by Donella Meadows
— February 11, 1999 —
For a whole year I steered clear of Monica madness. I knew what was happening, of course — who didn’t? But I watched no broadcasts, read no articles, shut my ears, covered my eyes. Then on the final Saturday I got hooked by the battle of the snippets.
Monica herself pulled me in, as the orchestrators of the drama hoped she would. The script called for an appearance of the leading lady, if only on videotape. I was as curious as anyone. So I tuned in for a minute and watched the rest of the day.
It wasn’t Monica that held me. It was the way in which the two sides drew from the same snippets such opposite conclusions. As I focused for the first time on the prosecutors and defenders, I saw beneath the grandstanding, beneath the surface grime that has disgusted me for months, a serious moral discussion.
Until that day I didn’t think any of the cast of unadmirable characters could be serious. How could one see high crimes in the efforts of an adulterer to cover up an affair? How could one intone pieties about the rule of law, when the rule of law had been flouted to pursue a man of power? How could that man bring himself to go on leading even his staff, much less a nation, when he had lied to us all?
But as I watched the histrionics in the Senate, I was struck by the earnestness of the participants and by their utter frustration. This was more than a power struggle. Each side was fighting for something heartfelt and was apoplectic that the other side couldn’t see what was so plain and so important. The battle wasn’t trivial. It was fundamental.
I pulled off the shelf a book published in 1996 by linguist George Lakoff, entitled “Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t” and re-read Lakoff’s description of what he calls “Strict Father Morality.” I don’t like the gender implications of that label, so in my paraphrase here I’ll call it conservatism.
Lakoff says conservative morality gives highest priority to moral strength, the self-discipline to stand up to external and internal evil, which is ever-present. Every human being is expected to be able to summon such strength, which is developed through respect for and obedience to authority.
Strict behavioral norms are essential, because moving outside permissible paths not only is personally immoral, it calls into question the whole moral order. Deviants tempt others by making deviance look safe, normal, even attractive. People in positions of authority are especially required to demonstrate and enforce proper behavior.
Says Lakoff, “Legitimate authority must be upheld at all costs or the moral system ceases to function. Punishment for violating authority is the main way in which authority is maintained. Actions insuring punishment for moral weakness are moral; actions going against punishment for moral weakness are immoral.”
If you see the world this way, you not only want this president removed, you have been appalled by him all along, by his draft avoidance, his not-inhaling, his appetites, his compassion for social deviants. This undisciplined man was never an acceptable leader of our nation or a model for our children. His tawdry affair, his ignoble attempts to hide it, his unwillingness to shrivel up in shame are just the last straws in a career of moral outrageousness.
In contrast Lakoff describes “Nurturant Parent” morality, which I will call liberalism. It requires empathy for others and help for the weak, who are regarded not as hopeless failures, but as those who have yet to learn. Responsibility is learned not through rules and punishment but through love, care, respect, and latitude to make mistakes. Mistakes are to be corrected more through restitution than through retribution. Parents earn their authority not so much through their own rigid self-control, but through their willingness to give of themselves and explain themselves. Children are allowed, even encouraged, to question.
Conservatives assume that we are all capable of moral perfection but also of being lured into degradation. The moral order is fragile, endangered by every lapse. Liberals assume that we are all flawed but redeemable, that the moral order is strong though individually we are sometimes weak. Clinton’s faults are regrettable but ordinary, no threat to anyone but himself and his family. Liberals are more alarmed by his prosecutors, especially by the ways laws and procedures and civil rights have been bent to inflict punishment. The danger is not that lenience will unleash a burst of depravity, but that harshness will lead to intolerance and overweening state power. The problem is not Clinton’s deviance, but Starr’s inquisition.
These are honest fears on both sides, based on moral theories that define people’s identities and worlds. They go way beyond this president; they permeate our national debate about abortion, affirmative action, welfare, the justice system, the fairness of taxation, the role of government. The extremes on the two sides, completely unable to comprehend each other, accuse each other of immorality. Moral laggards wanting to escape responsibility for their actions. Judgmental hypocrites, grabbing political power by humiliating their enemies.
Order versus freedom. Punishment versus forgiveness. Authority versus tolerance. The problem with opposites like these comes when we think we have to choose one or the other once and for all, rather than to balance them and to shift that balance appropriately to each new situation. Most of us try to balance, rather than taking refuge in absolutism at either edge. Our democratic system seems to seek out balance too.
The only thing that scared me, listening to our elected representatives argue over snippets, is that we have chosen so many from the extremes, so many who seem unable to imagine that there is any respectable moral view but their own.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999