Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The New Victorians

Andrew Fergusonpoints out that, while we live in an age where what used to be condemned by moralists is now viewed dispassionately as "livestyle choices."
It's certainly true, as traditionalists say, that the objects of the old censoriousness--promiscuity, divorce, abortion, infidelity--have been removed from moral categories altogether and elevated to the status of "lifestyle choices," where no one but the chooser himself is allowed to render a moral verdict (and then only on himself. And the verdict, by the way, is pretty much always "not guilty."). But keep looking
But the same people who wouldn't condemn a person for any of those "choices" today, are still full of condemnation for certain sins that they regard as more sinful and more worthy of their moral disapprobation.
An acquaintance a few years ago urged me to read the New York Times Magazine Ethicist column, describing it as unintentionally comic because the writer could never bring himself to cast a strict moral judgment. "A weak-kneed relativist," is what the columnist was, my acquaintance said. So I started reading the column and was surprised to find that my friend was wrong: This columnist was moralizing to beat the band. And on Sunday morning! Times readers must be disgusted, I thought, until I noticed what it was he was getting moralistic about. One morning someone wrote in with the eternal yuppie dilemma: Should she buy an SUV?

"There's no way to justify endangering others just so you can play cowboy," the columnist thundered. Anyone who bought an SUV, he said, would be "driving straight to hell." And so on, week after week, I became alert to the ways in which our pop culture is shot through with moralism: sulfurous condemnations of homophobia, smoking, guns, junk food, fur, big cars, and--this is the big one--judgmentalism. The new Church Ladies simply will not tolerate intolerance.
People are just as judgmental as previously. It's the sins that have changed, not the moral superiority of the critics.