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Moral Endo-skeletons and Exo-skeletons: A Perspective on America's Cultural Divide and Current Crisis

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In the months after the 2004 election, when the Red States were said to have voted on the basis of their "moral values," it was noted by many observers that the sleazy TV and movies the traditionalist and Christian right denounce so energetically also tend to get their highest ratings in the same parts of the country most populated by such people. (It was noted, as well, that some of the family pathologies that traditionalists decry are found at high rates among these most vocal proponents of "family values.")

Some took this as a clear indication of the hypocrisy of the conservatives: what they denounce, they also secretly enjoy. They are not as concerned about morality, this critique declared, as they pretend to be. A posture of devotion to righteousness, all the while indulging forbidden impulses in hidden ways.

Jimmy Swaggart writ large.

But I don't think "hypocrisy" is the most illuminating way of seeing this phenomenon. Not if hypocrisy is understood as a form of deliberate dishonesty.

Different Structures of Morality

From my discussions of morality with religious traditionalists, I've gleaned that many of them assume that people who do not believe in their firm moral structures --who do not believe in God, or in the Ten Commandments, or in inviolable and absolute rules of moral conduct-- must be living lives of sin and debauchery. They cannot understand --and often seem unwilling even to believe-- that people like Unitarians might be living the well-ordered lives --as hard-working and law-abiding citizens, as responsible and dedicated family people-- that they themselves strive to do.

Their failure to understand how non-believing "liberals" can live moral lives is actually the reverse side of the same coin from the liberals' imputation of hypocrisy to the red staters who watch "Desperate Housewives" and may also have disordered family lives.

And these misunderstandings derive from the two groups' having different moral structures.
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Differences in the Locus of Control

It was a student of mine (in an adult education class about "America's Moral Crisis") who came up with the apt image. It didn't matter much to her, she said, whether her society has a lot of enforced rules. She's got her moral beliefs firmly inside her-- a kind of endo-skeleton, she said.

We had been talking about the distress American traditionalists have felt at the erosion of a social consensus about the straight-and-narrow path. Morality for them, she said, seemed to be a kind of exo-skeleton. This was her image to capture their reliance on external moral structures --laws, punishments, etc.-- to keep them within the moral confines in which they believe.

In that perspective, some of what might seem anomalies --or hypocrisies-- of some traditionalists makes greater sense.

It becomes clear why such people --with intense moral concerns combined with a reliance on external moral structures to keep one's own forbidden impulses in check-- would support a state that enforces moral rules and a social culture that stigmatizes those who violate those rules. It really is a threat to them --a threat to their own inner moral order--when the society around them fails to be clear in its rules and strict in its enforcement.
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For one whose moral structure is cast in that exo-skeleton form, the absence of external moral authority seems necessarily to imply the outbreak of moral anarchy. That's the logic implied by that famous line, from a character in Dostoyevski's BROTHER'S KARAMAZOV, that "if there is no God, everything is permitted." That's what lies behind that fear that --if gays are allowed to marry-- marriage generally would somehow be threatened, including the sanctity of one's own.

To the liberal, with the endoskeleton structure, both of those seem like logical non sequiturs. And logically, perhaps they are. But they bespeak a psychological reality. If the outside structure breaks down, who knows what I might do? It's like that writing in the mirror in the movie, "Stop me before I kill again."

Liberals have often failed to understand how genuinely threatening it is to the moral order of those with the exo-skeleton structure if there is a loosening of society's moral standards, rules, and sanctions. They have not appreciated the plight of people who deeply want to toe the line, and need help in doing it.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)

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