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Without moral clarity. . .

A friend of mine--a school superintendent in a small town--responded to a comment I’d made about the disunity and disorder that is making education difficult. How can we agree on what and how to teach when we can’t agree on what is wise and good in general? She said:

Those people who’ve been around, who have an understanding of the importance of the everyday civility and order, I think they gotten. . . I don’t know--sidetracked? Caught up in the business? I watch . . . the order keepers. They’re burned out. They’ve got the order but forget why they needed the order. . .

I told her I have a bit darker vision of what’s happening. Order is a different thing than organization, as Wendell Berry has noted. We can try to keep our worlds organized through committee meetings and rules and campaigns, but if people on the inside are quite different from one another then it takes more force than we are ready to use to keep them united.

When there is real social order--that is, when people are internally similar enough to each other, having compatible understandings of what is right and wrong and proper--only leadership is needed to allow a natural order to form. But when we really are diverse inside, so that what you think is good I think is wretched, it’s hard to keep the peace except through force. It’s easier to go our separate ways until events force us to deal with each other.

We have by now achieved quite a lot of diversity. Someone who thinks the important moral categories are diversity, authenticity, and choice is looking at the world quite differently from someone who thinks the important categories are truth, goodness, and duty.

A few years ago a different friend of mine, on the verge of leaving his wife for a few sun-drenched weeks with a different women on the beaches of Costa Rica, told me that the important moral decision was to be totally honest. “You’ve got to be totally, honest, man. That’s the whole thing. Totally f___ing honest!” His life turned into quite a mess because of selfish and myopic decisions he made, I thought. But they were his choices. He acted authentically. And he was candid about what he wanted.

I think he would have been happier if he had asked what was good and what duties he had to others.

We would be silly to expect much unity in a culture where so many have dedicated themselves to championing diversity, authenticity, and choice. All three are strategies for evading unity. All three lead to a world in which whatever the self asserts is good is good. All three dissolve any standard by which we might reconcile disagreements.

I expect truth, goodness, and duty to re-emerge as important categories, strengthened and clarified by having been put to the fire. I think this is likely to happen as the truly awful situation we are moving into becomes increasingly clear and the need for moral clarity comes to feel more urgent.

Right now, it’s hard for busy people to hear the real news. The enormity of 9-1-1 momentarily disrupted the buzz machines but it didn’t last long. Katrina was being spun before the winds even made landfall. But both these things are likely just previews of coming attractions. We meet trouble by endless internal chatterings--commissions and studies and committees--but no one has the authority to act, because we are too partisan to grant such authority. Winning an election no longer confers the right to govern, even for a fixed term. So we don’t act. We posture.

So we can expect trouble.

In some ways, The Lord of the Rings brings a more accurate and realistic description of our situation than the typical CNN newscast. There is a source of power in the world--call it a ring--that is sufficient to destroy the world. The challenge is how to ensure that the ring is controlled by goodness, because if it falls into the wrong hands all is lost.

For now, we will go on arguing about whether the ring is already in the wrong hands, or whether the concept of “wrong” is merely a cultural bias, or, more likely what’s playing on some other channel.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/10 at 10:29 PM






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