Today in the United States, we are in the midst of a very fierce outburst of moral concern. You see it everywhere, and it expressed in political acts that lie somewhere between argument and terror. Large numbers of Americans are committed, right, to a historical reckoning with slavery and racism. The immediate subject of this reckoning are long dead (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson), which is helpful in avoiding terrorism. So we, or, better, some of us, tear down the statues and the reputations of men (it’s mostly men) who were once greatly admired. And we call for rewriting of our national history–a rewriting especially of the textbooks with which that history is taught on our schools. Much of this is to the good; we argue about these issues because we are concerned about the moral views of our fellow citizens–and our children. But this concern has now reached to practices that look too much like “holy watching” and form correction.
The official version of moral concern, as I suggested early on, is state censorship, and we now have in America an avalanche of laws, proposed laws, and local regulations aimed at controlling the textbooks that can be used and the things that teachers can say in classrooms around the country–and the books allowed in school and public libraries. Rightwing politicians play to parental worries about what children are being taught. The parents have a right to worry; the political play is crudely manipulative. Some of the politicians probably do believe that teaching about racism in American will exacerbate the tensions of identity politics. They aim to minimize the tensions–and also to maintain the racial status quo and uphold the reputation (and secure the votes) of the white majority. Moral concern mixes with political ambition, as I suppose it also does in revolutionary situations. And, as the freedom of ordinary men and women is endangered in those situations, so the freedom of teachers and students is in danger today.
The unofficial version of moral concern today is closer to my own intellectual home; it is most visible in the American academy. What is called “cancel culture” is the work of students and professors determined to make sure that no opinions that differ from their are defended in the classroom or by visiting lecturers. The offending opinion mostly have to do with race and gender; and they are often expressed inadvertently by good liberals or stalwart conservatives who aren’t sufficiently sensitive to, or sufficiently sympathetic to, what is now politically correct. So visiting lectures are called off because the speaker’s opinions might corrupt the listening students; or individual students are harassed by their fellows who judge them already corrupted; and teachers are disciplined by administrators because they have said something that their “sound” students believe is morally or politically dangerous. I don’t think the aim of the cancellations, the harassment, and the discipline is to reform the immediate subject, the harassed individual, but rather to save the others. The concern is with the moral well-being or, better, the ideological correctness, of the greater number, but perhaps there is also the hope of “re-educating” wrong-headed individuals. On some campuses, the politics have gotten nasty; I hope for thermidor.
Michael Walzer, “On Moral Concern,” Liberties, Volume 3 (Winter 2023), 93-94.
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