Losing the language of morality
We are failing our children and destroying our culture. The evidence is everywhere, and we’re ignoring it.
Exhibit A: YouTube sensation Logan Paul. Paul is a social media phenomenon; a 22-year-old millionaire and a high school dropout with millions of followers on his various channels and accounts. Already notorious for his asinine behavior and pranks, Paul stepped into a real minefield when a video he filmed while traveling in Japan showed the body of a man who had apparently just hanged himself.
The outcry on social media and elsewhere was immediate and severe. Paul took the video down from his YouTube channel and apologized in writing and on video. YouTube also apologized for the video.
But a sharply critical article published last week in The Atlantic dismissed these events as just another “familiar cycle of Horrific Internet Content.” Robinson Meyer, the article’s author, warns about the effect of the “churning online world” on young people. Noting that real journalists avoid filming suicide victims to avoid “copycat” conduct (and that Paul’s video got 6.3 million views before it was taken down), Meyer places the blame not on Logan Paul, but on the culture that created him. His conclusion is particularly relevant here:
“There were no gatekeepers to stand in his way, and YouTube itself only acted after the video became news. … As online platforms have pursued engagement to the detriment of everything else, they have come to favor content that dehumanizes us. Meanwhile, the same platforms dominate more and more of teen culture.
“People may want to punish Paul’s crassness and disrespect, but he, like every other social-media star, was responding to the incentives we’ve set up. We stuck a smartphone in every 14-year-old’s hand and told them it could make them famous. Little wonder that the kids who won that lottery don’t know when to turn the camera off.”
Exhibit B: The Hollywood sex scandals. Women wore fashionable black gowns to this week’s Golden Globe awards in solidarity with sexual exploitation victims. (Some of whom weren’t invited, by the way.) Men gamely sported supportive #TimesUp buttons on tuxedo lapels. It was an empty, self-congratulatory exercise.
The predictable but ineffectual response to Logan Paul’s video and the pointless showmanship of the Golden Globes “protests” have their root in the same problem: We are losing a language of morality to describe behavior we want to discourage. The arbiters of America’s culture — most notably the entertainment industry, the media and academia — have abandoned morality in favor of legality. This is evident when one looks at the efforts over the past 50-plus years to legalize conduct that was once illegal precisely because it was considered immoral: adultery, abortion, homosexuality, drug use. The thought was that morality is personal (and often based upon religious belief), and thus inappropriate for the laws of a pluralistic society. Legalize these behaviors, the argument goes, and let people choose what they will.
There are problems with this reasoning, and we’re seeing some of them. First, like it or not, legality conveys a gloss of morality, if not initially, then eventually. (Indeed, that has been the trajectory with abortion: once, it was “safe, legal and rare.” now it’s “shout your abortion.”)
Second, without a distinct language of morality separate from law, everything legal is presumptively moral. Thus, it is the existence of “choice” itself that is celebrated, without the ability to ask whether a particular choice is good or not. Ditto for “sex,” “fame” or “technology” — removed from a moral context, the pursuit, possession, or use of any of them is immune from criticism, as long as it’s legal.
But this is how we got to Harvey Weinstein asking women to watch him take a shower, and Logan Paul cavorting on camera with a corpse. Assuming that these behaviors are legal (illegal conduct is another matter altogether), why do we have the sense that they are nevertheless wrong? Because they’re “distasteful”? That’s just a matter of personal opinion. “Exploitative”? Sometimes. But sometimes not. “Nonconsensual”? Can a dead man consent to being filmed?
None of these objections are adequate, and we know it, even if we won’t admit it.
If we find ourselves objecting to behavior that is legal, then there must be a source of morality other than the law, and there must be a language — permissible and accessible — to describe it.
What is considered “moral” can and does change. That is not necessarily catastrophic. What is, is the lack of common language and ethos of morality. Without those, all we have are arbitrary incidents of outrage, untethered to anything explicable or consistent.
That is a prescription for collapse.