N.B.: This is another post from my previous blog, dated May 8, 2010 (our wedding anniversary!). It is one of a series of posts in which I discuss misplaced or misused moral superiority. It has been edited slightly from the original. Also, there were links in the original which only end in 404 Errors. I know nothing is supposed to disappear on the Internet, but the truth is, sometimes, things do disappear.
I have occasionally offered the view that I am not impressed with moral indignation. Claiming some kind of moral high-ground on any topic of controversy usually is a way of insulating oneself from the messy reality that we are all compromised in some manner, fashion, or form related to moral judgments. Way back in the fall of 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, one often heard “liberals” chided for some kind of failure to call what happened “evil”, especially after George W. Bush used David Frum’s “axis of evil” in a speech before Congress. For some reason still not completely understood by me, it was thought to be an act not only of moral but intellectual acumen, not to say public heroism, for the President of the United States to call an evil act . . . well, evil.
I was puzzled by this until I found the following. It is the source of what I call “the kitten-burning trap”, i.e., someone demanding that others make moral pronouncements on actions that are clearly vicious.
Every once in a while, I am sorry to say, some sick bastard sets fire to a kitten. This is something that happens. Like all crimes, it shouldn’t happen, but it does. And like most crimes, it makes the paper. The effects of this appalling cruelty are not far-reaching, but the incidents are reported in the papers because the cruelty is so flagrant and acute that it seems newsworthy.
The response to such reports is horror and indignation, which is both natural and appropriate. But the expression of that horror and indignation also produces something strange.
A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so. It’s one of the very few instances I recall when that timidly Broderian bunch took an unambiguous stance without their habitual on-the-other-hand qualifications.
I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.
That same posturing resurfaced in a big way earlier this year when the kitten-burners struck again, much closer to home. A group of disturbed and disturbing children doused a kitten with lighter fluid and set it on fire just a few miles from the paper’s offices.
The paper covered the story, of course, and our readers ate it up.
People loved that story. It became one of the most-read and most-e-mailed stories on our Web site. Online readers left dozens of comments and we got letters to the editor on the subject for months afterward.
Those letters and comments were uniformly and universally opposed to kitten-burning. Opinon on that question was unanimous and vehement.
But here was the weird part: Most of the commenters and letter-writers didn’t seem to notice that they were expressing a unanimous and noncontroversial sentiment. Their comments and letters were contentious and sort of aggressively defensive. Or maybe defensively aggressive. They were angry, and that anger didn’t seem to be directed only at the kitten-burners, but also at some larger group of others whom they imagined must condone this sort of thing.
If you jumped into the comments thread and started reading at any random point in the middle, you’d get the impression that the comments immediately preceding must have offered a vigorous defense of kitten-burning. No such comments offering any such defense existed, and yet reader after reader seemed to be responding to or anticipating this phantom kitten-burning advocacy group.
One came away from that comment thread with the unsurprising but reassuring sense that the good people reading the paper’s Web site did not approve of burning kittens alive. Kitten-burning, they all insisted, was just plain wrong.
But one also came away from reading that thread with the sense that people seemed to think this ultra-minimal moral stance made them exceptional and exceptionally righteous. Like the earlier editorial writers, they seemed to think they were exhibiting courage by taking a bold position on a matter of great controversy. Whatever comfort might be gleaned from the reaffirmation that most people were right about this non-issue issue was overshadowed by the discomfiting realization that so many people also seemed to want or need most others to be wrong.
It takes very little moral imagination to call an evil act evil. Indeed, a child of eight or nine can understand pretty readily that burning kittens, or killing thousands of people, is morally vicious. I have been chided by moral scolds of both sides of the ideological fence because I refuse to engage in that kind of thing.
Pronouncing moral judgments upon this or that or another act is the easiest thing to do. It’s safe and easy and involves no risk on the part of the person passing judgment. It also helps us avoid the far more difficult and far more important moral task of understanding why such an act is committed. When serial murderers and pedophiles are dehumanized by calling them “monsters” or “animals”; when terrorists are labeled “evildoers”; even when kitten-burners are labeled “sociopaths”; when people say these things, they are safely out of reach. We and they cannot possibly be related in a moral sense. Whatever drove these individuals to act in the ways they do has no relationship to the ways we live our lives; indeed, being morally vicious they can be considered intellectually unintelligible. Who cares why the priest molested the little boys and girls? Who cares why John Wayne Gacey or Jeffrey Dahmer killed all those people? That they did is sufficient to declare them evil, outside the circle of our empathy or concern.
The author quoted above continues:
Again, I whole-heartedly agree that kitten-burning is really, really bad. But the leap from “that’s bad” to “I’m not that bad” is dangerous and corrosive. I like to call this Thornton Melon morality. Melon was the character played by Rodney Dangerfield in the movie Back to School, the wealthy owner of a chain of “Tall & Fat” clothing stores whose motto was “If you want to look thin, you hang out with fat people.” That approach — finding people we can compare-down to — might make us feel a little better about ourselves, but it doesn’t change who or what we really are. The Thornton Melon approach might make us look thin, but it won’t help us become so. Melon morality is never anything more than an optical illusion.
This comparing-down is ultimately corrosive because it bases our sense of morality in pride rather than in love — in the cardinal vice instead of the cardinal virtue. And to fuel that pride, we end up looking for ever-more extreme and exotically awful people to compare ourselves favorably against, people whose freakish cruelty makes our own mediocrity show more goodly and attract more eyes than that which hath no foil to set it off.
Melon morality is why if the kitten-burners didn’t already exist, we would have to invent them.
The narcissistic aspect of this phenomenon should be clear; these evildoers exist solely to demonstrate our moral worth. Pronouncing moral judgments, whether it’s on kitten-burners or Satanists or abortion-providers or racists or whomever – it’s a child’s game and has nothing to do with serious moral inquiry. I can’t even be bothered with calling evil acts evil, not because I do not believe them to be so. On the contrary, they are prima facie evidence of the reality of radical evil for those who think such a thing nonexistent. I do not bother with such labeling because it has nothing to do with understanding how an evil event took place. Whether it’s a mass murder, a serial child-rapist, or a terrorist attack, we get absolutely nowhere if we call such things “evil” and figure there is no more to be said, done, or thought.
What is far more important, and far more troubling, is investigating how human beings no different from us can engage in acts of radical evil, whether that is kitten-burning, serial murder, or genocide. To those who complained of the alleged silence of “the left” on the moral status of terrorist acts, I can only wonder how they could miss the equally vicious idea, bandied about by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, of “collateral damage” during the run-up to the Iraq war. Precisely because it is the embodiment of Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil, creating bureaucratic phrases hides horrors. Of course Rumsfeld was talking about the unintended, but nevertheless forseeable, deaths of thousands during combat. Not to see the moral viciousness of such a phrase is far more troubling than refusing to say that killing thousands with airplanes is an evil action.
Precisely because pronouncing moral opprobrium upon acts that are morally evil is so easy, it should be avoided. Whether it’s denouncing sociopathic adolescents or dictators, our intellectual and moral effort should aim toward understanding in order to prevent, rather than standing on some kind of pedestal, calling perpetrators of such acts evil. We should be willing to engage in the far more dangerous, and personally risky, task of keeping evil acts squarely within the possibilities available to any and all human beings. That takes real moral imagination, and is far more necessary in an age when genocide is commonplace and war has become our new normal.