The Virus of Moral Superiority

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“You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”  — John Morley (On Compromise, 1874)

The past election cycle was hard on this country. For starters, it was long. The Republican primary debates started in early August of 2015, leaving us with fifteen grueling months of a politically charged news cycle. As a country we watched as the various Republican candidates spared, dropped out and endorsed or denounced their peers.

We then watched as a left-wing Independent from Vermont began what was dubbed as a revolution, aimed at taking the Democratic Party further left than it was accustomed. The reactionaries in the Party then pivoted to bring this wing into their fold. While it was a calculated attempt to reunite the party, it left the remnants of the revolution confused and alienated.

Somewhere in the midst of the unfolding drama, the voters spoke and the results yielded two opposites. One was a carefully calculated, and seemingly handpicked, candidate. Her name had been circulating in political circles for longer than most Millennials — the base she desperately needed — had been alive. She came across as scripted, elitist and, for many, the paradigm of corruption. Yet, there she was, the representative of the party that presents itself as the caretaker of the marginalized, the party that fights inequality, the party of the people.

Enter her opponent, known for his reality TV show, his success in real estate and his smug and unapologetic demeanor. He was unscripted and uncontrollable, derogatory and inflammatory. He broke ranks time and time again with the establishment, pushing many of his own party to oppose him openly. Yet, there he was, representing the heirs of Reagan, the Religious Right and the party that had long prided itself on conservative values.

All that to say, our candidates were in many ways contradictions of their own parties, constantly trying to prove that they fit by pushing their party’s platform further and further into the wings. Additionally, their rhetoric was based distinctly on the idea that reconciliation was impossible. Our very morality, we were subconsciously told, was on the line. The opponent was now the enemy. Our deflecting neighbor was now a moral miscreant. Moral superiority had entered into our minds like a virus. We couldn’t understand the opposing view because it was packaged as more than dissension, but as lacking any semblance of morality. If we were to give the opposing side any credence, we would be compromising our very morals.

The rhetoric of both sides only fueled the fire. One side proclaimed that one of the candidates should be jailed for her crimes. The other proclaimed that the opposing nominee was a liar, a racist and a sexual predator, and he should be stripped of his nomination. Unfortunately, beyond the candidates themselves laid, barely vetted, their platforms, their priorities and the moral absolution they sought.

Those on the other side of the political aisle are human beings.

* * *

Now that it’s over and we have our President-elect, we are afforded a moment to slow down and digest what has been presented to us. First, let’s allow ourselves the reminder that those on the other side of the political aisle are human beings. They are multi-dimensional, complex and acting based on what they believe is best. While within our population there are those who are racists, sexists, bigots and selfish opportunists, the general population peacefully coexists. Let’s briefly explore, by way of party platforms, why our underlying political disagreements became an issue of ethics.

Let’s first consider the political Left. The Right claims that the Left seeks to limit the Second Amendment, make religious freedom subservient to the quest for social equality, destroy the traditional nuclear family and fund the murder of millions of unborn babies.

How does the Left see it? They are progressing towards a better, more equal, society. This can be seen in their support for an extensive welfare system (for the poor), affirmative action (to correct racial inequality), gay marriage (for the full equality of homosexuals), the ability for a woman to do what she pleases to her own body (women’s rights), ensuring all children have an equal education (public education) and harsher gun restrictions (gun violence is prominent in lower income neighborhoods).

Now let’s consider the political Right. The Left claims that the Right tries to keep homosexuals as second class citizens, dictates what a woman can do with her own body and helps the wealthy while the poor starve.

How does the Right see it? They are conserving long held values that are best for society. They seek to lower taxes on the rich to create more jobs (for the poor), they believe that college admission should be based on merit (anti-affirmative action), they push conventional family values that they see as the most profitable for society (traditional view of marriage), they try to protect the unborn (the child’s right to life), they give the parent the right to choose their child’s education (school choice), and believe in responsible access to guns in order to protect themselves and their families (less gun control).

We can identify issues with both sides. Both have flaws and unintended repercussions. It would be naïve to deny that there is corruption and that there are people out for only themselves. This is not about them, however. This is about recognizing that our own side has flaws and the other side is not morally repugnant. Our inability to do this, coupled with our own moral overconfidence, opened the door for the hateful and paralyzing rhetoric and a great loss of faith in our political system.

We must ensure that our political stances are not veiling or justifying any prejudices.

* * *

In closing, there are lessons that we can take from this election. First, we must constantly check ourselves to ensure that our political stances are not veiling or justifying any prejudices. Second, recognize that when we are backed into a corner, we only become more radicalized, and the same is true of those with whom we disagree. We must remember that our actions have consequences, and reactionaries only create more opposing and volatile reactionaries.

It is our obligation to work hard to cut through our initial defenses and search for the why before we conclude something about someone, label them, dismiss them and puff ourselves up as morally superior. We must seek to understand them. It is only then that we will we be able to have a discussion where we can admit the strengths of the other person’s view, share our own and work to come to a compromise.  That is, after all, the foundation of a republic.

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Meridith Berson

Meridith Berson studied Political Science at Christopher Newport University before receiving her Master of Arts in Ethics, Theology and Culture from Southeastern Seminary.

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