…or, Every day is self-parody day.
I did a couple speaking engagements recently (book me! firstname.lastname@example.org) where I was even more rambly and woolly than usual, and I am not a productrix of machine-like syllogisms under any circumstances. I’d like to wander through some of my answers here, to find whatever useful marginally-coherent ideas might be caught in the wool.
At one point I found myself defending Oscar Wilde, Moralist. My interlocutors were skeptical, and for good reason: Didn’t Wilde himself write, “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike”? Didn’t he go out of his way to disclaim any moral content in his own works? (Kind of.) In response I rambled some things about the fairy tales, completely forgot the existence of Dorian Gray, and muddled the plots of An Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance, so that’s awesome, book me today.
Oscar Wilde, like Duff Man, says a lot of things. He resists conscription as a moralist because of his sordid personal life (there’s something tragic as well as horrifying in the contrast between what children signify in Wilde’s work and his use of underage prostitutes), because of his personal ambivalence toward Catholicism and his participation in what I will anachronistically call the gay liberation movement, because he does seem to have personally disliked moralizers (Aestheticism was the attitude he adopted towards… etc) as who wouldn’t, and because he crafted such deliciously, quotably immoral characters. Imagine if Dmitri were the philosopher, Ivan were the Christian, and Alyosha were just a fairy tale, and you’ve got some of the flavor of it.
But one reason I do bang on about Wilde as moralist is that he draws our attention again and again to neglected aspects of morality. There are swathes of morality toward which one’s society directs one’s attention. These areas often turn out to be the areas of morality that support public order. Don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t abandon your child and his mother, don’t sell state secrets!–that stuff. These things are actually wrong to do, and Wilde’s plays make little sense if you don’t recognize them as wrong.
But they are, we might say, the moral macguffin. These obvious immoral acts are the pretext for raising the moral question Wilde is actually concerned with: the way others respond to people who have committed obvious immoral acts. Behind the moral imperative of honesty we begin to see the shadow of the moral imperative of forgiveness. The characters have already chosen between e.g. sex out of wedlock or chastity, but now they & those around them must choose between judgment and forgiveness; and this too is a moral choice.
That’s why I’ve been a bit put off by the way so many conversations about gay people in the Church have gone lately. One side deploys Pope Francis’s “Who am I to judge?” quote as if the Pope was advocating a suspension of sexual morality. Then the other side is all, “No, you have to look at it in context, he only means gay people who are sincerely seeking God! Maybe he only means gay people who are totally super chaste!” Both of these interpretations draw our focus away from the call not to judge: not to view gay people with suspicion, not to approach us as if you’re entitled to know about our sex lives, not to make your welcome conditional on good behavior. Even actual, unabashedly admitted sexual sin places the obligation on you not to judge (single out, distance yourself from, proclaim your superiority to, proudly declare your lack of sympathy for) the sinner. If other people don’t do what they should do–or if they didn’t do what they should have done–that leaves you with certain difficult moral obligations, and humility rather than judgment is one of them.
This command is recursive btw. Don’t judge the judgmental! Meta-pharisaism is no better than the other kind!I don’t pretend this answers every question. A society can selectively deploy the command to forgive as a way of preserving an abusive status quo. And I’ve been in situations where to this day I just don’t know if my attempt at nonjudgmental, humble, forgiving support was really just conflict-avoidance. Should I have been more up-front about my real feelings, even the anger and resentment? Should I have done a little of the spiritual work of mercy that is “admonishing sinners”? Did I choose walking away from a relationship because the only way I could have stayed in it was to make my dissatisfactions known? Conversely, did I stick around too long, disingenuously calling “forgiveness” what was really resentful inertia and fear of conflict? It’s bleakly hilarious how many different ways people find to damage those around us; and saying, “Well, that helps us remember our total dependence on God, Who is the only One who is good!” is kind of cheap when you know you’ve hurt someone.
You guys know that I am embarrassingly 12-steppy in my spirituality, and there are a couple recovery-speak slogans that speak to this idea of the morality that you need after people have acted wrongly. One is the idea of doing “the next right thing.” That phrase has a couple different uses. It can encourage you to keep your horizons close, taking things “one day at a time” or one moment at a time instead of getting overwhelmed by how far you are from where you long to be. Instead of doing the best thing, or the thing that would allow you to finally feel okay, or the complete right thing, you just have to do the next right thing: pick up the small rock and lay it on the bigger rock. Pick up the smaller rock and lay it on the small rock. The cathedral will rise eventually. (Or not! Everybody’s just full of surprises.)
“The next right thing” I think also signifies a way you can think about your own failures and misdeeds. You would have liked to do the normal right thing–to follow the right path, clear and smooth. But you’re in this tangle now created by your own awful choices. It’s easy to focus on, I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque! But that isn’t the next right thing–it may have been the last right thing, but it’s gone now. The next right thing may be something you never would’ve needed to do if you’d stayed on the path, but it’s what’s in front of you now. And only by doing the next right thing can you find out how incredibly right it really is.
An even closer parallel with what I’m talking about in this post is the slogan, “Keep your own side of the street clean.” In any situation where other people are behaving badly, there are better and worse ways for you to react; and your own reactions are the only thing you can control. If you live with humility and integrity, it might not “work”–it might not convince your boss that you have become a better risk as an employee, it might not convince your child to forgive you. There are a lot of situations where both parties really hurt each other, and if you apologize for your part that in no way guarantees that the other person will see the light and apologize for hers. Apology, amends, forgiveness, and seeking not to judge aren’t techniques for extracting better behavior from another person.
It often works in Wilde’s plays, but that’s because he’s secretly a moralist, what have I been telling you people this whole time? The guy who wrote, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means” did not shy away from letting forgiveness and humility end up happily ever after. A happy ending to a moral tale can be a greasy promise. But the collision of repentances and surrenders which so often provokes the Wildean happy ending can instead be seen as an image, a foreshadowing of the reconciliations of Heaven.