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An Orgy of Self-Righteous Sentimentality

The orgy of riot and looting that followed the killing of George Floyd was accompanied by an orgy of self-righteous sentimentality among the opining classes. They detected a straightforward causative link between the killing of the victim and the looting of stores in Fifth Avenue; they mistook their own outrage for virtue, and then supposed that their virtue absolved them from the necessity to think clearly.

I found a perfect example of this phenomenon in what a psychiatrist wrote in a posting on a popular website. Since it is not my intention to expose anyone to ridicule, I will not mention his name but deal only with his arguments. There is enough personal contempt being expressed at the moment without adding to it.

The author starts by saying that he is disgusted by comments on the internet that, because George Floyd had illicit drugs in his blood at the time he died, the killing was not as serious as it would otherwise have been, insofar as it suggested that he was a less valuable human being than if he had been drug-free.

The only real questions of the culpability of the policeman are whether George Floyd would have died but for his extremely brutal and prolonged conduct, to which the answer is clearly “No,” and whether the victim’s death was reasonably foreseeable, to which the answer is clearly, “Yes.” The writer of the piece is quite right to say that the personal qualities of a victim are irrelevant to the judgment of whether or not he was wrongfully killed. Unlawful killing is unlawful killing whoever the victim might be, and any other attitude to it would be savage and uncivilised.

But then the author becomes deeply sentimental. He writes:

I am beyond tired of the stigma of drug use that is so easy for people to cast onto others. People who use alcohol and other drugs are human beings. Alcoholics are human. Drug addicts are human. Stigmatizing them because of an illness or choices different from yours is pure prejudice.

There is in this passage a mixture of self-congratulation—it oozes moral superiority to much of mankind—and confusion.

The author specialises in treating addictions. Presumably, then, he considers that addiction is an undesirable state however it arises, otherwise there would be no point in “treating” it. He implicitly admits that, with a frequency he does not specify, it arises from personal choice, that is to say a bad choice, bad in the sense of dysfunctional. He wants to deny that it has any moral dimension in order to preserve of his self-image as a man who judges not that he may be judged Christ-like in his powers of forgiveness.

Let us take other choices: say to be a rapist or a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Would he write as follows?

Rapists are human. Member of the Ku Klux Klan are human. Stigmatizing them because of an illness or choices different from yours is pure prejudice.

If the state of being human renders everyone immune from moral judgment, the world is emptied of all moral judgment whatsoever. I do not believe for an instant that the author never makes a moral judgment: in fact he is highly moralistic. Indeed, he starts his article with the words “My blood boils when I read comments about the…  medical examiner’s report that details toxicology results from the autopsy of George Floyd.”

Blood does not boil without moral judgment, whether right or wrong. In other words, the passage I have quoted about prejudice and stigma is at best self-delusion; the author, unintentionally no doubt, for he is probably a kindly and well-intentioned man, is a corrupter of morals.

He presents himself as a man free of prejudice, but no one is, could or should be, free of prejudice. He clearly has a prejudice himself against prejudice and stigma, as if these were wholly bad and never good; but surely the most cursory self-examination would demonstrate to him that this is not so. One of the reasons one tries to be good, for example, is to avoid the stigma of being bad, and one avoids such stigma because man is a social creature. No one is a Kantian saint, pursuing the good only for its own sake, and if we met such a saint, he would not be very attractive. It is unexamined and rigid prejudice and stigma, impermeable to all evidence and human feeling, that are bad.

But if the author is opposed to stigmatising George Floyd because of his choice to take drugs, he has a seeming explanation of his conduct throughout his life:

George Floyd’s ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved in abject poverty to work on forced labor camps to build America’s wealth for their “owners.”

A whole book could be written about the assumptions behind this sentence; but, again unintentionally no doubt, it deprives George Floyd of the dignity of human agency. Like Polonius’s night following the day, first came the enslavement of George Floyd’s ancestors, then came his consumption of fentanyl and amphetamines, with nothing in between.

The author—a highly-educated man, be it remembered—continues in a vein that makes the poetry of Hallmark cards seem like harsh social criticism:

Work within yourself to end stigma. Make the world safer for blacks, browns, whites, immigrants, refugees, strangers, Muslims, Jews, Christians, old people, children, disabled people, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, straights, northerners, southerners,   easterners, westerners, cowboys, Indians, poor, rich, criminals,  addicts, people in recovery, and everyone else you secretly diminish to inflate your own ego and self-worth.

What about the poor warmongers, genocidal-murderers, racists, religious fanatics, cannibals, child-abusers, salve-drivers, pimps and other stigmatised groups? Why are they left out? Surely it must be because of the stigma and prejudice against them that turned them into what they are in the first place.

The moral grandiosity of the article is obvious, and not very deeply buried in it is implicit contempt for huge numbers of people not unlike Mrs. Clinton’s contempt for the basket of deplorables. When I read that the author hears “the drumbeat of stigma and prejudice—stigma cast upon all drug users and prejudice against all black men,” I think: speak for yourself.

Reader Discussion

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on June 26, 2020 at 10:09:56 am

they mistook their own outrage for virtue, and then supposed that their virtue absolved them from the necessity to think clearly.

Just so, and excellently said. This perfectly describes the entire woke herd. More: the "outrage" is contrived, fabricated, the work of will. Seneca deplored those whose public shows of grief reflected not what they felt but what they "decided to feel," and George Kateb in his essay "The Freedom of Worthless and Harmful Speech," citing Epictetus, defined what he terms "civil courage" to require "the willingness to manage one's impressions. . .to try to reduce the shock or outrage or disgust or hatred one feels in encountering certain kinds of expression."

Dalrymple's use of the word "orgy" is equally apt. One gets the sense that wokeism is about nothing so much as the collective outpouring of libidinal energy by the teenagers and 20-somethings who make up the bulk of its ranks.

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QET
on June 26, 2020 at 13:28:57 pm

It is ironic that a psychiatrist would be the focus of Doctor D's analysis. Psychological phenomena drive self-congratulatory moralizing, similar forms of virtue signaling and other significant group dynamics of the current mob behavior. Among the phenomena are a lack of the courage necessary for life, overwhelming cowardice, existential anxiety and impotence, inner emptiness, fear of death and the search (in all the wrong places) for meaning in the face of cosmic insignificance.

These phenomena induce group transference, the attempt of neurotics en masse to gain power and exert control over external circumstances through a "profound rebellion against reality and...stubborn persistence in the ways of immaturity" by projecting (both positive/virtue projection and negative projection in the form of hate and scapegoating) onto a cause or leader their fear of life and by pledging allegiance to that cause or leader. Virtue signaling and scapegoating are both avenues of projection and means of binding the group while enforcing adhesion to its cause.

Freud's "Group Psychology etc.," Hoffer's "The True Believer," Becker's "The Denial of Death" and Arendt's wrongly maligned discussion of the banality of evil provide psychological and political insight as to the nature of the problem, but the intentional distortion and consequential failure of K-16 must be considered the psychological/political cause of the problem.

Since we've not " world enough and time" to resort to curative therapy for millions of neurotics, suppressing the problem is all that really matters now. After ceasing all further tolerance for and suppressing all further lawless outbursts of "stubborn persistence in the ways of immaturity," we can then seek to fix the K-16 cause of the problem, while accepting the loss of two generations of minds irredeemably wasted.

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paladin
on June 26, 2020 at 15:05:52 pm

Yes and yes, although it's not clear to me that suppression is the right course of action, rather than just waiting it out and letting the protests die off naturally as the necessary numbers lose interest (for this to work, though, the demands of all protesters must just be ignored).

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QET
on June 26, 2020 at 19:36:34 pm

"Waiting it out" ignores deterrence and precedent as to future criminality, legal rights harmed or at risk and the community's natural right of self defense.

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paladin
on June 26, 2020 at 15:22:23 pm

Paladin,

Allow me to compliment you on the quality and clarity of your prose. If I may, I would extend your thoughts with the following points:

One of the factors affecting the prevalence of "self-congratulatory moralizing" is that it is cheap. There is little risk in mouthing fashionable views, while ignoring the contradictions that arise when the basis of those views are examined. It costs nothing to affirm the platitudes of the current moment, and consequently it costs nothing to condemn others who question the sufficiency and relevance of such platitudes. It costs nothing to exclude and demonize people who can do nothing for us or to us, thus we have the current anomalous fad of achieving some vaporous and aspirational virtue of inclusion by means of the very real and destructive practice of exclusion. There is a two-fold fallacy involved: one is that if a platitude appeals to a pleasant sentiment it is moral, and secondly, if it is cheap to pander to such sentiments, then no further examination is necessary.

Assumed feelings of moral superiority need not be based on consistency. To take the example cited in Dr. Dalrymple's essay, one can imagine the reaction should one assert that

I am beyond tired of the stigma of racism that is so easy for people to cast onto others. People who oppose affirmative action are human beings. People who oppose unrestricted immigration are human. People who question racial quotas are human. Stigmatizing them because of opinions different from yours is pure prejudice.

Nothing right now entails less risk or cost than accusing someone of racism; in fact the benefits of a false or even capricious accusation outweigh any downside. In effect, a prevalent lack of seriousness surrounding issues of justice and history provides subsidies for those too lazy or too shallow to contend with complex issues. Such subsidies of pseudo-virtue lead to ridiculous outcomes such as removing statues of abolitionists, and confusing wanton destruction of small businesses as "justice." It also lends a fragile and false veneer of legitimacy to such fatuous notions as "silence is violence," and "non-racist is not the same as anti-racist." Making adoption of moral sentiments cheap makes the adoption of un-serious moral sentiments inevitable.

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z9z99
on June 26, 2020 at 18:16:21 pm

I share the perception that cheap and easy "moral sentiments" are the source of social and news media evil in that the measure of their worth is wholly subjective, i.e.(to use your word) "pleasant" to the exponent (and his peer group) and in that their dissemination is without personal cost or risk.

The propensity toward easy (subjective) moral sentiments is a consequence of hyper-individualization, which, ironically, is a dehumanizing process that began with the Protestant Reformation's salvation through grace alone and its corollary devaluation of common-good morality as a prerequisite to salvation. Confessional hyper-individualization incrementally became an article first of secularity and later of political liberty in western Europe and then America, reaching (what was once thought) an apogee in the political/moral standards exemplified by Justice Kennedy's rhetorical flights.

The cost-free dissemination of "cheap and easy moral sentiments" is pretty much a product of corrupt, corrupting social media and inadequate libel laws on matters of public affairs.

The 'cheap and easy" situation is worsened by the human propensity to publicly disparage what one personally disagrees with. Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments notes that we judge the correctness of the opinions of others by determining whether they agree with our own opinions.

The matter is further exacerbated in politics by what appears to be man's inherent conflict of visions, per Thomas Sowell, between conservatives and utopians. Again, A. Smith (presciently channeling Sowell:) points out that the political idealist is so "enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal... that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely... without any regard... to the strong prejudices which may oppose it."

Where there is no regard for a conflicting vision there is ultimately contempt for it. Hence, the dilemma and the ubiquity of "cheap and easy moral sentiments.''

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paladin
on June 28, 2020 at 21:23:56 pm

The observation concerning the religious aspect and a dehumanizing process related to our present turmoil is interesting.

Although G. K. Chesterton never explicitly stated that "When men choose not to believe in God, they do not then believe in nothing, they become capable of believing in anything," this idea is pretty much the precis of the last chapter of his book Heretics. We may wonder if the denigration and decline of religion plays any role in creating an existential vacuum that is filled with substitutes that inevitably decompose into angst. One's attention is drawn to two signs present in the accompanying photograph. One informs us that "All lives won't matter unless black lives matter," while another assures us that, in fact, "black lives matter" seeming to relieve the former concern. But there is a hint of the source of discord in the word "matter." The word supposedly shares the same origin as the word "mother," and developed into the verb meaning "to be of importance or consequence," suggesting that we matter in part because there is significance in our origin It would seem, as a matter of observation, that the question "Why do I (or we) matter?" has been a concern of virtually all religions, and that the answers, while differing, have tended toward optimism. This is in contrast to those purely philosophical musings that lack the courage to be optimistic and end up in nihilism. The answer to the question "do any lives matter?" has a facility to the religious believer that is absent in the religious skeptic, even if the latter believes that "lives matter." Christopher Hitchens, a very astute and articulate atheist acknowledged, and had difficulty explaining (though not criticizing) the ubiquity of religious belief across cultures and eras.

This leads us to wonder what gives us perspective to explain why any lives matter if the religious vantage is denied, and more specifically, what fills the void. Certainly there are non-religious people who can explain their beliefs that lives do in fact matter, and can even muster a defense of the idea that the phrase "black lives matter" is somehow antagonized by the observation that "all lives matter." Yet, these arguments are not internally consistent and are easily hijacked by those who do not much believe, nor care whether any lives matter. Both reason and belief are at a disadvantage against rationalization, because immature and self-centered minds confuse gratification with happiness, and approval with things that actually, well... matter.

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z9z99
on June 29, 2020 at 21:29:12 pm

Well, while everyone assumes knowledge of its radical ideological origins, your interesting inquiry is the first I've read of the moral etymology of the phrase "Black Lives Matter" (which for accuracy as to BLM's actual focus should read "Only Some Black Lives Matter.")

I adhere to the premodern notions that materialism is morally a dead-end which leads inevitably to nihilism, total moral subjectivity and human extermination, that materialism is the deadly consequence of the Enlightenment's unwarranted, unbounded faith in its univocal religion of science, to the erroneous exclusion of revelation as a valid source of knowledge, and that history has demonstrated the Hebrew Bible as expanded by Christian revelation to be the West's only sustainable source of human dignity and safety.

As a Burkean conservative and a devotee of von Hayek, had I not a wit of religious faith, I would nevertheless adhere to the Hebrew-Christian tradition because, revelation aside, it can be considered a morally-spontaneous order which has worked for four thousand years. I would resist changing or undermining let alone banishing it from the public square.

Indeed, I believe that an unofficial establishment of religion in states that so choose, buttressed by complete, unrestricted freedom of religion, is the best hope for rebuilding the rotting moral foundation of America and the only alternative to its accelerating, secular decay in which, eventually, only certain, select lives will matter.

Without God no lives matter. Even Nietzsche figured that out.

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paladin
on June 28, 2020 at 21:30:46 pm

And yes, I have anticipated the arguments regarding persons professing religious motivation who start wars and doing all sorts of stuff that is inconsistent with "all lives matter."

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z9z99
on June 27, 2020 at 03:29:16 am

Did I read this wrong, or did TD equivocate between addicts, who in the first instance injure themselves only, and rapists etc. who are a direct harm to society? In which case, the essay fails logically right there.

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Ashley King
on June 28, 2020 at 10:38:49 am

Drug addicts are a direct harm to society whether that be from criminal behavior, or the damage done to themselves, their communities, their families. Through criminal actions caused by the measures taken to obtain drugs, or the strain on familial relations, they subtract from the greater good.
Most people who see addicts as "harmless" are kept safe from reality as they mainly reside in wealthy, safe neighborhoods where there are no addicts and the consequences or their behavior remain unexposed.

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tim
on June 28, 2020 at 12:52:25 pm

You read it wrong.

And if you believe addicts injure themselves only you either have no experience with addicts or you refuse to see the obvious.

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aelfheld
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on June 26, 2020 at 09:34:58 am

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