Friday, January 14, 2011

Moral Disorder

I went to the Tacoma School Board's study session on Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying last night. I have a thousand and one thoughts about what I heard, but I start with just a few.

We're stuck. We as a community, the school as an institution, parents who want to be involved, students who have to live together. We're all stuck.

Here's how.

The Board's policy on student conduct says simply this:

Students are expected to:

A. Conform to reasonable standards of acceptable behavior;

B. Respect the rights, person and property of others;

C. Preserve the degree of order necessary for a positive climate for learning; and

D. Submit to the authority of staff and respond accordingly.

Such abstractions are not unique to Tacoma. But just what is reasonable? Who decided? What is the order necessary for a positive learning climate? Do all students have the same needs and views of what is positive for themselves?

The interesting one in the list is D. Submitting to authority is, of course, uncool for students, but more to the point, is anathema to the messages the society and even the schools send about being yourself, expressing whatever you feel, maximizing yourself, etc.

There is, in other words, no logic present in the code, or in the sociology of the school that justifies the claim for submission.

We've dropped moral reasoning out (remember, everything has to be evidence-based), and made life a series of instrumental calculations. Will this advance my prospects? Will I get a better job, scholarship or status? Will I feel better by this?

In such an environment, how does one 'respond accordingly' to the authorities to which one is supposed to be in submission? How does a person in self-maximizing mode (which teenagers pursue with fervor) balance that with the responsibility to living in a community?

Proceed from here to the board's policy on harassment. After the regular language about all the factors of identity people may not be abused for, we are to be reassured by this:

The goals of this policy include appropriate intervention, restoration of a positive climate, and support for victims and others impacted by the violation.

Appropriate, of course, carries all the burden here. It seems to me that when you combine the ideas inherent in both these policies, a part of the appropriate response is to counsel the aggressor about the reasonable standards of behavior by pointing out the immorality of the conduct.

But having drained away our ability to make strong and coherent moral claims, we resort to a morality that's actually based on instrumentality. 'How would you feel if you...?' is a question that tries to get the perpetrator to identify with (see the instrumental consequences for) the target.

I always warn students to be careful with rhetorical never know how your respondent might answer. And, indeed, I've heard plenty of students profess that they wouldn't think it was a big problem to hear or experience this or that hostile thing they themselves just said; often they justify this by resorting to 'it's free speech....I'm just telling the truth' line of (un)reasoning.

Consider, instead, what an old friend of mine (who served for a time as campus supervisor at my school) used to say to students when they were agitated about 'getting in trouble.' He'd tell them that there is absolute morality and institutional morality. The school makes some institutional rules for how we live together while at school, and those only apply at school. (No gum chewing, for instance.)

Absolute morality are rules that apply everywhere. For instance, he'd explain that what we say to people should be governed by an effort to think of them higher than we think of ourselves (a biblical concept, by the way, that he would render without reference to the bible).

Having established a little bit more coherence of moral order, he could then point out when students had violated rules of absolute moral order. It made his conversations about conduct much richer and more powerful.

Because when it comes down to it, living well in a community means we're living in relationship to other people. And to make those relationships effective and good, we really do need to think highly of the others. And that should affect and constrain the way we speak.

Now, let's move toward an explication of how to live together positively in community, instead of just pointing out those negatives that we ought to get rid of. Can we do will be tough, since we have great conflict over the moral order of how. The data have been hard to find evaluate.

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