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America’s Public Morality Play

Vivek Rao

Heathens are hijacking the moral direction of the United States. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a look at the evidence.

The NFL’s premier wide receiver, Terrell Owens of the Philadelphia Eagles, shamelessly participated in an ABC-made promotional clip that featured an apparently nude Nicolette Sheridan leaping into Owens’s arms, all in a weaselly attempt to hype up the hit show Desperate Housewives.

Meanwhile, in rural Texas, the Liberty Legal Institute, an impressively vigilant Christian legal group, discovered an unseemly tradition. Apparently, students in a small town of Spurger have long been participating in “TWIRP Day,” the acronym standing for “The Woman is Requested to Pay.” Cross-dressing lies at the heart of the tradition, raising a red flag to some who fear it might promote homosexuality.

To make matters worse, poker is rising in popularity, boosted immensely by televised professional tournaments and celebrity matchups. Such games of chance could certainly turn into a national menace.

But fear not, steps are being taken to prevent such devilish developments. Public outrage, media scrutiny, and NFL pressure convinced both Owens and ABC to offer apologies. TWIRP Day in Spurger, Texas has been replaced by Camo Day, on which students dress up in military camouflage to reaffirm not only their patriotism but also their heterosexuality. Numerous watchdog organizations are taking a deep look at the poker craze. And for general censoring purposes, we have the honorable Michael Powell heading up the now vicious FCC.

The purpose here is not to elevate one set of moral values over another, nor to trivialize the concerns of one segment of the population while emphasizing those of another. But bringing specific moral values, no matter what they may be, into public and political arenas is a dangerous practice, especially in a country that claims to ensure individual freedoms. Fundamentally, moral values are a private and personal concept, and judging the values of others as insignificant or misplaced is foolish, at best.

Sadly, we Americans don’t seem to care. Our intentions are in the right place. We care about future generations, and certainly, raising children fundamentally involves moral values, but there is a growing reliance on politicians, celebrities, and other public figures to set the moral course of our nation. This is a dangerous trend for two key reasons.

First, there is the issue of marginalization and trivialization. Realistically, a functional society will always witness some morality-based decisions by public organizations such as the FCC or the town officials in Spurger, Texas. But by bringing moral issues into the public domain, there is an inherent polarization effect. Any issue worth its salt leads to the development of factions on alternate sides of a debate. Think of abortion, or gay marriage, or censorship, or just about any other moral issue.

Now, if various censorship and morality issues are important enough to merit a public resolution or decisions, then they also merit reasonable debate. Unfortunately, more often than not, most people are too wedded to their moral values to be able to partake in any sort of productive discourse on the subject. Instead, we generate situations where people start to believe that their point of view is absolutely superior to the opposing one, leading to a level of disdain for fellow citizens that is as unproductive as it is unwarranted. While we believe that we live in a country that fosters freedoms and individuality (and no doubt, our country is better than most), the public nature of our holier-than-thou proclamations on moral issues often serves to marginalize people from minority camps on a local, regional, or national level.

Second and more importantly, there is the matter of effectiveness. We hear and see evidence that moral values are an important priority for most Americans. We vote for politicians who share our values and demand other public figures to uphold fairly stringent moral standards that coincide with our own. But at the same time, there are numerous studies that show that parents often fail to devote enough time and energy to discussing moral issues with their children. The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that people, parents in particular, are becoming increasingly reliant on the pervasive moral climate of the day to dictate the moral upbringing of the nation’s youth.

Maybe it’s time that people stopped worrying about society’s moral values and started paying more attention to their own homes. Strong moral values are fostered in children not by politicians or athletes or musicians or actresses, but by parents. We’re fortunate enough to live in a nation that allows us a significant degree of individual freedom. Rather than trying to dictate a public moral climate that gels with their own while inevitably alienating others’, parents should try to focus their attentions on developing in their children the tools requisite for evaluating and understanding complex moral issues. Maybe then future generations will be better equipped to handle differences of opinion on issues of morality than we are today.