Relative Moralism
March 11, 2012

Via Lee McCracken, here’s a particularly pungent example of how right-wing moralists like to abuse the term “moral relativism.” Our author, Gene Callahan, thinks that this is an example of the moral relativist position:

The Rush Limbaughs of the world don’t get to define the boundaries of appropriate sexual or moral behavior. But something is happening: Women are defining those boundaries for themselves, with many men alongside them, and they’re being reminded that there’s a concerted movement to take that right of self-definition away. And we’re mad.

That’s Irin Carmon, writing in Salon, and making the perfectly reasonable point that women have better knowledge of their own sexual behavior than Rush Limbaugh, and are entitled to regulate their own behavior without having to conform it to Limbaugh’s mouth-breathy demands. Callahan seems to think this is roughly analogous to arguing that serial killers are entitled to regulate their own behavior without having to conform to the demands of God, society, or the criminal justice system. In other words, he reads Irin’s position as being, “Moral truth is whatever I, personally, want it to be.”

Evidently, Callahan only read the very last paragraph of Irin’s column, and, lacking any real context, filled in the gaps with the stupidest and least charitable reading of her position that he could concoct. In fact, I don’t know how anyone who read the rest of the column could characterize Irin’s position as anything but a moral realist position: women have a right to autonomy and sovereignty over their own bodies, because they are full and equal persons to men in every respect. I suspect Callahan is doing all of this hand-waving about moral relativism either because he doesn’t have a counter-argument, or knows that the counter-argument is too ugly to say out loud.

Look, Ross Douthat and James Poulos have already tried similar stunts with at least a little more adroitness. It would be getting tiresome now, if it hadn’t always been tiresome. The popular moral stance among social liberals on this issue is a moral realist one; if you think that position is wrong, then state your case. But hiding behind cries of “moral relativism” and denying the moral urgency of your opponent’s argument is just another way of saying that you endorse existing hierarchies and inequalities for familiarity’s sake.

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One Quick Note On the Shirley Sherrod Fallout
July 24, 2010

The Shirley Sherrod fiasco (background here) is regrettable for a number of reasons, but one consequence that’s stood out in my mind is a particularly disingenuous new meme being promulgated by defenders of the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative factions and figureheads that feed off of racial resentment. Here’s a taste from Michael Moynihan:

But the unfair charge of racism, fascism, and Nazism, correctly denounced when spouted by Glenn Beck, seems something of a regular feature on Journolist.

Or:

But false (or flimsy) accusations of racism abound—they are everywhere one looks—though they rarely provoke the level of outrage seen in the Sherrod affair.

Or:

All of this will soon be forgotten, thankfully, and the charming and efficient pundits of Washington, D.C. will go back to observing the “racist” Tea Party movement and that stupid conservatives aren’t stupid but “neo-fascists.”

And so on and so forth. It’s actually pretty clever: you concede that Sherrod was unfairly maligned, and then say, “See? Both sides have to deal with unfair accusations of race-baiting.” It’s a pretty exemplary model of false equivalence done well.

Of course, the difference comes down not to the accusation itself, but to context. Sherrod’s remarks weren’t just taken out of context—they were deliberately manipulated in the most misleading way possible, and most of what has been said in her defense was all about simply stating the real context. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, just provided her full speech with minimal comment.

Moynihan and others, on the other hand, defend folks like Beck and Limbaugh by kvetching disingenuously that their remarks were “taken out of context” without actually explicating the context. And there’s a good reason for that: the context just makes them look even worse.

So a word to my conservative friends: I’d caution you think really hard about what you’re doing here. I’m sympathetic to reasonable conservatives upset with having their entire movement painted as racist; may I suggest that those same reasonable conservatives can do something about this by condemning and ostracizing overtly racist elements on the right. At the very least, refrain from circling the wagons around them. How hard could that be?

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