There. I said it. In a society where “whatever” is the only safe ground in a sea of fanatic polarization, I confess to loving morality and moral dilemmas. Not the Tab A into Slot B morality of matching actions to credo and taking the safest action possible. No, I mean BIG morality. Juicy morality. Gritty, complex, hefty morality where there are no easy answers.
This kind of morality is like a teething ring for the soul.
In the past my love for wrestling with knotty issues seemed quirky. Now, a year and a half into our Grifter-in-Chief’s reign, the instinct for morality seems to be having a revival. Social conservatives should be squealing by now, but aren’t – yet David Brooks seems to be having a conversion to compassion experience. The liberal media has more grit, but Fox and their friends neutralizes it with the “fake news” moniker. We are inching forward… but inching.
Morality at its best is coming from the disenfranchised. Maybe it always does. The black church in the tradition of Martin Luther King often preaches the moral imperative to resist tyranny and love our enemies, and Reverend Barber, with the Poor People’s Campaign, is right on the money (literally). Black intellectuals are doing their duty, from Cornel West to Ta-nehisi Coates to Michelle Alexander. Iljeoma Olua and Robin Diangelo, and many others, have opened the conversation about white fragility and so many of my friends are checking their white privilege before they speak, sometimes awkwardly like learning a new language.
Not included on this list are some of my favorite muckrakers, from John Oliver to Stephen Colbert to Trevor Noah, simply because their job is to call out the President and his enablers. I hate to say it, but you listen to Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity back to back and they have the same cadence, though they are singing different songs (okay, unfriend me now).
Morality is taking in all these perspectives and finding a way through that grows you.
Realizing how apoplectic and tribal I’ve become, how I was eating indignation for breakfast, I’ve made a project of listening to people I don’t agree with. It has not been easy, especially because I started with Jordan Peterson who pushes half my buttons. He denies the validity of the patriarchy, he poo-poo’s feminism, he says the science is out on climate change and has followers who thrill at reposting videos with phrases like “Peterson’s most savage comebacks” and “Peterson calmly educates baiting host” “Peterson destroys regressive BBC reporter”. His book has been on the Amazon bestseller list for over a year and yet, good progressive that I am, I never heard of it. Doesn’t such a man deserve my attention at least as a window into his millions of followers?
As a morality junkie, I like such razor strops for my mind.
- Using Peterson as an example, I see that a moral choice requires exhausting reactivity. This entails watching my spluttering inner dialog until it quiets down. Fangs in, Vicki, there will be no blood. It means then rechecking if I am reacting to what the person or what I think they said. I don’t do this to be nice or polite. Rather it allows me to eventually see what in the situation or person is just like me. What can I identify with? What passion drives him/her/them that I see in my own work? In fact, I totally agree with Peterson that we are in a moral morass, but our solutions differ. To use George Lakoff’s terms, he represents the Strict Father and I represent the Nurturant Mother. The strict father archetype assumes, precisely as Peterson does, that the world is a dangerous place with winners and losers, kids are wild until tamed and trained – through both punishment and failure – the right way to do things, and to be a winner you have to be vigilant and out-compete the losers. The Nurturant mother believes the world is good, morality comes from compassion and empathy and learning to think for yourself, our job is to make the world a better place through small acts with positive ripples. Community matters. Trust, honesty, and open communication matter because we are always learning and all connected in a web of mutuality.
That just about describes the difference between Peterson and me – that we share many values but our beliefs about reality and our strategies for the good life are polar opposite. Can I learn from him? Appreciate the instruction to straighten up and fly right, to do everything with integrity and competence, to not depend on others to scrape me off the sidewalk if I fall? Yes. But I don’t get there through righteousness, I get there through empathy (a good nurturant way to moral choice).
- I also see that moral choice requires an analysis of not just what is said but the intentions and, for want of a better word, vibes. Using Peterson again (which I didn’t mean to do when I started) I saw that he never gives his perceived opponents the benefit of the doubt or respect for their viewpoint. Rather, he often invalidates the ground they are standing on and insists that they come into his ring for the fight. Almost always, this disarms the person rooting around in his garbage, his excluded ideas. If something sounds right yet feels wrong, if it is seductive such that you start doubting yourself, you are not on moral ground. To be moral in the face of deceit or slight of hand or airtight arguments, the move towards wisdom is not to fight but to observe and step aside. I learned this in Aikido, a martial art rooted in love, especially your out of control enemy. You step aside as the punch comes and invite the opponent into a dance that deflates his aggression like a pinhole in a balloon, eventually resting her on the ground, pinning them such that pain only comes when they struggle. It’s so beautiful. Moral action in the face of aggression is just this stepping to the side but staying in relationship. Mind you, the opposite might be true. You might react to a vibe but discover it’s your triggers not their aggression – and settle down and listen.
- Morality is a long game. It is living in to your values, learning, testing, forgiving, going forward, maybe zig-zagging but like a sailboat with the eye always on the destination and a willingness to have the wind and water factor in to your choices. Moral patience is not the same as kindness, understanding and benefit of the doubt. It is you honing your own moral courage, your own character. You might make an idiotic choice and lose ground, but if you learn, you are still going forward. This is why you may feel a deep pleasure in the midst of fierce discipline. Perhaps it’s like chess with a partner (Life itself) you admire.
I have a practice that really helps me stay in the game. It is putting each choice in my hand like a ball, and then stretching my arms as wide as possible, taking the choices out of relationship with one another, out of the struggle of which is right. Then I contemplate, one at a time, each ball. I look honestly and dispassionately at both the appeal of the choice and the shadow, the unintended consequences. I look at these until they are not in conflict with one another, they are just features of the choice. I know I’ve done it when I relax, maybe smile, feel a love for that possibility in all its light and dark. Then I look at the other choice in the same way. The light, the dark, my desires, my fears – until I relax and feel a love for the whole bundle. This takes a while. Sometimes a long while. What I notice, if I do this honestly, is that the options no longer rule me. I connect with the moral chooser, not the moral choice. I am free to choose A or B… or C or D of even Z.
This is the grit of morality. The soul learning the lessons it is here to learn.
Morality in this polarized and confusing world is exercising a muscle that’s flabby now. Most of the day there are no moral dilemmas worthy of the name. Minor scuffles with out conscience about ignoring someone on the street or grazing on bulk foods while choosing which to buy. True moral dilemmas are when two or more commandments, two or more values, seek to occupy the same space, and where neither can be rejected. What do I owe my parents now that they are old? Do I commit to public education, sending my kids to the “school of hard knocks” public school or to giving my kids a gentler slope towards adulthood at private school? Do I take a vile client or job which might make my career, or step aside knowing someone else will get the money and the glory if there is a win? Do I follow an order I believe is wrong, or follow my conscience and possibly put my team at risk? What does God want for me now? When to toe the line. When to cross it. Duty. Honor. Obligation. Character. These are the (out-of-fashion) words that make our souls. If we are nervous about taking a considered stand that bucks our tribe’s views, great. Another moral dilemma.
With this in mind, we live in the best of times because, as Christopher Fry says in A Sleep of Prisoners, ‘Thank God our time is now when wrong comes up to face us everywhere, never to leave us till we take the longest stride of soul we ever took. Affairs are now soul size.”
So let us go to the morality gym… let’s work out. Wrestle. Grapple. Sweat. Push beyond the limits of our comfort zones. I’ll see you there. And then we can go out for tea and talk about it.