Moral certainty and ‘truth’


It is disturbing that today’s public disagreement has moved from engagement, debate and reasoned argument, to more confrontational, accusatory and finger- pointing expressions of anger, driven by moral certainty. Gone are the days when differing opinions were presented in a collegial manner, with deference and respect — even where one was pretty sure that the contrary view was dead wrong. Instead, withering criticism, moral intolerance and personal challenge, mixed with the expression of a differing opinion, is the new method of engagement.

And then there’s the outrage generated over such simple matters as presentation choices and provocative references, even in the educational context. For example, at George Washington University, an anonymous student complained about a professor’s assignment concerning Adolf Hitler’s public speaking skills, where he encouraged students to analyze an antisemitic metaphor Hitler used. Clearly, the professor could have chosen a less provocative example. But was the choice one that merited school officials to encourage impacted students to submit a bias report?

Similarly, we find that personal attacks and name calling have replaced debate itself. And there is frustration over whether one can even engage meaningfully on social media, and make any difference. According to one disheartened user, “We can’t even have meaningful discussions, we just fight. It’s toxic, and it brings us nowhere productive.”

There is something very familiar about that frustration. We see it every day. We don’t have meaningful discussions. We don’t question others. We don’t engage. We simply declare. We don’t probe shades of gray. Instead, everything seems to be black and white in the eyes of the advocate, who then adds an extra measure of moral indignation and some form of accusation, for extra effect. The incident at GW may not be the best example for these purposes, but it presents several interesting issues. There is the anonymous student complainer, and the suggestion that someone can get hurt from a metaphor raised in the classroom — notwithstanding the fact that the classroom is the classic “laboratory” for the exchange of ideas. Should professors avoid discussions of Hitler and Nazi antisemitism?

Should discussion avoid the way that a hated minority is dehumanized when it is called a “cancer” (Hitler’s metaphor)? And how do we square this solicitousness with the freedom of abuse permitted on social media — like the case where a Holocaust survivor wished fellow TikTok users “Shabbat Shalom,” and got spammed with a deluge of antisemitic messages?
There is a natural impulse to choose sides. But that reflex should be offset by the “civilizing” factors of courtesy, curiosity, engagement and at least some search for truth. Good leaders also help moderate the temperature in a community.

We are not suggesting that readers abandon the moral certainty of their positions. But the pursuit of “truth” should not include the deliberate misunderstanding of contrary arguments or the bending of truth to make a point. And, every once in a while, we would all benefit from the very human admission that “I’m not sure.”

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