Kitten-burning is absolutely and definitively wrong! I don’t care what you tell me, or who says otherwise, I will bravely say it is wrong!
Yes, bravely. Because, of course, opposing the burning of kittens puts me in a minority, and marks me out as specially moral.
Oh, wait. No. It doesn’t.
Fred Clark talks about why people “bear false witness”, spreading malicious rumours in a story about the company Proctor & Gamble.
- They didn’t really believe it themselves.
- They were passing it along with the intent of misinforming others. Deliberately.
- They did not respect, or care about, the actual facts of the matter, except to the extent that they viewed such facts with hostility.
- Being told that the Bad Thing they were purportedly upset about wasn’t real only made them more upset. Proof that the 23rd largest corporation in America was not in league with the Devil made them defensive and very, very angry.
He goes on to talk about burning kittens, and how we use monsters to make ourselves feel good.
A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so. It’s one of the very few instances I recall when that timidly Broderian bunch took an unambiguous stance without their habitual on-the-other-hand qualifications.
I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.
We can all of us, at any time, find ourselves caught up in a lie like the one about Proctor & Gamble. When we do, we face a moral crossroads: how will we react to learning we were wrong? This applies to any form of misunderstanding or urban legend, but is especially acute when the story is malicious
CS Lewis had a pretty good analysis of this sort of thing in Mere Christianity. It’s written from a Christian perspective, of course, and I disagree with some of his premises, but I still think it’s insightful.
The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.
Monsters are also useful for enforcing in-group/out-group morality. Monsters are the other. We are insiders. They are outsiders. We are human, and sometimes we think like that. We want the monsters to be real.