Full refunds for the presumption of decency

December 31, 2012

Love is not mistrusted lightly, perhaps because its status as a virtue rather than a human weakness is on thin ice. Love may not be disruptive, ostentatious or preferential. But it is, and we make-believe in a social glue called colorless love of all mankind that acts as the alibi of the trouble-making passions.

.. duty is a form of love … Duty is not always a denial of things, but an expansion of them to others. Duty is not always a chore, but is best carried out with love.

Temple of the Winds

Not always? That love may be omnipresent, but it is not visible. More like a nebulous world of the soul into which we send forth ghosts on whom we wish the best of peace. Cordelia’s unswerving sense of duty, the loyalty of Lear’s Fool, Gloucester’s prodigal son – these icons of good faith diminish and go into the dark ahead of us all.

And among the living?

There is a dangerous undercurrent to idealism about duty and charity in the helping professions. If any self-assessed virtue is in play, even competitive pride in hero-standing sometimes blurs into defensive levels of self-righteousness, and one may habitually go into denial about ever falling short of the mark.


A Knight’s Tale (2001)

It’s as if the rule “defend the helpless” can be confused with the rule “prove yourself against great challenges” when we root for underdogs and white knights.

The unlucky could very well be damned, and still to pity and comfort them would bring a blessing on the saint who does not care.  What, then, do the lepers deserve (from those who will not seek sainthood in their name), but our contempt?

I took the phrase “presumption of decency” from a context in which it refers to the goodness we unthinkingly ascribe to ourselves. But the strangest thing to notice here is that we also have an ulterior motive when we ascribe good intentions uncritically to others.

We do this the most by allowing too much credit to be uncritically assigned to care-giving roles. As care-givers we may tell ourselves this is fairness, whenever we need others to give us the benefit of the doubt, but it is also a cop-out on their part.

Traditional gender roles are often cited as a convenient excuse to pass the buck for diaper changing and dish washing. But they also normalize unrealistically high expectations of the generosity and selflessness gender-nominees acting as care-givers can be counted on to show.

We assume they will not disappoint, when the cost if they do is not ours to bear. But who really believes that, given all the power and responsibility, women would actually want to preoccupy themselves with righting wrongs and saving the world?

Ask yourself, “What would Cara do?”

Those of us enjoying freedom from those role expectations can indulge in self-loathing about it and call it even, knowing it is something we want to take for granted in others when we shirk such duties ourselves.

All the while, the presumption of decency has a corollary protecting those on whom it imposes responsibility. To them it is a projection and in some sense an unsolicited burden on those whose willingness to honor duties toward others goes unquestioned.

Those responsibilities are not legally enforceable, in the sense that their legality is both minimalist and lightly policed.

And when one of the suffering refuses to participate in this charade, victim-blaming is the usual recourse of political correctness. The sick role breeds resentment in caregivers faster than you can say “are you feeling better yet?”

The idea that the chronically ill are lounging around in a sick role because they enjoy the way they are treated is ludicrous, but that is the style of micro-aggression used to stigmatize this group. Such prejudices can become pervasive and oppressive merely by way of being unthinking and reflexive ways of rationalizing away the apparent dissatisfactions of others when their complaints are brought to you.

Any part of the “periphery” to civilized life, where equality before the law is much valued and somewhat taken for granted, is alive with micro-aggressions testing these sorts of informal frontiers of justice.


The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006)

Political correctness in the helping professions is deferential to the status quo, even when that means respecting the boundaries of political fairness that philosopher Martha Nussbaum describes as inherent to neoliberal governance – rather than fulfilling their promise of help to the disadvantaged. Cruelly, this tendency deepens those vulnerabilities by pretending to have provided all the assistance they could possibly need.

And when grandiosity and refusal to admit to one’s performance errors or the obscene limits of one’s purview infect the helping professions, the ministering of peanuts to the poor becomes just one more degradation in their lives. For the self-importance and self-respect of the helping professionals must be flattered for their services to be delivered without a side order of open hostility.

To honor a code of conduct more in the breach than in the observance is to retain it only for use in moralizing one’s personal prerogatives – a Machiavellian kind of piety.

Once society normalizes such indiscriminate use of self-serving hypocrisy, oddly enough, liars get sloppy and truth-seeking gets easier. But it is frowned upon.

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