Ethics and Morality – Lost in Translation
Quite on accident I stumbled upon photos from my blog which had been stolen. I was looking at the images in a Facebook album owned by a Salvadoran pride community only to see a photo that looked familiar – “Wait a minute,” I thought, “that’s my photo!”
I clicked to enlarge it and not only had it been used without permission, but my name and my blog were not mentioned at all. Looking through the album I found almost a dozen of my photos. Soon I would find my stolen photos in the Facebook photo albums of two other similar communities owned by people in El Salvador.
I accused one of the people of theft and left comments on every single one of my photos demanding that the photos be removed. This person removed the photos quickly and apologized saying the theft had been unintentional. (He claims that the photos were submitted to him and he didn’t know where they had come from. I accepted his apology and moved on.)
In the second case it was a very large community and the guy who owned it had the nerve to watermark my photos with his name and even made comments on the photos as if he had taken them. Angry, I decided to take care of things through the Facebook complaint form for copyright violations. It was a little tedious, but Facebook acted within hours and removed the photos without me having to engage the owner of the page in conversation.
In the third case, I determined that the owner of the Facebook community was a female and decided, out of some sort of sympathy and sisterhood, to give her a chance to remove the photos herself instead of reporting her to Facebook. I told her that the photos were mine and that I was giving her one hour to remove them. If she failed to remove the photos, I would be forced to report the violation to Facebook.
She did not respond well to my ultimatum and began to insult me. I explained to her that I was being kind in giving her this chance and that others in my position could potentially take her to court. Her response?
“tu estas loca hija aqui no vengas con pendejadas saves q me vale berda lo q tu quieras hacer”
Wow. I was a little shocked but I composed myself long enough to reply:
“Qué es ‘berda’? … La palabra es VERGA. Si vas a ser maleducada, por lo menos, aprenda a deletrear, cipota.”
In the end, I reported the copyright violation to Facebook and Facebook removed the photos from her album, but I was left wondering about a lot of things. I related this whole story to Carlos and he seemed unimpressed. The look on his face said to me, “What did you expect?”
“People in El Salvador don’t respect copyrights – you should know that,” he said.
And he was right, I should know that. In El Salvador, pirated DVDs and CDs are sold out in the open. Stores in the mall carry knock-off T-shirts printed with every cartoon character and American rock band imaginable. My suegra, who’s a seamstress, buys bags of clothing labels at the market – The clothing labels are for sewing onto the clothing she makes and sells. She sews in tags that say Polo Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Liz Claiborne.
And it isn’t just individuals who do this – Even businesses in El Salvador get in on the action. I’ve mentioned before, that one day we were traveling back from Chalatenango to the city and we were starving. We saw a sign for Wendy’s – exactly like the Wendy’s sign you all know and love with the same red background, same white lettering, same instantly recognizable font. We go inside the Wendy’s only to find out it’s a little comedor selling bistec y arroz, quesadilla, and all kinds of Salvadoran food. No burgers and fries were to be found – this was not a real Wendy’s.
I think that many (not all) people in El Salvador are so used to literally being surrounded by copyright violations on a daily basis that the concept of intellectual property becomes impossible to understand. In the minds of the people who stole my images, they feel they’ve done nothing wrong. When confronted by accusations of “theft”, in their minds I was being irrational, selfish, crazy. After all, they didn’t literally steal a physical object from me – I still have my photo, they just have it too. What’s the big deal?
As I dealt with the copyright violations, Carlos told me more than once that I was wasting my time. “That’s a losing battle,” he said, “they’ll do it again, and if not them, some other Salvadoran will.” Although I wasn’t able to be at peace with that for a few days, I do agree with him.
I want to be clear here – I don’t believe this difference in ethics is due to American culture, American belief systems or Americans themselves being any way superior to Salvadoran culture, Salvadoran belief systems or Salvadorans themselves. I don’t believe that Salvadorans are less moral, less civilized or less anything. What I do believe is that this difference in ethics is an example of ethical relativism in action – In other words, my “right and wrong” are not necessarily the same as your average Salvadoran’s “right and wrong.”
It’s a controversial and complex philosophy, but it makes sense to me. What do you think? Are morals & ethics non-negotiable or are they dependent on one’s culture? What differences have you observed in ethics across cultures?
Ethical Issues Across Cultures (PDF)
Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response
Tim’s El Salvador Blog – (the discussion in comments on this post about piracy is really interesting.)