What contemporary theorists of civility can and should take away from [Roger] Williams is his recognition of the inevitable disagreeableness of disagreement…. Faced with a heated disagreement, both participants and observers find it difficult to separate the condemnation of another’s position and contempt for her person. It’s precisely this difficulty that we call upon the virtue of “civility” to alleviate.
If we think all of the ethical work remains to be done by others, that our opponents alone are the uncivil ones, we are mistaken. As long as we are determined to trace every difference of opinion to some aspect of identity or perspectival privilege, we will continue to win arguments by proclaiming our own epistemic authority and to refute our opponents by impugning theirs. In the face of this politics of purity and the resultant proliferation of ad hominem, Williams reminds us that responses other than ostracism and outrage are possible, while providing a model of how coexistence and cooperation might work.
You learn a lot about people by noting what trivial things they obsess over, and today’s David Brooks column is a perfect example. Let me be really clear about this: people are freaking out about The Sandwich Bar Anecdote for one major reason, which is that they know the rest of the column is dead-on accurate and they’d prefer not to think about what it tells us about our social order.
But even The Sandwich Bar Anecdote itself isn’t bad — it makes a valid and important point, one that finds an analogue in the experience of many of us. Look at this post by Rod Dreher for some good examples, from his own experience and from some of his readers as well.
One Christmas I bought my parents the most expensive gift I had ever given them: a big basket of fruit and cheese and pastries and various other goodies from Harry & David. It arrived several days before I could get home myself, and when I arrived at their house I saw the basket sitting in a corner of the living room, removed from its box but unopened. They never did open it. They were pissed. They didn’t want to talk about it, but eventually it became clear to me that the basket was “fancy” in a way they thought totally inappropriate. “But it’s just fruit and cheese!” I said. “I can buy fruit and cheese at Kroger,” my dad growled. I started to explain that it was exceptionally good fruit and cheese, but then realized that that wouldn’t work: for one thing, it was the opposite of what I had just said (“It’s just fruit and cheese”), and for another, I knew that my parents would take any praise of the food in the basket as a criticism of the food they bought at Kroger. There was no way for me to win this one, so I just shut up. I expect they eventually threw the whole basket away without ever opening it.
It didn’t have to be food: I could have bought them clothes they also thought “fancy” and they probably would have been equally disdainful. But I think food is generally perceived as sending especially strong signals — perhaps because it involves “consumption” in a completely literal sense. It is what you take into yourself, and while Jesus may have said that it is what comes out of a man that defiles him, not what goes in, for most people that’s an unnatural point of view. I will always remember in this regard Rod’s story about how disgusted his family were when he and Julie made bouillabaisse for them — even though pretty much everybody in Louisiana has eaten fish stew.
I didn’t buy my parents any more food for Christmas, and from then on when I shopped for them I shopped at Wal-Mart.
Brooks writes, “Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else.” This is true, and true in very important ways; and the intuition that such rules are always in play can make people uneasy or angry when they think such rules are being enforced against them. If you can’t acknowledge this you’re just being willfully blind.
Suppose, I asked the students, an observant Jew has a florist shop. One day, a customer, who is also Jewish, comes to the shop to say she’s getting married and would like the florist to do the wedding. “That’s wonderful,” the florist says. “Where will you get married?” The customer replies that the wedding will be at a local nondenominational church, because her fiancé is Christian, and she, the customer, isn’t very observant. The florist thinks about it and then says, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t do your wedding. It’s nothing personal; I’m sure your fiancé is a fine person, as are you. It’s just that as an observant Jew I don’t approve of interfaith weddings. For our community to survive, we must avoid intermarriage and assimilation. Please understand. There are many other florists who can do your wedding. I’ll even suggest some. But I can’t, in good conscience, participate, myself.” What result?
In posing this hypothetical, I was not so interested in how the case would come out under current law. Rather, in good law-school fashion, I was trying to show the students that these are complicated questions and that they need to consider both sides. Much to my surprise, the students were uniformly unsympathetic to the florist. There should be no right to decline services in this situation, they told me. The florist was not acting reasonably and in good faith. […]
Conservatives often assume that controversies like Masterpiece Cakeshop reflect changing sexual norms and an intolerance of resistance. That’s correct, in part; one definitely senses a “you-lost-get-over-it” sentiment on the other side. And yet, the students’ reaction to my hypothetical case suggests that something else is going on as well, that the dispute is not about sexuality as such. Rather, it’s about not allowing people to draw moral distinctions that exclude others and hurt their feelings, no matter what the justification. That’s what the florist was doing in my hypothetical case—and that, I think, was what bothered the students.
— Mark Movsesian, St. John’s Law School, New York. A fascinating case study for people who tend to think these disputes are all about the sexual revolution. As it turns out, and as I have sometimes suggested, demand for the affirmation of sexual choices may simply be an example of a greater demand, that for the affirmation of all the self’s choices. The real principles here are (a) I am my own and (b) the purpose of society is to empower and affirm my claim that I am my own.
When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.
Another day, another story about the legal trouble you can expect if you’re a free-range parent. This matters, a lot, and what’s at stake needs to be made clear.
1) The parents here are accused by the state of “child neglect,” but what they are doing is the opposite of neglect — it is thoughtful, intentional training of their children for responsible adulthood. They instructed their children with care; the children practiced responsible freedom before being fully entrusted with it. And then the state intervened before the children could discover the satisfaction of exercising their freedom well.
2) What’s happening here is fundamentally simple: the surveillance state enforcing surveillance as the normative form of care. The state cannot teach its citizens, because it has no idea what to teach; it can only place them under observation. Perfect observation — panopticism — then becomes its telos, which is justifies and universalizes by imposing a responsibility to surveil on the very citizens already being surveilled. The state’s commandment to parents: Do as I do.
3) By enforcing surveillance as the normative form of care, the state effectively erases the significance of all other forms of care. Parents might teach their children nothing of value, no moral standards, no self-discipline, no compassion for others — but as long as those children are incessantly observed, then according to the state’s standards the parents of those children are good parents. And they are good because they are training their children to accept a lifetime of passive acceptance of surveillance. The Marxist theorist Louis Althusser used to speak of the ways that culture can be transformed into an “ideological state apparatus” — that’s what our society wants to do to parenthood.
Charles Taylor explains many (most?) internet debates — and a great many others from the past two hundred years. If you ever wonder why people on Twitter (serious people, not mere trolls) can get so extreme in their policing of deviations from approved behavior, see “The Perils of Moralism,” in Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays (emphases mine):
Modern liberal society tends toward a kind of “code fetishism,” or nomolatry. It tends to forget the background which makes sense of any code — the variety of goods which rules and norms are meant to realize — as well as the vertical dimension which arises above all these.
We can see this above in relation to contemporary Anglo-Saxon moral philosophy, as well as in the drive to codification in liberal society. But the sources go back deeper in our culture. I want to argue that it was a turn in Latin Christendom which sent us down this road. This was the drive to reform in its various stages and variants — not just the Protestant Reformation, but a series of moves on both sides of the confessional divide. The attempt was always to make people over as more perfect practicing Christians, through articulating codes and inculcating disciplines. Until the Christian life became more and more identified with these codes and disciplines.
In other words, this code-centrism came about as the by-product of an attempt to make over the lives of Christians, and their social order, so as to make them conform thoroughly to the demands of the Gospel. I am talking not of a particular, revolutionary moment, but of a long, ascending series of attempts to establish a Christian order, of which the Reformation is a key phase…. (351)
Code fetishism means that the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code. Kant proposes perhaps the most moving form of this (but perhaps the capture wasn’t complete in his case). His followers today, be they Rawls or Habermas or others again, carry on this reduction (although Habermas seems to have had recent second thoughts).
Modern culture is marked by a series of revolts against this moralism, in both its Christian and non-Christian forms. Think of the great late nineteenth-century reaction in England against evangelical “puritanism” that we associate with names as diverse as Arnold, Wilde, and later Bloomsbury; or think of Ibsen; or of Nietzsche and all those who follow him, including those rebelling against the various disciplines that have helped constitute this modern moralization, such as our contemporary, Michel Foucault.
But these reactions start earlier. The code-centered notion of order and its attendant disciplines begin to generate negative reactions from the eighteenth century on. These form, for instance, the central themes of the Romantic period. Many people found it hard to believe, even preposterous, that the achievement of this code-bound life should exhaust the significance of human existence. It’s almost as though each form of protest were adding its own verse to the famous Peggy Lee song: “Is that all there is?” (353)
‘Sacrifice’ is another word liable to misunderstanding. It is generally held to be noble and loving in proportion as its sacrificial nature is consciously felt by the person who is sacrificing himself. The direct contrary is the truth. To feel sacrifice consciously as self-sacrifice argues a failure in love. When a job is undertaken from necessity, or from a grim sense of disagreeable duty, the worker is self-consciously aware of the toils and pains he undergoes, and will say: ‘I have made such and such sacrifices for this.’ But when the job is a labour of love, the sacrifices will present themselves to the worker—strange as it may seem—in the guise of enjoyment. Moralists, looking on at this, will always judge that the former kind of sacrifice is more admirable than the latter, because the moralist, whatever he may pretend, has far more respect for pride than for love.
— Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker
GLADWELL: Well, it made me think that the average level of celebrity behavior must have been much worse 50 years ago than today. So suppose we channel our inner Nate Silver and come up with a universal celebrity misbehavior metric. We grade each public incident on three dimensions, each measured on a scale of one to 10. First, the stature of the celebrity. Second, the degree of impairment at the time of the accident. And third, the severity of the transgression. Your grade is the sum of those three scores.
SIMMONS: Hold on, hold on — we need to name this thing. And as much as I want to force-feed O.J. into the acronym, I love your “universal celebrity misbehavior” metric because “UCM” is such a strong acronym. I could see Bill James re-releasing Popular Crime just to reassess every famous murder with UCM.
GLADWELL: Why has it taken so long for the Moneyball revolution to come to Hollywood? I don’t get it. Because the UCM finally makes it possible for us to make rational judgments about scandals. So, take Tiger Woods’s run-in with his wife’s 9-iron. As a celebrity, Tiger is a 10. His impairment, a sex addiction, maybe painkillers, and probably alcohol, is also a 10. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that cheating on your Swedish model wife with so many hookers that she may have believed it was in her best interest to smash the back window of your SUV with a golf club is, at the very least, a nine. That’s 29 out of 30. Future generations will now be able to look back on that night and understand that it was the Apollo moon landing of the modern tabloid era. In fact, as much as I like UCM, maybe we should refer to this score as someone’s “Woods Number” in honor of the contemporary champion.
To put that 29 in perspective, I think that in the normal course of affairs, it’s really, really hard for anyone to score above a 20, for the simple reason that as your celebrity score rises your ability and willingness to max out on the transgression and impairment scales fall. I have no doubt, for example, that, say, Lindsay Lohan or Axl Rose are routinely putting up sevens and eights on transgression and impairment. But they just don’t have the stature they used to.
The engagement of understanding is, then, a continuous, self-moved, critical enterprise of theorising. Its principle is: Never ask the end. Of the paths it may follow, some (we may suppose) will soon exhaust their promise. It is an engagement of arrivals and departures. Temporary platforms of conditional understanding are always being reached, and the theorist may turn aside to explore them. But each is an arrival, an enlightenment, and a point of departure. The notion of an unconditional or definitive understanding may hover in the background, but it has no part in the adventure…
Here, theorizing has revealed itself to be an unconditional adventure in which every achievement of understanding is an invitation to investigate itself and where the reports a theorist makes to himself are interim triumphs of temerity over scruple. And for a theorist not to respond to this invitation cannot be on account of his never having received it. It does not reach him from afar and by special messenger; it is implicit in every engagement to understand and is delivered to him whenever he reflects. The irony of all theorizing is its propensity to generate, not an understanding, but a not-yet-understood.
Rereading Krakauer’s Into Thin Air after finishing Hansen’s book, I was once again struck by the brutal selfishness and callous disregard for one’s fellow humans that characterizes contemporary mountain tourism. In 1996, Japanese climber Eisuke Shigekawa and his partner had walked past three dying men from another party on their way to the summit of Everest; they offered no aid on their way to claim glory, and none on the way down, despite the fact that the three men were alive and not yet past hope. Partly this is due, of course, to the harsh conditions up there, which make it hard to keep oneself alive, let alone help another in danger. (“Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality,” Shigekawa later said.) But then, Everest is not a battlefield, nor a suddenly occurring natural disaster area — and you have to wonder about individuals who have knowingly and freely put themselves in a situation where they’ll have no choice but to turn their back on those dying all around them. That these people risk their lives is a well-worn cliché; what’s less acknowledged is the degree to which they risk — and lose — their humanity for the sake of a thrill, or a little glory.
The Code of the Streets, a term popularized by the hip-hop duo Gang Starr and the sociologist Elijah Anderson, is the code of men who have come to feel that they have nothing to lose. Much of the struggle with young black boys and teenagers today lies in getting them to see all that violence endangers. At 13, I could imagine not going to jail, not getting shot, being a responsible father. I could not envision much more. I could name careers and other paths, but I had no real sense that it was possible for me to get there, or how. Somehow I got there. And on arrival, I found myself in the company of others like me: an entire fraternity founded on the need to comprehend the folkways of a world we had never been sure we’d see.
Some people come up expecting to win. We came up hoping not to lose. Even in victory, the distance between expectation and results is dizzying for both. The old code remains a part of you, and with it comes a particular strain of impostor syndrome. You have learned another language, but your accent betrays you. And there are times when you wonder if the real you is not here among the professionals, but out there in the streets.
Along with all of the other rising inequalities we’ve become so familiar with – in income, in wealth, in access to politicians – we confront now a fundamental inequality of accountability. We can have a just society whose guiding ethos is accountability and punishment, where both black kids dealing weed in Harlem and investment bankers peddling fraudulent securities on Wall Street are forced to pay for their crimes, or we can have a just society whose guiding ethos is forgiveness and second chances, one in which both Wall Street banks and foreclosed households are bailed out, in which both inside traders and street felons are allowed to rejoin polite society with the full privileges of citizenship intact. But we cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful. This is the America in which we currently reside.
What’s curious is that of all the ethical commitments that liberal-leaning consumers with discretionary income try to maintain today (dolphin-safe tuna! locally-sourced food! environmentally-safe detergents!) the circumstances of workers rarely if ever figure into the imagination, and yet, it’s not been so long since the treatment of workers did have a place at that somewhat trendy table. Now? You can see the banners at Whole Foods that mark off the company’s ethical commitments and not expect to see anything about its laborers or even about the labor conditions at the point of supply. That’s not just that the owner of the company is something of an infamous asshole about labor and regulation, it’s par for the course. Apple moved to deal with rumbles about labor conditions among its Chinese suppliers before they became a major issue, but it’s hard to imagine consumers making this a major part of their brand preferences or even foregoing certain products entirely. I don’t say that as an accusation against others: I can’t imagine myself not having a mobile device or desktop computer out of scruples about the workplace ethics of the producers.
In our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt bomb is the other. We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, “What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?” — to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.