My brain has a certain billy goat quality to it; casually chomping on whatever happens to be nearby. I can’t even remember what it was this time that led me back to territory I’ve covered before: the difference between hypocrisy and aspirational morality. I use the latter term to encompass the argument that usually comes up when moralizing politicians turn out to have private lives that are dramatically different than their public proclamations of proper behavior. The aspirational morality argument then says, “just because people sin doesn’t mean we’re wrong to aspire to better.” It’s kind of a “fake it, ’til you make it” approach.
My latest treading of this mental path got me to wondering why I didn’t think much of this argument. After all, humans have long used myths to inculcate desired behavior into their youth. For example, the stories of Odysseus were useful in telling Greek youths that being clever could be heroic. Heroes in other cultures might be more prone to the brute force hack as a method of solving their problems. It’s how you educate your kids on what is right and wrong.
But, it turns out that I already covered the distinction in my post from a few years ago. (I write so much, I have a tendency to forget what I wrote. “That guy has some great ideas! Oh, wait, that was me.”)
The problem, of course, is that socially conservative politicians never seem to cast these moral aspirations as aspirations – rather they profit politically by holding themselves out as exemplars of these virtues. They tend to cast those who do not live up to these proclaimed virtues as sinful objects of scorn or pity. What’s worse is that, rather than turning out to be mildly or even ordinarily flawed, they turn out to be extraordinarily flawed.
. . .
The medium is the message here. Because guys like Ensign and Sanford are the messengers, the message becomes tainted. We don’t need purity in our messengers, but we do need less stern judging and more acknowledgment that people who fall short are common — not sinful, corrupt, pitiable or rare. It’s the difference between “We all fall short one way or another, we should try to do better, and we can help one another in this way” on the one hand and “They fall short in this way, they are corrupting us, and we should stop them in this way” on the other hand.