10 steps to avoid moralising
by The Editor
FEATURE: South African public discourse is awash with moralisers – people who care little for argument or reason, evidence or logic, but rather wish nothing more than to shout their position from the treetops, in the belief that it represents some universal truth. The effect of this on debate is damaging. It is also infectious. What follows below is a list of ten suggestions to avoid moralising. Hopefully, they constitute a helpful guide to some of the pitfalls inherent to moral indignation, and how best they can be overcome.
10 steps to avoid moralising
By: Gareth van Onselen
17 January 2013
South Africans, particularly those who express themselves online, are prone to moralising. That is, to outrage about the behavior, attitudes and values of other people, about which they adopt an absolute moral position, based on little more than their personal belief. It is not a phenomenon particular to South Africans, but we certainly do excel at it.
Typically, a piece of moralising will take the following form:
That person / position / idea / organisation is appalling / shocking / wrong / evil / corrupt / useless / stupid. My position is politically correct / racist / sexist / extreme / religious / prejudiced / cultural / intrinsically correct. Everyone should adopt my position, obviously. Those who don’t are fools / incompetent / damned / self-serving / unethical.
You will find many examples in the comments sections of websites, on Twitter and Facebook, and more subtle variations on that generic description in the mainstream media.
Notice, in particular, that two key elements of good argument are missing: evidence and reason. A position is simply stated as fact. And then its ostensible moral virtues preached, as if a sermon were being delivered. I have suggested that position is usually prejudiced in some way, if not explicitly then because its absolute nature renders it too extreme for rational engagement. But that is an objective assessment, to the moraliser it is simply the obvious truth, unquestionable and beyond dispute. They are right, not on the evidence, but because they believe themselves right, and the world must be so told.
That last point is an important one: a moraliser feels a compulsion to pass public judgement about others; they must express themselves, about others, to an audience. And so they seek out those platforms that allow them to do this. Thus, there often beats at the heart of moralising rhetoric a giant, pulsing ego. And, as will all egoism, you can be sure it is fuelled by low-self esteem. Put another way, their position is about them, not the nature of the world. Moralisers see themselves as the sole custodian of truth and regularly spend much time squabbling about authority and status, their dignity easily impugned – just as easily as they would impugn the status of those that dare challenge them. Dig a little deeper, however, and they are usually no more authorative than the next person.
Here it is also worth saying something about the way in which Twitter and Facebook structures interaction. Absolutism is curt by nature. Because it does not rely on evidence or reason, merely some moral position, it does not require space. And so it thrives in those environments which are defined by limited depth and, as a result, often limited attention. In such places it is harder to contest the veracity of a claim and so absolute proposition is met by absolute response. And emotion, not rationality, rules the roost.
As a result of all this, often a moraliser will be inconsistent, unable to reconcile their own behaviour with the extreme positions they adopt. Indeed, unable generally to appreciate the subtlety and ambiguity that defines the human condition. Likewise, their positions will be inconsistent, each one an isolated bubble of absolutism, entirely unrelated and contradictory to some other position they hold, on some other issue. In turn, their universe will be defined by heroes and villains – each person being beyond reproach or the devil incarnate and, ironically, able to switch positions in the blink of a morally outraged eye.
When moralising becomes prevalent in a society, its effect on public debate can be profound. Unable to engage rationally, the temptation for reasonable people is to respond just as stridently, to simply state their position and forgo evidence and logic in an attempt to make an impact, each discussion reduced down to some base shouting match about right and wrong, good and bad. That, of course, is to the detriment of public debate.
Thus, in an attempt to better understand the problem and the pitfalls inherent to it, here follow ten steps to avoid moralising.
10 steps to avoid moralising
1. Avoid absolute statements. Principles are absolute in abstract (excellence, tolerance, freedom, etc.) but their manifestation in the real world is not. Take a moment to separate the two things, to identify those practical things that demonstrate a principle and speak to those but understand where one principle is exemplified no doubt its opposite lurks not far away. Absolutism is the death of rational discussion.
2. Have a clear idea of what your principles are. Adopting any position for the sake of an argument requires a set of values and ideals on which that position is based. By better understanding those underlying principles, not only will you better understand your position but, in a rational manner, using reason and logic, you will better equipped to counter an opposing view. Simply believing something is right or wrong, without being able to explain why, is not good enough.
3. Use evidence. Any argument is only as strong as the evidence on which it relies. Sometimes that evidence is reason itself but for the most part practical evidence is invaluable. Be able to support your argument with facts. In turn, be sure the facts support your argument.
4. Have perspective. Make sure your position on one issue is consistent with your position on others. It is for this reason that a full understanding our your principles and values is important. They are your guides to consistency and, with it, an assurance of credibility. It is no good to adopt position A, only to find out it contradicts position B, both positions are rendered compromised when this happens. Likewise, try to understand an opposing point, its merits and flaws. Such perspective enables you to precisely identify what you are opposing, if you oppose it at all, rather than merely gainsaying for the sake of pride.
5. Chose your words wisely. The English language is a wonderful thing. It contains adjectives that limit discussion because they are extreme and absolute and those that more accurately reflect a complex position, that are reasonable and measured. There is a place for passion, as there is for silence, you will be surprised at how effectively it can be conveyed in a reasonable way.
6. Be self-aware. We all have prejudices. Only by understanding what they are, are you properly equipped to prevent them from tainting an argument. If you do not cater for them and if not explicitly, they will permeate through your argument implicitly and, regardless of its veracity, detract attention away from the case you are trying to make. Sometimes it is best simply to state them upfront, if only to disarm an opponent from suggesting it is those prejudices, not your evidence or logic, which is responsible for your position.
7. Avoid ad hominem attacks. It is too easy to dismiss an argument in favour of attacking its author. That is, to bypass debate by personalizing your response. You will disagree with many people, you may even detest them, but stating that denudes whatever argument you wish to make of its worth. Reason and logic care nothing for personal animus, they exist regardless.
8. Don’t ascribe your prejudices to others. You might well believe something absolutely. That doesn’t mean its right. People often forget the point of debate is progress, to identify good and bad ideas alike and, by doing so, that we might learn and grow. Be open to the possibility that some other idea might simply be better – more reasonable, better evidence, greater veracity. If you simply assume you are right, from first principles, the door to intellectual progress is closed. By all means, argue your position as stridently as you can, within the bounds of good argument, but once you have done that, take a step back and assess the nature of the discussion itself. Is there anything to be learnt here?
9. Don’t get consumed by mediocrity. Apart from self-awareness and perspective, it worth trying to engender excellence. That is, to surround yourself with good ideas, best practice, critical peer review and wisdom. Very often the temptation is to surround one’s self with agreement, to only indulge those things and people that agree with you or mirror your view. You can always tell a moraliser by the degree to which he indulges sycophancy. That is perhaps understandable, their ego is usually insatiable but it is a sure path to ignorance. And ignorance breeds absolutism.
10. Think before you write. I am loathed to conclude with a cliché, but there is much wisdom in this particular platitude. Argument lends itself to passion and passion, in turn, can lend itself to rage. Anger clouds judgement. Just as importantly, time and patience lends itself to considered thought. So take a moment to assess exactly what it is you want to say and to make sure you have crafted your message in the most powerful way possible. Also, have some faith in history. For the most part it cares little for the immediacy of the moment, and tends to filter out superficiality in favour of those important and insightful arguments that do not live or die by a brief flash of emotion in time.
These ten suggestions are not exhaustive, certainly each of these ideas can be expanded upon. No doubt there many other steps one can take to ensure more argument and less moralising but, I suspect, should one adhere to them, the chances of preaching are greatly reduced and of actually debating much enhanced. And that is something from which we all can benefit.
I look forward to the comments.
- Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols), Winner: Best Political Blog 2012.
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Brilliant article Gareth! Just last week, after commenting on a newspaper article on iol, I found myself branded as the villain. I did not even get the chance to explain my point properly and was peppered with random replies that made no sense to the subject at hand. Will most definitely follow your steps outlined here. Thanks.
Dear Quinta5 (any relation to Quinta4?) thank you, I am so glad you liked it.
At the risk of moralising, myself (hehe), this is a very good piece. Have been guilty of this online and will try to be more circumspect in future. Ta.
Hey Deon, thanks man. That’s an honest response. I suppose we all moralise to some degree. Very often reasonable people are goaded into it. Can be hard to hold the line. Gareth
top down examples, officials using social media to put forward their opinions, which are separate from their official position. Government’s “Moral Regeneration Movement” take 2.1.
my morals are not your morals. People are so sensitive; call me what I am a makiwa, mulungu, moffie, makwerekwere – my skin is thicker than you think; but take what you give.
I don’t shy from racists, I did benefit from apartheid, I don’t anymore and my education (benefit) against my skin colour means nothing!
Call me “white” one more time…
That I struggle to comprehend the stories I read on the front page suggest either there was something defunct in my apartheid benefited schooling because for the life of me I don’t understand WTF is going on?!?!? Some of my friends say the same (some of my best friends are black and gay) and my mother says she’s too old to understand or she’s too stupid. She is neither.
My Pharmacist says there is no pill for this condition of political confusion.
Dear Weave, thanks for that somewhat unsolicited digression, might I suggest some sort of therapy perhaps? Gareth
Yo Gareth, Looking for “intelligent” comment without digression in this country, is like Gwede trying to make sense. I love that all these people that do comment on news stories on IOL generally degenerate into racial navel gazing – the comment so go off topic that I swear once it ended up in Hitler… and often does.
I’m not complaining about your guidelines, when other people colour outside the lines – I like to join in 🙂
It’s my form of therapy, for a condition a therapist, a pill, a conversation, a comment board, a national master plan have no cure…
The Marius Fransman “white madam”comment drew swarms of racist comments; which eventually degenerated into evolution…
4000 people had lost everything 7 people died, and Marius Fransman Was actually the man who didn’t deliver – He had the chance when he was housing minister to delivery the most basic of fire services – coulda – shoulda – didn’t – went racist forgetting to mention the colour of skin at fault was his own colour.
With the racism flying around – the fact that he coulda, shoulda, didn’t – didn’t even feature.
That 7 people had died, and 4000 were homeless with nothing left.
Well; fishes walked from the sea and the earth is 6000 years old.
Logic, reason, don’t work from the release of the article, absolute statements, principals, are part of the article and set the standard of conversation, wisdom flies out the window, prejudices fly, self-awareness get defensive, ad hominem attacks fly without thought.
But so came the tale from the horses mouth – thus we react.
ps thanx for the response (unlike government) despite it being moralised and passing public judgement
Lets Unpack my “unsolicited digression” and talk this through then; like adults.
Did I attack you or make any derogatory statement to you or your article? No.
Does my response have have relevance to what is being discussed: Yes
It starts with the problem of public official using social media to promote personal views despite or in contrast to their public position. While not only having run one Moral Regeneration Movement but two at huge cost and no result.
(we can go into the Moral Regeneration Movement and it’s once head and supporter J783, and discuss the out of wedlock children, extra marital affairs and of course the unprotected sex and Ishowera to wash off… but do you really want me to open this can of worms – because then you and I are going to talk ourselves to death trying to figure this crows nest out.)
The rest actually uses your guidelines to express myself without it affecting another person:
I make a statement having thought clearly and testing your point no1. My morals are not your morals. It may be absolute, but it’s true, and we needn’t discuss it as you know it to be so too.
Does it offend you? It shouldn’t.
I didn’t ascribe my prejudices on others – I ascribed other’s prejudices on me – did this affect you? Offend you? Harm you?
No. It shouldn’t.
Despite me clearly being OK / comfortable with the information to be in a public place – you suggest I seek therapy – for what? may I ask – the problem I have which was clearly laid out?
That for example when the Mail & Guardian have an eight story scoop on the arms deal and Nelson Mandela and Nkandla and all the screwings and doings of the arms deal, NOTHING not a peep from government – hell no, J783 is re-elected?!?!?
please give me a number for this therapist that can help me reconcile what I read with reality and morality, this one is going to be a peach! (and Lithium isn’t really used much these days – those side effects…)
I love it when I’m called “white” it’s such and assumption – I’m allowed to get defensive, when I get blamed for apartheid or for having benefited – well those days are long gone, in fact so long gone it now surpasses the so called benefit. So we can quit with that. or we can discuss it…
I would love a solution to be simple like “the Clear Pill” one swallowed by each member of government before the day and we’d be sorted, but I suspect we are more in need of a Cleansing of the Temple vibe.
It’s been a long time if ever since a peaceful demonstration by SA citizens made a difference to public policy, it’s been a long time since violent demonstration made a difference in public policy.
The UK government gives SA in donations what J783 spent on his spot for his family… (despite a wife or two having their own multimillion rand homes)
it’s difficult to reconcile this and the fact that Humans tamed fire 1,000,000 BC in South Africa but here in the Western Cape Shacks still have difficulty with 7 dead and 4000 homeless on New Years day and the president has a bling home to the tune of a Global power hand out.
what’s you’re take on this? How do you reconcile the R1 Million Madiba gave J783? Gareth let me ask you this before you answer: if say a very generous wealthy person came up to you can just GAVE you R1 Million – do you think there would be no paper work?
because you know it appears as if Tata, the father of the Nation, took money from hungry starving HIV kids to fund Nkandla’s first down payment. Now my morals are not your morals, I know, but this outrages me – there’s nothing I can do, my rantings and ravings are like yours and that of the M&G ineffectual. I can’t think straight and think it’s like Palestine and Israel.
I don’t think people want the truth or a solution. Because we don’t seem to be heading in that direction.
What do you think? I could be wrong.
My comment was an opinion piece, relevant but emotive – to which you responded how?
feel free to respond.
Dear Weave, thanks again for your detailed response, although I am not quite sure what the point of it all is. That you feel justly outraged? I am sure you do. That is a problem for you? I am sure it is. That you’d like my understanding? You have it. That you wish to express yourself? Go for it. An assurance that moralising has its place? Well, not the way I have defined it. If you mean coming to a moral conclusion on the basis of reason, evidence and the right principles, then absolutely. Gareth