Questions of personal morality and responsibility have loomed large in my writing over the past couple of years. This largely came about because circumstances conspired to puncture my previously binary (and naïve) notion that the world was divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people; instead, I realised, almost everyone believes themselves to be ‘good’ and casts others as the ‘bad’. We rationalise and excuse our actions while being swift to judgement when we believe that others have fallen short. We flatter ourselves that we wouldn’t do ‘bad’ things without stopping to ask ourselves not only what drives people to ‘evil’ but even what the term actually means. Both the book Alone in Berlin and the film Good rested on the truth that morality is not the obvious and grand battle which it is commonly presented as but rather a question of quotidian decisions, actions and words. Few of us are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in any sense other than how we exist on a daily basis. Doing good, of course, seems to easier than ever – signing e-petitions, attending marches, making the right noises about poverty and hunger. We think of badness as the converse of this – actively doing unpleasant things on a personal level – but for the most part it’s really not this. It’s instead taking the path of least resistance. Avoiding the awkward confrontations, discussions and perceptions of being ‘too difficult/serious/self-righteous’ which inevitably follow when morality is raised. If conversations stray into territories where people start to espouse views which are sexist or racist or otherwise offensive and/or ignorant, the common response is to regret that we ever allowed the chat to go there rather than to seriously discuss/challenge. After the attacks in Woolwich led to an outpouring of idiocy on social media, for example, many people were broadcasting that they had deleted offenders from their Facebooks etc. An understandable response but one that doesn’t really begin to challenge the attitudes on display (even more difficult of course is to consider your own response and where it comes from).
Keeping quiet when something you disagree with happens at work is another example, telling yourself that you’re only paying the bills or whichever other rationale that allows you to function. It’s only recently that I’ve come to realise that this is almost certainly the mind set of people who do what seem to be unequivocally ‘bad’ jobs such as those who work in the arms trade – they’re making a living, doing a job, hell – maybe even doing a good thing. In big financial organisations involved in activities ranging from tax avoidance to money-laundering to third world exploitation, employees are encouraged to view their activities as morally neutral and instead ‘do good’ through Corporate Social Responsibility programmes which toss a desultory amount at charities and such. Questioning the ‘social responsibility’ of the actual work is beyond the pale. Even in ostensibly ‘good’ organisations like charities and NGOs we unquestioningly (and often ostentatiously) assume that we are doing great things and fixate on the social capital generated for us rather than thinking about what we’re actually achieving. We aren’t confronted by the effects in any real sense and so it’s easy to push them out of mind.
Perhaps this is why so many people do all they can to avoid thinking about the world in any meaningful sense, instead focussing on popular culture and the immediate social circle. Once you start to think of the world not as something out there but as something which you are a part of and have some power over, it’s difficult not to start thinking about these issues of morality and responsibility – and inevitably find ourselves wanting. That’s a continuing process rather than the end of the world but it can seem so terrifying that we run away from that power for our entire lives. Who knows what the colleagues of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have told themselves – undoubtedly some of the same rhetoric which we’ve heard wheeled out in opposition to them since they took their actions, contrasting their own ‘mature’ silence and complicity with the crazed, irresponsible, dangerous actions of the whistle-blowers. Rationalise, rationalise, don’t rock the boat and be a ‘good person’. In broader terms the urge is to look away. Why think about what is happening to people exposing our government’s wrong-doings when we can talk about Mad Men or Game of Thrones or chastise Chris Brown or squee because Hillary Clinton, one of the most powerful members of the government which is persecuting Manning and was exposed by Snowden, has joined Twitter with a ‘sassy’ bio? There’s little we can do about this stuff, after all – it’s out there rather than being a part of our daily lives. Thus divested of our moral responsibility we sign another petition and congratulate ourselves on not being one of the bad people – the homophobic, religion, ranting people, the ones who kill people, the ones who have power. They are over there and we are here and as long as we can stay as untainted as possible, we’re pretty good people. As I’ve written before, one of the most powerful aspects of Manning’s (and now Snowden’s) actions is that it shames those of us who think of ourselves as good while indulging in equivocation after equivocation. They highlight the Fisher Price morality of the ‘goodies’ who applaud Hillary and Obama internet memes while taking little interest in what they actually do or, worse, slavishly adapting their principles to suit. This illuminating poll reveals that many Democrats who previously thought that NSA surveillance was unacceptable (implicitly because it was associated with Republicans) support it now that their own ‘team’ has been caught up in it. In Britain, meanwhile, so-called ‘libertarians’ who attacked Labour with righteous fury for their ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear’ rhetoric declared themselves at ease with the Tories’ deployment of the exact same line.
This is where the divestment of moral responsibility gets you. You become an amorphous cloud, adjusting to whatever position best enables you to keep believing that you’re ‘a good person’ while avoiding facing the uncomfortable and unpleasant truths which our own power in the world confronts us with. Manning and Snowden, in taking decisive action which put themselves at risk, blow this wide open and confront us with our own agency in the world. An agency which most of us suppress each and every day. There have been many on social media asking that we stand with Snowden just as we should stand with Manning. Looking at our own lives, our own agency, seems just one of the apt ways in which we can do this.