Friday, December 10, 2004

The "Morally Superior"

John Holbo joins in the framing wars:
Now the striking thing about 'politically correct' is that it really means the same as 'moral values', as per Republican rhetoric and post-election polls, etc. Both terms denote sets of moral beliefs which are held strongly enough that believers are prepared to impose them on others, politically. Obviously the sets in question are different, but the thing that makes the term toxic to the bearer is actually the connotation. The elist moral superiority of it. So what we need is an appropriate analog to pin on conservatives. There ought to be one, by rights, since the Republicans surely are elitists, and they surely do think they are highly morally superior.

Once you put the problem that way, the solution is obvious. Let's get in the habit of calling Republican moral elitists: 'the moral elite'. 'morally elite', 'moral elitists'. Just use the terms as flat descriptors for anyone proposing to legislate morality in any of the usual ways. Just to change things up, sometimes you use: 'morally superior' to designate the attitude. And 'moral superiors' to designate the tribe. Maybe you start to distinguish, as a matter of course, between legislation that ensures 'moral superiority' and the regular stuff. Talk about Repubicans taking 'necessary moral superiority measures'.

The beauty of it is that 'morally superior' is already a term of faint opprobrium. It conotes petty social snobbery and schoolmarmery and so forth. It stinks. And it fits. Perfect for our purposes. And 'moral superiors' sounds worse.

It should be hard for Republicans to unstick this stuff from themselves, if accurately applied, because what are they going to do: deny that they are morally superior? In the context of, say, proposing to legislate against gay marriage, can they deny that they think they are morally superior to those who think this stuff would be alright? If they deny they are morally superior, then what do they think they are doing? Letting your neighbor be is such a fundamental American value that it is very embarrassing to be on the wrong side of it, as Republican often are these days.

It's an interesting idea. I'm not really sure we want to be calling our side "morally inferior", though Holbo implies we could use it with the same hip irony associated with being "politically incorrect".

Also, I wonder if we might have trouble making the 'elitism' charge stick. For one thing, the epithet might be so strongly associated with attacking our side that we can't turn it around as Holbo suggests. Further, from my vantage point, the culture war in the U.S. appears (very roughly) to be between educated liberals and the ignorant bible-thumping masses. At least, that's the way it's often framed. Republican "morality" is illiberal and authoritarian, but it also has populist roots. And it just strikes me as odd to call a tyranny of the majority "elitist".

Besides, I generally don't much like insulting people for 'elitism'. I would explain why, but a picture's worth a thousand words: (via Evolving Thoughts)

Maybe liberals could restore some meaning to the poor battered word, but I think I'd rather not dirty my hands with it. Even without it, the core of Holbo's idea still stands: denouncing the "moral superiority" of authoritarian conservatives seems quite fitting. It might even work.


  1. Personally I find this sort of methodology - the quiet brainwashing of the masses via the useage of words as more insideous than the at least open attempts to shape society of the "moral elite" (be it the moral elete of the left or right).
    change is not bad but if you dont want it to go off track it should at least be reasonably transparent. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  2. "For one thing, the epithet might be so strongly associated with attacking our side that we can't turn it around as Holbo suggests."

    [I will use 'framing' just to be consistent]
    I think this is very astute, and probably the problem with the recent liberal radio, liberal press's attempts to be self-identifying and self-confident 'framers' of popular discourse. The problem is, they are always already tarred with the brush of liberalism as institutions/people that they cannot break through an already 'framed' debate. The alternative answer seems just as flawed however, you only have to see some of the angrily & indignantly separatist articles on Common Dreams to see how hostile and frankly not very appealing this can get, if a nice release valve for frustrated US liberals.

    One might also want to consult the half-interesting recent article --’White Trash: A Class Relevant Scapegoat for the Cultural Elite’--as a reminder of how liberals are frequently cast as the 'cultural elite' even in contemporary sociological discourse, and so charges of elitism might be very difficult to make stick. (I also have some very half-baked English criticisms on the matter) 

    Posted by rob

  3. "Further, from my vantage point, the culture war in the U.S. appears (very roughly) to be between educated liberals and the ignorant bible-thumping masses."

    I think the ignorance is on both sides - and it isn't ignorance about the issues but about each other.

    Besides that, why doesn't Holbo just try to make the term "Republican" into an epithet? If he tries to use "moral elitist" as a term for people who want to legislate their morality, then he would have to use it for people who oppose the death penalty or the war or helping the poor or hundreds of other things on moral grounds. But I have a feeling he doesn't mean "legislating morality," but actually "legislating morality that I don't agree with."  

    Posted by Macht


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