Individual Morality

One of many protests associated with the international Black Lives Matter movement

E Martin Nolan reflects on the tragedies of 2015, “PC Culture,” and navigating a generation of individual morality. 

The last days of 2015 are dripping away like the runoff from a light snow followed by an unseasonable warm spell. It’s been another hot year, and not just temperature-wise. This was the year marked by Trump and Bernie, Black Lives Matter, ISIS, an enormous refugee crisis, an environmentalist Pope, the fall of Harper, the fall of oil prices and the Canadian dollar, some small hope that the Canadian government would not continue to ignore murdered and missing indigenous women, and so much more. This may be the year Hillary survived so she can be the first woman president and the year that (maybe) a global climate conference wasn’t a total waste of the CO2 emissions released to bring the leaders together.

In an era of individual morality, it falls on the lucky—those with enough leisure time to even consider moral arguments—to reach our own conclusions on these big issues. It’s a murky business. What tiny stains are we within this wider mess? What say can we have beyond the contents of our dinner plates, our means of transportation, our use of our thinly-stretched time and will? After binging on Netflix—if we can, just to shut it all off for a bit—what do we have left?

A lot, or so it can seem. Despite the enormous complexity within our reach to perceive, we live also in an era in which expressions of moral certainties abound. Xenophobia is making a serious comeback in the West. Dormant fears of the other rise with shocking bluntness and their expression is cheered. Meanwhile, systemically ordained and wide scale disadvantage has been called out with paradigm-shifting effectiveness.

At a macro level, this makes sense. With a World War threatening to break out, after a crisis of capitalism that hasn’t been resolved, and in a civil order still marked by legally-binding restrictions drawn along racial, gender, and sexual lines, it’s easy to sense we’re at some turning point in history. It’s a time to think big.

Yet so much moral energy is spent at the micro level, on the actions or words of individuals or publications. The children of postmodernism are deconstructing the world and calling out the residue of its ugly foundational pieces. That’s fair. Take our ever-present poetry scandals. The condemned actions are most often worthy of condemnation—be they the products of misogyny, racism, underrepresentation or insulting cultural appropriation. It’s good for light to be allowed to disinfect literature of such problematic residue.

But even good intentions can be misused. I speak not in support of the knee-jerk backlash responses against “PC culture,” which would have us believe that a “culture of victimhood has enacted a kind of source-funded fascism aimed at policing, or even “silencing” (how dramatic!) the free speech of those not classed among the “victims” or willing to kowtow to their ironclad rhetorical rule. Because that’s melodramatic bullshit: being roundly criticized for what you say is not the same as being silenced. Chin up and take it if you truly believe in what you write.

Individual Morality

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World and Me

Still, it can at times be troubling to see the ease with which we and our online avatars reach moral conclusions, and it becomes even more so when those avatars coalesce like bees on a bear clawing at their honey comb. Feeling morally right is a powerful drug capable of blinding us to the possible damage caused by self-righteousness and shaming. The type of moral grandstanding of which I speak is in no danger of morphing into any kind of real fascism—it is, indeed a very minor crime in the larger scheme of things—but it is worth noting. It springs from the innate human love of a justified moral certainty. I suspect we love being right because it simplifies, even momentarily, the moral ambiguity of the world while it displaces our knowledge of our own potential shittiness. This is forgivable, for sure, but also dangerous. Too much certainty shuts off the possibility of open dialogue, which requires an openness to uncertainty, and an openness to understanding the intolerable, even as its correction is demanded. And critique laced with humility—not pride—is, if nothing else, more effective.

Please don’t think me self-righteous about being above self-righteousness. I write this shortly after watching The Big Short, and in the midst of reading Between the World and Me. The first reveals a choice cut of the crookedness behind the 2008 financial crisis, and does so very well. The second meditates on the foundational (and living) history of American racism and is a masterpiece. Both have every ounce of red, white, and blue blood in me pounding in anger and indignation. I am having grandiose, overblown thoughts that the nation of my origin is bound to meet the just end of its corruption and the hatred it’s not even brave enough to admit to. Even though this is honest and even though it’s incredibly sad, because I know that if it’s true many people that I love, and so many more that I’ll never know in that country suffer when the nation suffers, the anger has me so that I’ve never felt so alive in months. Just look at this purple prose flow out of me. It’s disgusting, but I can’t help it.

So I try to remind myself that my distaste for Wall Street crooks and for racist institutions does not make me pure. I might console myself that I am better, but who am I to say that’s true? And anyway, if I assume I’m flawed and capable of acting in ways I detest, am I not then better able to understand that which I detest? Am I not then better prepared to combat that not only in others, but in myself as well?

That is all to say that while the world’s messed up, and needs calling out, and to be called to account, it might be done while asking, “but who am I to say?” Then again, who am I to say?

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