Friday, January 24, 2014

The List

A philosophy professor once defined absolute morality to me as a list of fixed-weight moral rules. There's no point in arguing with someone who adheres to such a system, because compromise is out of the question.

Most people do believe that good people adhere to a list of rules. Even if they don't agree on what should be on the list, they think the list itself is evidence of good intentions. This is why Christians like Muslims better than they like atheists. They don't agree with the Muslim list but they think atheists don't have a list at all.

(The situation is flipped in East Asia. Most East Asians don't have a list and are uncomfortable dealing with people who do. It comes from Buddhism.)

What bugs me is that much of public debate these days isn't really debate at all, it's sort of a meta-debate about what should be on the list. For example, if some big shot is accused of sexual harassment, the debate is never whether what he did was wrong, the debate is whether it meets some (conveniently unassailable) definition of harassment, which as we all know can never be tolerated, no matter what. It doesn't matter whether the guy gives a million dollars a year to charity; if he pinched someone's rear end, he's a Bad Man.

You can get angry about it or you can just laugh at it. For celebrities, there is a multi-level system: "personalities" like news anchors or sports announcers have a very strict list, heavily influenced by advertisers, of principles they are allowed to state. For example, they can't say fat people should eat less, even though everyone knows it's true, fat people most of all. Then there's another level of celebrity, like comedians and athletes, who get looser treatment. A sitcom star can say Rush Limbaugh should lay off the double cheeseburgers. But there's still a list. A sitcom star can't refer to the Pope as the head child-molester, but an "adult" comedian can. [Note: I would never refer to the Pope in this way. This is just an example of something a comedian might say.]

The funny thing about the Paula Deen debacle was that nobody seriously took offense to her for having called the guy who mugged her a nigger [terrible word, but just a word] 27 years ago. Even the mugger himself said he understood. What she got nailed for was being ignorant of the list, because she admitted having said it after she was already a celebrity chef, and part of being a celebrity chef is understanding the list. A person who is that careless about the list is a person advertisers will not touch with a 10-foot pole.

Celebrities can move from one level to another. Howard Stern once said that Hispanics had worse taste in music than Alvin and the Chipmunks. That was OK, because it was back when he was a "shock jock". He'd never get away with that today, because he's a respectable judge on some kind of TV contest show. The same thing happened to Ice-T and Cheech.  I bet you forgot that Ice-T first became famous for singing about killing cops. Now he plays one on TV. Maybe the existence of different lists for different groups of people is a step toward finally acknowledging how silly the lists are.

Once upon a time, conservatives and especially the religious right sided with absolute morality. I won't lie to you, I think progressives own it today. Fracking is on their list. You can't be pro-fracking and be a progressive; they just won't let you in the club. There is no notion that fracking (or any other energy source) has both bad and good aspects and that it could be right in certain situations and wrong in others. The mere fact that companies engage in tradeoffs; for example a car company with a fixed pot of money deciding to spend it on airbags instead of rev limiters, is taken not as evidence of rational decision-making but of the moral degeneracy of capitalism. Progressives want all the money to be spent on every conceivable safety device, because safety is good, end of story.

The "list" denies the fact that we are all three-dimensional human beings. It's a substitute for moral reasoning used by people who can't be bothered to think for themselves. Did Grandma once use the word "jigaboo"? Sorry, but you must denounce her, just like students denounced their teachers during the Cultural Revolution. It's how we all reinforce and uphold the list, because without it, how will we know how to act?

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