Beheading people? How rude.

If there’s one thing the world has a surplus of, it’s moral outrage. It’s a rare day when something or other doesn’t happen to cause Twitter or Facebook to explode with righteous indignation, justified or not, and while this sort of display has been greatly enhanced by the internet and the growth of social media, they certainly didn’t create it. Before there was the internet, there was TV, before that there were newspapers, before that there were printed pamphlets, sermons and, well, local gossip, and they’ve all indulged in moral denunciation of bad things or people. Go back far enough, and you have the prophets of the Bible, and they weren’t short of moral outrage either.

The problem with moral outrage though, apart from it often being directed at those who don’t really deserve it, is that it doesn’t really achieve much. For one thing, it can often be a substitute for actually doing anything about whatever is outraging you, and, again, modern day “slacktivists” were not the originators of this. There were a lot of Americans before the Civil War who would have claimed to be outraged by slavery; not so many who actually did a lot about it.

On a deeper level, for moral denunciation to have much effect depends on the target sharing the same morality as you do. And the problem with that is that most horrible things are done by either (a) people who firmly believe that they are morally justified in doing them or (b) people who lack any kind of moral values and don’t care that what they are doing is considered horrible, such as psychopaths. Of the two, the first category is far the more common. ISIS, the Taliban, the Nazis, the slave-owners, every terrorist group ever, every religious body that ever repressed, massacred or was just mean to people, most governments that do immoral things – the list goes on and on. Maybe it even includes you and me, on our worse days.

Neither of these groups is going to be stopped by being told by angry people how immoral they are. One has their pre-prepared justifications, the other just doesn’t care. The result is an awful lot of wasted words and emotional energy and if there is any dialogue, it’s of the deaf. The philosopher A.J. Ayer used to argue that moral judgements were literally meaningless, pure expressions of emotion like shouting “Boo to that!” or “Hooray for this!” As a bad philosopher, I’m not really qualified to judge if Ayer as right, but read a few newspaper columns or online comments sections and you can see what he was getting at.

My view is that a lot of the time, it’s potentially more effective to denounce people’s bad behaviour as rude than as immoral, even when it is immoral. For one thing, etiquette is clearly and unambiguously something that doesn’t operate on a rational basis, but from a mixture of tradition and a culture’s emotional consensus about behaviour. That can’t be rationalised away as easily as a moral code.

There’s no real logical reason why, weather permitting, we don’t walk the streets naked; we just don’t feel comfortable doing it, and very few people do. There are rational arguments against racism. If people are so inclined they can convince themselves, rationally, that it’s OK to be racist, and quite a few of them do. However, not so many people can so easily rid themselves of the cultural expectations of civility, which is one reason why there are more polite racists who claim that “some of their best friends are [whatever group]” than overt bigots who spit on [whatever group] in public.

There’s also the point that being denounced for breaching etiquette is usually not quite as emotive as being called immoral, and therefore a less likely to cause the guilty party to ignore you or simply dig into their position. If you’re really lucky, it might actually lead to some meaningful dialogue. Finally, it’s unexpected. ISIS expect us to say what bad people they are for carrying out mass murder and public beheadings. They probably don’t expect to be called rude and inconsiderate for doing this. Frankly, it can’t achieve less than calling them evil for it.

I’ll end with an anecdote about Lenin, a professional revolutionary who, once his party had gained power, was perfectly happy to justify some very ruthless acts in order to hang on to it. Towards the end of his life, he was contemplating having the increasingly powerful and sinister Joseph Stalin replaced as General Secretary of the Communist Party. Mostly this was because he had started to realise that Stalin was powerful and sinister; but Lenin didn’t quite put it that way. “Stalin,” he said, “is too rude.”




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