Friday, May 28, 2004

Soldiers and Societal Morals

Yesterday the “Culture” channel of French radio had a discussion about the recent events concerning photos of American soldiers and captured Iraqis. The learned and articulate guests quoted extensively from Michael Moore and Susan Sontag. Several wanted to discuss the latter’s comments somewhere to the effect that the Iraq photos were really about pornography and that this pornography was a part of mainstream American culture.

I think that Sontag is correct to look for the deeper moral malaise that undergirds the kind of horror that we now see unfolding from within the armed forces of so-called “civilized” countries.

What has caused revulsion in many quarters around the world is pornographic which accounts not only for its production (why else would soldiers have involved women holding men by what looked like a dog-leash in direct mimicry of sado-masochistic sexual poses) but its wide viewing audience.

Some Iraqi militants, for their part, created another real-life “snuff film” which has been watched by millions of Americans on the internet. These are largely the kind of thing one ought to expect from cultures steeped, as all our countries are thanks to both Hollywood and the internet, in pornography not only of image but also of action. I want to explore this a bit further below.

First, however, let us consider the credibility of our outrage not the mere fact that we are outraged. What counts about outrage are the reasons for it not the mere passion of it.

What makes outrage meaningful is that it has a meaning - - or can have a meaning. Ours, in fact, for the most part, doesn’t go very far because we have, in great measure, lost what could be called the credibility of morally coherent positions and the moral credibility that comes from the holding of such positions.

Consider how strange it is that people get morally outraged about sex between soldiers and the way that those soldiers (male and female) treat their captured enemies but not about the fact that their cultures have become generally sexually saturated and that images that degrade men and women are sent out to people’s emails free every day.

But it isn’t just about sex and photos that our outrage rings hollow. Consider the hollowness of our concern about the “dignity” of the captured soldiers. I am not, here, thinking of those soldiers who are kept in breach of international law at special prisons, I am thinking of what happens to our neighbours, our friends and our daughters.

We tolerate the abortions of our young women and their being the abandoned playthings of young men. We tolerate no-fault divorce and non-marriage. We tolerate the selection of handicapped children for abortion before birth and increasingly for infanticide after birth. Euphemisms abound in this world of distraction from reality.

We do “amnio” to sort out the ones who are worthy from the ones who should be killed and announce, as did a legal acquaintance of mine years ago, that we are “pregnant” only after the amnio results as if the fact of a healthy fetus was more important than the fact of pregnancy itself.

We “selectively reduce” those fertilized in excess of “needs.” We do “pre-implant genetic diagnosis” again, to select out the best and dispose of the rest. All of it, or most of it anyway, tolerated by a medical ethics community that is confident that it can deal with future developments in some meaningful way when it has already lost the ability to deal with current developments in a meaningful way.

This kind of “moral” avoidance of debates about morals or, more accurately, the attempt to have a “moral stance” in one area when it is abandoned in others, is in virtually every area of our lives together today.

Now we are intolerant if we do not welcome same-sex marriages and virtually anything else that the same-sex lobby wants and are considered equivalent to racists if we point out that the many attacks against religions made by those activist groups are lacking in fairness or are the beginning of an illiberal movement in society.

We are increasingly not allowed to draw a line between respecting a person while rejecting that person’s conduct - - that is, unless the conduct is still (somehow?) in the diminishing category of acts that most of us consider wrong. But with the new “ethics” what was once wrong, as we all know, soon becomes private choice then a “right” and then, to oppose it, becomes wrong.

The State having no place in the bedrooms of the nation (so as to allow homosexual acts in the 1970’s) soon becomes “the State has a direct role in furthering the visibility of gays and lesbians” (in the 21st Century). Soon, no doubt, it will be criminal conduct to respect gays and lesbians but suggest that their sexual conduct is unacceptable. How things change.

We really should ask how can a society that pooh-poohs morality have any credibility when it develops sudden outrage about what soldiers do? The hit and miss “values” of my own generation - - summed up by “save a tree” and “free choice on abortion” is getting, if not what it deserves (for who can deserve this kind of nightmare?) but what was predicted a long time ago by many writers who saw all this coming.

R.H. Benson (Lord of the World), Martin D’Arcy (Christian Morals), C.S. Lewis (The Abolition of Man & That Hideous Strength), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four) all wrote books about this kind of thing and no doubt many others have as well. In our own time, Walker Percy (The Thanatos Syndrome) and the Canadian writer Michael O’Brien (Father Elijah, Strangers and Sojourners, The Plague Journal) have added to the dystopic visions of a world gone very wrong.

What masquerades as ethics nowadays is largely bankrupt; what goes about voicing outrage is simply selective and is lost in the general din of what Leonard Cohen termed “party time.”

So don’t give me your outrage about the behaviour of soldiers until you have developed a morality of warfare. Don’t give me a morality of warfare until you have some meaningful standard of the dignity of the human person (and all human persons) and don’t even think about spouting a morality of the dignity of the human person until you have started criticizing the societies that have already made a medical, legal and political art of reducing human beings to steak tartar in the garbage under the language of “choice” “equality” and “freedom.”

As for “sex” don’t be outraged unless you have some concept of what kind of sex is acceptable, for what reasons, and in what settings.

In making sexual videos and pictures the soldiers are just doing what everyone else does, just in a different setting. It is a question of degree. They are doing as well - - or as well as they think they can do it given the training they got and the societies in which they got it - -as societies that systematically devalue, degrade and extinguish human life and make a very public spectacle of human sexuality.

If we think what they did is wrong we ought to have some clear idea why some things are moral and some things aren’t and then we really ought to look at the other things that make our “moral” positions so weak today. Since our “values” do not support a moral analysis about the dignity of human persons it ought not to be such a great surprise when our conduct is outrageous.

What is outrageous is that so much is not outrageous.

Iain T. Benson©