There is a tribe called Jhurk where all sorts of lies are told. Easy ones – “no you don’t look fat in that,” malicious ones – “no I didn’t steal your sheep, a wolf ate it,” and even beneficial ones – “no, invading war chief, I have no one else for you to capture in my home.”
One day a man named Goolag, who recently caught his wife with the local voodoo master when she’d sworn she was only going out to pick berries, comes up with a rule.
“Lying is bad!” he proclaims. “I hate liars!”
Nobody likes being lied to. Everyone agrees with Goolag, and they start putting up anti-lying flags. Soon their religions pick up moral tales about how their deities refused to lie. Young Jhurkian men signal how moral and hip they are to Jhurkian women by saying “I don’t date liars.”
Demonstrating how much you are against Lying becomes a quick and easy way to get moral points with the group. Everyone cheers with Goolag when he screams FUCK LYING.
Because everyone generally agrees that “being a liar” is a terrible thing, accusations of lying become especially powerful. Because accusations of lying are so powerful, they become broader – and the people of Jhurk are either “Liars” or “Not-Liars.”
Once someone in Jhurk receives the ‘Liar’ label, nobody cares to investigate further. The lie might have been harmless, horrible, or even occasionally beneficial – but under all the excitement about decrying lying, it’s packaged into one single, binary switch – Liar or Not-Liar. This isn’t a deliberate decision on the part of the Jhurkians, but more a result from a learned sense of outrage.
One woman, Zokk (whose husband was recently shunned for lying about a surprise party) tries to defend Liars. But all of Jhurk knows that Liars Are Bad – and they bring up Goolag’s wife, that dirty whore, and Gneb, who lied about the money in the tribe treasury, and Ved the traitor, who lied about being allied with Jhurk when really he was just selling tribe secrets to the rival tribe across the river.
“Why would you defend Lying when Liars do all these things?” they say. “You are a Liar-apologist!” and thus both Zokk and her husband are shunned.
“Lying is bad” was turned into a moral law in exactly the same way moral laws in religion operate. In religion, a set of “correct behaviors” are agreed upon, and adherents are ‘good’ and the rebellious are ‘bad.’ This can feel very deep and true, like how religion decries homosexuality so hard that people start to genuinely feel disgust and horror reactions about it.
Identifying a general sin is a very efficient way of dealing with social problems, but also very mindless and inaccurate. Jhurk’s lying problem was certainly eradicated, but eradicated religiously – in a strong, oversimplified, and demonizing sense.
New moral laws are usually the most exciting to signal (No dating site profile is cool for saying “I only date people who are against slavery”). And because they’re so exciting, they’re also the most virulent and religious.
I was reading about this commune back in the 1970s where they operated by the new and exciting moral law of Tolerate Everyone (as in allow anybody to live on this commune). This was a revolutionary concept to them and they took it very seriously. There was a strong social pressure to Tolerate Everyone, and anyone who did did not Tolerate Everyone was shunned by the group.
And over time the excitement wore off and they realized this wasn’t sustainable. The commune became a magnet for the drug addicted, the severely mentally ill, people who wouldn’t work, and dangerous criminals. Maybe something like Tolerate Everyone Except Those Who Are A Detriment To Your Community would have been better.
Of course Tolerating Everyone is a good idea and they were right to identify it as desirable – but it’s not desirable not as a law. The world is complex and nuanced and every situation has to be taken individually. This takes much more gentle thought and mental effort, but it might have saved that commune, and Zokk’s husband.
I think the terms “racism” and “sexism” are being used almost exclusively as religious law today.
Ideas having to do with race and sex are vast and complicated. Some come out of fear of culture, others out of mindless fear, others out of statistics. Some are more extreme than others. Some are justified, others entirely invalid. All of them have personal causes.
And in using the easy, simplistic, blanket term of ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’ to address any issue that even smells a bit like race or gender hostility, we are guilty of exactly the same trap that the religious fall into – except they’ve usually had a couple centuries to chill the fuck out while we’re still excited about it.
We say “if you’re racist don’t message me” on our dating profiles because it’s an easy and safe and exciting thing to signal. We use “sexist” as an immediate weapon word against situations that are in the line of fire but they might not be that terrible, we don’t know, we don’t have all the facts yet.
I’m not saying that discrimination against people based on race or gender isn’t terrible. It is – sort of like how maliciously lying to your neighbors is also terrible.
But I distrust the transformation of bad things into a label that can be used as a wide, inaccurate scythe that mows down the worst offenders, the mild offenders, and anybody innocently standing at the edges of the problem, all in the same sweep. It stifles discourse, it reduces empathy, it turns neighbors into opponents, and it mirrors the thinking of the mindless, traditionally religious.
The religious aren’t religious because they’re stupid, they’re religious because it’s enticing. Beware the enticing moral claim!