Sunday, March 25, 2012

Moral mascots and moral adults

Thomas Sowell uses the term ‘moral mascots’ to refer to groups that progressivist opinion focuses on at any particular time as especially worthy of moral concern. A feature of such status as moral mascots is that such moral mascots are often, particularly if they are not Westerners, not treated as moral adults. That is, they are not held up by progressivist opinion to the same moral standards as others (particularly Westerners) and bad behaviour is often regarded indulgently, sometimes astonishingly so. Such attenuation of moral responsibility typically extends to causality, to an attenuation of their status as moral agents. That is, they are typically seen as passive recipients of causal forces, or as reacting to causal processes initiated by others: they are much less likely to be seen as initiators of causal processes.

A bifurcated mindset
One sees this a lot in progressivist treatment of Muslims. One is, for example, permitted to criticise organised Christianity, Christian doctrines and beliefs and Christians as much as one wants. One can also do so without any reference to similar issues with any other religion. Christians are also expected to show forbearance when crosses or bibles are destroyed. In other words, Christians, particularly Western Christians, are treated as full moral agents; as moral adults to be held responsible for their actions.

The reverse does not apply. To criticise Islam is likely to be commit “Islamophobia” and to engage in “essentialism” and, if one does not acknowledge equivalent Christian sins, is a clear sign of prejudice and ignorance. In this mindset, Muslims are simply not treated a moral adults and full moral agents in the way Christians are.

In this mindset, when a solitary fanatic of dubious mental status murders lots of people and publishes a manifesto, the actions of that solitary individual are held to taint everyone who holds overlapping views. Yet no amount of mass murder by Muslims, for openly stated-to-be-Muslim reasons, taints any part of Islam. Westerners have moral agency (indeed, in this occasion, hugely inflated moral agency); Muslim moral agency, by contrast, is massively attenuated.

Similarly, the notion that Christians be held to follow Christian doctrine as a mark of cultural “authenticity”, that Christian sensibilities have to be carefully respected, is not a mark of progressivist behaviour. Christians are moral adults who can make their own choices and are expected to put up with criticism. By contrast, Muslim beliefs (no matter how misogynist) are treated as marks of cultural authenticity and are expected to be deferred to. Muslims are not moral adults; they are moral children to be cosseted.

If Qurans are accidently burned by US forces, that is patently offensive. If Muslims riot in response, it is an understandable rage. An “understandable” rage no Christian would be excused for indulging in. Again, the mindset treats Christians as moral adults and Muslims as moral infants.

If things are too embarrassing, they are either passed over in silence or moved on from as soon as possible. The deliberate destruction of Benghazi war graves was clearly unprovoked, bigoted vandalism that, alas, has canonical support in the life of Muhammad. But anyone who raises this latter history as problematic is engaged in very “poor form”. The status of Muslims as moral mascots needs to be protected.

There are few areas where this denial of moral adulthood and agency to Muslims is more rife than in commentary on the Arab-Israel dispute. Arab states trapping Palestinians in eternal (as long as Israel exists) status as refugees by denying them citizenship or residency is simply ignored. They are not moral adults, they are not held responsible. Only Westerners (specifically Israelis) can provide solutions, because they are the only moral adults and so accrue all responsibility and blame.

Palestinian politics driving Palestinian Christians away, thereby making it absolutely explicit that nothing beyond oppression and exile is being offered to Israeli Jews and Christians if they are no longer defended by the IDF, is also passed over in silence. The Palestinians are not moral adults, they are not responsible for contributing to any solution; that is the business of the moral adults, the Israelis.

And so it goes on.

Destructive thinking
This is, of course, a highly destructive mindset. Not only is it destructive to elementary understanding by systematically closing one’s eyes to inconvenient parts of reality, thereby fulfilling Matt Ridley’s definition of political correctness (that ‘ought’ implies ‘is’). It also undermines things getting better by implicitly or explicitly excusing destructive behaviour and attitudes. Why move on from the politics of narcissistic adolescent rage if such politics is pandered to? If such politics “works”, at least in the sense of overt attention and sympathy?

One insidious result of this sort of outlook is the way antipathy gets transferred onto any group whose experience undermines moral mascot status. This obviously happens with Israelis, but can also happen to Jews generally: former and aspiring Lord Mayor of London Ken Livingstone might well be a manifestation of this: what might be called anti-anti-semitism. Just as, in a former age, many folk on the left were anti-anti-communist because being reminded of the record of revolutionary socialism was so annoyingly awkward. And got in the way of the only truly "serious" moral business: critiquing Western capitalism.

If one stops seeing the world as divided into moral adults and infantilised moral mascots but instead sees it as divided into patterns which work and those which do not, then one can focus on spreading what works. But if the moral mascots are forever held to be dependent on the moral agency of others, then their chances of achieving patterns-that-work are greatly reduced.

Making victims
So, the moral mascots themselves can end up being victims of this mindset. Sometimes in a quite direct fashion. Failing to see Muslims are moral adults leads one to overlook (or, worse, excuse) the vicious and murderous campaign by radical Islamists to narrow what is allowed to be publicly expressed. A campaign that is killing, or otherwise blighting the lives, of precisely the most liberal and open-minded Muslims. A campaign that, completely un-coincidentally, marches along with the campaign to bring back the burqa and the niqab; those public manifestations and statements of female subordination.

This latter campaign of restriction of women's public presentation extends to violence against women, to murder and assault, to force them to accept such subordinating control: even to the extent of Jewish children becoming terrorist murder victims.

How much it is about controlling women was displayed when the Saudi religious police literally beat back girls trying to escape unveiled from a burning school, fifteen girls burnt to death: the sheer controlling misogyny involved is stunning. For the reality is, permitting the burqa and the niqab ends up exposing Muslim women who do not wish to accept such to greater pressure, to making them targets to whatever level of violence, abuse or other pressure can be got away with. And because the burqa and the niqab are viewed as indicating subordination to the will of Allah, and the sovereignty of Allah is unlimited, it also makes non-Muslim women targets.

The burqa and the niqab are not simply clothing choices, they are not even merely religious statements. They come with a cruel, vicious, brutal and controlling context.

Infantilizing of Muslims, refusal to accept moral adulthood, also occurs in some Muslim commentary, as in arguments that women have to be restricted in order to not inflame men. Tariq Ramadan can be relied upon to infantilise in a more subtle way, ripping the Toulouse terrorist from any Islamic context and putting the blame on the failure of France to integrate its migrants. There are many ways alienation can be manifested (and there are serious integration problems, France being a typical EU country in the policy weapons it wields against its own young folk, a policy repression that falls particularly strongly on migrant youth). But the Toulouse terrorist chose the jihadi route; as so many young Muslims do in so many countries. There was nothing specifically French in what he did, there was much that was specifically Islamist.

Conspicuous compassion
Infantilising one’s moral mascots may provide a convenient framing for playing the game of conspicuous compassion, for moral-concern-as-status-display, but it is a world away from actually improving the situation of the people one has framed as lacking full moral agency and responsibility. Adolescence is a way-station in life, not a worthy destination. Adolescents whine, adults achieve. Without a grounded-in-reality sense of what achievement is, and how it happens, nothing gets better. But trapping people in a bad situation, sabotaging the mindset that makes escape possible, leaves them as moral mascots indefinitely—and maybe that is the point.

[Cross-posted at Critical Thinking Applied.]


  1. I agree with most of this post.

    But in a free society people are allowed to wear what they want, regardless of the "context" that some might claim for it. Context is subjective and the same action can mean different things to different people.

    Yes, more people wearing the burqa may lead to greater social pressure to wear the burqa. But the same is true of any social habit, trend or movement. Indeed, social pressure to conform is generally a good thing, provided it stays within the bounds of the law. If you don't like this particular way of dressing, then try and set up social norms against it. But it is not acceptable to try and co-opt the power of the state to ban a harmless action on the grounds of your private disapproval. This blog is filled with posts (justifiably) protesting about this being done to groups you favour. It is harder, but no less necessary, to apply the same thinking to groups you dislike.

    1. Yes, I am conflicted on the burqa and the niqab. I was firmly against banning them until I read Prof. Chesler's piece. Now I am not necessarily in favour of banning them, but I have a much better grasp of why a lot of Muslim countries did.