Americans today hold each other to high moral standards in our public discourse, and often for good reasons. But this has come with a unique problem: moral double standards. We’ve developed this tendency to flunk each other for scoring 99 out of 100 on the morality test, but grade some of the worst actors of our time on a curve. It may seem trivial at face value, but it presents big challenges to human freedoms, progress, and arguably even our security.
Recently, OAF Nation published a satire piece on Facebook which celebrated a female Silver Star recipient’s actions in combat. Admittedly, it was done in our signature profanity and was subsequently flagged for hate speech – most likely because of jokes about Iraqi insurgents engaging in bestiality. In all fairness to Facebook, bestiality is a common trope in bigoted rhetoric targeting Muslims. But it was clear who we were making fun of in the post: men who likely aligned with ISIS and showed that through violence.
That said, here’s where we take issue: at the end of the day, Facebook removed a post recognizing a female soldier’s courage and likely did so in defense of terrorists.
Paradoxical situations show up all the time in our society because of moral double standards. We find an example of this with Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who just announced her candidacy for President. Gillibrand has commendably proposed legislation to combat Military Sexual Trauma, a problem which has bedeviled (mainly) women in the military. However, when it came to foreign policy, Gillibrand had a very different approach. Despite “Mad Dog” Mattis’ revered leadership in a war against jihadists (who are not known for respecting women) and offering benign answers to her questions on gender, Gillibrand was the only U.S. Senator to oppose granting his waiver to become SECDEF because he didn’t meet her impossible standards. Looking back, we can say there are plenty of women in former ISIS-occupied territories who are fortunate that nobody else in the Senate shared her stance. That is the irony of moral double standards.
It seems a basic tenant of logical reasoning is being eroded: degrees of differentiation. A somewhat recent example of this came up in the immediate aftermath of the coalition bombing of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons production facilities. A position many seemed to default to was that the U.S. had no business in mounting the air raid while it “poisoned” its own citizens at Standing Rock and Flint, Michigan through poor water regulation standards. You might recall seeing memes of people being “thankful” Syria didn’t choose to bomb us instead. Even our friend Senator Gillibrand, hypersensitive to the slightest misstep by the U.S., was quick to jerk the military’s collar, despite appalling footage of civilians (including children) suffocating from Sarin gas.
While it makes for good zingers, this flawed logic often gives menacing figures a pass. For example, holocaust deniers often bring up the U.S. internment of Japanese Americans during WWII and (falsely) frame it as a moral equivalent to the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. While both were shameful chapters of each nations’ respective histories, it is an attempt to put the obviously worse of the two events on the same ethical footing as the other, thus creating a smokescreen around an otherwise morally agreed-upon issue. People making these comparisons likely don’t have the same intentions as Holocaust deniers, but the Assad regime is probably nonetheless grateful to have people deflecting criticism of their actions through morally dubious relativism.
Moral double standards offer little reassurance to people living under the knives of authoritarian and totalitarian powers. Bringing up the U.S.’ past imperialist policies doesn’t provide a solution for the mother trying to feed her starving children in Venezuela right now. Plus, you just sound like a pretentious dick if you do. The irony is that an American public poised to (rightly) stand up for its own downtrodden also carelessly enables foreign oppressors who have far more odious intentions. While Americans (namely President Trump and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is hinting at a Presidential run) applaud these foreign policy curbs, news of a U.S. withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan comes as grim tidings for large swaths of the global population. Persecutors of women, homosexuals, and “apostates” in those areas are likely to pick up where they left off after we leave. Meanwhile, predators in other places could feel safe enough to pull their knives out, as we saw with the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia immediately after the U.S. withdrew troops from Somalia in the early 1990s.
As long as international attention is directed elsewhere, miscreants will stay empowered to keep acting like dicks. Recently, while the American public turned its attention inward to a video depicting a teenager apparently smirking in a MAGA hat, the Chinese government continued its detention of Uighur Muslims in political reeducation camps. The Russian government also continued its backing of an alleged génocidaire in Africa and warned the U.S. to back off from opposing Venezuela’s crumbling authoritarian regime. It probably hasn’t helped that President Trump implied on national television that the U.S. is not “so innocent” itself and has “a lot of killers” of its own after a reporter called Putin a killer. It’s also troubling to see that many can be counted on to reliably scramble to defend the President’s reputation the moment it becomes politically necessary, even if it means instantaneously shape-shifting into peaceniks on the topics of barbaric actors such as ISIS, North Korea or even Russia’s proliferation of cyber warfare.
This brings us to perhaps the most troubling part of all this: being masochists around sadists. U.S. foreign policy is often painted (mainly by progressives and isolationists) as this caricature of rapacious neocolonialism and endless war like something you’d see in a System of a Down music video. The trouble is that while the caricature of U.S. policy is built on half-truths, it is absolutely applicable to bad actors in real life. And there seems to be a disregard for what they would do in response to us withdrawing from the world (to spare it from our sins as the moral purists would have it.) The response would likely be filling the power vacuum with something categorically worse; more annexations, repression, exploitation, and definitely no safe space for criticism. People complain about how expensive our proactive role in global affairs can be, but it costs much more blood and treasure to deal with someone when they show up to your straw house with a leaf blower after they’ve shamed you out of your brick and stick houses.
Examining hypocrisies in American history has its benefits. It allows our society to find ways to make amends and extend freedoms to those of us who have historically been disenfranchised. It also stops us from making unsavory foreign policy decisions that violate our core values. It’s sort of like looking at yourself in the mirror before the gym; you find weaknesses in order to focus efforts and become stronger.
That said, the practice of pointing out our problems in order to dismiss criticisms directed at villains (especially those who oppose us) is a cynical and unsophisticated approach to applying historical lessons to today’s world.
In conclusion, applying moral double standards to ourselves has big problems associated with it. First of all, it yields counterproductive results for people who have a tougher time than most. Secondly, it deflects public scrutiny from assholes who deserve it the most. Third, it doesn’t offer much in terms of solutions or comfort to the people being persecuted. Finally, people acting on bad ideas often have a cynical worldview and don’t often practice critical self-reflection.
As Wardaddy said, they “understand the fist and the boot,” and none of us want to have a ring imprinted on our collective forehead.
– Paul Garraty