The hypocrisy behind the moral economy

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Only when people start to do what they preach will the world appreciate morality a little bit better and be less cynical, says Nicholas Chan.

To some of my friends, I may appear to be a bit ‘uptight’ in my reactions upon learning about the ‘colourful’ details of the private lives of some public figures.

To be honest, it is not this mismatch between the image of people being paragons of a community and their tales of debauchery and sexual escapades that puts me into a state of disbelief and anger.

As a privacy freak myself, I value the sanctity of one’s private life and do not think it should be open to scrutiny, unless there are elements of criminality. A politician, or any public servant for that matter, ideally should be judged by how he performs his duties, not what he does outside office hours.

But it disgusts me when some people build their rapport and authority through claiming moral and religious righteousness in their public life, but violate those very tenets during their private time.

These people often give society hope that a moral utopia can be achieved, but often some prerequisite price in the form of freedom, reason, equality, or money must be paid. Moral policing, for one, is one of those most commonly offered ‘solutions’.

The irony is that these key proponents of moral policing are often exempted from the very same fence they put on society. They gained immunity, wealth, status, and power through the monopolisation of morality, becoming the judge without being judged. Often claiming God is on their side, these people not only live above scrutiny but above average means.

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It is one thing for members of society to discuss and debate questions of morality and ethics, but it is another when someone who has conjured a false aura of infallibility pushes such standards into the private lives of other people. Well, everybody’s except theirs.

The contradiction can be seen when you have countries, where supposedly immoral activities can bring you severe penalties,  which can at the same time produce playboy princes who can party harder than the celebrities in Beverly Hills.

In many of these countries, the people live in fear, guilt and judgment (judged by those who are above judgments). And those who get to know about the shenanigans of the ‘moral’ elite, will be fuelled with further disillusionment towards the system.

An option to those who wish to eliminate such contractions and pursue a puritanical ‘moral’ state is to elope to join one, at least one that markets itself to be so, such as Isis. Tellingly, Saudi Arabia, a rich and stable country in the Middle East, has contributed one of the largest number of fighters to the terrorist organisation.

Even worse is when the very same people who urge the destruction of the “immoral, decadent” West, get to savour a taste of hellfire, having licentious fun while others do their bidding as soldiers and suicide bombers, believing that they are doing good and heaven awaits them.

A case in point is the American charismatic preacher-cum-terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki. Using declassified material, a New York Times report has shown that the conservative preacher turned on America after he was made aware that the government’s surveillance programme on him had found out about his ‘secret life’ of frequenting prostitutes.

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The married imam who hailed the sanctity of marriage and lambasted the Hollywood culture that ‘promotes’ illicit sex went into a panic thinking that the FBI would destroy his reputation. He fled the country soon after that.

At first, he still harboured hopes of returning to America. Sadly, the matter wasn’t handled wisely by the authorities and he went on a path of preaching hate and destruction.

Perhaps it is the sense of being mistrusted and rejected by his homeland that nurtured his vendetta towards the United States, but this does not mitigate the fact that he breached those very same moral tenets he espoused.

Claiming moral supremacy is always a dangerous thing because there is an audience for it. And as long as those who ride on it to power and wealth close off their private conduct, they can continue feeding off the public’s imagination and trust while building a stranglehold on society because it is through this very moral economy they got their exalted status.

Social science finds that narcissistic personalities tend to be effective leaders; I suppose that explains a lot the hypocrisy.

Come to think of it, it is rather unfair when managers of the country have to answer to clear, quantifiable outcomes such as economic indicators or teachers to teaching outcomes, but those whose job is to ‘safeguard’ morality (or those who earned their status preaching so) answer to nobody.

Ironically, instead, they make people answer to them.

Perhaps that is why many leaders (especially in authoritarian settings) like to abuse religion for their ascendance, because they can hitch on high standards without actually working for it. By contrast, claiming that you are very good at managing the education system requires a long CV to back that up.

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If we expect politicians who claim they are corrupt-free to declare their assets, then shouldn’t those who pontificate about (and capitalise from) morality show some moral transparency too?

The fact is, Malaysia remains a conservative and pious society. A moral economy was not only established, but continues to receive investments, be they fiscal or psychological. At the very least, those who were bound by it should have the right to demand full disclosure of those wielding the moral capital.

As our society seems to be giving more credence to those who claim moral supremacy than the un-charismatic, amoral, and technocratic wonks (like me), the least we can do is to make sure a breach of trust is not committed. Some moral due diligence ought to be done. You want to dictate about the private lives of other people, then open up yours first.

The instrumentalisation of moral capital should be the exception and not the norm. Morality should be that cookie jar on the top shelf where only those who rise above everyone else can touch it.

Perhaps only when people start to do what they preach would the world appreciate morality a little bit better and be less cynical.

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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