Letterman and the Abolition of Cruelty

Cruelty, the famous theorist Judith Shklar tells us, is the worst thing we do. For small-l and big-L liberals as different as Richard Rorty and George Kateb, cruelty is borne of moral solipsism, an overly me-centric attitude toward experience that blinds us to the truth about the reality of other people. (Obviously there is a popular conservative variant of this position as well.) Rorty and Kateb follow Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman in agreeing that life outside of politics can be made less cruel to the extent that we realize our unique identity is part of a symbiotic relationship with the ultimate diversity and novelty of democratic life, including the uniqueness and multitudinousness of others. But far and away most liberals think that the most important way to diminish cruelty is through politics. Making politics safe for democracy is itself a task dedicated to getting rid of the politics of cruelty — memorably described by Benjamin Constant as a politics driven by ‘conquest and usurpation’, with oppression sure to follow. The positive upshot of this political project is a thoroughly rights-based liberalism.

As Isaiah Berlin can tell us, however, rights-based liberalism is caught up in its very essence with our understanding of the difference between — to quote Constant again — the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns. To put it simply, the classical Greeks had nothing of the public/private distinction that we recognize today, because the whole public sphere was political. Today, we care more about civic life than political life, and our individualist civic liberty looks a lot different than, and does work much different from, the anti-individualist political liberty of, say, Sparta. The point of all this for us today is that even a robust rights-based liberalism is going to draw the public/private line somewhere, demurring from the a totalistic administrative extension of rights and corresponding duties into the minute details of intimate life.

Yet we’ve all watched as sexual-harrassment regulations have advanced into intimate life. Such regulations — and the whole battery of sensitivity-enforcement mechanisms that have come to reflect the utter dominance of Human Resources departments over the businesses and industries that host them — obviously don’t descend on high from Washington. But they’re also clearly tied up with the rights-based view of liberalism, and the liberal political project dedicated to minimizing, if not abolishing, cruelty. Ultimately, the viability of anti-cruelty measures packaged in our sensitivity-enforcement laws depends on a certain kind of constitutional interpretation. So it’s not much of a stretch to say that such laws, although they flourish in the gray area where public seems to mix itself up with private, contribute to a change in the way we segregate life spheres in America. The public/private distinction seems increasingly strained or incoherent in the face of a new divide between the official and unofficial spheres of life — the first a sphere of longitudinal legal regulation, the second a sphere in which we are free to take unregulated latitudes. Sometimes these latitudes look plainly like ‘private’ choices; sometimes they just as plainly involve very ‘public’ conduct.

As soon as we recognize the ways in which we’ve abandoned the public/private divide, however, we begin to see that the official/unofficial divide that replaces it labors under a certain strain. The organizing project of official life — fighting the political war on cruelty — is frustrated and undermined by many of the organizing projects of unofficial life — which, in their toleration or even celebration of mutual use and abuse, subvert or deconstruct the very concept of the cruel. Just as it’s become increasingly difficult to take seriously the principle that we know obscenity when we see it, so are we beginning to lose the ability to know cruelty when we see it. Among Dave Letterman, the girl who slept with him, and the boyfriend who had just moved in with her, who is predator and who prey? For whom does the bell toll? Anyone? Everyone? In our contemporary economy of lusts, longings, and limited-term gratifications, the term ‘cruelty’ — at least as political liberalism understands it — drops out. When liberals dreamed of abolishing cruelty, this isn’t what they had in mind.

And none of this, I think, is happening because we’re becoming ‘less sensitive’. In many ways, we’re more sensitive than ever, sensitive to a fault, neurotically or obsessively sensitive. No, it seems rather that the kind of individuality we’re apt to pursue in unofficial life helps dissolve the unit of analysis on which our definition of cruelty depends. Paradoxically, the latitudinous pursuit of Emersonian individuality in unofficial life seems to be destabilizing and calling into question the solidity of our individual being. Rorty and Kateb lead us to believe that the temptation to be cruel outside of politics is best mitigated, educated, and corrected by the liberal virtue of curiosity. But you have got to be, as our own Peter Lawler has put it, especially ‘old and lame’ not to realize that curiosity is the very motto of those whose individuality destroys the credibility of the concept of cruelty. By the sign of curiosity, they have been conquering and usurping outside official life for quite some time now. It’s true that things aren’t nearly so dire as they were when our great social critics of the ’70s and ’80s (Kristol, Bell, Lasch, Rieff, MacIntyre) were writing. But given the uncanny way in which we’re making cruelty less comprehensible, it’s hard to congratulate ourselves for it.

(Cross-posted)