What Triggers Your Moral Ire? 6/15
sense of moral entitlement and suck-up culture
Parts of this series were inspired by Richard Hanania’s self-reflection on his moral instincts. After reading that piece, I thought about my moral instincts. … I really only identify two: hatred of fakers and hatred of impulsiveness. Both of these are quite powerful at predicting my political stances. The former drives my disdain for midwits, bureaucracies, self-censorship, Trump, identity politics, and academia. The latter drives my disdain for Trump, identity politics, “the current thing”, anti-vaxxers, nativists, safetyism, populism, social media, narrative journalism, legacy media in general, and any of the “think of the children” people.
So is this a game? Instead of “list five people who influenced you” or “tell me what tabs are open on your web browser,” it’s “what triggers your moral ire?”
OK, I’ll play. My approach to playing the game is to think of specific examples that irritate me, and then try to generalize.
One example is wealthy career politicians. If you spent your whole life in “public service,” then how do you end up living like an investment banker?
Another example is Lia Thomas. If you want to get a sex change, fine. But give up your swimming career.
Speaking of trans people, I was once at a social event meeting someone who writes on philosophical and religious issues. I decided to read his/her autobiography. It turns out that he/she totally alienated what had been his family, including a wife and several children. The mention of this alienated family in the autobiography was emotionally flat, with no expression of sadness or regret.
Speaking of people who left a family behind, I think of a famous writer. I don’t know him myself, and I have heard that the story is complicated. But it’s hard for me now to listen to him tell the rest of us how to live.
The theme that unites these examples in my mind is sense of moral entitlement. People taking such pride in their public roles that they can act shamelessly otherwise. Build Large Mansions. Take a private jet to a conference on climate change. When I see one of those “we believe” signs on someone’s lawn, I can’t help wondering what offenses the occupants now feel licensed to commit.
For the other theme, my first example is a center-left journalist who wrote an article in a national magazine bashing the principal at our local high school. The principal, a black woman, took a small amount of the budget away from a teacher’s pet program that was popular with a segment of white parents.
My view was that both the principal and the teacher were investing too much ego in the situation. But the column in the national magazine, which one of the parents made sure everyone in the neighborhood was aware of, was really hurtful to the principal. And she had no way to fight back. I think of the journalist as a coward. The incident resulted in tense, racially divisive meetings among parents, and the journalist never showed up at any of them.
On a similar note, Paul Krugman once altered a quote to make me sound racist. He never issued any sort of correction, retraction, or apology.
At the time, I was even lesser known than I am today (and I barely have 2000 subscribers, paid and unpaid), and he was probably even more significant than he is today. I had no effective way of fighting back. And I think he did what he did because he knew I was relatively helpless. Like the journalist who used a national column to bash an unknown school principal on an obscure local issue, Krugman punches down, not up.
As far as I know, Paul Krugman never debated Milton Friedman while Friedman was alive. But soon after Friedman died, Krugman published an article claiming that Friedman was dishonest.
I see Krugman as a product of the culture of academic economics in the 1980s. It was what I would now call a suck-up culture. If you wanted to succeed, you had to suck up to leading figures in the field. And you could punch down with impunity. In fact, punching down might even be rewarded, as long as the leading figures agreed that the weaker person deserved the beating.
I give Robert Solow a lot of credit for not going along with sucking up or punching down. He empathized with insecure graduate students. And he did not hesitate to criticize leading figures who he thought were wrong. But Solow was out of step with the rest of the profession, both in substance (he dismissed the “rational expectations revolution”) and in not being a suck-up.
Leaving economics aside, I could have used a more recent example, from a dinner party at a neighbor’s house a few years ago. Of the eight people at the table, one, a Senior Law Professor, apparently sized up the party and decided that there were two other people relevant to his world. He proceeded to dominate the conversation, telling stories about people that only the three of them knew. The other two made appropriate suck-up remarks along the way. I made a couple of efforts to change the topic and get other people involved in the conversation, but he would not let those get off the ground. He was getting too much satisfaction out of being sucked up to.
I am afraid that there is a lot of suck-up culture in academia. At an academic conference, chances are you will see many professors who flatter anyone they think can help them and ignore everyone else.
In a way, suck-up culture prepares the soil for cancel culture. Once it becomes clear that getting ahead involves knowing who to flatter and who to denounce, the game is bound to get out of hand.
Suck-up culture has the potential to emerge in any large organization. In government agencies and in non-profits, everyone feels like they have something to gain by playing the suck-up game.
In profit-seeking firms, top management will be more successful if they prefer facts to flattery. A business needs shared norms, so you cannot be as misanthropic as I suspect a lot of you are (I get the audience I deserve). But in a well-run business your performance will count for more than someone else’s sucking up.
I could never be happy ensconced in a suck-up culture. But most people will have to learn to live with it for at least part of their careers.
I suspect suck-up culture is reinforced by what I call the scholastic track. Most of the people running things in the developed world are doing so because they mastered navigating the scholastic track. Mastering the scholastic track depends largely on conformity, deference, rote learning, and lots of sucking up. Get good marks from teacher in primary school to get into a good secondary school, then a good college, then a good post-grad program, then a good company/nonprofit/government agency. Critical thinking and real creativity do more harm than good on this track. A skilled navigator of the scholastic track knows that when teacher asks who ended the Great Depression, you don't respond with "that's a stupid question," you say, like a good little lamb, "Franklin D. Roosevelt, and, my, don't you look lovely today."
Because we travel the scholastic track during our formative years, it stands to reason that some degree of irreversible conditioning is taking place. If formal education is your primary responsibility during the first 2.5 decades of your life, and success in formal education depends on making your teachers happy via a mixture of regurgitating received knowledge, obedience, and sucking up, then you can imagine how the same understanding of success persists for the rest of your life. Teacher becomes professor becomes boss becomes client. No matter your age, no matter your station, chances are there is someone above you in the food chain, and sucking up to that person will always be a solid strategy for continued success. We'll always have a suck-up culture to endure so long as we continue to select for skillful navigators of the scholastic track when it come to choosing who gets to run things.
I reserve my moral outrage for my own former opinions. When I look back at some of the views I once held regarding war, race, feminism, etc., and contemplate some of the views I currently hold on a variety of subjects, supported only by my own biases, I am ashamed.