MORALITY HAS A TARNISHED REPUTATION for those of us who don't appreciate the practice of some who preach. We may admit that the world is a troubled place and in need of redemption, but as things get worse, greater grow the bitter ironies and flagrant hypocrisies of the self-righteous.
An enthusiastic churchgoer, the American President has been caught lying and cheating. Yet, he has many defenders. A born-again thirteen year old boy in Bible country Arkansas puts a rifle to his shoulder to teach his classmates a lesson. And no one knows why. One of the most religious countries in the West, the U.S. is violent on the streets, in word, movie and song.
It can be easy, then, to look at religious exhortations to virtue with a jaundiced eye, to imagine that moral persuasion is hopelessly outdated. But it isn't as easy to ignore the nagging larger questions that begin, "How did things get this way?" And, in spite of our resistance, we might also ask, "What are the moral issues?" Because when presidents philander and children murder, ethical considerations are not irrelevant.
Many liberals, progressives, activists and workers for the common good live decent and compassionate lives, yet hardly know where to begin when considering questions of morality that would place values on somebody else. Morality is associated with "moralistic," the reactionary, thou-shalt-not preachings of the religious right. We've also seen morality used as a crowbar to get into heaven. And we've been exposed to the pious pronouncements of unrepentant homophobes, racists, and those who would ignore the needs of women and children. No, we want no part of that morality, of those family values.
Yet, as decency in society becomes more elusive, we have to admit that a higher moral standard is urgently needed. It is time, as doomsayers predict the end of civilization, to discover ways to talk about morality, to learn how to evaluate our lives and our actions by thinking in moral terms. Whether unchurched, nonreligious, agnostic or true believers, we all feel the need for peace and stability. Morality can be viewed as a practical way for people to deal with each other, rather than as something to fear.
Thinking in moral terms suggests being judgmental, which is why it makes even good people hesitant. Many aging hippies, radicals, hipsters and atheists equate morality with the theft of their freedom and independence. We confuse having moral expectations with lashing volumes of rules and regulations onto our hair-shirted backs. We balk at a return to the dark ages of sexual repression, Sunday-only virtue, and the denial of individual standards.
But if we leave the definition of a decent life to others because we don't want to associate ourselves with their lack of decency, we cop out on our responsibility to help create the good society we want. If we can find the language to define our principles, to stand up for character, to explore the ethical implications of public behavior, we will be making a contribution to true values. We won't be joining the ranks of the right wing, the Moral Majority, or our misanthropic Uncle Ed. We will be coming out of our withdrawal and taking collective responsibilitya concept, by the way, not minted by the Republican Party.
The devil, also, is in the details. Bill Clinton's inappropriate sex drive now threatens his career and the dignity of his office. What are we liberals, who believe in greater sexual freedom than did our grandparents, to think about that? Because we don't want oral sex to be a criminal offense, for example, does that mean we should have no complaint with a president who seems to make an extramarital career of it, even if his wife is tolerant? Because we believe in power to the people, should we, as Gloria Steinem suggests in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, ignore his "clumsy sexual passes" as long as the head of the free world is on the "right" side of the abortion issue and appoints women to positions of authority?
It can get tricky, it can be confusing to try to set standards, and we are reluctant. But we already demonstrate our standards when we become indignant over social, political, economic and ecological injustice. That big picture, though, and those big issues that engage us, are made up of a mosaic of individual acts that deserve equal moral attention and the courage of our standards. It is often the little murders that have the strongest effect on our quality of life. We should express outrage over these personal and public insults, too.
In order to do so, we have to get past the idea that hoping to see a show of good character by the President of the United States is uncool. How cool is it to endorse our current First Husband, First Father as an appropriate role model? How proud are we to see him trot the globe, speaking on moral subjects he has, by his actions, lost the right to address? To what extent does our silence mean complicity? Does everyone have the right to do whatever they want, short of breaking the law? Will we contribute to the instability of society because we're afraid to say there are some things we should not do?
When we start to look at all the little issues from a moral perspective, we uncover layers of connections. Is there a relationship between the President's well-publicized proclivities, and New Line Cinema president of production, Mike De Luca's insistence on dropping his pants at an industry party last week and engaging in oral sex in front of the guests?
Might there be a connection between Gloria Steinem's defense of Clinton and that of a De Luca's apologist, who said, "It's like with Clinton. I overlook his personal behavior because he's doing a great job as president"? Can't we defend the right of personal choice without capitulating to immorality as expressed by those choices? Does liberated mean libertine? It's time to ask questions. At what point does your right to be a jerk end and my right to live a decent life in an ethical society begin? It's time to deal with connections.
Telling people how to live their lives challenges the cult of American Individualism. But when we see eleven and thirteen year olds ambush their classmates, when we hear of a four-year old bringing a loaded pistol to day care, or when we see neglected and abused children who, in turn, torture animals, we ask, "Where are the parents?!"
We know. The parents are working. Both parents are working, the rap goes, because greedy corporations won't pay a living wage to support a worker's family but will pay millions to feather the nest of a CEO. There is no doubt that inequitable distribution of wealth is a moral issue (except to those who have the authority to level the playing field). But if we could magically deliver the mother or father, fulltime, to the child in need, that still wouldn't answer the question of what moral standards the children are being taught. Are parents showing their kids the connections, the causes and effects of how they live, not because of heaven or hell, but because the consequence carry the weight of the world?
It's true that we can sometimes be arrogant about virtue. We First Amendment protectors are absolutely sure that unfettered free expression is the higher good. We want our freedom and we want the sticky hands of censorship off our art, off the movies, off televisioneven porno. We want those things because we don't want our rights encroached upon.
Yet, as advocates for a decent society, don't most of us also want studios, networks, filmmakers and stars to feel a sense of responsibility about their work? Don't we want them to want to make projects of value, reflecting the weight, not of law, but of morality? Can't we anti-censorship activists also believe that while art serves as an unfettered mirror of a violent society it should also provide us a reflection of our better selves reacting to that society? Of hardship and real life, sure, but of courage, character, love and moral strength, too? Are we so out of the practice of ethical thinking and discourse that we acquiesce to what "sells" being promoted as the greatest good? We know it's not.
If entertainment is our true religion, and media the biggest business in the world, we are in trouble, because morality is frozen out of those equations. The sophistication of Hollywood and New York acts as a shield against questions of mores. Don't legislate morality! Fair enough. But in exchange, how about an acceptance of responsibility for media that influence nearly every human on the planet? We don't mean everything has to be 1940s Disney. Ulee's Gold, As Good as it Gets, The Sweet Hereafter and even The Full Monty, are current films that celebrate moral characters and champion an ethical world-view.
Gambling, too, as entertainment, has become a sensitive ethical issue. Some Native Americans are digging themselves out of grinding poverty by running lucrative gambling casinos. They have discovered a "cash crop" that can sustain them for the first time since we herded them off their lands and onto reservations. There are objections to this turn of events, but probably not the ones needing to be made on moral grounds. If our greatest concern is the fact that Native casinos may unfairly compete with other American gambling concerns by not having to pay taxes, we are not digging deep enough. The more provocative questions, and ones we don't hear on the evening news, are "Is gambling a `right livelihood' for anyone, but especially for a people who have been left with almost nothing but their integrity?" Or, "Can gambling's exploitation of hope and in some sad cases, naked desperation, be justified in an ethical society?" And "What moral solutions can be found to the Native American dilemma?"
Moral issues. They can be tough, prickly and sometimes explosive. We may not know the answers, but in the exploration, we move toward productive ways to deal with our problems in living. The goal is not a perfect society, but one in which we can help shape our children's ideals through commitment and example. The goal is to talk about what being a "productive" member of society truly means. The goal is to show them, and reaffirm for ourselves, that there are some values that are precious, and that the highest standards are still worth fighting for. ###