Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Rant and Its Shortcomings As a Method of Moral Decision-Making: More on Self-Righteous Anger in American Political Life Today

Connected to what I said earlier today about self-righteous anger and  how it has a way of shutting us off from everyone else in the world who does not share our particular anger at a particular injustice at a particular moment, so that we band together only with others who share that particular anger: here are a few stories.

First, there's the story of the student who cried, Flesh! all semester long. I once taught an introductory ethics course (master's level, adult students) in which one student in the class occupied the attention of all of the rest of us for the livelong semester with a one-note rant: Flesh! Why don't people see how immoral it is to eat flesh! Can you imagine what goes on in those veal pens so you can enjoy your Sunday panée meat?*

She'd slip sometimes and utter the word "meat," and then catch herself, and back we'd go to, Flesh! Can't you see how immoral it is?

Try to talk about the marginalization of the poor in the global economy when lessons about that topic came around, and we'd quickly be back to, Flesh! This is all that poor soul would ever allow the class to discuss, evening after evening after evening.

And there was little I could do to shut her up when the rest of the class sat in sullen silence resenting her domination of discussions but refusing to challenge her. Without the collaboration of her classmates, I couldn't do much to stop the rants when I had made clear from the outset of the class that this was an adult seminar in ethics that would place heavy emphasis on discussion, and that a big portion of each student's grade would be the extent to which she or he participated in class discussions.

But the problem was, you see, that this person did not want to discuss anything. She did not intend that the rest of us would engage in discussion either with her or with each other.

Class discussions were her platform, each class her Hyde Park to which she brought her imaginary soapbox for her imaginary Speakers' Corner, from which she delivered her truisms (Flesh!) to the rest of us, who should be darned grateful to have such an oracle in our midst.

She didn't seem to get that this behavior was highly insulting to all the rest of us, since it implied that she and she alone had moral truth at her disposal. It also implied that the moral issues that might occupy the attention of the rest of us were supremely unimportant in the grand panée-meat-centered scheme of things. It also implied that my carefully prepared lesson plans and the textbooks and articles I'd assigned to read were supremely beside the point as well.

Please don't misunderstand me: how people feed themselves is a topic that deserves serious moral attention, and not one that should be off-limits in an introductory ethics course. Ecological issues are of central importance to the field of ethics, and that importance should be honored in introductory ethics courses.

But honoring her topic was not what this person was doing. She was, in fact, dishonoring it by turning all of the rest of us off with her refusal to listen, even to think about what she herself was saying from her imaginary soapbox — the unreflective aphorisms that had been revealed to her alone and which it was her duty to deliver to the rest of us immoral, unthinking dullards who had not experienced revelation akin to her illuminating revelation.

And then there's the Preacher Man story: I once taught a class, a seminar comparing the work of Martin Luther King to liberation theology, in which a student spent the entire semester haranguing the rest of us about how we did not understand the bible, his bible. That bible, the only bible Preacher Man would allow to be cited, had nothing whatsoever to do with this non-biblical social gospel nonsense — racism and social sin, indeed! — but was focused entirely on our obligation to accept Jesus Christ as our personal lord and savior.

The rest of the students in that class hotly resented his domination of class discussions, his preaching to them, his refusal ever to shut up and listen. His refusal to allow me, the teacher, to teach, to talk about assigned readings, to say anything about anything before he leapt to the Lord Jesus Christ and our need for salvation . . . .

And so they colluded to force him to shut up. One of the students in the class, a brilliant woman who went on to become the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, organized an after-class discussion group to talk about the problems we were confronting in the seminar (and to carry on the discussions that Preacher Man hadn't allowed us to have in class.) I liked her technique of subverting him by coaching her classmates to loosen their tongues, to clarify what they thought about the issues we were supposed to be discussing in class.

I liked how she tutored her fellow students to walk politely around Preacher Man and his accept-Jesus-or-burn-in-hell rants. I liked how she reinforced my role as teacher without leaving me to be the "heavy" whose job was to squelch a ranter who was, after all, violating a discussion space that belonged to all the other students in the class, too.

Ranting: I have the truth. You don't. You can't have the truth if I have it.

You be quiet and listen as I disclose my truth to you. What interests you is not of interest to me, since — have I told you? — I have the truth and it's my obligation to disclose the truth to you. Your obligation is to listen.

Please do not bother me with assigned readings, lectures, lesson plans (carefully written blog postings): I'm here to share my truth with you, not to entertain your ideas or to talk about what you consider important to discuss. This is what ranters do, you see. This is the modus operandi of the ranter, and woe betide the ethics teacher, or the philosophy instructor, or the professor of theology, or any lecturer at all whose class relies on discussion, who happens to attract such a ranter to her class.

I could go on and on. I might tell you about the person who stood up repeatedly during a question-and-answer session following a lecture I gave that same semester about Martin Luther King and racism and social sin (there was nary a black face in the large audience: this was Oregon): she repeatedly shouted, Racism?! They're raping Mother Earth! You want to talk about racism when the moral issue any sane person should be discussing today is, They're raping Mother Earth!

Repeatedly. No one else had a chance to talk during that question-and-answer session, because she did not intend that they have a chance to talk. She had the truth. They were there to listen to her.

I could also tell you about the medical doctor with whom I served on an academic advisory committee for the same ministry program I mentioned at the start of this posting. I had actually gone  to her once about some complaint I had, since I had been told she was a good diagnostician, and other doctors didn't seem to be getting to the bottom of what was ailing me.

I thought her advice was sound. I saw no I'm-a-crazy-person signs adorning her office walls.

So imagine my surprise when I sat with this doctor on that advisory committee and every committee meeting, no matter the topic under discussion, she became red-faced and angry and exclaimed, over and over again: But those abortion factories! We have to shut them down.

Should our students read Nichomachean Ethics as part of their curriculum of study? Oh, but those abortion factories. Got to shut them down!

When I say — repeatedly so — in comments here that mono-focused, one-subject-fixated ranting is just too easy, the stories I'm recounting now, reflecting many years of academic experience, inform that observation. The object of good teaching, especially in the field of ethics, is to provoke people to think, not to rant. It's to get people to talk, not to preach.

It's to force them to confront and critically analyze their taken-for-granted presuppositions, not reinforce in them the absurd idea that they and they alone have privileged moral insight, because they say so. Ranting moves in precisely the opposite direction. It allows us to glide smoothly over the surface of thought, never being troubled or puzzled by critical analysis.

It allows us to cherish the self-serving notion that we really don't need to pay attention to what other people write or think or say, since we have the message that needs to be delivered, and their obligation is to sit at our feet and listen. It lets us assume that we're fully-formed moral agents in the absence of the hard work of dialogic encounter with others who come at moral decision-making from a different set of experiences and different moral viewpoints.

Have I suggested that I don't like mono-focused, one-subject-fixated ranting that ignores the interests, needs, concerns, and insights of others in the process of thinking about moral issues? If the point's not clear by now, I don't. All too often, the ranter's approach to moral thinking pushes us into either-or, black-white, I-win-you-lose binds that ignore the complexity of moral decision-making in a world far less black and white than mono-focussed, one-issue-fixated moral thinking cares to admit: as Elizabeth Janeway observes,

There is always more reality around than we allow for; and there are always more ways to structure it than we use. A painter’s world is different from a musician’s, even when they have grown up in the same neighborhood (Powers of the Weak [NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980], p. 34, emphasis in original).

*Panée meat is a traditional New Orleans term for breaded, fried veal scallops, which were (and this may still be the case) long featured on many traditional New Orleanians' Sunday dinner tables.

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