Moral vs. Pragmatic Arguments
Last week I finished reading an amazing SF novel, Alanya to Alanya, by the brilliant L. Timmel Duchamp. If you’re interested in feminist science fiction, dystopias, and thought experiments on social change, you should definitely pick it up.
In the afterword, the author wrote something that caught my attention:
“…I’m chilled and sobered by the reflection that just as it never occurs to Kay Zeldin to argue to Sedgewick, Torricelli, and Vale that their tactics are just plain morally wrong–for her arguments with them are always pragmatic, rather than ethical–so today, in the US, questions of morality seldom enter into discussions of social, economic, and political policies.”
It reminded me of something Nora and I talk about every now and then–that when exposing and debating about racism, we often find ourselves making pragmatic arguments instead of moral ones. While we both find this to be annoying, we recognize that this is often the only way to reach certain folks.
Still, it chafes. Because the bottom line is that racism, sexism, prejudice, whathaveyou, are just plain wrong. It’s morally wrong. Yet discussions inevitably turn to the pragmatic. I suppose that’s because morality is so fluid. While I believe that all people have morals, whether they are religious or not, not all morals are the same. So going with a pragmatic argument is like going for the objective instead of the subjective. But then even pragmatic arguments can be subjective.
So let’s start from the moral viewpoint, shall we? Racism, sexism, prejudice, are wrong. They’re bad. Supposedly, most people in our society agree that this is true. You be hard pressed to find anyone who will say the opposite in public. Yet even those who don’t secretly disagree don’t understand this fully, I think. Because when you talk to them, they’ll say lynching and separate lunch counters is definitely wrong, but only having one black person on a television show set in Southern California is just a matter of casting or lack of actors or or or… you see? The sense of wrong is explained away.
It’s all about identifying racism as racism (or sexism as, homophobia as, etc.) and not just an unfortunate way some people think or act. It’s about getting people out of the mindset of “It’s just a ______.” Because for non-privileged people, it’s never just anything, is it. It affects us. Sometimes harshly. Once you push aside that mindset, it’s another step toward getting to the moral core of it all.
But how do you get people entrenched in their privilege to take that step? Thus far, I’ve used pragmatic arguments. But while those are usually good and objective, they don’t go deep enough. Moral arguments, forcing people to be conscious of right and wrong, that is where the key lies, I think. How, though?