Morality Begone!

There is a certain brand of moral outrage that’s a common fixture of public discourse. The most obvious example is the indignity that artists such as Bill Henson, Catherine Breillat or Larry Clark have suffered at the hands of reactionaries calling for the censorship of their work. But moral outrage is not exclusively the terrain of the Right. Those who follow pop music might remember an incident from earlier this year in which Sara Quin, one half of indie band Tegan and Sara, posted an editorial on her band’s website condemning the acclaimed rap artist Tyler, the Creator for his use of gay slurs and rape imagery:

In any other industry would I be expected to tolerate, overlook and find deeper meaning in this kid’s sickening rhetoric? Why should I care about this music or its ‘brilliance’ when the message is so repulsive and irresponsible?

The music media mostly sided with Quin, and one can see why. On the one side you have an aggressive, sarcastic rapper ripe for accusations of male chauvinism. On the other you have adorable androgynous lesbian twins, the exemplary minority identity of today’s identity-driven culture. But if there is a lesson to learn from this incident it’s that, as much as you want them to be, adorable androgynous lesbian twins are not right about everything.

What Quin overlooked was the possibility that there is no coherent ‘message’ in Tyler, the Creator’s music, that his songs’ alleged misogyny and homophobia are not to be taken at face value. There is a disturbing element to Quin’s editorial and it lies in her refusal to ‘find deeper meaning’. This refusal has a special significance, for if Quin had taken the time to seriously examine how Tyler, the Creator’s confrontational brand of music works – its ambiguous mixture of shock imagery, sarcasm and irony – the examination would have undermined her real project, which was to unequivocally condemn another musician. In other words, her moral righteousness necessitated a lack of understanding.1

This form of moral outrage links up with the political when there is an ideological stake in not understanding, in erasing history and context. At the height of the London riots in August, the BBC broadcast an interview with Darcus Howe, a columnist, broadcaster and one-time member of the British Black Panther movement. In response to interviewer Fiona Armstrong’s question about whether he was surprised by the riots, Howe started to explain that if one had paid attention to the growing resentment among young working-class people then one wouldn’t be surprised at the recent violence. Armstrong cut Howe’s response short: ‘If I can just stop you, Mr Howe, for a moment. You say you’re not shocked. Does this mean you condone what happened in your community last night?’

The exchange was typical of the discourse surrounding the London riots in the mainstream media. What is important is that Armstrong interrupted Howe precisely when he was about to provide some context for understanding the riots. In its place, she offered a loaded, moralistic question, basically a reiteration of the standard conservative response to the liberal account of the riots: if you cite the social factors that explain a widespread outburst of violence, then surely you must be justifying that violence.

There is an obvious fallacy in the interviewer’s wilful confusion between observing a cause-and-effect relationship on the one hand and ‘condoning’ the effect on the other. One can imagine Armstrong hauling in the newsroom’s weatherman to grill him about whether he condones the thunderstorm he forecast the night before.

The whole exchange was an uncanny repetition of an interview conducted during protests against rising student fees towards the end of 2010. Jody McIntyre, a wheelchair-bound cerebral palsy sufferer, was invited onto the BBC after footage of him being assaulted by police during the protests had caused a public outcry. At no point did interviewer Ben Brown ask about what the students were protesting. Instead, he insinuated that McIntyre’s complaints against the police were in bad faith and that he may have provoked the police (for example, by rolling his wheelchair towards them!). McIntyre defended himself admirably:

Do you really think I could’ve in any way posed a physical threat from the seat of my wheelchair to an army of police officers armed with weapons? This whole line of argument is absolutely ludicrous because you’re blaming the victims of violence for that violence. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the way the BBC reports on the Palestinian conflict …

Brown pointedly cut McIntyre off right at the moment he was about to provide the context explaining the BBC’s support for right-wing politics.

These two instances illustrate the problem of how to respond to social outbursts of violence. Liberals who felt any compassion for British youth rioting in August inevitably had to confront a deceptive moral argument: but these young people are attacking the businesses of innocent people! Isn’t this morally wrong?

When the argument is framed in these terms, one is forced to agree. Of course it is horrible that innocent people’s businesses were ruined. Of course much of the looting was opportunistic. Of course these actions were meaningless and could not be justified as political resistance.2

Nevertheless, this is the wrong response. It is wrong because, by so framing the situation in simplistic moral terms, the true political dimension is obliterated: the moral analysis concerns a reductive question of right and wrong; the political analysis concerns the question of power.

This tension between moral and political analyses is nicely illustrated in Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night. In one section, Wiesel recounts a German workman throwing a piece of bread into a train wagon of starving Jews on their way to a concentration camp. Wiesel is confronted by the traumatic sight of a young boy killing his own father over the piece of bread. The son is then killed by the other hungry prisoners. As this happens, Wiesel notices the German workman looking on in amusement as if at a zoo. What are we to make of such an outburst of violence? A moral analysis would ask: was the boy justified in killing his father for the piece of bread?

Immediately, we realise the utter inadequacy of such a line of enquiry – it concerns itself with locating ethics entirely in the agency of the individual, stripping the act of any determining context. Along these lines, we might then abstractly reason that the boy is ‘wrong’ for betraying his father. But there is an illusory element to this – the illusion of voluntarism. As Dorian Stuber has written:

[M]uch post-Holocaust education for Jewish children in America has taken the form of assertion of individual will. What would you have done?, Jewish children are asked in religious school classes as they simulate scenarios in which they imagine what prized possessions (including home, family, food, etc.) they would give up in their attempt to escape. The intention of such exercises might be to honour the lost, but the effect is to assert the present-day individual, who can imagine herself able to avoid the fate of those others.

The person who imagines themselves in the shoes of the boy competing with his father for a piece of bread and thinks if I were him, I would show more solidarity with my fellow Jews and resist the Nazis more strongly forgets that one’s power to even perceive the possibility of an ethical choice might be determined by forces beyond the individual. The correct way to consider this situation is through a political analysis, one that asks: what arrangement of power could result in such a desperate situation? The problem is obviously not that the boy was ‘immoral’ but that the Nazi regime had the power to implement such a program of dehumanisation.3

We should be reminded here of the Marxist notion of ‘totality’. As Slavoj Žižek argues:

In authentic Marxism, the totality is not an ideal, but a critical notion – to locate a phenomenon in its totality does not mean to see the hidden harmony of the Whole, but to include in a system all its ‘symptoms,’ its antagonisms and inconsistencies, as its integral parts … In this sense, liberalism and fundamentalism form a ‘totality’: the opposition of liberalism and fundamentalism is structured in exactly the same way as that between Law and sin in St Paul, that is, liberalism itself generates its opposite.

Thus we can read the amusement of the German worker as a failure to recognise the totality of the situation: the dirty, immoral Jews he sees in the train wagon are not opposed to German fascism but the logical consequence of it.

This image of the monster who exists as a symptom of society appears in Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away. In the film, a Japanese-style bathhouse is terrorised by a spirit who offers mountains of gold to the servants for large quantities of food, grows to an enormous size and becomes increasingly vicious, swallowing up several of the servants. No-one, not even the powerful witch who operates the bathhouse, can control him, except for the young girl Chihiro who recognises the political dimension: the spirit’s wickedness is generated by the bathhouse itself. She tricks the spirit into chasing her outside the limits of the bathhouse, where he reverts back to a neutral, unthreatening being. It’s important to note that the spirit is called No Face. He has no positive identity, no features of his own. His viciousness and greed are therefore only a reflection of the viciousness and greed integral to the everyday workings of the bathhouse.

If there is one overly optimistic element of Spirited Away, it is the ease with which Chihiro is able to ‘cure’ No Face of his rage. It is more likely that the rage would develop a life of its own and endure beyond the bathhouse.

A better image of the symptomatical monster is provided in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke in which a village is attacked by a spirit who has transformed into a monster from the hate he feels towards the humans destroying his forest. But the village he attacks is not responsible for the destruction. The irrational violence of the beast lingers even as the spirit wanders far from the conflict that fuelled his anger. It is here that the political analysis has the advantage over the moral – it can provide the context for irrational social violence.

What was interesting about the London riots was how remarkably similar the socioeconomic backdrop was to that of the Egyptian revolution. In both cases there was (and still is) a hugely inequitable distribution of wealth, high unemployment, low social mobility, police brutality and austerity measures – in short, the usual consequences of neoconservative policies spread by global capitalism, differentiated only in degree. The paradox here is why did the same basic social antagonisms produce a unified, rationally directed protest movement in the dictatorship state but the violent rioting of an atomised horde in the liberal democratic state? An Egyptian protester must surely have looked at the London riots with a peculiar perspective. What could the London riots teach them – that after all the effort to attain the wonderful freedoms of democracy, it doesn’t get any better? Dictatorship or democracy – it’s all the same? If the British riots and the Egyptian revolution are just two examples of a universal struggle against the logic of global capitalism, the main difference is that in Egypt, the people were able to unite against a fetish object (Mubarak), which resulted in a genuine political movement against a dictatorship, even if the real enemy (capitalism) was ultimately avoided.

The problem for the British youth was that their world presented itself as one with no possible political alternatives. Since the utopia of liberal democracy gives them an (illusory) choice in shaping society, there can be no real demands left to make. Thus, social resentment can only articulate itself in violent rioting.

What lesson, then, can we of the liberal democratic West learn from the Egyptians? The lesson cannot simply be that we must demand more social entitlements. Rather, it’s that the power to imagine what can be demanded, and how, needs to be fought for too.

Moralistic analyses, as opposed to political analyses, should not be mistaken for mere ethical ‘preferences’. They have a real ideological function: to actively stamp out any real analysis that would force us to rethink the political structure of society. Thus, ideologically motivated parties will often pursue a moral issue with no real commitment to morality as such. To take but one example, Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen criticised the ABC for linking the London riots to ‘high unemployment, bad police communications, unfairness, inequality, austerity cuts’ and so forth, arguing that we should instead ‘relearn the importance of individual responsibility’. But elsewhere in her article, she also blamed the riots on ‘the poisonous cocktail of welfare dependency, broken schools, the absence of family authority and a vacuum of values that bind communities’. In short, individuals should be held accountable for their actions and social factors should be ignored, except when the social factors cited do not implicate neoconservative economic policies.

Perhaps the most contentious instance where moral outrage should be avoided is discussions of terrorism. We can all agree that events such as 9/11 are the result of acts of evil. But why shouldn’t we let ourselves locate such events within the totality of global capitalism? You will notice that in most mainstream commentary on 9/11 and its aftermath (Iraq, Afghanistan etc.) there remains a conspicuous absence of discussion of what exactly it is that al-Qaeda hated (and continues to hate) America for. This is why George W Bush had to claim that terrorists ‘hate our freedoms’ – in doing so, he rendered silent any discussion of America’s miserable history with the Middle East. If you so much as mention American imperialism, you open yourself up to charges of justifying the atrocities of 9/11.

What we have, essentially, is a battle of narratives, and the victor is always determined by the public policies that are implemented in the aftermath. The Republicans were allowed to complete their moralistic narrative of 9/11 with the third act ‘conclusion’ of wreaking vengeful justice in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Cameron was allowed to complete his moralistic narrative of the London riots with the third act ‘conclusion’ of an authoritarian stamping out of the rioters. The obvious problem here lies in how Cameron’s police state and the riots together form a totality: by taking a hardline stance against the rioters, Cameron is ensuring more senseless violence down the line. His happy ending is a pure fantasy.

There is an alternative to this crime and punishment narrative and it’s to be found, surprisingly, in the Gospel of Matthew. Here, Jesus famously preaches:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

This sermon is not about passivity. In its historical context, turning the other cheek means forcing one’s aggressor to slap with the palm of his hand rather than the back. The significance of this is that backhanded slaps were reserved for people of lower class, and the left hand designated for ‘unclean’ purposes. By turning the other cheek, the aggressor is forced to acknowledge the other’s equal status – a radical act that bypasses the logic of vengeance.

This philosophy is illustrated brilliantly in the Abel Ferrara crime drama Bad Lieutenant (scripted by Zoë Lund). In this film, two young men rape a nun and desecrate a church. The titular bad lieutenant (played by Harvey Keitel) desperately wants the reward money for their capture to pay off his gambling debts. Frustrated by the nun who refuses to name her assailants even though she knows their identity, the bad lieutenant eavesdrops on the nun’s confession where she makes the following incredible speech:

Those boys, those sad, raging boys. They came to me as the needy do, and like many of the needy, they were rude. Like all the needy, they took. And like all the needy, they needed … Jesus turned water to wine. I ought to have turned bitter semen to fertile sperm – hatred to love. And maybe to have saved their souls. They did not love me. I ought to have loved them. As Jesus loved those who reviled him. And never again shall I encounter two boys whose prayer was more poignant, more legible, more anguished.

Though Zoë Lund no doubt wrote this speech to be provocative in its gender politics, we should take seriously the universality of its sentiment (as the nun takes seriously the universality of Jesus’ radical love). The main point is that the nun is not a pacifist. In her own way, she is berating herself for not being more resistant – in her passivity during the rape, she has played to the logic of violence against women. Her higher duty as a nun was to ‘turn the other cheek’, to take the radical third position that would render such rape impossible.

As she perceives it, the goal is not to destroy the criminals but to destroy their hatred, something that merely arresting the boys will not achieve. In this radical Christian sense, it is a mistake to think that anything other than taking a hard-line stance against the rioting youth or the angry protesters or the revolutionaries or even the terrorists would be ‘letting them win’. We need to think seriously about what ‘turning the other cheek means’ and take that step outside the totality of social conflict; the true radical change that would render such outbreaks of social violence unthinkable.

When one mentions that dreaded word ‘communism’, one often hears a familiar high school-level argument: communism is fine in theory. It would be great if everyone was equal, but this is a utopian fantasy. Communism doesn’t account for human nature, which is always greedy and self-serving, so it is doomed to fail.

But as we witness more and more outbursts of social violence, it is clear that the liberal defenders of global capitalism harbour utopian fantasies of their own. What could be more unrealistically utopian than creating a huge wealth gap in society or enforcing a painful austerity program or invading a country and then expecting the working classes to accept all this with a smile on their faces? We must insist on a political analysis that locates the violent crises of history within the totality of global capitalism, not because we want to ‘justify’ the actions of criminals but because those in power should be held responsible for the natural consequences of their actions. If a government wants to pursue policies that produce a resentful, angry and violent working class, they should not be surprised to end up with a resentful, angry and violent working class. When I say ‘morality begone!’ I do not really mean that moral concerns should not be at the centre of how we think and act. What I mean is for us to resuscitate a notion of morality that takes the broader implications of such social phenomena more seriously than the idiotic immediacy our outrage allows, a morality that stands with the disenfranchised masses rather than the ones in power who disenfranchised them.

1. One can imagine another commentator conducting a close analysis of the phenomenon of Tyler, the Creator and his hip hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All and then coming to the conclusion that they were indeed sexist and homophobic. There would be nothing wrong with this. What’s important for the purposes of this essay is Sara Quin’s attitude that she doesn’t need to think seriously about art – it is enough that she feels offended.
2. By ‘meaningless’ I don’t mean that the riots do not articulate particular social resentments (police brutality, unemployment etc.). What is meaningless is the form of the rage – burnings, shoplifting, property damage – demanding nothing in particular. The rioters should thus be contrasted with the student fee protesters whose actions were always rationally oriented towards concrete demands.
3. Of course, one can cite instances of active Jewish resistance against the Nazis such as the notable Warsaw Uprising. But such events were not typical. In Wiesel’s Night, resistance is not nearly as significant a motivating factor as survival.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Brad Nguyen is a co-editor of the online magazine of film criticism Screen Machine (www.screenmachine.tv). He is a former film critic for the Melbourne community radio station Triple R.

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