Monday, July 15, 1996

Week of 07/15/1996

Moralism and the Politics of Image
- By David Matthews 2

On January 19 1995, I learned that the Marietta City Council was planning to enact an ordinance that would seriously hamper adult entertainment clubs that served alcohol. The special meeting on that ordinance was that night, and I felt compelled to be there. There were dozens of reasons why, but one stood out- I wanted to see moralism in action.

Moralism may be a new term for many people, but you've probably seen it at work. Moralism is the enforcement of morals onto other individuals as either a law, an ordinance, or other means by which punitive damages would be rendered if such morals were not observed. Some may say that such a definition could also apply to child-rearing, since the same measures happen when we teach children how to behave. But moralism involves enacting such measures onto adults, people who are already considered to be mature enough to make such decisions on their own.

Moralism comes by many names. The most commonly used- especially in recent years- is "family values." We see this term used so many times, but who really knows what it means? Or the implications of enacting family values as some form of legislation? However, moralism is not strictly limited to the 90's version of conservatism (since the original conservatives were against any form of government intrusion), and you've probably seen the liberal version under the guise of "political correctness." Political correctness is another form of moralism, where the trend is not to offend. But even there, it's the imposition of someone else's morals onto others.

Attending this city council meeting, I was able to see how the conservative moralists managed to enact their views into law. Representatives to the adult entertainment industry in the form of lawyers, owners, and employees were there. Some complained that they were not given enough time to show up and prepare for the proposed ordinance that would effect their livelihood. If anything, most of the council members were indifferent to the complaints, believing that they were fortunate to even be given the minimum 24 hours notice. Personally, I wondered if they would be as dispassionate if it was their business, their job, or their property on the line. But those who supported the ordinance were there, and they were well organized and prepared for the special session.

In seeing who spoke out for and against the ordinance, one might assume this was a class struggle. Those supporting the ordinance were professionals; traditionally established individuals of the old guard. They spoke eloquently and effectively, with speeches that were no doubt well prepared. Most sounded like they were preaching in church. Their arguments concentrated more towards family values than the subject matter- which was the separation of adult entertainment and liquor licensees. By stark contrast, those in opposition to the ordinance were somewhat disorganized. They were either business lawyers, or single mothers, or those few individuals who were on their side. They represented a slice of humanity that the moralists would prefer to be rarely seen and certainly not heard. Their speeches were neither as well written nor as eloquent as their adversaries. Although, in hindsight, even if they were well prepared I'm certain even their best arguments would have fallen on deaf ears.

Halfway though the special session, it became obvious where the council members stood. Even if they said nothing, their eye contact often betrayed their partisanship. Glances towards the smiling moralists, especially when presented with information in opposition to their beliefs, indicated that even a burning bush wouldn't have swayed their opinions. Their minds were made up. Their positions were clear. The decision would be for the ordinance. And the moralists gained another foothold.

Moralism is spread more by emotion than intellect. It appeals to our base desires to be safe and secure. Moralists use icons such as children, infants, women, minorities. Symbols of things that are seen as weak, defenseless, and helpless. These, according to moralists, are things that need protection, to be rescued, to be saved from the "evils" of the world.

For moralists, these "evils" are considered to be threats to their very way of life. Equal rights for homosexuals, for example, is transformed into "special rights," or the "imposition of the gay agenda." Nude dance clubs become "dens of crime, drugs, prostitution, and drunk driving." Television programs like "NYPD Blue" become "thinly veiled pieces of pornographic trash." Traditional business standards become "racist and sexist measures to keep the good old boy system in power."

And such evils are considered personal threats. It's not just a threat to their way of life, it becomes a threat to society in general. It becomes a threat to YOUR way of life. A threat to YOUR spouse, YOUR children, YOUR family, and everything that YOU value most in the world.

For moralists, the only solution to these supposed problems is the eradication of these threats. Not just regulation. Not just limiting them from the reach or context of children. But to outlaw them. To ban, shut down, defund, rezone, and otherwise ensure that these items are totally removed from existence.

A perfect example of this can be seen in the attempts by citizens of Gainesville, Ga. to remove the book "Women on Top" from the local library. The book- which graphically described the fantasies of women- was placed in the Reference desk after the complains were made, which meant someone had to ask to see it and could only read it in front of that desk. But even that did not quell the complaints of people who would settle with nothing less than the total abolition of that single book from the entire library system. The measure failed in a tie vote, but those citizens eventually won when the book was "accidentally" destroyed.

Moralism is nothing new. In fact, extreme cases of moralism can be traced through some of the darkest periods of human history. During the Spanish Inquisition, people were tortured or killed on the basis of how devout their religious beliefs were. In colonial Massachusetts, dozens of people were imprisoned, tortured, their land seized, and were executed on the accusations of witchcraft. In some instances, their sole crime was being different from the "mainstream standards" in the town of Salem. People who told "dark tales," who lived life a little different from the highly conservative puritans, or even for simply questioning the decisions of those in authority, were placed on trial for their life.

Moralism has been used to suppress reason, as was evident when the Catholic Church forced Galileo Galilei to recant his own works that said the Earth revolved around the sun in 1633. And it has been used to suppress technology, as was evident when Pope Alexander VI ordered the banning of the printing of books in 1501.

Even after the enactment of the United States Constitution and the Bill or Rights, moralism continued to thrive in society through local and state ordinances which prohibit certain behaviors. Several states still have such laws on the books- including laws against adultery, sodomy, and liquor sales. They have continued to exist as laws, partly because people have ignored them. But they also serve as traps to ensnare people who dare to question moralists. The minute someone tries to change those laws, they are barraged by moralists who deem them to be the devil incarnate.

Perhaps the worst case of moralism in this century was during the "red-scare" hunts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This committee was established in 1938 to investigate political organizations considered to be communist, fascist, extremist, or subversive. It was designed to halt Axis propaganda during World War II. But once moralists got their hands into the committee they used it to attack liberals, artists, intellectuals, and even labor leaders. In 1947, ten writers and directors refused to answer to charges made by members of that committee and were jailed for contempt. Eventually the committee lost it's public favor, but those whose careers and lives were marred by these witch hunts still carry the accusations on their records. Piousness prevents even an apology or an acknowledgment of any wrongdoing.

At the heart of moralism is one word: CONTROL.

Control is the end result of all moralist actions, be they liberal or conservative. Moralists seek to control their neighborhoods, their community, their world as they see it. By controlling what their neighbor can or cannot do gives moralists the means to control that person. If you doubt this, look at what their arguments have to say. All too often, their arguments are that problem X is around because people don't think or behave a certain way- and that if they only think like them then problem X will simply go away. Conservatives would use watch words like "values" or "virtues," while liberals would prefer the word "awareness" or "conscious." But they mean the same thing- "do as I say," "think my thoughts," "think like me."

Moralists sell their views with what could be called a "devil's deal." That being selling a portion of their constitutional rights in exchange for greater safety or security. The best example of this is the recent moralist attacks against the Internet. Two bills were introduced in Congress that would remove constitutional rights from computer communications- one that would give law enforcement the right to electronically search computer files without a warrant, and another that would hold system operators responsible for the moral standards of their users. If either bill becomes law and are not struck down by the courts, it would seriously hinder the future of electronic communications and stop an ever-growing business. But such a loss would be meaningless for the moralists in exchange for "the greater good of society."

Proof of the danger to moralism in the Internet can be seen in the Prodigy computer network system. Created as a "family-oriented" computer network, Prodigy tried to appeal to adult members by creating a special bulletin board just for adult-oriented issues in 1992. This board required the user to have prior authorization from the "primary member"- usually the head of the household- and the user had to type in their account password before even getting past the warnings of it being an adult-oriented board. But Prodigy failed to notify it's panel of bulletin board censors of the board. Numerous complaints were filed about adult subjects being censored out- even when the postings used strict medical terms and references. The board was eventually removed- in part because most topics on the board could not be discussed thanks to Prodigy's own censors. This helped contribute to the defection of many Prodigy users to the new America Online service- one whose bulletin boards relied more on parental controls than network censorship. America Online is now considered to be the king of the online services- Prodigy meanwhile slid from first to third. However, not too long afterwards, America Online began to enact their own censorship controls.

Perhaps the most powerful weapons moralists have are time and ignorance. Moralists bide their time, slowly gathering support and working behind the scenes until they have enough political power to take control. They play for keeps, not just to win. If a judge rules against a moralist group, the group will find another judge or work behind the scenes to replace that judge with one that will be more supportive to their views.

Most people are ignorant to the reach of many moralist groups. Moralists love it when people laugh at them or their cause and consider them to be out of touch or too far on the fringe to be taken seriously. Moralists see themselves as the tortoise in a race against the societal hare. And in the old story, the tortoise won the race when the hare fell asleep.

Unfortunately, the solutions to fight moralism are not easy. Quite often, moralists strike hard against anyone opposing them. Their tactic is to put their opponents on the defensive, make them defend their positions. Then the moralists make that position unfavorable by use of imagery and symbols. Moralists would wrap themselves in the American flag- even as they desecrate it's very meaning- with no regrets or regards.

But the strengths of moralism are also it's weakness. Moralists believe they stand for tradition, yet they deny their dark pasts. Those facts sullen the image they try to portray. The first step to fighting moralism is knowledge- knowledge of facts, and of history.

The second step is the willingness to attack moralism- and attack them as relentlessly as they would attack all others. Moralists are no different from schoolyard bullies in that they pick on only those they can beat. Forcing them to defend their stances not only prevents them from taking control of the issue, but also exposes their true intentions to the people.

And lastly, there has to be vigilance and education. Moralism persists because they believe the people are weak and stupid. They believe people need to be controlled if anything just to "save themselves." They have little or no faith in people. Vigilance is needed to remind the people they aren't stupid, and they aren't sheep that need herding.

Moralism is a bane on civilization. Irregardless of it's appearance, it's presenters, and the message it tries to convey, moralism destroys society. And as long as it continues to sway people who consider themselves to be mindless sheep, moralism will continue to thrive.

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