In his brilliantly disturbing novella, The Testament of Mary (ostensibly about the mother of Christ but arguably about the inevitable unhappiness of mother-love), Colm Toibin articulates very well the dilemma of choosing between a righteous course of action and the more pressing demands of self-preservation:
I watched in horror, but I did not move or make a sound. Nothing would have worked against the quality of their determination…But it seems odd, nonetheless, that we could have watched, that I could have made a decision not to put myself in danger…But what is also strange, what seems strange after all these years, is that I had the capacity then to control myself, to weigh things up, to watch and do nothing and know that that was right…And maybe I should have moved towards him then, no matter what the consequences would have been…at least I would not have to go over and over it now, wondering how I could not have run towards them and pulled them back and shouted out words, how I could have watched and remained still and silent. But that is what I did.
Calculation. Risk analysis. Option assessment. Normal mental processes for the average adult. But not children. They have a different approach. They have a very attuned sense of right and wrong. Not an iota of ambiguity besmirches their moral code. They live in a black and white world until such time as life experience insists they add grey to their palette of reasoning. But before that happens life is a very simple affair. Things are either right or they are wrong. Children don’t hesitate to say “that’s not fair!” or “that’s against the rules!”. They don’t hesitate because they don’t have to waste time screening the situation through a nebulous prevarication filter. You know the one – it’s what we in the grown-up world use to ascertain the course of action that’s most favourable for us. Or the least disadvantageous. Some call it playing the odds. Some call it the path of least resistance.
So what’s the net effect of this qualifying dynamic? What happens to us morally if we are constantly assessing right and wrong issues in terms of personal cost and benefit? Well for a start we probably spend more time in the amoral, if not the immoral, zone. We distance ourselves from those scenarios that compel us to take a stand. We avoid situations where we might have to reveal what we really believe. We indulge in a certain amount of ostrich emulation by habitually sticking our heads in the sand when we feel the storms of judgement coming our way. But who is chief amongst the judges?
Ironically, it’s unlikely to be anybody but ourselves. We know when we’ve been dodging the tough calls. We know when we’ve failed to front up and deal in unequivocal terms. This systematic avoidance creates a certain build-up of pressure. At some point, our moral conviction, buried though it’s been, needs an outlet. So, when does it get a chance to express itself? Well, the answer to that question will be very subjective indeed but what it comes down to is boundaries.
We all have lines that we won’t tolerate being crossed. A friend of mine recently related a story about a dinner party where he was a reluctant guest. The details are unimportant but he had his reasons not to want to be sharing a meal with some of the people present, including the hostess. At a certain point of the evening the dinner conversation moved into more personal territory and a question was asked of my friend that he considered an unacceptable breach of what he considered acceptable. He took the hostess to task, for it was she who had overstepped the mark, and laid down the law in no uncertain terms. As he put it to me, with very deliberate pauses for effect – “Back. The truck. The f**k. Up.” It was an imperative that left no doubt as to what the hostess should do (with her truck, or any other vehicle at her disposal for that matter). Now it didn’t help that my friend wasn’t predisposed to liking the offending party but of course we are much more easily aggrieved by the people we like least. The evening ended on a rather cool note with faces reddened and feathers ruffled. For his part, my friend felt fine.
That’s the beauty of righteous indignation – it doesn’t require forethought. It is instinctive and reactive in the best possible way. There’s no processing, no hovering, no looking for the emergency exits first. It’s affirming and certain. It is personal vindication. It is you, in one crystal clear moment, knowing exactly what you stand for and letting rip with unmitigated judgement of another.
None of which necessarily means you are right.
But you are possibly closer to being right than when you withhold judgement. Closer than when you temper your impulse to respond without fear. Closer than when you self-censor. Closer than when you decide it’s just not worth it.
Judgement is not really the correct word to use as it suggests reflection and contemplation before action. But the echo from our childhood morality play is not contemplative, it is compulsive. It is emotive and urgent. And it is embodied in an adult being with scars of experience. Of innocence lost. Of words silenced. Of gazes averted. Of hands unraised. All those instances of inaction and retreat suddenly ricochet out of our canyons of doubt and strike as a singular, unanswerable blow the object of exception. That is moral conviction. That is the moment you realise anything less than action is something you cannot live with. Otherwise you will have to live with it for the rest of your life. And the rest of your life is a long time to skate over the frozen lake of your integrity.
I think the ice of that lake is an appropriate metaphor for the coolness and detachment of moral equivocation. For is not the coolness of reason and logic often recommended as an antidote to emotion, itself a lazy byword for irrationality? Irrationality being equated with ‘wrongness’. And reason and logic are advocated as part of the methodology of ‘rightness’ whereas they are just as likely to be the twisty and obscuring tools of sophistry and disingenuousness. I find myself wondering if moral conviction does not in fact emanate from ‘hot’ places like the gut and the heart. That there is something fundamental to our very being that stirs this instinct. Our moral forge burns deep within us, retaining the potential to blaze furiously when a sword of righteousness must be wielded. And perhaps it is the risk of self-immolation that prevents us from burning incessantly. Perhaps that is why we choose to smite one injustice but not another. But it’s not great, is it?
In light of current world events it has struck me as very indicative of humanity’s moral lassitude, its cowardice and complacency, that a massive humanitarian tragedy is playing out in Europe and the Middle East amidst scenes that are evocative of the horrors of the Second World War. On the one hand we can be startlingly quick to draw lines in the sand that demark our own high standards and our (personal) moral resolution but on the other we are only too comfortable to allow older lines in the sand – namely, national borders – facilitate our inaction and our inhumanity. Borders are being guarded ferociously to stem the flow of the helpless and the hopeless in the unapologetic service of national self-interest. Not all borders, of course. Some countries are doing what they can. What they can. Everything is qualified.
We live in murky times. The world is a volatile and vulnerable place. Markets and walls are falling. ‘Might is Right‘ and ‘Greed is Good‘ are palpably and frighteningly extant. And yet. Maybe there’s something in the wind. A professorial-looking lefty has just been elected leader of the Labour Party in England. People used their power to achieve change. They did it in Ireland earlier this year when a referendum by popular vote ratified same-sex marriage. The cynics will question. They will prod and doubt. They will keep checking the borders. They will dismiss yardsticks of right and wrong as naive and immaterial. They will remain silent.
So whose voices will speak? Who will refuse to avert their gaze? Whose hands will not be becalmed in apathetic pockets? Who will decry the cynics? Who will say that morality is not just a childhood game? Who will make it relevant and resonant? When is the time for action going to be more urgent? When are we going to refuse ourselves permission to stay quiet?
And if you don’t know what to say maybe you could start with the variously rendered quote that is popularly misattributed to Winston Churchill: “This is nonsense up with which I will not put.” Or if you fancy something less genteel it may be time to stick your head out the window and scream Paddy Chayevsky’s famously prescient words from his screenplay of the 1976 movie Network: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Release the pressure. Do something. Do anything! But don’t do nothing.