Skip to content
Grading Morality on a Curve
Go to my account

Grading Morality on a Curve

When political violence happens, our outrage should not be dependent upon which side of the aisle the victim sits.

The scene outside the Pelosi home after Paul was attacked. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.)

Hey,

So I’m still getting my sea legs, as it were. So I’m just gonna think out loud today. We’ll see where I end up.

I’ve long had a weird obsession with the question, “What if the writers of Star Trek wrote World War II?”

The joke stems from the fact that pretty much every episode of Star Trek—including all of the spinoffs, with one exception—focuses on the most important and powerful people on the ship (or space station). The captain or his top officers—or both—go on super dangerous adventures while all of those hundreds of nameless extras keep doing their work in relative safety. Of course, every now and then, one of those extras goes down to the surface to provide security. Usually, they end up as red-shirted phaser fodder.

So, in the Roddenberry-inspired World War II, FDR and Churchill, with maybe de Gaulle tagging along, would drop behind German lines and get into a shootout with Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. “Damn you, Hitler, this bunker isn’t wheelchair accessible!”

My point isn’t to polish the gag, or even to write about Star Trek or pop culture, but to work through something I’ve been noodling on lately. So give me a moment to unspool the noodle.

It dawned on me recently that Star Trek really wasn’t that much of an outlier when it came to this kind of thing. It makes sense that the main characters are going to be involved in the action every week. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be the main characters. The premise of Star Trek made this fact funny. Why have a crew of 430 on the Enterprise if you’re only going to utilize the captain, the first officer, the chief engineer and chief medical officer, and a couple other high-ranking people? I mean, the chief medical officer usually only had one nurse helping him out. Scotty rarely delegated anything. You’d think Kirk would be like, “Get some help, dude. You don’t have to patch the warp drive by yourself every frickin’ time.”

But lots of shows have similar problems. In Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher solved some 274 murders, roughly 60 of them in her quaint seaside village of Cabot Cove (population 3,650). I didn’t know until I did my extensive research (i.e. reading one article) that she solved most of those murders while she was traveling around the country or the world. This is actually pretty disturbing, because it means that not only was Cabot Cove a very dangerous hotbed of homicide, but that Jessica Fletcher was more like the Angel of Death. You’d think that over time, people would start calling ahead to various mystery writer conventions—“Is Fletcher going to be there? Because if she is, I’m going to skip this year.” I mean, she was deadlier than COVID to be sure.

The (im)morality of the screen.

Anyway, let’s move on. Longtime readers may recall that I think one of the drivers of our political dysfunction is that we follow politics like it’s a form of entertainment, and our brains have a very different moral algorithm when following entertainment. If we like the hero, the hero can do all sorts of things we would condemn in real life. But in the past, I didn’t fully realize that the fictional hero can do things we would condemn in the fictional villain. When the bad guy kills people, it proves he’s the bad guy. When the good guy kills people, it proves he’s doing what’s “necessary,” either for plot development or the fulfillment of his own “code.” Showtime’s Dexter is a serial killer who kills other  murderers (and anyone who might blow his cover). The other killers are bad. Dexter isn’t bad because he’s the hero.

Relatedly, we don’t score deaths equally. When a security officer is killed on Star Trek, there’s about 30 seconds of mourning. By the end of the episode, everyone’s cracking jokes. But if someone were to kill, say, Spock, the audience would want a whole season of vengeance. Lots of soldiers and guards were killed before Ned Stark lost his head on Game of Thrones, and no one gave a crap. But when Stark was executed, everyone was like, “Oh no you didn’t!”

On political violence.

It’s this sliding scale of morality that is corrupting our politics.

There’s been a good deal of political violence and threats of political violence in recent years. I am sadly confident that there will be more to come in the near future.

A great deal of the “debate” about political violence—like so many other things in America today—is often a very stupid argument about hypocrisy: “You didn’t condemn X but now you want me to condemn Y.” But it’s so much stupider than just that.

First, it’s often not true. So-and-so actually did condemn X, but the critics saying otherwise weren’t paying attention or didn’t bother to check. Or perhaps the condemnation wasn’t framed the way the critics wanted.

Second, people often make guilt-by-association arguments. Here’s an example: Person A didn’t say the right thing about Team Blue’s violent act, and so everyone else on Team Blue is, by the transitive property, equally hypocritical when Team Red’s violent act is in the news. The stupidity of this is multiplied by the fact that most of the time the violence wasn’t a team effort, but a one-off act by a single disturbed individual. A fact everyone promotes when convenient and ignores when inconvenient.

Third, and relatedly, each team wants to claim that the other team’s rhetoric caused violence when violence can be connected to that rhetoric and deny any such connection exists when violence can be connected to their own rhetoric. This means that every time some horrible act is committed, the teams switch positions. People who scream, “You’re responsible for this!” at the other team suddenly insist, “I had nothing to do with it!” when some deranged nutter has an inconvenient manifesto or Facebook post.

A lot of this stems from the collective desire to make politics into a form of entertainment—there is a crowd-sourced effort to craft a convenient narrative to turn our culture war fights into a story of good versus evil. This is a very old story in American politics that can be traced in the modern period to the assassination of JFK by Lee Harvey Oswald, a Marxist radical. “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights,” Jackie Kennedy lamented to Bobby Kennedy when he told her the news. “It’s—it had to be some silly little Communist.” The liberal establishment needed Kennedy to have been killed by the forces of “hate,” and so that narrative was constructed in real time by people like Dan Rather.

The story we tell.

Now, I want to be clear about a few somewhat contradictory things. For starters, I do think rhetoric matters—a lot. Rhetoric, Wayne Booth argued, is “the art of probing what men believe they ought to believe.”

I’m with Deirdre McCloskey on this point: The story we tell about ourselves is in many ways the whole ballgame.

A society where leaders, broadly defined, insist that their political opponents are evil villains will be very different from a society where leaders insist that every human has innate dignity and our differences are subordinate to that. Telling people that the most important unit of society is the “nation” will produce a different kind of society from one in which people are told that the most important unit of society is the individual—or the family.

On the other hand, while I believe this passionately at the wholesale level, the retail nitty-gritty of life is more complicated. Connecting the dots between one individual’s statements and another individual’s violent actions is not so easy, particularly when the violent individual is mentally troubled. In a free society, saying irresponsible things has to be treated differently than doing irresponsible things. This is true both morally and prudentially, which is why we have vast amounts of First Amendment law to figure out where to draw the lines. But “treated differently” is not synonymous with “treated indifferently.”

What the hell is wrong with you?

Which brings me to the current moment. I shouldn’t have to say this, but if your first response to an 82-year-old man having his skull broken with a hammer is anything other than some kind of expression of outraged condemnation or sympathy for the victim, you’re doing life wrong. Period. Nothing else really enters into it.

Now, as a matter of media criticism and partisan point scoring, some right-wingers have plenty of legitimate points to make (and so do some left-wingers). While it’s not at all true that Democrats and the mainstream media didn’t condemn the attack on the congressional baseball practice by a Bernie Sanders supporter, the way those condemnations and that coverage was framed was just different. The coverage and condemnation of Bret Kavanaugh’s would-be assassin or Gabby Giffords’ shooter was also different. I was listening to the coverage of the Waukesha Christmas massacre last year in real time as I drove cross country. When it was unfolding, the media was eager to make it fit one preferred narrative or another. When the driver turned out not to fit any of them, coverage plummeted. But the victims remained.

But here’s the problem: So what? While media criticism is sometimes important or at least valid,  it isn’t a good source for fundamental morality. Pointing out hypocrisy and inconsistency has its uses, but it’s not a source of morality either. Whatever the New York Times said about X doesn’t automatically make Y okay. Unwarranted violence is an independent variable. Literally every conceivable criticism of Nancy Pelosi could be true, and it wouldn’t change the moral calculus one iota. If someone smashed Kevin McCarthy’s wife’s head with a hammer, it would be evil independent of any biting commentary on cable news or Twitter. “You reap what you sow” is a good plot device and a good rule of thumb, but it can’t take precedence to fundamental recognition of right and wrong.

The narrative is important, but when the narrative becomes utterly detached from reality and morality, it’s time to put down your imaginary pen. I don’t want to live in a country where it’s normal to ask, even subconsciously, “Was the victim a Democrat?” before deciding whether to be angry, outraged, or compassionate.

The corruption of celebrity worship.

Which brings me back to that sliding scale.

So far, I’ve been (meanderingly) talking about a horizontal scorecard between left and right. But the more interesting scorecard is vertical. While I have only heard this point raised as a talking point to spin the attack on Paul Pelosi for partisan purposes, I think there’s some truth to it: If Paul Pelosi were just a random San Francisco resident, there would be no national coverage of this attack. Now, I understand why this is more newsworthy. But newsworthiness isn’t everything. San Francisco has lots of violent, drug-addled, mentally ill people running around. Their violence doesn’t garner attention from policymakers the same way. Right now, Congress and the Capitol Police are reviewing their policies and practices to prevent similar attacks, as they should. That’s the job of the Capitol Police. But you know what the job of the San Francisco police is? To prevent such attacks on everybody (in San Francisco).

In Star Trek, and fiction generally, the main characters are the object of the audience’s concern. But in real life, we’re all the main characters. And yet, because of the way our brains are wired, we collectively have different standards for the “important people.” The FBI obtains warrants and searches homes almost every day. But a lawful search on the former president’s home literally prompted some people to talk about abolishing the FBI or even starting a civil war. People cheat on their wives with subordinates at work all the time, but when Bill Clinton did it, rather than staying true to all sorts of principled commitments, vast numbers of feminists ditched them.

But those examples have as much to do with partisanship and power worship as the earlier stuff. My point is that partisanship is just one facet of a broader phenomenon. Call it, for want of a better term, celebrity worship. Think about the things literally billions of people get invested in: Johnny Depp’s divorce, Britney Spears’ conservatorship, the cult and subsequent martyrdom of Princess Diana, Kim Kardashian’s romantic life—the list is endless. Don’t get me wrong, much of this is harmless and unavoidable. Humans like gossip and are interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It has always been thus.

But in all of this there’s the danger of moral corruption, particularly as we recede from real communities and rely on screens for social entertainment. Vladimir Putin is currently sending tens of thousands of Russians to their deaths in an evil adventure to lawlessly crush another country. But if I were to write that Vladimir Putin should be assassinated to end the slaughter, a lot of people would lose their minds. Admittedly, many of them would make solid points about the dangers of assassination as a tool of statecraft. But quite a few people would be morally outraged: “How dare you condone murder?” Stalin and Mao murdered tens of millions, but there are still people who want to cut them some slack or even lionize them. I’m old enough to remember the O.J. Simpson trial and how many people wanted to make the facts that pointed toward his guilt irrelevant.

My point is that there’s something about the way the human mind works—for all of us—that drives us to treat the rich, famous, and powerful as avatars in some video game or choose-your-own adventure story and exempt them from the rules of moral life. In the process, we become more offended by insults—or assaults—to their dignity and status than we do for normal people and more forgiving of their transgressions. I don’t think this is truly solvable because I think it’s part of human nature. But like many aspects of human nature, we don’t pay nearly as much attention to it as we should. All sorts of problematic or just plain horrible things are part of human nature, but for most of them we’re taught—through rhetoric, through law, and through good parenting—to be on the watch for them and keep them at bay.

I think a lot of our problems today are at least partly attributable to the fact that we mold people to get so invested in their favorite, or most hated, main characters. Left unchecked, we forgive—and often celebrate—terrible behavior that we would never condone in our neighbors. Over time, that habit of tolerance for the misdeeds of the famous corrupts our own souls.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.