs. evil not always so clear

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February 10, 2014

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on Feb. 7, 2014.

By Karen Alter

So many high profile celebrities are dedicated to helping the world, and there is so little agreement about what actually helps.

As most every Super Bowl fan knows by now, Oxfam, a global NGO dedicated to alleviating poverty, severed its ambassador relationship with Scarlett Johannson, because of her role as a spokesperson for Soda Stream, manufacturers of a do-it-yourself soda company.

While Johannson coyly says in the recent controversial commercial that her "real job is saving the world," she was not able to save her Oxfam partnership.

The contention and cause for the schism was her support for a company with a factory located in the West Bank, an area Israelis see as land won in war, and the Palestinians see as an occupied territory.

SodaStream officials say its product is good for the environment, and that its factory sustains 500 Palestinian jobs and promotes reconciliation by having Israelis and Palestinians working side by side and earning equal wages for equal work.

Even Roger Waters of Pink Floyd weighed in, accusing Johansson of "not paying attention," to the destruction she causes.

Yes, Sodagate is partly about the Arab-Israeli dispute. Oxfam has joined those expressing their unconditional disapproval of Israeli settlements by boycotting and divesting from anything having to do with Israeli settlements.

The boycott-divest-sanction movement has gained many new proponents, because of a sense that time is right to pressure Israel to finally negotiate peace with the Palestinians.

But Sodagate may also be about the fight for moral purity. It reminds us, however, that we should also consider nuance. Does one drop of dye in water really poison the whole glass?

Ethics sells; which is why everyone claims to be on the side of angels. But when ethical claims cross over into demands for moral purity, such claims can become unethical.

This pursuit of moral purity, an all or nothing perspective that dominates American, Arab-Israeli, and Islamic fundamentalist politics, is responsible for many of today's international diplomatic conundrums.

The partisans who insist on "no compromise" in Washington, D.C. refuse to negotiate with any Iranian government. The Islamic Fundamentalists who many people associated with Afghanistan's Taliban and Al Qaeda share this trait, which they use to create gridlock, inaction and chaos.

I teach my Northwestern University students that ethics in international affairs are important, and the more power one has, the greater the responsibility.

Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of Soda Stream, takes the position of the person stuck in a bad situation. He says that he would not today establish a factory in a West Bank settlement.

Emphasizing the word "today," Birnbaum justifies his choice to maintain the company's West Bank factory, and thereby sustain a work environment that generates well paid and much needed Palestinian jobs, with Israelis and Palestinians working together.

Although taking the high road in favor of a pure solution may seem noble, more often than not, the pursuit of purity is designed to absolve responsibility for making a hard choice.
If you pay taxes in a country engaged in wars abroad, drive a car when you could ride a bike or take a bus or support a position of "no compromise, then you should not fool yourself into believing you do no harm to others. And you should not be so fast to criticize those who are willing to make hard choices.

It is not ethical to refuse to talk, listen, compromise or associate with those who live and survive in a world with complications. Rather, the more ethical perspective is to constantly ask, "How can I do good in the messy world that requires us to choose among the lesser of evils?"

So where is the villain in this story? Or the angel?

Motives first, and outcomes second, are what matter. Assuming Birnbaum's argument is true, and that Johansson investigated the veracity of this claim, a movie star can ethically decide that maintaining the existing work environment is a lesser evil.

And she can go on with her work believing she is saving the world.

- Karen Alter is a professor of law and political science at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion