Lee Siegel begins his examination of “moral rigor” by choosing an exemplar; it is James Baldwin. Siegel knows that “moral rigor” is going to be a tough sell and he is working for as much specific and acceptable material as he can get. So…an exemplar.
Baldwin was as committed as any writer has ever been. But the stuff of his commitment was a moral clarity steeped in intellectual difficulties and ethical complications — a labyrinthine clarity that he refused to sacrifice to prescribed attitudes.
Baldwin’s moral clarity was steeped, notice, in intellectual difficulties and ethical complications. Those sound hard. The clarity Baldwin has to offer is “labyrinthine,” which is also hard. Right away, I begin to wonder why anyone would aspire to such a standard.And…we don’t, according to Siegel. We choose, instead, “ringing moral indictments;”the hallmarks of which are:
- absolute certainty,
- predetermined ideas and
- conformity to collective sentiments.
Those are what we do, in fact, choose, according to Siegel. Why would we do that? Well, to tell the truth, they don’t sound so hard when you start with the third one. “Collective sentiments” and fundamental to being human in times of conflict. We circle the wagons, we amp up our message, we jam other messages. I don’t really have any objection to Siegel’s choice of the word “conformity,” but that’s not what it feels like to belong to a team in times of conflict. The supposed one-ness of all our feelings and expressions gives us great comfort. I think I would have said, with less pejoration, “participation in the collective sentiments.”
And given that there were sentiments before you got there, the sting is also taken out of Siegel’s “predetermined.” The words of the songs we sing as Americans are predetermined. I sing “the land of the free and the home of the brave” even knowing that my country leads the world in incarcerations per thousand of population. If I were to join a group that used a secret handshake, I would ask what it is. The fact that it is “predetermined” from the standpoint of the new person, is part of why it is so attractive. You don’t catch that side of the meaning in Siegel’s “predetermined ideas.”
I think Siegel has gone too far in “absolute certainty,” but not very much too far. The lack of variation or nuance in a group’s expression is not an indicator that the certainty is absolute: it means only that adherence to “what we all know” is rewarded and deviation from it is punished.
Ringing Moral Indictments
These three indicators, Siegel’s “hallmarks,” identify the “ringing moral indictments” so common in our time and while I quibble—you might have noticed—about how those work and how they are enforced, I certainly agree with him that these traits characterize much of public discourse in our time.
And it gets worse quickly. The great strength of Siegel’s essay, it seems to me is his analysis of just how it gets worse so quickly.
In the process of abandoning the type of complex moral clarity that Baldwin practiced, we have made behavior that is unacceptable the equivalent of behavior that is criminal. An equal amount of fury is directed toward actions as morally — and legally — distinct from each other as rape, harassment, rudeness, boorishness and incivility. The outrage over a police shooting of an unarmed black teen unfolds at the same level of intensity as the outrage over what might or might not be a case of racial profiling by a salesperson in a small Brooklyn boutique.
Follow the line he traces in this paragraph from “unacceptable” to “criminal.” I think he is right about that, but consider for a minute where else that might go. We might say that we have the obligation to protest expressions or actions that we find unacceptable. We might declare them evil, rather than illegal. We might put our efforts toward protecting or compensating the victims of such actions. But Siegel is right: we go to legal.
When we go so quickly to legal remedies, I am always reminded of some very useful language that Frank Hearn provides in his book, Moral Order and Social Disorder. Hearn is a communitarian, so many of the social problems we experience really should be dealt with, as he sees it, in the community. Wholehearted commitment to institutional norms will give us both structure and freedom and they are, after all, our norms.
The word Hearn uses to describe the transfer of these issues from their natural and appropriate home in the community and into the the legal system is “juridification.” It is not a familiar word, the the meaning is clear anyway. It is the taking of an issue and placing it into the legal system, ultimately into the courts. These issues have been “juridified.” There is no way to treat these issues adequately in the courts.
And when I say “these issues,” I mean to refer to the sequence of offenses which Siegel says have become morally equivalent. It is this line that lit up the whole essay for me. It made me want to stand up and applaud. “Rape, harassment rudeness, boorishness, and incivility,” he says, have been made “morally equivalent.”
Stop for a moment and think what that means. It means that the essential character of an act as vile as rape is morally equivalent to being “uncivil.” Rape is sometimes a miscommunication, but more often it is just the brutality of a man enacted on a woman. Harassment is a good deal more subtle sometimes. Sometimes not. Rudeness depends entirely on local norms. What violates the standards of courtesy here is only the informal affirmation of belonging there. Boorishness sinks deeper in the the character. There are people who just don’t get it or, having got it, decide to offend anyway. Incivility is wholly a matter of intention and setting.
These are “morally equivalent?” Really?
And Siegel is right again, in my view, when he says that this equivalency “flattens and obfuscates,” rather than clarifying the issues we must deal with. It flattens these offenses by squeezing them into the same box and by demanding that each and every kind be protested in full voice as a moral outrage. Consider the two pictures below. Do they differ, do you think, in the variety of “collective sentiment?” It doesn’t look like it to me.
That doesn’t work. We can’t manage that much outrage and, of course, we don’t. We begin simply to disattend and deny. We excuse actions, too, if they were committed by members of our tribe. So it is only the officially sanctioned outrages, the ones that “conform to the collective sentiments” that we really have to gear up for.
There is another way of dealing with this surplus outrage and that is the way Siegel has chosen. Siegel speaks on behalf of the system as a whole when he says it just doesn’t work. Not only does squeezing all these kinds of offenses together fail to approach “moral rigor,” as illustrated by James Baldwin, but it also just doesn’t work. So he argues that we should begin to do the hard work of saying that boorish behavior is bad but it isn’t the moral equivalent of harassment.
Anyone who says that boorishness is bad, but not “that bad” is going to be attacked. Trust me on that. He is going to be said to be morally insensitive. He is going to be said to be complicit. He is going to have Edmund Burke’s most famous saying  hung around his neck and he will be made to wear it in public to show his status as an outcast.
Treating boorishness and incivility as “bad, but not that bad” denies the real feelings, they say, of the butt of that behavior. And how would you know, anyway, because you have never been a black trans-sexual refugee from the sex trade and if you don’t know how such a person might feel then who are you to say that it is not “that bad? Huh?!!” And that is how people are set aside who want to make the claim that we simply cannot run for long on the levels of outrage that are being generated today.
I don’t hold out much hope, to tell you the truth, for a standard as remote as “a moral clarity steeped in intellectual difficulties and ethical complication.” That sounds like something a few people might aspire to and even fewer achieve. And I am not at all sure I am one of those people. But I also know that the juridification of minor misdeeds and the uniform levels of outrage simply cannot be sustained for long.
We will find shortcuts. And they will be ugly.
 “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”