Our Moralistic Smoke Screen 

Our Moralistic Smoke Screen 
Posted by FoM on November 28, 1999 at 14:14:21 PT
By Peter N. Stearns 
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
We live in a moralistic society, which is indulging in one of its periodic orgies of character obsession. Following the enthusiasms of the '60s, when many groups of people, including political leaders, believed in change through collective actions, Americans began turning away from ideas of social reform, toward an eagerness to solve through character reform -- or if not solve, at least know where the blame lay. 
This is not a new pattern in American history, which helps confirm the nature of the issues involved. After the reform-minded decade-plus of the Progressive Era, we turned back toward individual fault as target and explanation -- target for lectures and regulations, explanation for whatever was seen wrong with society. Thus the heightened attention to new forms of drug regulation and to Prohibition, after World War I. There's a deep cultural reservoir here that Americans draw on, despite all the other changes in our society, indeed often in reaction to them; the pool may be deepened when an aging generation seeks redress for the real or imagined sins of its youth. For our current mood swing is severe, and its effects warrant at least as much concern as Prohibition once generated. The signs are all around us. Each step seems worthy; it's the accumulation that counts. We've been pioneering in extending the ways to counter sexual excess, by extending the bounds of sexual abuse, defining date rape and pinpointing sexual harassment. For the past 20 years we've led the world in the moral castigation of smokers, viewing their habits as a symptom of character flaw. To be sure, arguments have recently been enhanced by references to substance addiction and regulation, but the moral animus remains: and so we push smokers into the doorways, the lepers of latterday health ethics. Where other industrial societies combat unwanted teen-age pregnancy through the availability of birth control devices (with considerable success), we fight the same scourge by urging abstinence (with a bit of success recently, but much less). And our creativity continues. We've introduced road rage, with publicity designed to convince gullible horn-honkers that they are on the slippery slope to automobile mayhem. Now, in response to renewed evidence of gun accessibility, we're busy contemplating the deterioration of teen-age character and the inadequacies of parenting. (This last thought spurred by the intriguing fact that many school assassins come from intact, white suburban families with nonworking mothers -- suggesting either that moral rot has progressed further than we thought, or that some of our conventional categories of moral lament, such as the broken home, are oversimplified.) It's character, not the weapon, that kills.And with all our fervor, and indeed with some successes such as reduced alcohol consumption and drunken driving, reduced smoking, some decline in teen-age sexual activity, we remain convinced that we're sliding ever further morally downhill.One of the features of American-style moralism is that it's hard to step back and gain perspective. This is one reason that a historical realization of how our moral categories have been multiplying forms a vital starting point. It's hard, even with history, to criticize the penchant. On the whole, moral people get into less trouble than less moral. Many recent intensifications, as in the sexual abuse category, may be fully warranted. I'm not advocating smoking, drunken driving, sexual harassment or violence (though I also don't care for undue self-righteousness).But there are problems with our current approach. First, excess moralism obscures social realities. We rail against violence far more often, in the past five years, than we notice that rates of violence are noticeably down. We cite moral decline without factoring in the extent to which, in key areas, our standards have tightened, making perfection harder to attain.We're terribly hard on ourselves, as we emphasize a sweeping range of possible transgressions. Dieting has become a moral act -- college students rate failure to keep weight down in the same basic moral category as theft. In many ways, burdened by guilt, hosts of Americans spend inordinate amounts of time in personal worry and self-criticism. Just from a standpoint of getting through life, of reducing pervasive anxiety, a slightly more carefree approach might help. In some measurable respects, further, our moralism is beginning to be counterproductive. We have hedged teen-agers' pranks and rowdiness with a host of modern barriers -- such as zero tolerance policies that equate a punch thrown with fullblown assault; and then we're surprised when a few of them occasionally burst out in serious excess. We are blasting smoking so hard that we're making it attractive again -- to defiant adult cigar-smokers and the unprecedentedly large percentage of adolescent indulgers. For four decades, we remembered, from Prohibition (after one of our past moralistic surges), the unintended potential of excessive moral regulation (though drug policy was an exception). Recently we forgot, and we may need to learn again.And here's the crux, from the social standpoint: We focus so heavily on character issues that we risk neglecting the moral evaluation of policy -- which may or may not relate to the personal character of the policy-makers. Disproportionately anxious about sexual harassment, we downplay other, perhaps more important barriers to equitable treatment of women on the job -- barriers such as access to equal resources and pay. We would far rather linger over Clinton's sexual antics than over an assessment of his bombing policies (four separate nations hit by cruise missiles in less than a year!). We judge too many problems, and their solutions, in terms of character criteria and pleas for additional levels of self-restraint.It's time to redo the balance, to examine policy over personality. One vital step -- and it will take real courage -- is to reduce the priority of some of the moral categories that have intrigued and bedeviled us during the past 20 years. We managed to bring the presumed excesses of the '60s under control. Now we need to master the excesses of the moral counterthrust.Published: November 28, 1999Pittsburgh Post-GazetteRelated Article:This European Notion Worth Adopting Here In U.S. - 11/28/99
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