On the Pledging of Allegiances
A Saturday morning tour through news headlines, social media, and personal correspondence has unsurprisingly delivered a steady stream of commentary on the pitiful parade of powerful men behaving badly. Politicians, Hollywood executives, actors, comedians. Everybody greedily grabbing and groping and exploiting and exposing themselves. The list is long and will undoubtedly get longer. And it falls to the rest of us to howl and moan in outrage and keep the Internet busy for a few days.
But throughout my morning tour, I couldn’t help but wonder what, exactly, it is about these stories that is fueling our outrage? What’s new about all of this?
Is it that powerful men use their positions to get what they want from women? Well, that’s been going for as long as… well, forever. There have always been king Davids casting hungry glances over at their generals’ wives. And everywhere else, for that matter.
Is it that sex is deeply connected with the use and abuse and maintenance of power? Um, no. That, too, is about as old as stories go.
Do we expect better from supposed bastions of liberalism like Hollywood? Perhaps we do, although God knows why we would. You could hardly hope to find a more debauched and oversexed environment on the planet. We demand stories of sex and violence and power from our entertainment so it should hardly surprise us when we see it in our entertainers (and of course, there’s very little difference between politics and entertainment these days).
Do we imagine that we’ve taken some kind of quantum moral leap forward as a species that would render these kinds of sordid spectacles a thing of the past? Ahem. Probably not. We are, and remain, stubbornly human.
So, if there’s nothing really new about any of this, what might account for the fervency and moral stridency of the howls of outrage? Well, on one level it’s entirely appropriate. We should be outraged by the exploits of these men because their behaviour is vile. Real women have been and continue to be victimized by men who see them as little more than playthings. This is wicked and we should not hesitate to say so.
But like everything else these days, our outrage is rather unoriginally and rapidly politicized. We pour scorn and derision upon the sexual predations of the bad guys on the other political or ideological team and conveniently ignore or explain away those on our side. The spectacle of Donald Trump taking to Twitter to mock Senator Al Franken (who is—surprise!—a Democrat) while ignoring the behaviour of Roy Moore (who is—surprise!—a Republican) was a bit rich, even if it was entirely predictable. We would quite literally expect nothing else from the man. But the same thing happens on the other side. It’s not hard to find liberal commentators making much of the misdeeds of conservatives while having little to say about the darlings of Hollywood or Democrats. It’s remarkable how consistently the bad guys are badder when they happen to play on the team that isn’t ours.
Russell Moore—a man I’m not always inclined to agree with—puts this well in a recent piece on these matters in the Washington Post:
The character issue doesn’t need to be worked through at all, if one already knows that those who are part of my tribe are saints and those who are part of the other are demons. That’s settled. The issues then are just used insofar as they are useful as footnotes to those already existing pledges of allegiance.
That last sentence sums it up well, I think. The fuel for our outrage turns out to not be particularly surprising or inspiring. It is our own righteousness and the desire for it to be acknowledged. Powerful men behaving badly quite easily degenerates into yet another opportunity for us to flex our tribalistic muscles, to rehearse our moralities online before the adoring gaze of our cheerleading friends and the equally self-righteous scorn of our enemies.
We tell ourselves that it’s all about the abuse of sex and power, but that’s not really true. That might be part of what it’s about. But like everything else in a world where the only consistent objects of worship are ourselves, it’s at least as much about us.