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Jewish World Review May 16, 2002 / 5 Sivan, 5762

Dennis Byrne

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Consumer Reports

Why is 'morality' a dirty word? | Truth is not only that which awaits discovery, but also that which was once known but is now threatened by forget-fulness.

Who would be so silly, by today's standards, to assert that not only does truth exist, that it is knowable, and that we've long known it? Certainly not anyone of influence in today's pop culture, which insists that we cannot have public discussions about morality. It's as if it is the last taboo. Even when it comes to something as clearly a moral issue as the sexual abuse of children. Or as today's morally cleansed society is beginning to call it, child-adult sex. Some scholars say they prefer that term because it is "morally neutral" and describes behavior "non-judgmentally."

For those interested, I've led this column with a quote from Robert Fong's essay in the book "Finding G-d at Harvard: Spiritual Journeys of Thinking Christians." A scholar himself, Fong doesn't share the au courant doctrine that truth and morality are matters of personal opinion, no more a matter of eternal truth than selecting a car's color. The book, edited by Kelly Monroe, asks of some of the brightest minds connected with Harvard if finding G-d means abandoning your intellect. They say it doesn't, but that's another story.

The point here is that it seems that we can't even talk about adults sexually abusing children or adolescents without excusing ourselves for sounding like we're talking about morality. I saw it again last week, when a segment of a local Chicago TV show was devoted to the subject, centering on allegations that R&B star R. Kelly had committed statutory rape. The guy faces three civil lawsuits by women who said he preyed on them sexually when they were minors. So here comes some University of Chicago professor whose research supposedly had demonstrated that the impact of child sex abuse was not always bad on the child. He found himself in the middle of three women panelists who disagreed mightily with him. I thought I even saw some jaws drop.

Good for them, I thought. Until one said that aside from questions of morality, statutory rape (meaning sex between a minor and an adult, consensual or not) had indeed produced bad things, including children having children, poverty, alienation and sexually transmitted diseases. Why, I wondered, do we have to discuss this topic as if morality is a side issue? Why do people who argue from a moral position have to surrender it precisely because it is the moral position? Why must we await non-judgmental judgments by "empirical" research before concluding that such behavior is immoral in principle?

Morality is the central issue, whether it is child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church or elsewhere. It overrides every legal, institutional, academic or other question. It is precisely a moral question because of the bad things that it does--such as children having children. What is morality other than judging an act by its consequences on yourself, people around you and your community?

Instead, we avoid a public discussion of morality as if to say, "Excuse me, but I really don't want to introduce my own moral beliefs into this discussion. Instead, let me turn to sociology, psychology, journalism and the legal system so we can have an acceptable discussion."

Maybe because some people read the U.S. Constitution as outlawing public prayer in public schools, some people believe that it also outlaws the discussion of morality in public places--because morality is incorrectly equated with organized religion. Maybe because the public climate has become so poisoned by a near neurotic effort to avoid "offense" few of us wish to be branded with the high sin of "imposing our morality" on others.

We are a diverse nation founded on respect for others' beliefs, religious or otherwise. But that principle has become subverted by this hell-bent determination to avoid discussion of the moral aspects of conduct. When you think of it, this avoidance makes no sense, because we are a nation operating on such concepts as justice and equality--concepts that are fundamentally moral in nature.

So when I hear people who are fighting for what is the moral position eschew their own morality, I can only groan and wonder where it all will lead. If we can't proclaim our moral convictions about adults prying on children sexually, then we certainly can't make moral judgments about companies that manufacture tobacco, expose children to violent entertainment or pollute the environment.

JWR contributor Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer and public affairs consultant. Comment by clicking here.

05/07/02: Why turn a blind eye to promising alternatives to human cloning?
04/16/02: Callous parents deaf to calls of common sense
02/15/02: When caring becomes sinister
01/25/02: The unreliable crystal balls of analysts
01/17/02: The curse of 'do-something' pols
01/09/02: Political moderation is for the indifferent, uninformed or undecided

© 2002, Dennis Byrne