Moral Endo-skeletons and Exo-skeletons: A Perspective on America’s Cultural Divide and Current Crisis
In the months after the 2004 election, when the Red States were said to have voted on the basis of their “moral values,” it was noted by many observers that the sleazy TV and movies the traditionalist and Christian right denounce so energetically also tend to get their highest ratings in the same parts of the country most populated by such people. (It was noted, as well, that some of the family pathologies that traditionalists decry are found at high rates among these most vocal proponents of “family values.”)
Some took this as a clear indication of the hypocrisy of the conservatives: what they denounce, they also secretly enjoy. They are not as concerned about morality, this critique declared, as they pretend to be. A posture of devotion to righteousness, all the while indulging forbidden impulses in hidden ways.
Jimmy Swaggart writ large.
But I don’t think “hypocrisy” is the most illuminating way of seeing this phenomenon. Not if hypocrisy is understood as a form of deliberate dishonesty.
Different Structures of Morality
From my discussions of morality with religious traditionalists, I’ve gleaned that many of them assume that people who do not believe in their firm moral structures –who do not believe in God, or in the Ten Commandments, or in inviolable and absolute rules of moral conduct– must be living lives of sin and debauchery. They cannot understand –and often seem unwilling even to believe– that people like Unitarians might be living the well-ordered lives –as hard-working and law-abiding citizens, as responsible and dedicated family people– that they themselves strive to do.
Their failure to understand how non-believing “liberals” can live moral lives is actually the reverse side of the same coin from the liberals’ imputation of hypocrisy to the red staters who watch “Desperate Housewives” and may also have disordered family lives.
And these misunderstandings derive from the two groups’ having different moral structures.
Differences in the Locus of Control
It was a student of mine (in an adult education class about “America’s Moral Crisis”) who came up with the apt image. It didn’t matter much to her, she said, whether her society has a lot of enforced rules. She’s got her moral beliefs firmly inside her– a kind of endo-skeleton, she said.
We had been talking about the distress American traditionalists have felt at the erosion of a social consensus about the straight-and-narrow path. Morality for them, she said, seemed to be a kind of exo-skeleton. This was her image to capture their reliance on external moral structures –laws, punishments, etc.– to keep them within the moral confines in which they believe.
In that perspective, some of what might seem anomalies –or hypocrisies– of some traditionalists makes greater sense.
It becomes clear why such people –with intense moral concerns combined with a reliance on external moral structures to keep one’s own forbidden impulses in check– would support a state that enforces moral rules and a social culture that stigmatizes those who violate those rules. It really is a threat to them –a threat to their own inner moral order–when the society around them fails to be clear in its rules and strict in its enforcement.
For one whose moral structure is cast in that exo-skeleton form, the absence of external moral authority seems necessarily to imply the outbreak of moral anarchy. That’s the logic implied by that famous line, from a character in Dostoyevski’s BROTHER’S KARAMAZOV, that “if there is no God, everything is permitted.” That’s what lies behind that fear that –if gays are allowed to marry– marriage generally would somehow be threatened, including the sanctity of one’s own.
To the liberal, with the endoskeleton structure, both of those seem like logical non sequiturs. And logically, perhaps they are. But they bespeak a psychological reality. If the outside structure breaks down, who knows what I might do? It’s like that writing in the mirror in the movie, “Stop me before I kill again.”
Liberals have often failed to understand how genuinely threatening it is to the moral order of those with the exo-skeleton structure if there is a loosening of society’s moral standards, rules, and sanctions. They have not appreciated the plight of people who deeply want to toe the line, and need help in doing it.
Likewise, many liberals have responded with anger, unleavened by understanding, to the tendency of some traditionalists to try to impose their moral views on others. It is their dependence on the strength and integrity of the external moral order that drives many “exo-skeletons” to crusade to make the whole world around them conform to the moral system to which they themselves are striving to adhere. The unspoken –and generally unacknowledged– need is: please, society, be morally strict enough to keep me on the straight-and-narrow path.
Integrity and Hypocrisy: The Challenge to the Exo-Skeletons
These fears of traditionalists reflect a lack of integration– the morality is not fully integrated into the psyche.
St. Paul lamented: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” Truly, he wanted to do the good. But it is not entirely true that the evil he did was something he wanted not. For a part of him did want it, or he wouldn’t have done it.
So was Paul a hypocrite for doing what he declared himself to be against? And are the red-staters hypocrites if they indulge –perhaps more even than the liberals– the forbidden desires?
Well, yes and no. Yes, in that they are not practicing what they preach. And that does represent a kind of lack of integrity. But the “dishonesty” involved is not about lying to others so much as it is a natural outgrowth of the identification with only a part of the self, the moral part, with a concomitant sense that the other part, with the forbidden desire, is the not-I.
So that is the hypocritical part: the failure to embrace the whole truth about the self– that is comprised not only of the “righteous” part but of the “sinner” part as well.
If the moral order of the society around him weakens, the person with a moral exo-skeleton is genuinely threatened –not just regarding his conduct, but also even regarding his identity.
The Dangerous Blindness of Some of Us Moral Endo-Skeletons
Those of us with the endo-skeleton structure –who can live moral and orderly lives even if we live in an “anything goes” society– can reasonably be tempted to feel superior to those others with the exo-skeleton dependency on the moral sanctions of a more straight-and-narrow society.
And indeed there are theories of moral development according to which the internalization of moral order is a more “advanced” form of moral development.
But, at this point in American history, it can be seen that the quest for advanced consciousness has many dimensions, and neither side of America’s divide has aced the course. This is part of the cost of our cultural polarization– two forms of moral blindness, very different but also two sides of the same coin.
Just as the cultural right has damaged America because of its failure to acknowledge its inner sinner, the left has damaged America through its failure to recognize its inner moral structure.
This was one of the greatest shortcomings of the counterculture that arose in the 60s. We –and I was a member of that tribe– simply tore down a great many of our society’s moral structures and assumed that all would be well. We had half-baked theories of human nature, and of society, that justified “letting it all hang out” and “doing our own thing” and “if it feels good, do it.”
History has shown that we were naive. Not all has been well. Indeed, I would argue that this naive miscalculation is part of what has led, ultimately, to the rise of the dark and destructive forces from the right embodied by the current dangerous Bushite regime.
Living Off Our Moral Capital
What many in the counterculture did, I believe, was to look at themselves –in their “liberated” state–and imagine that they saw human nature in its pristine state. But in reality, most of the middle class youth –brought up in the 1940s and 1950s– who comprised the counterculture had already internalized a great many of the disciplines –moral and otherwise– of traditional American culture.
That’s why they could engage in the cultural revolution of liberation, and then go on to become effective middle class professionals, and the kind of liberals with well-ordered lives that I meet when I speak to Unitarian groups.
The loosening of the moral structures of American society did not, indeed, greatly disturb the lives of most of us middle class American youths of the counterculture, because the necessary structures were already inside us. Our endo-skeletons made the social enforcement of norms and standards and morals unnecessary.
For us, that is. Meanwhile, the rest of society was not identical to us endo-skeletons. And there, the costs of the cultural loosening have been more visible.
For one thing, there are elements of American society in which the disciplines of moral order were less firmly established than in the white middle class. And for them, the loosening of the moral fabric of the overall cultural system led to disastrous results, such as a steep increase in the rate of illegitimate births and a general deterioration of family structure.
(This picture is painted plausibly in Myron Magnet’s THE DREAM AND THE NIGHTMARE: THE SIXTIES’ LEGACY TO THE UNDERCLASS. I continue to believe that there was much that was valid and right in the counterculture, whereas Magnet is basically a conservative counter-revolutionary; but I nonetheless think it is important to recognize the truth of valid critiques even –sometimes especially– from people who are in many ways adversaries.)
In addition to the effects of the loosening of our culture’s moral structures on the underclass, there is also the impact that the dissipation of our culture’s moral capital has had on our heirs, the young.
The youth coming up did not form their characters in the tighter environments of the 1940s and 1950s, but in the culturally looser decades since. And one has been hearing from veteran teachers for a long time now that each successive wave of students shows signs of a loosening of discipline of various kinds. The culture has grown trashier, the demands of society have become less stringent, the culture of indulgence has grown deeper– and all this has led to a visible cultural decline. Many of the children of those who carried with them the older structures have managed to raise children whose lives are also fairly well-ordered. But even there it is a diminishing cultural capital that we are living off of. And I expect that the necessary forms of moral structure (and other disciplines) will attenuate in time– in the absence of some kind of cultural renewal.
But it is on the other side of the cultural divide –in the realm of the endo-skeletons– that the loosening of the moral order has proved most dangerous.
It is not only that the cultural right, more dependent on the external restraints, becomes more likely to succumb to forbidden impulses—like sailors come to port.
More dangerous for the society is that the particular nature of the right’s moral vision —its relative harshness and its punitiveness—transforms the impulses of the human animal into something darker.
Fragile orders tend also to be harsher– tyranny as the surest means to avoid anarchy. And, accordingly, a moral order that is less internalized, being more fragile, tends also toward harshness.
Thus the morality of the exo-skeletons tends to denigrate the human nature it seeks to control. This morality also tends to be more punitive in its approach to control– glad to invest big sums in a brutal prison system (whether or not such punishments actually serve society best, as with drug offenders), passionately committed to the death penalty, and building its worldview around a highly punitive figure as Lord of the Universe.
(Think here of that major cultural phenomenon of recent years– the controversy over Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.)
And the harsher the morality –the more the interaction between cultural demand and human nature is conducted in the form of of war– the darker become the feelings inside the human creature socialized in that morality– the more the feelings inside the human creature turn toward rage (at the wounds inflicted), toward a desire for power (to counteract the powerlessness of being small in a world that has declared war on you), and toward a lust for vengeance (for all the punishment and rejection inflicted).
The harsh morality of the cultural right thus engenders within the human spirit a kind of wolf . It is a wolf such as Shakespeare described in Troilus and Cressida:
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
And the same harsh morality that goads this wolf into life will also –when it is intact– help confine that beast its cage.
That wolf –the lust for power and the rage for revenge– has always been there, and it has played a role in the dark parts of American history. But it was largely, more than now, kept from running rampant.
The loosening of the cage of America’s social morality had one meaning, therefore, among America’s endo-skeletons, but another darker meaning among America’s exo-skeletons. It is as though a boat was tipped by the left, but it was the right that got wet.
It was not just id that was loosed on the cultural right, but also unleashed were those impulses that their sub-culture’s harshness had made dark. (One thinks of that famous passage in Carl Jung, written in the years before the rise of the Nazis, about the “blond beast stirring in its subterranean prison…threatening us with an outbreak that will have devastating consequences.” )
The wolf has now broken from its cage. We in the counterculture who wanted to liberate, for example, the natural sexual energies of the human creature also, unwittingly, weakened the checks on the lust for power, on greed, on self-aggrandisement. Morality, it turns out, is of a piece. And so is our culture.
“Make love, not war,” we chanted. But now, being undisciplined in our approach to the moral issues of making love, we live in a country that defies all international laws in its making of war.
Now it is the wolf that rules America.
Turning Back from Fascism
Fascism arises from the sense that the choice is between its tyranny and mere anarchy.
Never mind that the fascists merely bring the anarchy of the enraged wolf, hiding under the national flag, to prowl around society. They do it from the precincts of power, and they fool enough of the people into thinking that what they’re bringing is order.
But there are, in any event, better options than either tyranny or anarchy. But they are to be achieved. Good order in the human realm does not happen except through wise and hard human effort.
The task then is two-fold. It is not only to remove that wolf from power, but it is also to help reconstruct the cage –those structures of morality– that kept it in check.
Ideally, we’d do much better than merely “reconstruct” the moral cage of an earlier era. That would be an improvement over this loosening, which has unleashed these dark forces. But still better would be to find a better means of containment, even a more harmonious form of domestication that does not need to abuse the creature it brings into the social fold. That old order was far from ideal.
That much the counter-culture recognized, but it failed to realize that a truly beneficent revolution is not accomplished by the storming of the Bastille. And it failed to recognize that the movement of a culture to its next, more advanced form is a long-term and difficult process.
What is needed this time around is not a wanton rejection of the old structures, replacing them with nothing. We endo-skeletons must understand more fully the structures that hold us together. We must understand, that is, that the endo-skeleton is not nothing.
And, more, we need to understand that the endo-skeleton does not come from nothing. It is the internalization of the order the growing creature encounters around him/her.
And no skeleton at all is a recipe for falling apart.