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Montreal and Morality

My wife and I discovered this morning that we had both flipped past the many columns and photos in the National Post giving morbid details and panic shots of yet another Montreal massacre. When I heard her say, “I just couldn’t read it,” a little bell went off. 

I think it was Andre Malraux who in the 1950s wrote: “chacun a tué son mandarin.” Which loosely translated means “Each of us has killed his chinaman.” I think he meant that every human being has happily done something or other in life without regard to the terrible consequences for faceless strangers. Alas, at the breakfast table we were exposed to overkill in the dreadful sense of that word. So we ran for protection from another daily dose of disgust, fear, and, in the end, of hopelessness. My day is already better because I didn’t examine those Montreal photos or read the ugly details. But it hasn’t left me. I am writing about it just now. And I confess to a certain anger combined with a sense of my own frustrated manliness. I would like to do something to stop such senseless acts. Most of all, to reverse what I fear are the deepest trends in our society that make such things possible. So I write to fight back. 

It is true that many acts of violence are simply by random nutbars. And maybe in past generations such alienated people were kept in institutions instead of allowed to wander among us as they do now. At any rate, I don’t think we, the public, will ever find out what causes these things, because we will be reading different stories tomorrow, and the next day. And those poor Montrealers will have become our psychological mandarins. But it is in our nature to want causes, for we are convinced that with causes firmly in hand we can fix the consequences. So in its editorial column today the Post took a shot at telling us how to prevent more random murdering. Citizens are advised they “must remain vigilant in picking up on the warning signs they see in others.” And further, we are cautioned that instead of hunting for “external phenomena” (I think this means things like guns, bad neighbourhoods, and violent computer games) on which to blame such tragedies, we should focus our attention on the real “root cause” of school shootings, which, we are informed, is “evil, troubled souls.” 

Now this is where the little bell went off. The editor of what must be considered a normal newspaper is speaking to a determinedly secularized society in which the mainstream ethic for a century and a half has been the veneration of individualism and the privatization of morality. Yet he is advising us to watch over each other very carefully for warning signs, and concludes in plainly religious language (long since outlawed from our public discourse) that the cause of these horrors is … “evil,” and “troubled souls.” So it does strikes me that the chickens hatched from our deeply embedded social and moral contradictions are coming home to roost. 

I mean, we all proudly and publicly preach individual freedom and moral autonomy, but when this gives rise to serious trouble we ought to watch over each other? But only then, with the dead at our feet? And we ban speaking publicly in any way of evil, or of souls, because in a secular society these very concepts are like bad jokes, very retro. And yet when we are at a loss for causes, we reach immediately for the concepts we have scorned? 

Among the contradicitons: We are not born free. We are born into a complex society that nurtures us and that we nurture, until death. I am not speaking of the meddlesome state, of the organs of government with its monopoly on force. I am speaking of society as the sum total of all free and interdependent human associations to which we bind ourselves as persons. And in this context, as the seventeenth-century poet John Donne put it, “No Man Is An Island.” Indeed, in the very root meaning of the word, no “society” has ever succeeded as a mere collection of autonomous individuals suckled on personal freedom and choice. That is a modern contradiction, a confusion of language, made canonical by John Stuart Mill in the middle of the nineteenth century. For society only exists in the first place as a moral compact of human beings devoted to the flourishing of all, and above all to the flourishing of society itself considered as an organism or entity that is more than the sum of its individual parts. Hence in any society worth the name, individuals must be willing, even if made unhappy by this, to surrender their merely selfish individual wants to the flourishing of society. That is not possible, nor can it be taught as necessary to such as the Montreal murderer unless, in the first place, and from childhood, society is recognized by all of us as an entity greater and more valuable than the sum of the individuals it contains. 

The consequence of this truth is that any one of us can develop attitudes, behaviours, and actions that by their mere existence will lift us all up, or demean us all, and no society that denies this will long prevail. We have denied it for too long. For at bottom, Mill was dead wrong. There can be no such thing as private morality. The very concept of morality is public by its nature, for it implies the presence of more than one person who cares. That is where society begins. In most cases, we have societies of millions of people, and they thrive truly only on moral care, not merely of the individual self alone, but care of the-self-among-and-for-others. Indeed, when we lose this concern for society above ourselves, for good manners, for civility, the respect for and love of what is good for all; when we surrender our responsibility to speak up – when we become frightened to speak in favour of what is good in the attitudes and behaviours of others, and against what is evil, society is at an end. Courage, mes amis.


Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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