Morality vs moralising in SA

South Africa needs to come up with solutions to the country’s biggest issues, not express ‘horror’ and ‘outrage’ at every opportunity and at the expense of problem-solving.

If you really care about a problem, you discuss it. If you don’t, you moralise about it. Which tells us much about South Africa’s national debate.

When it is not arguing about who gets what, the debate – in which at most one-third of the country takes part – likes to express “alarm”, “horror” or “outrage” at “heinous” acts. This creates the illusion that it is seriously concerned about them. In reality, it shows precisely the opposite.

The national debate is fond of moralising, which is very different to morality. To be moral is to hold yourself or your group to standards of behaviour and to acknowledge when you or that to which you belong does not live up to them. To moralise is to piously condemn others, triggering a warm and fuzzy feeling and a sense of superiority. Morality improves behaviour, moralising leaves it unchanged or makes it worse.

At best, moralising is an admission that you have no solution to a problem. At worst, it ducks responsibility by blaming others for a problem you might help to fix. 

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Moralising has been the chosen mode of dealing with three key current issues: Covid-19, corruption and violence against women. On the surface, politicians, the media, public figures and everyone else in the debate are deeply concerned about these questions because they raise them repeatedly and loudly. A closer look shows that they are, mostly, engaged in a ritual in which solving the problem is not a priority.

Government politicians, limelight-loving scientists and just about anyone else who comments on Covid-19 sees the fight against the pandemic purely as a problem of behaviour, that of other people and usually, by implication, that of people in townships and shack settlements. It is about if people wash their hands, keep their distance and wear masks. It is not at all about the quality of scientific advice or the efficiency of testing and tracing or the failure to ensure that people have enough money to protect themselves without starving. 

And so, it is about them, not us.

Corruption is even more fertile ground for moralising. Once again it is reduced to a question of other people’s choices. The debate is, in the main, largely a competition to decide who can use the most words of condemnation to denounce the behaviour of others. It is also, from time to time, an argument about whose corruption is the worst. 

‘Normal’ behaviour

What is noticeably absent is a serious discussion of how to fix it, or an acknowledgement that those who condemn it may contribute to the problem. The only solution on offer, advocated repeatedly in tones of outrage, shock and horror, is that some politicians should go to jail – you know someone is not to be taken seriously if they use the phrase “orange overalls” or its equivalents – or lose their jobs. While both are appropriate, neither even tries to get to grips with why people abuse power in this way and what could be done to ensure that they don’t. 

A recent column by economist Neva Makgetla spelling out a detailed strategy for dealing with the problem has been ignored, presumably because it might cause the usual talking heads to think about the problem rather than signalling how much they care.

A search for solutions might also shine a light on how much “normal” behaviour in society makes corruption more likely. These include the constant messages stressing that material success is the path to respect and the fact that forms of corruption are deeply embedded in economic life in the country, which may be why a company found to have grossly overcharged for face masks during a pandemic attracts little attention. The company is one of “us”, not the “them” about whom we moralise.

The problem most likely to be greeted with moralising is violence against women. This does not apply to everyone in the debate. The women who express terror at the prospect of falling victim to violence are expressing a real and justifiable emotion. But it does apply to just about all the men in the debate.

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There is an odd contradiction in the way the debate handles this issue. On the one hand, it is called gender-based violence, which reduces it to a technical problem, a bit like calling armed robbery property-based violence. On the other, the debate’s response shows virtually no interest in solutions, technical or otherwise. Instead, the president, senior politicians and a range of middle-class men repeat endlessly the opinion that brutalising more than half the human race is not acceptable behaviour. Some even organise demonstrations to denounce it.

What is absent from these expressions of horror are credible government plans to tackle the violence, clear demands from the moralisers for specific action or public debate on which measures would work best. This makes the expressions of concern almost absurd as, in the absence of concrete plans, they seem to assume that men who brutalise women will stop if they are told that they are behaving badly, which is as likely as people abandoning corruption because they are told it is not nice.

Finger pointing

It is not as if there are no concrete solutions. Specialists and researchers can offer well thought out ideas on how we can protect victims and, more importantly, reduce their number. But these are usually ignored in the rush to declare attacks on women a “scourge” or “pandemic”. The uncomfortable impression is created that the purpose is not to solve the problem but to signal again that “we” behave better than “them”, even if “we” hold attitudes towards women that imply subtly that they are lesser beings.

Moralising is, in effect, finger pointing. It is used to escape responsibility and blame others. The finger is never pointed inward, at our own behaviour, only outward at the actions of others. While some may engage in it because they really don’t know what else to say, it is a handy tool for those who know they are forced to take a problem seriously but would prefer not to take any responsibility for fixing it or admitting their part in it.

Not only does moralising leave problems unsolved, it can also add to them when it is used to reinforce prejudices about others. 

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Covid-19 moralising implies that people living in poverty don’t know how to look after themselves. That on corruption may imply that some races or ethnic groups or classes are more honest than others. And that on violence against women may lay the blame on people in shack settlements who get caught rather than those in suburbs who don’t leave fingerprints. 

None of this means we should avoid moral judgements on those who can protect those around them from a virus but don’t, or those who take public money or visit violence on women. But we must give serious thought to ways of fixing the problem and, most importantly, be willing to look at how the behaviour of those of us who have power, including ourselves, shapes that of those who don’t. If we do not, the words those with a voice use to condemn others says more about their desire to avoid responsibility than their interest in solving the problem. 

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