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Changing morality

I just finished reading Shelby Steele’s White Guilt, a thought-provoking treatise on race in the US. The book starts from a discussion on morality, a driver of much of social and political behavior, even if it is woefully under-addressed.

Steele observes that in ‘90s, Bill Clinton’s sexual impropriety no longer triggered the immorality button the way it would have in the ’50s. At the same time, using a racial slur in the ‘50s would not have triggered the immorality button, whereas in the ‘90s it would signal the end for the public persona who uttered it.

I was struck by this idea of changing or different morals — both over time, but also across societies.

The UK has been roiled for the past weeks over parties held at Downing Street when gatherings — including funerals — were prohibited. The contrast that most strikingly captures the scandal is the Queen sitting alone in Windsor Chapel, mourning her husband of 73 years, while the night before Downing Street staffers were drinking and dancing.

Boris Johnson could lose his job over this (and may have by the time you read this).

Yet in the US, despite uproar around government officials flouting coronavirus restrictions and recommendations — our own Mayor Hancock flew to join family for Thanksgiving dinner in 2020, at the same time he was recommending we all hunker down, alone — no one lost his or her job over it, as far as I can recollect.

In the US, the high-ranking person who did lose his job recently was Gov. Andrew Cuomo — not for his botched but much-lauded handling of coronavirus, but for multiple accusations of sexual harassment. So morality has evolved from the ‘90s, when Clinton’s behavior was widely deemed ignorable; today it is a fire-able offense.

Unlike in a religious setting, these moralities are not defined, but reflections of current society, part of why they are amorphous. However, there are usually underlying, persistent values.

In the UK, that’s outrage at politicians’ misconduct and the pleasure of raking them over the coals. In the US, it’s puritanism, which often requires fealty to the morality of time, whatever society has deemed it to be. That’s one of the threads Steele spins further into the book, challenging us to rethink accepted truths about race and racism in the US.

Shana Goldberg may be reached at [email protected]

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