Anything that opposes art is probably immoral, even or especially when it wraps itself in the cloak of morality. The least we can ask of moral crusaders is that they are fighting for the highest good, and not merely advocating for their own special interests and personal benefit in and through alienating and disenfranchising others.
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell that someone who is a champion of the good really isn’t, but there are some key differences between someone fighting for higher moral principles, and someone merely fighting for their team.
When I say that “morality is the enemy of art” I’m addressing the sort of self-interested moralizing that has an ulterior motive. There is probably a higher level of morality that is more in league with art than opposite to it.
Signs that a moralist is really acting in selfish self-interest at the expense of genuine ethics:
- They have an agenda in which they will personally benefit at someone else’s expense.
- There is an Us Vs. Them binary, where “them” is clearly and automatically bad, and us is generally absolved of culpability or even the potential of being wrong. In short, they are AGAINST some other group of people.
- There is an attempt to vilify individuals through guilt by association who have done nothing wrong.
- The punishment of the other is extraordinarily exaggerated relative to the crime (and no crime need be committed).
- The faults of oneself or ones group are minimized or attributed to the evil other.
- The term “radical” is used. This tends to signal priding oneself on taking measures to the extreme, which generally is going to be parting from notions of compromise and mutual benefit. Note that any notion of mutual benefit is absent.
- There are obvious double-standards and hypocrisy which the moralists in question are either oblivious to, or double down on with self-righteous glee. Another way of saying this is that different rules apply to the in-group than to the evil other.
- They seek to punish, and destroying other people’s lives is considered a desirable achievement.
- There is frequent recourse to name-calling and branding people with epithets that make them automatically wrong (in debate, this is the ad-hominem attack).
- They are frequently guilty precisely of that which they accuse the enemy of doing.
- They are not concerned with what is right but with who is right.
- They cherry-pick facts and refuse to acknowledge when greater context shows their statistics to be wrong, but continue making the same argument.
- They seek to silence, ban, or censor their opponent, not for bad behavior, but because they disagree.
- They openly ridicule another group of people with presumed impunity.
- They celebrate the suffering of whomever they are against.
- Context is not taken into consideration.
- People are guilty until proven innocent (if innocence is even granted as a possibility).
- The slightest perceived infraction is taken as the highest possible offense.
- They seek to make examples of people.
- They are likely to seek to ban, take down, or destroy art.
There’s a bit of overlap between those symptoms, so I could probably whittle the list down to the top 10 characteristics of the immoral moralist. These are things to look for, and easily find when people take it upon themselves to go after art and artists on presumed moral grounds.
signs that someone is upholding true moral standards are the opposite of the above:
- They argue for universal principles that apply to themselves equally to others.
- There is no evil other, or person they are automatically against.
- They apply their standards to themselves first, before judging others.
- They welcome civilly presented counter-argument.
- They are willing to admit that they could be wrong.
- They are not out to punish others nor destroy lives.
- They do not take pleasure in the suffering of others.
- They do not openly label and ridicule others and think it’s OK.
- They acknowledge stronger evidence and arguments and change their conclusions accordingly.
- They are not advocating only for their own personal benefit, but very well may be arguing for a fairer system by which they will lose advantage. This does NOT include people who personally benefit, especially monetarily, by throwing their own group under the bus [ex., if you are a Battlestar Galactica fan, think Baltar].
- They consider people on an individual rather than a group, racial, or tribal basis, in which case one is judged by actions rather than association.
- Context matters.
- Any punishment is commensurate with the crime. Excess punishment isn’t justified in order to make an example of someone.
- Compromise and mutual benefit are valued and sought.
- Double standards are absolutely unacceptable, and hypocrisy is a sure sign you are in the wrong.
- People are given the benefit of the doubt, and everybody is innocent until proven guilty.
- They are likely to tolerate art they don’t approve of or like.
- It doesn’t matter who is right, only what is right.
I just wrote this off the top of my head after stewing on it for a day or so. That’s why I call it a rant. I’m not quoting studies and I’m not giving salient examples (though I easily could, but this would be a longer piece). I also avoided examples in order to look at the characteristics, rather than who happens to be exhibiting them at the moment.
Part of my thinking about this was spurned by a study which found that peoples’ political convictions were not based on how informed they were on the subject (ex., climate change), but rather their group affiliation. People generally believe what the group they most closely associate with believes in order to belong and be accepted. Yikes!
This led me to notice that presumably altruistic moral posturing is also quite likely just promoting beliefs or rules which benefit ones own group, and THAT is debatably not really moral at all.
Of course, one can advocate for a cause which one personally benefits from without being an immoral moralist; some art may be truly offensive; and there could be a situation in which another group really is the primary problem (an invading army)… But these things will also be used to demonize another group even if they are not true, so one has to look at the circumstances carefully and look for other red flags. But I think it’s safe to say that much of the time what gets presented as a moral cause is a thinly-veiled attempt to accrue benefits or advantages to oneself and ones group.
Consider the historical example of the Inquisition. Here are a couple paragraphs from the introduction to a translation of the Malleus Maleficarum (guidebook for Inquisitors):
few, if any, real, verifiable, witches were ever discovered or tried. Often the very accusation was enough to see one branded a witch, tried by the Inquisitors’ Court, and burned alive at the stake. Estimates of the death toll during the Inquisition worldwide range from 600,000 to as high as 9,000,000 (over its 250 year long course); either is a chilling number when one realizes that nearly all of the accused were women, and consisted primarily of outcasts and other suspicious persons. Old women. Midwives. Jews. Poets. Gypsies. Anyone who did not fit within the contemporary view of pieous Christians were suspect, and easily branded “Witch”. Usually to devastating effect.