For several reasons, all embarrassing testaments to my vice, I was listening to an interview of a beloved former contestant on ABC’s “The Bachelorette.” He was making public amends after having traded his good-guy persona for a series of one-night stands and unfulfilled promises.
I’m sure it’s a temptation of some enormity to be suddenly surrounded by beautiful and willing young women who see you as you want to see yourself. Still, he knew, as all celebrities must know, that how his fans saw him wasn’t real. He began to cope with that disparity by becoming louder in support of various charities. Somehow he thought that by putting his weight behind a good cause he could bridge the chasm between perception and reality, a chasm exacerbated by his womanizing.
His case was less egregious than, but still reminiscent of, Harvey Weinstein’s bizarre public mea culpa about fighting the National Rifle Association in light of the revelations of his predation. Such a jarring non sequitur was deemed unacceptable because he’d violated the last sexual norm: consent. But it was still revealing in how we’ve come to see public support of a popular cause as a great balm for our personal guilt.
It made me wonder how often we all do this. We feel the dissonance between who we ought to be and who we are, and we make up for it by becoming noisier about some issue. If our noise can also implicitly condemn moral beings with whom we disagree, then we might come that much closer to feeling satisfied with ourselves.
Now, obviously we can and should fight injustice, and certainly it’d be not only hasty, but wrong to assume that someone else’s passion for a cause is some sort of mask for his or her interior guilt or shame. But it’s notable that, as we’ve declined as a culture in our private virtue, so have we increasingly globalized our public virtue.
This exchange of the personal for the global means that virtue has become largely propositional. It’s no longer understood as something that demands that I master passions, but now resides largely in an assent to the right beliefs and being on the right side of a cause. It becomes idea more than act. Do you condemn the correct things? Do you do it publicly?
We’re buoyed in this self-defeating exercise by an ambient relativism that ironically encourages its own fundamentalism and incivility. We think relativism will increase civility by making us more accepting, but practically speaking it seems to have the opposite effect.
Cultural relativism implies a futility to debate. Each person can only speak from the locked soap box of his or her own perspective. Outside of that, there’s no intelligible or discoverable meaning upon which we can come together.
Yet even the relativist wants to advance his vision of the moral society. Without recourse to universals, his option for persuasion becomes demagoguery: make your opponent seem not only wrong but bad, someone to be shunned. There truly are some ideas that are so repugnant that they’re not worth serious engagement, but the habit now is to conflate complex policy disagreements without easy answers into Manichaean battles of principle dividing the pure from the sinister.
By nature we’re moral beings. Loosening our cultural mores doesn’t mean our moral instincts disappear. Rather, we end up flexing that muscle more gratuitously. The less prone we are to self-examination, the more self-aggrandizing we become in our denunciations.
It’s making our society harsher. A greater focus on personal virtue gives us an ability to temper our emotions, to be prudent about when to speak and what to say, and to have the humility to humanize our ideological opponents. Mastering our passions and the intellectual habit of seeking plausible opposing arguments can slow the intemperate outrage that’s deforming us.
There’s no avenue to a just society that circumvents the hard work we have to do in ourselves and within our immediate spheres of influence. In fact, we emasculate our efforts if we exert more energy on things over which we’ve the least amount of control.
There’s a lot of talk about civility lately, and a common rejoinder is often some sort of contemptuous tu quoque, but the root of the problem is that being civilized requires personal virtue; it isn’t meant to be a replacement for it. There’s no shortcut to civility that won’t end up being a cheap veneer, easily peeled away and corroded underneath.
There’s a reason Mother Teresa famously said that the way to change the world is to go home and love your family. She knew the sadness and injustice of the world. She also knew the solution.