Thursday, February 03, 2005

Morality and Hypocrisy

Morality has become my hobby-horse of late. More and more, I am interested in the behaviors as well as the principles that make up living a “good” life.

One prominent thinker of moral matters is Dennis Prager. Though I am always interested in the subjects he raises, his way of reasoning bothers me greatly. To me, it always smacks of self-righteous scolding. But what’s worse is that Prager seemingly addresses like-minded folks for the primary purpose of bashing people who take a different view. His otherwise interesting articles debase themselves by informing, entertaining, and inciting an audience that he must imagine is already prejudiced against “the Left” (capital L).

Sooner or later – but I suspect later, once my generation, the so-called Generation X, assumes major positions of public power – the cheap ideological use of terms such as “Left” will become tiresome to society at large. Stripped of their constitutive prejudice, people-bashing in the guise of moral posturing will become recognized, finally, for what it is at heart: immature thinking.

However, these writings can actually be both immoral and harmful. As an example, I want to present two paragraphs from Prager’s “On Worthless Humanity”:

Since I was an adolescent, I have been preoccupied with evil: specifically, why people engage in it and why other people refuse to acknowledge its existence. As I have gotten older, I often find the latter group more infuriating. Somehow, as much as I don't want to, I can understand why a Muslim raised in a world permeated with hate-filled lies about America and Israel, and taught from childhood that G-d loves death, will blow himself up and joyfully maim and murder children. As evil as the Muslim terrorist is, given the Islamic world in which he was raised, he has some excuse.

But the non-Muslims who fail to acknowledge and confront the evil of Muslim terror and the evil of those monsters who cut innocent people's throats and murder those trying to make a democracy — these people are truly worth nothing. Unlike the Muslims raised in a religious totalitarian society, they have no excuse. And in my lifetime, these people have overwhelmingly congregated on the political Left.
In these paragraphs, Prager's subject is the willingness to recognize and distinguish good and evil. A suicide bomber commits an evil act, and, as Prager says, simply “is” evil. This is presented matter-of-factly: no need for further consideration because it’s obvious. Now, even though he knows that the suicide bomber is evil, Prager apparently also possesses an understanding of the evil act; that is, its origins lie in a world saturated with hatred and lies, and in a culture that misrepresents to children what G-d loves. Who knows, Prager may even have some compassion for that terrorist, since the joyful maiming and murder came about partly because of the terrorist’s world and education!

Prager goes on to assert that any non-Muslim (Muslims are apparently exempt) who does not stand up and declare that the suicide bomber committed an evil act, who does not state that terrorism is evil, is “truly worth nothing.” Such a person is worthless for refusing to identify evil. Unfortunately, Prager provides no real evidence – names, dates, etc. – of any non-Muslim actually failing “to acknowledge and confront” the evil or terror. It seems that if “we” are already on “the Right,” or maybe in “the Middle,” we may blithely assume that not acknowledging and confronting evil is just what “the Left” does.

Prager’s thinking is weak in this case because it remains at a general, assumptive level. It never gets into the messiness of details and evidence. From my point of view, arguments involving morality that fail to use – or even attempt to use – any hard evidence at all are hypocritical and immorally conceived. Living and behaving morally, and taking moral stances to the events and activities of the real world, require effort and generous amount of reflection. At least, this is true for me.

However, Prager’s thinking is irresponsible and even dangerous at another level. The Muslim who blew himself up and joyfully maimed and murdered children: did he believe he was committing an evil act? Prager himself says no. The Muslim actually thought he was doing a virtuous deed. He was, after all, “raised in a world permeated with hate-filled lies about America and Israel, and taught from childhood that G-d loves death.”

So, we now have two conflicting moral ideas: the suicide bomber thinks his act is good and Prager, representing the non-Muslim world, thinks the act is evil. The question is how to determine who is right. What standard is to be used and how is it to be applied? And, if one view is right, is it 100% right or are there any individual points at which the other view prevails?

The huge failure of Prager’s thinking is that he refuses to confront these legitimate questions as surely as he glosses over the alternate perspective of the suicide bomber. Prager clearly acknowledges this perspective, but then dismisses it quickly by tying it to lies and corrupt education.

Yet, refusing to confront this alternative view can hardly be anything except moral cowardice. Now, I am not necessarily calling Prager a moral coward, and I do not really know whether Prager is or is not willing to confront the tough issues that his own words raise. However, I am saying that in “On Worthless Humanity,” Prager fails to make a similar confrontation to the one he himself accuses "the Left" of avoiding.

It almost makes one wonder whether a more moral world, whatever that is, is at all Prager's goal. If Prager, or Muslims, or “the Left,” truly want to live in a moral world, then what’s needed are serious attempts to confront the environments and perspectives that people use to justify actions.

But perhaps it's not about a better world, anyway. The ideology Prager employs is useful for demonizing and scapegoating “the Left,” but it does not otherwise appear meant to change minds or contribute to the betterment of the world. It does not even help honest people to identify the difference between good and evil.

Ironically, Prager’s article is worthless in the same way the "Leftist" congregants it describes are. Sadly, though, the article had so much potential to be more and to do more with its chosen subject.

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