Nancy LeTourneau of the Political Animal Blog recently wrote a provocative article on the issue of morality in a pluralistic society. The gist of her argument is that conservative Christians, by making their deal with the devil, i.e. Donald Trump, have not only abrogated their claim to superior morality, but opened the door to a discussion of morality that is more in harmony with liberal pluralistic values. LeTourneau implicitly suggests the existence of a gap between the moral universe inhabited by liberals and that of conservatives. It strikes me that this gap is both more substantive and coarser than LeTourneau in her effort to be fair, suggests.
The difference between the two points of view was clear when the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) revoked an invitation for Breitbart provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos, to speak at their annual meeting after tapes surfaced in which he seemed to speak approvingly of pedophilia. Just a few weeks earlier conservatives professed to be horrified when he was similarly disinvited to speak by UC Berkeley. The difference? The Berkeley protestors whose actions precipitated the cancellation of Yiannopoulos talk were disturbed by his “free” exercise of “hate speech, racism, misogyny and transphobia.” CPAC couldn’t handle Yiannopoulos speaking “freely” about sexual practices that they consider especially taboo.
Time and again, it seems that the only behavior that can get conservative morality roiling is sexual. Here in Missouri we have a legislature that is all but openly selling influence when they’re not busy slurping the swill ladled out by lobbyists. But it took a sex scandal – legislators hustling interns – to provoke a backlash and, temporarily at least, lend some force to discussions about the need for ethical oversight. The results were rules governing interns (including a widely ridiculed proposal to keep those young sluts from dressing provocatively – our state legislators, it seems, shouldn’t be expected to resist temptation all on their own), and a few limp efforts to address legislative corruption.
Get the picture? If it involves sex, conservatives get worried about morality. Bullying, vicious slurs directed toward groups that conservatives view askance, along with financial and political corruption, not so much.
It’s no accident that conservative and ostentatiously Christian Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO4) objected to the Women’s march as much because of the signs, which she characterized as “very pornographic,”as anything else. I saw lots of signs about the ACA, Social Security and the full range of economic justice issues. To be fair, I also saw signs that would have shocked my very sedate grandmother. Words like “uterus” and Hartzler’s avowed president, Donald Trump’s, favorite, “pussy,” were visible, along with statements that the organs in question were the property of the women holding the signs, and, consequently, not subject to the control of the patriarchs.
Hartzler had much less to say about the issues that brought all those the men, women and children with the “pornographic” signs out. She doesn’t, for example, give a tinker’s you-know-what about healthcare, an issue that motivated many of the marchers – that’s why she’s voted some fifty or sixty times to repeal the ACA – but she’s worried that people who do care about it showed their concern with what she believes to be pornographic signs. It’s all about sex with these folks.
Even the issue that represents one of the most persistent areas of moral disagreement between conservatives and progressives/liberals, abortion, hinges on differences between the way the two camps respond to female sexual behavior. Despite the hysterical evocation of “baby-killilng” and silly labels like “pre-born,” the relationship between abortion and the fear of unfettered female sexuality is, as Sara Erdreich, argues obvious when one considers the prevalence of arguments about whether or not victims of rape or incest “deserve” to get an abortion, but women whose sexual behavior is voluntary don’t. And don’t get me started on Catholicism, female sexuality, and abortion.
Progressives are frequently advised to frame issues in moral terms if we want them to have wide resonance. However, if our concept of what is morally most important differs so radically from the “other” guy, it leaves us with one simple question: How do we talk about the full spectrum of moral issues – which are often life and death issues – with people whose concept of what can be considered moral or immoral seems to be so limited?