Friday, March 02, 2012

All things are lawful for the pure

In one of several comments on the death of Andrew Breitbart, Rod Dreher writes:
Breitbart was an exceptionally effective practitioner of a poisonous form of polemics that are as widespread on the left as on the right. Of course one of the defining characteristics of this dark art is the genuine conviction that when They do it, they’re evil, but when We do it, we are justified because We Are Good And They Are Evil, And Anyway, They Started It.
As an observer of internet controversy, I know too many examples of the double standard Dreher talks about here. I recently criticized the personal denunciation pages set up to attack the blogger Hugo Schwyzer, and got the same response:
The fact that detestable people can and do employ them does not make them into a priori “abuses” which are supposedly off limits for legitimate protest.
This would work as long as we could agree on the identity of the "detertable" and the "legitimate", but, of course, if we agree on that, we would not disagree on anything else.

From the personal to the global, these distinctions have infested political rhetoric for some time, as Rational Wiki notes:
U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s which drew a distinction between "authoritarian" dictatorships and "totalitarian" dictatorships, saying one was less bad than the other and the U.S. could morally work with "authoritarian" dictatorships as allies (such as the military dictatorships in Latin America) but had a moral obligation to oppose "totalitarian" dictatorships (such as the Soviet Union).
This naturally raises the question: why do people accept these distinctions? Where do they come from? I suspect that the conviction that "our" goodness justifies "our" worst acts, while "their" evil makes even "their" best acts suspect has two origins: the legal doctrine of intent, and the religious emotions connected to the idea of purity. Our legal traditions allow us to hold people responsible for the things they intend to do. This doctrine underlies the legal defence of insanity, on the grounds that someone in the grip of a delusion did not intend to commit a crime. It also gets used to excuse dubious behaviour: driving drunk, even when it results in a death, almost always draws a lighter sentence than other forms of homicide, on the assumption that drunks do not intend to kill.

Our habit of looking at the things people do in light of our assumptions about why they do them collides with another habit of mind many of us have, or at least carry traces of: the sense that rightness, in a factual or moral sense, carries a sense of purity, of heightened ethics, with it. When we embrace an idea with emotional excitement and believe ourselves in the right with the Creator, or with History, or Reason, or with any force we regard as transcendent, we can easily feel in ourselves an emotional satisfaction, a comfort, a complete sense of rightness. Combine that sense of rightness with the belief that the ethics of an act depend the motives for it, and you have ripe conditions for the emergence of the dangerous conviction that all things are lawful for the pure. In the context of a political or personal conflict, this creates the profoundly perverse implication: because the pure may achieve their results by impure means, the questionable morality of a "pure" person's actions can actually confirm them in their belief in their own personal purity. The logic goes that they could not do what they have done, or get away with it, without pure hearts. And, of course, the less ethical our behaviour, the more we want to find an excuse for it.

Ultimately, the argument that we did the right thing because we did it for what we consider a good end is a dud, and a harmful dud argument at that.