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Is it time for the left to embrace morality?


For all of my adult life, I have avoided the use of the word ‘moral.’ Morality seemed to be the territory of religious institutions, steeped in righteousness, enlarged in its own zeal and influence, like the deity depicted as a vengeful force on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel, all omniscience and thunderbolts. Progressive liberals have enthusiastically eschewed morality as a tool of doctrinal control, considered the application of moral standards too narrow to allow for diversity of belief or opinion, too authoritarian to exist peacefully with democratic pluralism, too devoted to traditional (and obsolete) notions of right and wrong, good and evil, acceptable social attitudes and conduct.

And yet, here we are scrambling for the exact frame of judgement to which we have objected. How to respond when our own elected officials see poverty as an intrinsic weakness? When healthcare is denied on the basis of illness? When social class, skin color, sexual orientation, or ethnic origin are accepted as valid reasons to revoke civil rights? When media provides a platform for hatred, choosing ratings and vitriol over journalistic integrity? When pure narcissism and ego define leadership, loyalty to partisanship trumps service and public benefit? When every system of public life – education, justice, economy, politics, environment, taxes, health – is willingly sacrificed to greed?

Suddenly, no concept seems sufficiently broad to encompass our dilemma, no description more accurate than a complete breakdown of the moral core. We wonder how politicians and newscasters and Supreme Court justices can sleep at night. We wonder what it will take to stimulate outrage when clear conflicts of interest, obstruction of justice, collusion with foreign powers to influence an election, obvious mental incapacity, racism, misogyny, compromised character, and possible treason are not enough. No decision made by those presently in power can be justified on any basis other than personal gain. No one cares about anyone but themselves and potential rich donors to their campaigns. No one in power seems the least bit concerned about the future of the people, the planet, or even our system of democracy if such considerations might compromise their own pockets or their continued authority.

I am realizing that I’ve been wrong about morality. It’s a little like patriotism. We let the right wing define the terms for us because we are uncomfortable with the implications. Almost any concept taken to its extreme is objectionable. Patriotism doesn’t have to be nationalism or white supremacy but, because those concepts are frightening, divisive, repugnant, we reject the tenet entirely. And fear of fundamentalism, universalism, religion-like dogma is completely valid. We must avoid these things at all costs. Yet, by rejecting any affinity with any aspects of patriotism (or morality) it is possible that we also concede any influence on meaning. Words are defined by their usage. With no radical leftist intellectual interpretation of a concept, the center dissolves, leaving only the simplest, ugliest, most unexamined representation. The word, and its usage, becomes empowered by associated symbolism so that a flag can only mean nationalism, the Constitution can only mean the Second Amendment, the Oval Office can only mean unchecked power, secrecy, authoritarianism. Or ‘morality’ can only mean the Christian bible, abortion clinic bombings, torches in the night.

What would claiming a role in the definition of morality look like? The job invariably requires a radical perspective. And by radical, I do not mean extreme. Radicalism and extremism are not the same thing. Extremism is a closed loop. It says there is a right (or wrong), select people know what that is, and they are justified in enforcing it, usually by any means necessary and regardless of the implications. By dictionary definition, radicalism means relating or getting to the root. Deep as opposed to shallow. Thorough as opposed to cursory. But it is not a dichotomy, an either/or. Radicalism must be wary of extremism. Its perspective is only moral if it asks questions more often than it tries to answer them, if it complicates more often than it simplifies, if it takes into account broad perspectives more often than it comes to conclusions. At the same time, radicalism suggests serious analysis of accepted rhetoric, convenes around the rejection of the unexamined – unexamined loyalties, unexamined privileges, unexamined assumptions, unexamined logics and knowledges. ‘Getting to the root’ means ferreting out causality, identifying motive, seeking a sense of essence even while recognizing that essence is unlikely to be ‘real’, or the same for everyone, or stable over space or time. (And this, of course, is the scary part of morality: my essence or reality isn’t the same as yours so what could possibly give me the right to develop a morality that fails to take yours into consideration?)

As a queer person, a non-Christian, a female-bodied individual, I am terrified of essentialism. And yet, I have recently become convinced that a radical morality might best be conceptually founded in the experience of body. Body is the surface upon which ‘property’ is constituted and contested. It is no coincidence that health care is the first area targeted by the Republican cadre. The attack on women, women’s health, women’s rights, women’s safety, women’s activism, women’s voices is no accident. The defense of the prison-industrial complex through privatization and diabolical sentencing guidelines is completely predictable. Bodies are the threat. The bodies of the precariat. Black bodies. Queer bodies. Muslim bodies. They can’t always justify killing us directly (though it definitely happens), but they can devalue our only recourse to property ownership, the only place that power resides potentially beyond their control.

A moral threat, then, is one that decries the right to a secure body. Radical morality defends physical bodies from attack – by police, by insurance companies, by polluting corporations. I will admit that this approach is not so very different from a human rights strategy which has, with mixed success, been applied to everything from civilian safety in war zones (see how well that’s going) to equality in housing, access to clean water, freedom from the threat of torture, religious expression, etc. But human rights invariably depend on recourse to ‘fundamental’ arguments, ‘intrinsic’ protection from interference or restriction, ‘inherencies’ that must be guaranteed by laws, treaties, contracts, resolutions, declarations, and conventions. As a tool and a set of principles, human rights play a critical role in conducting international relations and affairs. They comprise a stratagem for communicating across complex, interrelated, and multi-cultural spheres. One might ask why, when we already have a term that applies to “everyone, all the time, no matter what” and that covers civil and political arenas, applies to work and culture and self-determination and personal expression and equality before the law, and that explicitly denotes the progressive improvement of individual lives and society as a whole, would we need something else, another term, another concept?

My response is two-fold. First, it is very sad to say but human rights activism has a tendency to fall into the same trap as the extreme right wing agenda: it is dependent on symbolism – all those declarations and treaties – and on a certain type of top-down authority and bureaucracy that often falls into a sphere that is inaccessible to anyone but lawyers, social workers, and NGOs. The power is in the rhetoric, the associations, traditional sources and schemas of power. And while I really wish I could argue that human rights advocacy should be as different from nationalism and individualism and reactionary politics as you can get, we know that the terminology and even the conceptual framework has recently been coopted to refer to the ‘liberties’ associated with religious resistance to anti-racist, anti-gay, anti-Muslim pluralism.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, my sense is that, because those most likely to use their power against the precariat have betrayed their own conscience, no longer have a clear sense of what ‘right’ or ‘rights’ entail, even the symbolism of human rights advocacy has failed to establish a viable placeholder for moral judgement. That is, hopefully, what radical morality can do. The left is floundering with a lack of articulated character. The issues are complicated, identity politics (as we understand them) demand staked-out territories and demonization of anyone who misses the point. But what is ‘identity’ other than bodies? Is it possible to acknowledge the specific details of individualized experience while also speaking from the common physicality of humanness (or even the common physicality of aliveness in order to include plants and animals)? Can we at least agree to have in common the desire to protect our and others’ bodies from harm? Isn’t that what the women’s march was about? The science march? The climate march? Health care protests? Militarized law enforcement protests? Anti-war protests?

This was the strategy taken by Rep. Joe Kennedy III in his speech to the House about ACA repeal. He uses the words ‘mercy’ and ‘fairness’ a lot but what he’s talking about is morality. You’ve probably seen the video that recently went viral in which a constituent tells Trumpcare architect Rep. Tom MacArthur that healthcare for profit is “immoral.” Bernie Sanders states in a now-famous Liberty University speech that morality is dependent on justice and there can be no justice when, “so few have so much and so many have so little.”

I have to admit, I’ve been a little irritated with Bernie. Hearing that word – moral – so often in his interviews set me off, made me feel like he was out of touch, speaking from the perspective of a lost generation, of the progressive politics of another era, and maybe falling into the trap of addressing other white guys who can only hear language that echoes their own inchoate ideals. I still think all of that might be true but it doesn’t rule out the necessity of establishing and defending a moral center. That moral center is our bodies. The common ground is our bodies. The felt experience is our bodies. The sense of morality is our bodies. Our most powerful perspective is that of a living body. Our voices, our hands, our legs, our hearts must all – together – speak of a moral threat and act as though our lives depend on it.

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