230. "A Moral Voice - Not a Shrill One" The Philadelphia Inquirer, (May 1, 1993), p. A13.


Recently, an FBI employee was severely reprimanded for using an FBI car to transport a civilian. He had spotted his son, stranded in the family’s broken-down car alongside the highway and had given him a lift to school – seven blocks out of his way.

The internal guidelines of the Honeywell Corporation define sexual harassment to include the use of the words “honey,” “sweetie,” “babe” and “doll.”

Judge Kimba Wood’s nomination to serve as the U.S. attorney general was not advanced by the White House because she had hired an illegal immigrant, when it was still legal to do so. She had also started to train as a Playboy bunny some 25 years ago.

If this moralistic frenzy continues, we will soon disqualify anyone from public office who has jaywalked, reprimand any official who did not floss his or her teeth, and demote employees who utter any of the 5,000-plus words listed in a recent dictionary as political incorrect expressions.

These wildly excessive expressions of censure are grievously unfair to the individuals caught in the crossfire: careers and reputations are often irrevocably damaged by a public kangaroo court that knows no appeals and abides by no rules of evidence. Worse yet, these excesses squander an important, newly-revived social force; our moral voice.

Until recently, our voice was rather muted. Social science studies have shown that over the last decades, Americans had become rather reluctant to lay moral claims on one another. For instance, sociologist M. P. Baumgartner found that suburbanites did their best to refrain from complaining to neighbors about matters that they found offensive. And when they could not take it anymore, they would timidly ask their neighbors to stop kicking the dog, or cover their garbage cans, “as a special favor to me,” rather than suggest that certain behaviors are inappropriate.

When I pointed out to a class of my students at the George Washington University that the social order requires that people be reminded of the virtues of adhering to moral tenets, and of the disapproval they face if they do not, my class started shifting in their seats. “You cannot tell people what to do,” several protested.

I suggested that the libertarian idea, that we are to be free from interference, refers to interference from the government and to coercive controls and not to the gentle prodding of our fellow community members. I asked: “If you saw a person slap a child’s face in a supermarket, would you say something?” If not, is there some other behavior that would lead you to speak up?” The most the class would tolerate was carefully voicing “concern” – but please, hold the moral overtones.

A major reason that many segments of American society have been in a pickle is that as a result of the rebellious ’60s and the preoccupation with me-ism that followed, consensus on what are acceptable norms has waned. A case can be made that the old moral and social norms may have been a bit prudish and somewhat authoritarian.

Hence, the main problem is not that many of the old norms have been challenged, but that no new or reconstructed consensus of what is right vs. wrong has emerged. In many segments of the community, we face either a moral vacuum, or are guided only by reluctant, unsure voices in support of those values to which we will adhere.

All this is now changing. American have sampled a life with eroded moral and social values and they are calling for a new or renewed “culture.” More and more actively seek a reaffirmation of values and a restoration of the practices and institutions that embody these values in our daily lives: families, schools, churches and neighborhood. They are reasserting their moral voice.

This reassertion of values is an encouraging sign for American society, but we must learn not to oversteer. We should not move from hyper-permissiveness to post-modern versions of Victorianism, perfectionism, let alone crucibles. It is particularly distressing that although in many areas we have not found our moral voice, we already see moralistic excesses in others. Increasingly, we witness fundamentally good people being hounded out of public office, private employment and social circles for what are minor transgressions.

We must, as most religions do, make distinctions between venial sins and all others. We must accept that all human beings have frailties. We should encourage one another to rise to higher standards of moral and public conduct, but we should also recognize that we shall occasionally fail.

Our census should hence be focused on major abuses: on patterns of misconduct as distinguished from one-time slip-ups, on recent violations rather than those that occurred decades ago. Above all, we should embrace those who truly straighten themselves out at least as warmly as we do those sanctimonious self-righteous ones who imply that they never went astray.

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