Why don’t we have a word for malignant virtue? For what happens when righteousness turns rogue? Why aren’t we teaching the requisite restraint in our schools, and busting offenders on YouTube?
‘What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite’ – Bertrand Russell
There’s no consensus, of course, as to the nature of moral rectitude. People on the left tend to see it in qualities like compassion, modesty and fairness, whereas those on the right add in things like duty, decency and discipline. It doesn’t matter though which model is chosen; anyone who determines that the world needs changing, in any way, runs the risk of falling into this ever-present behavioural trap. Including me, here.
At its source the problem is one of resentment or anger. Having taken up a particular position, in a particular moral contest, it’s difficult not to cast other people, or other institutions, as the arch enemies of goodness. It’s built into the paradigm, you could say, or self evident.
Up to a point, of course, this is not only unproblematic, but entirely commendable. At least to those on one’s own side of the battle. Anger animates like no other emotion, and so can be seen to be driving good behaviour. If it leads to one more jealously protecting one’s children, or community, from barbarous predators, most would consider that a good thing, unreservedly.
Where the hazard lies though is with over-zealousness, self-aggrandisement and addiction. With ways of expressing the moral imperative that are, at once, hyperbolic, holier-than-thou and habitual. When that happens – when solidarity starts metastasising and justice campaigners turn into loathing junkies – is when we need a word, or, better, a range of words, to challenge or rebuke the offenders.
We instruct our children, from early on in life, to not be greedy or vain or arrogant or the like – and when such vices are in evidence we’ve got no compunction in rounding on the culprits. When it comes to vicious resentment however, or over-the-top vilification, we simply don’t have a useful corrective framework. Self-ordained peace warriors can spew out the most poisonous invective, and they don’t face any kind of disapprobation, let alone sanction. Academics, clerics and commentators can commit reputation rape, day in and day out, and do so without any fear of being taken to task, never mind prosecuted.
This latitude gifted to the intelligentsia (the alternative 1%?) is as remarkable as it is vexing, especially given the influence they enjoy. In a world where ideas are more powerful than guns, their writings can roil the markets, and enrage the masses – and so one would expect a high level of accountability, and responsibility. As things stand though, there are two forces pushing them in the very opposite direction. The one is human nature – “it’s not enough to be right, others must be wrong” – and the other is the framework within which they operate. When it comes to readability, and listenability, outspokenness beats reticence every time, and fervour trumps complexity.
The perils of an unconstrained resentocracy are amply, and depressingly illustrated by the endless stream of angry op-eds regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. Commentators far removed from the actual site of struggle, many of them with PhD’s and affecting universal love, seem incapable, in print or on podiums, of getting anywhere near a balanced view of the (complex and fraught) situation. Instead all we get, from supporters of both sides, are wails of righteous indignation. People who should know better, and who have the moral authority to push the antagonists towards accommodation, instead take refuge in the most vulgar forms of partisan politicking. It’s as unedifying as it is inflammatory; good for their echo chambers and careers, presumably, but awful for the truth, and for peace.
Where there’s hope, however, is that intellectuals understand shame, too well. A good career can be undone by a single instance of plagiarism, or provable folly, so perhaps we should be thinking along similar lines. A bluster barometer perhaps? Or a “pseuds’ corner” for the sanctimonious? Nothing too nasty, or inimical to free expression; just some way of encouraging greater self-examination, and more considered rhetoric.
In the meantime though, since this facility may take a while to develop, and to catch on, here’s a little drill for pundits on both sides. It’s a fairly simple meditation, which should have some value for those who aren’t terminally, wittingly, blindly partisan.
Before you push send on your next submission, ask whether you have honestly and adequately weighed the following:
The circumstances and motivations of the men throwing stones and contemplating suicide bombings, on the one hand, and of the uniformed troops with guns on the other. Are the one lot really all just vengeful fanatics under the spell of fevered mullahs? And are the soldiers really cold-hearted brutes, unmoved by the anguish of the “other”?;
The fact that 600,000 Palestinians fled into exile in 1948, in anticipation of war, leaving their homes and most of their possessions behind. And, against that, the fact that the territory they vacated was arid, oil-free and a tiny fraction of the regional land mass;
The truth that, awkwardly, nationalism continues to exert a powerful hold on the human imagination, pretty much everywhere. And that, lamentably, so does religious zeal, especially in the Middle East; and,
The demonstrable wrongness of the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. And the at-least-equal (and probably anterior) folly of the refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish majority state, entitled to proper security guarantees. DM
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