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Tension, Apprehension and Dissension

Society and Morals

"Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war" --Julius Caesar, Act 3.

(Disclaimer: I filched this quote from a column by Leonard Pitts, a liberal but articulate and intelligent columnist who I read regularly and with whom I sometimes even agree, at least in part.)

I have been agonizing for some time over what subject(s) to write a post about and find myself transfixed in the headlights of a veritable witches' brew of rancor, accusations, demogogeury, protests, recalls real and threatened, lying campaign ads, riots and now, mass-murder terrorism in that bastion of liberal benevolence, Norway, of all places. I have no idea where to start, partly because this extremism is unprecedented, at least in my long recollection. I do have a strong feeling, though, that all this cacophony is merely symptomatic of a larger problem. So, I'm going to try to address that basic.

Somewhere, we have lost a sense of decorum, of respect and--yes--nobility. Every disagreement becomes a cause for violent response. We can't lose gracefully but must go down in bloody combat. When have you heard someone say, "Why, yes, you're right, Senator."? People fight like rabid dogs over pieces of ideological meat. Even in this blog, I constantly battle to keep the discourse civil, with limited success.

The reason is, I believe, that we, at least some of us, have lost respect for each other as, for the most part, decent human beings with whom we happen to disagree. At the root is a loss of morality and positive values. As an employee of mine once said, "It's all awful!"

Christianity teaches us to "turn the other cheek." This Biblical exhortation has been widely misinterpreted and may be poorly translated from the original Hebrew. A better translation, according to Clark, is: "Do not repel one outrage by another." Meaning, he that does so makes himself precisely what the other is, a wicked person. The Jews always thought that every outrage should be resented; and thus the spirit of hatred and strife was fostered.

Some may disagree, but morality in our society is largely based on Judeo-Christian ethics. Morality is the basis of our values, which control our conduct. Respect for others is a moral precept, as are tolerance and empathy. Present day rancor expresses little if any of these. You liberals out there, what is your opinion of Governor Scott Walker? You conservatives, what do you think of President Barack Obama? Is there any respect, tolerance or empathy in your reaction?

So, what happened to us over the years? Where did decency and love for our fellow man (even those with whom we disagree) go? I believe it went the way of morality. When I was in grade school, we were taught moral principles. We were taught respect for others and for authority. Over the years it trickled away, much like the boiling of the frog. I believe this de-emphasis was all part of a general purging of Judeo-Christian principles from public education. Maybe even the pseudo-scientific religion of Evolution was a factor, in that it is totally incompatible with the Christian philosophy.

Despite the philosophers among us, Humanism is not a substitute for moral structure. Left to ourselves, we are not very nice people. That is why we have, or had, a societal and religious set of rules and standards, some codified into law, to keep us civil and safe. Based on the 60's ethos of "Let it all hang out," much of this structure has gradually eroded, leaving society much the coarser. If we eliminate interpersonal morality, the result is inward-focused selfishness and disregard for others. Tell me that is not the basis of much of what bothers you about our present social structure.

Christianity has no lock on morality. Most major religions, even Islam, espouse moral conduct. This country is largely Christian, at least according to polls, which establishes it as the appropriate source of moral teachings. The Hebrew Yeshiva is equally moralistic. In fact, the sole repository of moral teaching today is the parochial school system. (I include all religious-based schools under the label "parochial".) Unfortunately, these last bastions of gentility, virtue and human ethos unfortunately constitute only a minor part of the public education system.

William J. Bennett wrote a book on education--The De-Valuing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children (1992)--wherein he warned that the elimination of morality education in our schools would result in the creation of a generation of monsters. That's a bit excessive, but we have seen an alarming rise in juvenile lawlessness and inappropriate behavior over the past 20 years. Without morals, conduct becomes driven by self-gratification and anger.

 Much of our public education system has descended into chaos itself, reaping the whirlwind of the elimination of morals, respect and self-discipline from the curriculum. Unguided self-expression is not a useful tool for function in society or in the classroom. I don't advocate the teaching of religion in the public schools, but ethics and morality instruction based on Judeo-Christian principles certainly could be structured acceptably, even for the ACLU. I'm not holding my breath.

Until we begin again to respect each other and teach our children to sympathize, empathize and appreciate our fellow man, not just in high-sounding rhetoric or soup-kitchen volunteerism but in real interpersonal relations--yes even with politics--the dogs of war will feed ever more ravenously and our society is in real danger of descending into chaos. Bennett's prediction may yet be realized.

It need not be.

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