We live in a peculiar age. Moral relativism is probably the dominant ethical perspective in American culture, yet at the same time there is a strong tendency among Americans (1) to dogmatically oppose certain forms of behavior and speech and (2) to be highly judgmental, even to the point of absolute condemnation, regarding those who do not fall in line with the prevailing norms of our society. Paula Deen’s recent fall from glory is highly illustrative of this, as her racist remarks from many years ago have been judged so egregious as to be unforgivable—by the brass at the Food Network, as well as many others who have affirmed their decision to can her. (Interestingly, there has been a very different response to Alec Baldwin’s recent abusive, anti-gay tirade. Double standard, perhaps? By the way, this CBS report, like many others, failed to mention the most severe and disgusting anti-gay slur in Baldwin’s tirade. Hmm.)
When such stories hit the news, it’s always amusing to hear how people attempt to mask the moral judgments they make. Nowadays there is a common stock of terms and phrases which serve as stand-ins for moral judgments. By using them, one has the freedom to vent one’s moral outrage without presenting oneself as a moral judge. And, thus, one retains plausible deniability when it comes to the charge of being a moral absolutist, while enjoying the freedom of making dogmatic moral pronouncements. Here are some of my favorites:
- “That’s inappropriate” – I believe it was in the early 1990s when I first became aware of the popular usage of this phrase, mainly by people in the social sciences. It’s a favorite relativist phrase these days because what counts as “in/appropriate” can be construed at any of a number of different levels, from a whole culture to a local community to an individual person. Very handy.
- “That’s offensive” – This one is interesting because it teeters on the brink of an absolute moral claim while retaining the element of subjectivity (i.e., it offends me or I find it offensive). President Obama famously resorted to this phrase during a 2012 debate with Mitt Romney, when the latter had the temerity to suggest that Obama had somehow failed regarding the Benghazi attacks. All Obama had to do was use this phrase, accompanied by a petulant stare, and that was enough to get Romney to back off. Again, very handy.
- “I’ve got a problem with that” – This is a favorite of ESPN sports commentator Dan Patrick, who uses the phrase regularly on his radio show. I recall one instance where he was touting the “live and let live” line. One of his fellow hosts then asked him whether he’d have that same attitude if his daughter decided to work in the porn industry. Uh, not so much. But rather than offend anyone by calling such a choice immoral, Patrick simply said, “I’d have a problem with that.”
The ubiquity of such phrases in a largely relativist culture reflects the fact that moral judgments are irrepressible. This is a good thing insofar as it shows that we are inherently moral beings who can’t help but make moral judgments. But it also reveals a certain unwitting duplicity on the part of relativists, which perhaps means most Americans these days. And there is another reason to be concerned: such apparently morally neutral terminology might, in the end, work too well. By veiling moral judgment and dogmatism, it can be used to oppress those who don’t share the majority opinion on certain issues. Indeed, we are already seeing this at work when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage, as traditionalists are increasingly being presented as “offensive” for maintaining that marriage is properly defined as a union of one man and one woman. The recent Supreme Court decision suggests that this oppression might be coming sooner rather than later. I’ll address this in my next post.