Toward a Moral Catharsis

While listening to NPR’s Morning Edition this morning, my husband (hereafter referred to as “JT”) and I heard a piece about same-sex marriage legistlation in NY state. NPR played a clip from a speech Republican Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward gave in 2007: “I knew when my son was very young that he was different… I knew that I had to say something and I just told the story of my family and why I believe with all my heart that it’s a civil rights issue…”

This prompted a lively (read: caffeine-fueled) discussion centering around morality, courage, and changing one’s mind.  JT opened by expressing his unease at people who come at a certain position because of personal experience, rather than because the position is philosophically correct.  Our go-to example of this is the pro-war parent who becomes a pacifist when their child is injured or killed in combat.

Our ensuing dialogue increasingly focused not just on the idea of changing one’s moral stance, but more specifically on how one changed one’s stance.  It is one thing to be the person who has rationally and emotionally considered their own as well as others’ viewpoints, and who has emerged with a balanced and empathetic viewpoint.  It is quite another to be the person who has changed one’s mind due to new information or personal experience.  The narrative this changed person tells about their change says a lot about something larger — a meta-morality, perhaps.

Obviously, there’s no shortage of voices in our culture calling for people to admit when they’ve been wrong.  And it has been my experience that in the last few years those calls are being heeded more and more, possibly as a backlash to the ironclad tone set by Bush during his presidency.  Apparently, our culture is beginning to get over the need for leaders who are steadfastly unwavering in their views.

However merely saying, “I’ve changed my mind” — without further explanation — is curiously unsatisfying.  It’s nearly as dissatisfying, in fact, as when no change takes place at all, as it glosses over the complexity of the transformation.  Merely switching sides appears self-serving and ultimately erodes one’s credibility.  More importantly, it doesn’t invite others to grapple with the issue as well.

What does feel satisfying is the complete narrative:  “Here’s what I thought before and why I thought it.  Then this and this and this happened and I realized how narrow my view had been.  I wish I had been able to see outside of my narrow view in the absence of personal experience.  I hope that others who hold my previous view might empathize with my experience and change their minds too.”

How much more courageous — and humble — does that sound?

A similar act of courage in our current cultural climate is admitting that you just don’t know, and that not knowing doesn’t necessarily diminish your overall authority.  One striking example of this happened recently at the first 2012 GOP debate. When asked about foreign policy, Herman Cain stated basically that he doesn’t have enough information to have a position.  He assumes that the President has access to classified information and expert opinions that he currently doesn’t, and in the absence of that information, he can’t make any substantive claims about foreign policy.

How different would President Obama’s shifts away from his campaign rhetoric appear if he were to be upfront about what made him change tack?

There is something deeply cathartic about admissions like these.  Something, dare I say it, culturally mature.  It gives me some hope that we are starting to be able to handle more complexity and ambiguity in our public discourse than has heretofore seemed possible.  And who knows — maybe the more this discourse invites everyone to change, the easier changing will become.

Toward a Moral Catharsis

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