Saturday, May 23, 2015

Column A and Column B

The story of Josh Duggar—of the whole Duggar family, really—is a tragedy. Duggar’s actions were absolutely appalling, as anyone with a well-tuned moral compass could understand. Of course we should condemn Josh and his crimes: Contra Mike Huckabee’s strange statement, publicly denouncing sex criminals sends a resounding message that our society won’t tolerate such abuse. But even as we reprove him, we should remember the odious lies that were forced down his throat as a child. As much as Josh deserves our scorn, the young teen who perpetrated these crimes also deserves a small measure of our pity. Josh was born into a world of subjugation and repression. That doesn’t excuse his monstrous behavior. But it does help to explain how a man who spends his days espousing family values lost his own sense of morality.
Mark Joseph Stern. "Of Course We Should Condemn Josh Duggar. We Should Also Pity Him."
First, apologies for the long quote. This is a situation where I wanted to make sure that I pulled in all of the necessary context for what follows.

I understand the call to both Condemn and Pity Josh Duggar. But it seems like a call to have it both ways, when I think that it would be healthier to make a choice - either one's "moral compass" is objectively self-calibrating and acting in reprehensible ways is a sign of insufficient commitment to proper behavior, or we do as we're taught to do, and people's sense of morality is personal.

Note that this doesn't touch on whether Josh Duggar's actions were criminal and/or harmful. They were both. But that's a separate issue from whether or not there is a greater moral issue at stake.

I've never seen _19 Kids and Counting_ because it strikes me, as does much of "reality" programming, as Freak-Show Television. And, to be honest, the Point-and-Stare/Laugh aesthetic of it all makes me uncomfortable. But the Duggars, like any other phenomenon popularly understood to be a train wreck, are impossible to get completely away from. I won't claim to have read the public conversation around the show entirely correctly, but I think I understand the discomfort that it provoked in America's political Left. The unabashedly Conservative Christian Duggars have been described multiple times as openly using their show to promote their particular values as the only correct ones. They were preaching to a choir of people who see themselves as kept out of the élite of the American mainstream, and the sermon seems to have been "'Society' is different, and that's Bad."

And so when Mr. Stern relates that: "[...] much of the left has greeted the news of [Josh Duggar's] molestation charges with a kind of derisive, jeering disgust," I get it. Like anyone, people on the Left want to believe that they're good people, with well-calibrated moral compasses, and so are always alert for a chance to point out when a mighty critic has fallen. But the idea that it was Josh's upbringing that helped shape him into someone who is worth of pity for being "born into a world of subjugation and repression" is designed to take a singular critique of a man and reshape into a broader, if milder, indictment of a culture. (This has been going on for a while - people on the Left( and the Right(, for instance, have leveled charges of child abuse for passing on one's beliefs to one's children.)

Which creates something of a paradox - as I first encountered the concept in college: "People are taught to behave in certain ways, but should held accountable for learning them." Our culture of making both the external what and the internal why of behavior important leads us to forget that for the most part, culpability doesn't matter. It makes sense to condemn the molestation of youth below the age of consent. This is a behavior that we have more or less collectively determined to be unacceptable. But once we've done that, why bother to condemn Josh Duggar? It may be satisfying to point at him and say (as is becoming popular): "You're a bad person and should feel bad." But what do we earn from that other than a sense of personal satisfaction?

Conversely, if we've decided that Josh Duggar is a monster, and fully responsible for what he has done, who cares what he was taught? A lot of people have been taught things that would appear to justify bad behavior on their part - yet they don't indulge in it. This is why the dueling accusations as to whether teaching creationism or evolution by natural selection constitute child abuse are completely irrelevant. Sure, they give people something to snipe at each other about, but Children and Family Services will never become involved over them.

We often appear to have difficulty deciding who to blame for bad things that happen. So we don't decide. We spread the blame around to anyplace we think it will stick. Which is understandable, but it doesn't solve the problems at hand.

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