260. "We Shouldn't Squander Our Moral Outrage," Wall Street Journal, (December 27, 1994) p. A-16.
These days grownups piece together circumstantial evidence not, to solve a double murder in LA, but to divine whether or not a Supreme Court Justice uttered the words, "there is pubic hair on my Coke can." Reporters garner from the fact that he kept his Playboy copies in the proper sequence, signs of obsessiveness (librarians, take note) and indirect proof that he was given to kinky expressions. An FBI agent Director was severely reprimanded for giving his son a ride to school to in the official car, some seven blocks. (Little wonder no one had time to supervise Mr. Ames.) In a society in which million of children promiscuously copulate with children and sire children they cannot possibly take care off, we find the time and moral fervor to fuss about a professor who used an unchaste imagery in his English Lit class (something about belly dancing being like a vibrator under a plate). The "F" word was recently removed from the official Scrabble dictionary. Are we about to swing from a grave state of moral deficiency to an overdose of moralism, without even stopping to rest in some kind of a normal state, say somewhere near the golden rule?
Our growing willingness to face up to values issues as community arises not a moment too soon. But we must learn not to squander our moral fervor. Here are some suggested ground rules that might help. First, let's not seek perfection. A professor, public figure, CEO or reporter who can always get it right, has not been born yet. We each utter many hundred thousands of words. We should allow people occasionally to put their foot in their mouth, pull it out and walk on, rather than be crucified for an occasional slip of the tongue. Recently a politician was raked over the coals for saying, once, that living with blacks (for presumably affluent whites) in Washington was a challenge. This certainly was not the most felicitous statement one can imagine, but let's keep some sense of perspective. Maybe we should introduce an annual bo-bo allowance.
Second, foul words should be accorded much less weight than misbehavior. Inquiring about the size of intimate parts of the anatomy is uncalled for; grabbing is a much more serious matter. The spell check in my computer with a program that rejects words such as Dutch treat and normal and the other five thousand words the LA Times determined are politically incorrect. But this by itself hardly makes me into a good person.
Thirdly, we need some kind of the moral equivalent of a statute of limitations. If we remember that only those who have never sinned should cast the first stone, we might be more willing to agree that minor transgressions umpteen years ago (say more than seven), should be expunged from a person's moral record and our finger waving arsenal, if the inappropriate acts are not repeated.
Further more, a pattern of misconduct should be taken much more seriously than individual events. Driving once under the influence is bad enough; we should be unabashed in the face of repeat offenders. (By the way, given that the average criminal commits several crimes before he is caught once, we should not consider "three strikes and you are out," unduly punitive. It actually amounts to "thirty strikes and you are done.")
Nor should all misconduct, even if repeated, evoke the same level of concern. Parking in spaces designated for the handicapped is ill-considered, but leaving one's children unattended and taking off for Acapulco is much more condemnable. Those who repeatedly use their official phones to make long distance personal calls, elected officials who asked their body guards to help their wife with the shopping, and account executives who pad their expense accounts -- should evoke less of a moral criticism than those who rob banks (or even empty their coffers), block fire escapes, or who sell to airlines bogus replacement parts.
Above all we should receive much more warmly those who repentant, when it is evident that the remorse is sincere, above all if the person restructured their life rather than merely expressed regrets. Take HUD secretary Henry Cisneros. He dropped his mistress, reunited with his wife, and returned as far as the public knows to the straight and narrow. He is now being hounded because it is said that he told the FBI that his payments to his mistress were $60,000 while actually they may have been closer to $150,000, and lasted longer than previously reported. But, the according to the holier than thou crowd, he lied! I do not condone lying. But if only those who can go through life without ever inaccurately filling out a report to the IRS, sales report, or news story would speak up, a stunning silence would replace the present choir for perfection.
If we keep up the current hoopla of jumping with both feet on any one who misspeaks or did the moral equivalent of jay walking, we will have ever fewer people of stature willing to risk assuming public office, head a foundation or a corporation, teach, write or otherwise serve in any post in which they may come under public scrutiny. Much more important: We shall soon be exhausted from the moralistic frenzy in which no one is deemed above reproach. We then shall join the swelling ranks of the cynics who believe that every one is wicked and beyond redemption. We will then turn a deaf ear to the moral voices, believing them to be calls in a wilderness. Believing that we are surrounded by politicians who are crooks, doctors out to enrich themselves, merchants to exploit us, we shall feel free to join the immoral fray.
In order not to trivialize its moral voice, a community must focus its moral censor where it is most justified rather than taint everything with a broad brush. Maybe we should budget our expressions of moral dismay, limiting them to say, 12 acts of censorship per annum. This in turn will encourage us to aim at artfully chosen and deserving targets of which there is no shortage at all. And hopefully we shall be able to increasing express appreciation for those, in rising numbers, who will act morally all on their own, setting a role model for still others.
Amitai Etzioni is the author of The Spirit of Community (Simon & Schuster, 1994) and founder of The Communitarian Network.