Moral equivalence, tolerance, reciprocity
September 5, 2010 2 Comments
When specifics are at stake, when values are weighed, and when judgments must be passed, it seems American liberals cannot help but default to moral equivalence.
Take for example the post-9/11 semantic struggle for the word “terrorism.” In an earlier era, terrorism clearly meant something like a plane hijacking or an embassy bombing; it was bad because it forced a government into an odious moral dilemma of either sacrificing innocents or legitimating violence as a means for change. But with the War on Terror, many opponents were either too angry or wearied by the daily use of the “T” word to maintain the important distinctions of who, how, and why that makes terrorism so bad. In their new parlance, “terrorist” became an epithet befitting the unrealistic black-and-white view that any exercise of force or the mere holding of power was bad. Common was the claim that Americans were terrorists because they dropped bombs from planes or their ancestors once sniped British officers from treetops. This dumbing down of the “T” word culminated in a bumper sticker featuring a quaint photo of four Native Americans with rifles at the ready. Its caption: “Homeland Security–fighting terrorism since 1492.” And so in a thumbnail sketch, the whole of our glorious and equitable American civilization was dismissed as no different from a band of murderous Islamo-supremacist thugs.
Not only can moral equivalence single-handedly dismiss a civilization’s rich heritage, its also a cover for those who don’t want to think too hard in comparing religions or considering their respective relation to truth. In the midst of August’s “Ground Zero mosque” media madness, a telling exchange between Charlie Rose and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria demonstrated a shameful intellectual weakness that pervades mainstream journalism. To them, the shared evil between Christendom and Islam was not violence or the threat of coercive force, but the idea of proselytization itself; that is, the desire to share, spread, or submit for discussion that one idea or belief is possibly better than another. It is anathema to their profession, which upholds objectivity and neutrality. But in an existential twist, their reports in turn must be colored by a tolerance that is itself intolerant of exclusive truth claims. All this is surely an overreaction to a past age when fears of patriarchy, conformity, and stigmatization of minorities were major concerns. But if we can’t get beyond the hang up of stigmatization and the impulse of tolerance that begets moral equivalence, then we have no hope of solving our problems.
Oddly enough, the inability of journalists to admit their true feelings or core motivations gives them something in common with orthodox Islam. They both are deficient in reciprocity. While the vested partisans of Christendom have demonstrated a sustained capacity for self-criticism, reflection, dialog, and reform, no one under the sun of political correctness can bear to admit that orthodox Islam today is in want of those things. When a religion’s unmistakable prescription for apostasy is death, and when a civilization propagates its ideas but cannot reciprocate openness to allow the honest consideration of others, there is a problem. Any institution or social phenomena, whether it be a religion, a government, or the culture of professional journalism, cannot long survive without shedding illiberal bulwarks against the unfettered exchange of ideas. Totalitarian states make no qualms about shutting up debate, but when American liberals run up against the hard facts of life, they all too often dull distinctions by means of moral equivalence.
To be sure, all individuals must be respected and judged on their own merits, not on their cultural background. And while religions and cultural norms should be given due diligence, it does not hold that in the end they are all the same.