Commentary: The most indecent of times

We have arrived at 'a moment defined by a struggle to define the national character,' philosophy faculty member writes

Today's America is, for many, an indecent place.

Muslim Americans are reminded without pause that their heritage of worship is diabolical and a threat to lives everywhere. Women witness a culture in which sexual misconduct and assault are by their very nature nearly impossible because the word of men is more potent than the experience and memories of women. Members of the LGTBQ community continue to struggle with the unjustifiable demand to justify who they love or their choice of embodied gender. Black and brown Americans have watched the highest reaches of American governance evolve into a haven for white supremacists and their apologists. There is nothing decent in any of this.

We often are mired in describing our politics in partisan terms, but our current moment has zoomed past partisanship to something else altogether.

I have chosen the language of decency for a particular reason. We often are mired in describing our politics in partisan terms, but our current moment has zoomed past partisanship to something else altogether. As I see it, we are witnessing a moment that happens in a nation once every 50 to 100 years. It is a moment defined by a struggle to define the national character.

In the years between such moments, we spend our time as boosters for particular political party platforms that, ultimately, differentiate themselves on spending some more money there rather than here, acting more bellicose now rather than later, and so on. But there comes a moment when these differences are eclipsed by crises of definition and, often, socio-cultural retrenchment. One need not be a Hegelian to accept some broad notion of the movement of history. All one need to accept is that politics are the expression of our collective hopes and fears. And when the fears of a substantial portion of the population gain an electoral victory and, subsequently, a captured audience, policies become subordinated to narrative and ambition. And this is what decency has got do with it.

The narrative that is clearly on display is that America has become a less manly place, a less culturally pure place on account of its unstoppable diversity. And as a result, it is less American. The ambition has been to, well, make America great again. But when a nation's greatness depends entirely on the suppression of a great many lives only because they fail to conform to an irrational narrative, what can be the result? Indecency.

Where morality writ large represents a system of non-negotiable demands and obligations on how to live well and respect others' right to live, decency is a lower level subsidiary idea—it represents the injunction to merely act humanely towards others. It does not require that we endorse, accept, or even assist in anyone else's way of life. But our nation, buckling under a crisis of definition dominated by the fear of a minority, is currently seeing the tragic effects of indecency: An NFL player called a "son of a bitch" for protesting extrajudicial killings by police nationally; transgender service members told their desire to reassign their gender undermines their patriotism; Muslims here and everywhere told they are not welcome in America; women told that when a man wants to grab them by the genitals, that criminal character flaw is insufficient for disqualification from the highest office in the land.

As grim as this all sounds, there is hope. A majority of Americans did not sign up for our current political catastrophe. Acts of courage of all those committed to decency can win the day for a more human way of American life. Yet we should not be sanguine on this point. Even if the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, it is up to us to pull it closer to us when our way of life—a decent existence—faces some of its most dire threats in the last century.​

Chris Lebron is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics.

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