America Must Learn to Deal with Moral Outrage

Amitai Etzioni

Much has been made out of the fact that the recent elections turned Virginia, once a solidly red state, into a fully blue one. Much more should be made out of the fact that Governor Ralph Northam, the leading Democrat in the state, did not hurt the ticket, despite his refusal to resign after a blackface scandal. Nine months ago, not only Republicans but also Democrats, at all levels of representation, called for his removal. The recent elections thus serve to illustrate what is necessary to ensure that the moral outrage of the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements will not turn into moral zealotry. For this pitfall to be avoided, two developments must take place: Americans must draw a line between minor and major moral “sins” and then provide a pathway for redemption.

The claims made by both moral movements are very compelling and that reforms they call for are highly justified. Moreover, these movements ought to continue to lead to changes in norms, mores, incentives, and laws. It is out of concern for these moral drives Americans must pay mind to the risks all such movements face, namely that they undermine the good they can do by treating all moral transgressions more or less equally.

Recently, it often seemed that—whatever the extent and level of violation of a moral norm—the outcry has been for the maximum penalty, for banishment. CEOs of major corporations, presidents of universities, and elected officials were all expected to resign and spend the rest of their lives in condemned isolation, without any opportunity for redemption. Rape, human trafficking, and sexual harassment have been all too often lumped together. Racial discrimination in hiring, gaining credit, and housing are frequently treated in the same way as uttering the n-word.

An early but example was the treatment of Gary Hart. He had an affair (with a consenting adult, who was not working for him) and above all was “charged” by the media for not being forward about it and teasing the press to find out about his affair (which he initially denied). His presidential drive was terminated forthwith. And ever since, all attempts to return to public life were in effect rebuffed because of events that took place in 1987—and were not major moral transgressions.

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