In my year-end wrap-up last week I named The Green Knight as my favorite film of the year. As I said, it’s quite faithful in some aspects and diverges significantly from the text in others. One element that doesn’t make the transition to film (and I’m not really sure how it ever could) is the symbolism of the pentangle and the holly bough.
These two symbols crop up several times in the poem. In the conventional analysis, they represent two competing, at times conflicting sets of values that Gawain is honor-bound to obey: the pentangle, his chivalric duties, and the holly bough, his fealty to Christianity. Being an Arthurian knight meant that he was compelled to a set of standards he had to obey, and being a Christian meant that he was enjoined to act in accordance with the dictates of Christ and his church. And what the poem reveals over time is that in fact he cannot honor both, that to attempt to is to ask too much of him or anyone else. The burden is to great; we are too limited as human beings to obey too many moral laws. Given the deep and rich Christian ethos of the text, I think it’s fair to say that the Gawain poet believes that his protagonist should follow Christ and his teachings, rather than trying to satisfy a set of earthly values that at times stand in tension with his divine responsibilities. The complications between him and the lord and the lord’s wife speaks to these tensions, and the lord’s forgiveness to that mercy that is meant to be inherent to the Christian faith.
Such stories are common to the religious and philosophical traditions of, well, everywhere, really - the importance of recognizing the profound limits of human definitions of righteousness, and how such earthly righteousness runs afoul of the wisdom of gods or God. The ancients knew that while we're compelled to do good, we are not equipped to be good, not all the time
The Torah provides many examples of those foolish enough to imagine that as mortals they have sufficient moral wisdom to judge as God judges. Even the greatest prophets aren’t spared. In 1 Kings Elijah prepares a test to see if worshippers of Baal are equally worthy as those who follow the Hebrew God, and his test definitively answers with a no, and yet the story still brings Elijah to the point of begging God for death. His showy display of his faith has resulted in his own exile while, according to him, the other Israelites have abandoned their own fealty to God. The world spins on despite Elijah’s remarkable success as a prophet. (As Walter Brueggemann dryly noted of this passage, “as often happens to the zealous, Elijah has overvalued his own significance.”) Jesus spoke repeatedly about the hypocrisy of those who would consider themselves among the righteous. In Matthew 23, Jesus excoriates the Pharisees for their moral arrogance, and the parable in Luke 18:9-14 is one long jeremiad against the idea of knowing oneself to be in God’s grace. The Quran is relentless in its prohibitions against pride and self-righteousness, such as in 53:32, which says “do not claim yourself to be pure,” because Allah knows who’s pure and his followers have no say for themselves. The world is indifferent to the purity of our moral intentions and, if you follow the Abrahamic traditions, so is God.
And in the Alagaddupama Sutta Buddha compares using the Buddha’s words for “criticizing or for refuting others in disputation” to grabbing a snake by the tail and being justly rewarded with a bite. Confucius famously said that “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.” In Hinduism the Vedas warn against the corrosive dangers of mada, or pride in oneself. Shrine Shinto (as opposed to the nationalistic variety embraced by the Japanese government in its imperial phase) has often been praised due to its lack of dogma and overarching moral sentiments, its resistance to absolutism. More abstractly, the Guru Granth Sahib counterpoises the natural world and its purity with the depredations that arise from human conceits and arrogance. I could go on. For all of their vast variety and many peculiar specifics, the notion that the individual lacks the standing to sit in moral judgment of others is remarkably pervasive.
There are, of course, also many specific precepts and commandments in the world’s religions, and it can be disorienting to know how to honor the rules when they tell you to be righteous while avoiding righteousness. (Contradictory teachings in religious texts? Crazy.) But what’s nearly universal, in religious traditions, is the sense that you - yes, you - are not in a moral position to judge. You lack the necessary knowledge and purity and thus your judgments are hypocrisies. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all knowledge, the good book tells me. And that’s always the point: the provisioning of justice happens only through the conduit of a greater being. If you decide that you know enough to judge for yourself, and take that privilege away from the higher power, bad things happen. “She has fallen; virgin Israel will never rise again. She lies abandoned on her land, with no one to raise her up,” says Amos when he considers the inherent fallibility of all men. If we abstract that away from literal Israel to the broader community of the righteous, well. Who can say?
This is all a longwinded and pretentious approach to talking about public morality. Luckily, I’m a longwinded and pretentious guy.
Recently Patton Oswalt posted a photo to his Instagram of him and Dave Chappelle, a decades-long friend of his. Because the type of people who cancel would like to cancel Chappelle, they have directed their rage at Oswalt. You really can’t cancel Chappelle, but because Oswalt is one of many celebrities to attempt a woke rebrand in recent years he’s more susceptible to their powers. (Remember, the middle brother punches the youngest brother even when it’s the older brother who has angered him, because the younger brother is the one he can hit.) As is to be expected, Oswalt posted a lengthy apology to Instagram, an apology for standing next to an old friend. And because he’s Patton Oswalt and he’s a huge weenie the accompanying image was of him soulfully writing on a yellow legal pad. I suppose the conceit is that he was composing his apology on the pad, but come on. He wrote that shit on his phone.
I would hope that the argument for standing by your friends, unless they have done something truly abhorrent, would stand for itself. Of course it’s stupid that Oswald faced such condemnation for posting a meaningless photo in the first place. But come on, dude. Have some self-respect. More importantly, have a little strategic sense here: they’re not going to stop coming after you. They never stop. Apologizing is just blood in the water. You can’t be good enough to satisfy this particular kind of frenzy. What we could do is to advocate for both interpersonal charity and for the kind of moral humility that ancient religions counseled. But then, if you do that you can’t reap the benefits that Oswalt has from carrying the right water for the right people. Those moral forces which you unleash on other people you unleash on yourself, and thus we have Oswalt in a profoundly 21st century dilemma that resonates with lessons from antiquity.
This will of course be read as an anti-woke complaint, but that’s genuinely not what I’m up to here. While Oswalt’s supposed sin is indeed a matter of the transitive property of social justice, I don’t think most of the people who swarmed his Instagram and other social media actually were motivated by concern for social progressivism at all. At some point we all have to come around to the fact that, even if we disagree about which social punishments are appropriate for which crimes, we should mutually understand that sometimes these mobs are really just for their own sake. Does anyone involved think that going after Patton Oswalt will materially benefit trans people in any real way? It’s one thing to find Chappelle’s words bigoted and offensive, a perfectly fair position. It’s another thing to think that the people ostensibly fighting against them here are actually motivated in good faith, given that this action can't possibly help trans rights. Some people just love to rage out on the internet and find juicy targets, and they fall all over the political spectrum.
Besides, moralism and hypocrisy are profoundly bipartisan and cross-ideological. Social conservatives are the OG public moralists. You can see a bit of this in the absurd, hypocritical, utterly unAmerican efforts by the right to ban books in public schools and other places. Social conservatism is essentially dead in American life, as crazy as that sounds; the church ladies and scolds of the right have ceded the ground to bizarre techno-reactionaries, conspiracy theorists, anti-politicians, and crypto-utopians. But there are still a lot of people out there who endorse a bitter and provincial moral vision carved out of folk Christianity and American exceptionalism. The issue is that those people have no presence whatsoever in our culture industries, certainly not in the mainstream media and increasingly little in the conservative media, which is increasingly made up of shmucks trying to get “Intellectual Dark Web” cred who don't even pretend to care about Jesus. So it’s just easier to see the preening moralism and hypocrisy in people like Oswalt. But the addiction to unapologetic and proud judgment is a nearly universal element of contemporary life. And there’s a prisoner’s dilemma element here, too - nobody wants to unilaterally disarm. Everyone prefers mutually assured destruction.
You might consider writer and video essayist Lindsay Ellis. She was cancelled awhile back for, uh, comparing a show to a movie, I think. The controversy is honestly so fucking absurd, so existentially Tumblr, that it’s hard to believe that anyone could take it seriously, but there it is. It’s also hard to have sympathy, as Ellis has gleefully participated in cancellations in the past. Precisely because the scenario is so ridiculous, it’s easy for the usual suspects to dismiss it as marginal. The trouble is that the ratchet only goes in one direction - the moral expectations only become more exacting over time, more restrictive. There’s never a loosening. Ten years ago even the most dedicated offense detective would not have thought to produce this list of supposedly “ableist” language, but now it appears in Harvard Business Review, and from there surely it has been integrated by some HR apparatchik into a corporate rulebook that will then be used to get rid of an employee the manager didn’t like for entirely different reasons. And so the wheel spins on.
To try and stick to lists of rules like that in HBR is a fool’s errand, though. You can’t be good enough. That’s the point of all of this, if this post is too long and complex for you. You can’t be good enough. They will come to you soon enough. Chappelle was once held up as an idol for the racial radicalism of his show by the people who now reject him. Louis CK was beloved of the woke, until… something happened. Amy Schumer was a hero until she wasn’t. There are others and there will be more. (Your heel turn is coming, Lil Nas X. I can feel it.) Offense is a market, and as long as there’s demand, there will be supply. We’re so desperate for targets of offense that they canceled Norman Mailer yesterday, and he’s been dead for 15 years. And it’s a great case because no one could be so deluded as to think that any actually-existing human being could be helped by this action. Ostensibly the marginalized group being protected is Black people, and what Black people get by this book being blocked from publication is… well, no one cares. We’ve reached a really remarkable postmodern state of affairs in the cancellation game. It’s cargo cult politics, going through the motions in a ritual that no one thinks has any real political content at all. A year ago we were still talking about changing the fundamental reality of America’s race politics, tearing it up from the roots. Now we perform a perfunctory condemnation of a dead guy whose literary reputation has been even more dead for decades.
So there’s no hope that you can be good enough to not be targeted; when outrage goes meta, there’s no such thing as good enough. You’ve got to keep your head down and hope the roulette wheel never pulls your name, or else you have to unilaterally decline the whole enterprise. Chappelle can’t be canceled. Joe Rogan can’t be canceled. Conservative media bad boys can’t be canceled. (It only feeds their brand.) And I can’t be canceled. Certainly this recent career success can evaporate, and I can be back applying to jobs as a busboy, but I would enjoy that life and I have slipped the bonds and can’t be canceled. The dead don’t die. The trouble is that most people have regular jobs in a corporate America that wants only to avoid bad PR, and they also have mortgages, children, and student loan debt. Of course many now shrug off cancelation or come back from it, which for some reason the most enthusiastic cancelers treat as some sort of gotcha. (If a tactic doesn’t work, maybe stop using it, dumbass.) But that fickle and random character only makes the fear greater, for most people.
All of this is related, somehow, to a particular turn in public life that I can’t quite put my finger on. (I consider myself someone who puts his finger on things professionally, so this is hard to admit.) It’s a flight from any sincere values except those that are the most unapologetically moralist and self-righteous, a culture of meaninglessness that corrodes all beliefs authentically held except those that most violate the ancient tradition of minding your own damn business. The top portion of this essay will surely be mocked by some of the usual suspects - your typical disaffected sarcasm-soaked overeducated members of the aspirational class who are not themselves enthusiastic cancelers but who maintain the present order by ridiculing arguments against canceling without really arguing at all. It’s absurd to invoke the great philosophical traditions of the past to talk about Dave Chappelle and Lindsay Ellis, they’ll no doubt think. (There’s a species of vaguely-left aligned person now who’s too cool to be woke but finds any criticism of such politics terribly lame.) What I would ask, though, is why it would be any more embarrassing to consider moral trends in historical context than it would be to turn the internet into the pulpit from which you daily deliver sermons on who is to ascend to the better place and who will be cast down. Because people do that every day. For some people, it’s all they have.
I am convinced that the recent spasm of enraged but directionless moralism within our aspirational classes is connected to some greater lack of meaning. They live lives that are not the ones they imagined and they grind for goals they can’t define and don’t particular want to achieve. They have grown up into a chaos of meaning and are compelled by communal decree to ironize all values and ridicule all sincerity. All they can cling to now is their desperate sense that everything is wrong and that someone, somewhere, must pay. What they never seem to grasp is that they are the ones they are most angry with, their own social culture the poisoned tree that bears the fruit that burns them inside. We have met the enemy and he is us, and, well….
Great post. Calls to disown problematic friends and family are the most repugnant part of the “social justice” movement.
We just got done with the holidays, where as usual a bunch of tools racked up likes on Twitter condemning anyone who eats dinner with Republican relatives. As if boycotting family events over politics will help a single person anywhere.
No wonder the movement is so unpopular, when everything people value can be construed as literal violence. America, your family, the holidays themselves (colonialism). Just stay home in the dark and tweet correct opinions, for justice.
Everything you’ve said is true, but I do think it’s largely an illusion that we all have to be trapped in this condemnatory nightmare. We, meaning all of us whose professional lives are not connected to having a public persona. Just stop spending time on these internet platforms. When you think of something clever, just say it out loud, laugh about it in real life with a friend, and let it vanish into the ether. Watch a movie and then don’t immediately Google what others thought of it. Write down your thoughts on things in private, without tailoring it to an audience of people you don’t have regard or respect for. Let them all drown in their own ever shrinking pool of excrement, fighting to drag each other along. It’s too late for Patton Oswald, but the rest of us don’t need to share the books we read, the friends we keep, and the ideas we have with millions of people and open ourselves up to the roar of their judgment. It’s hard when you are used to curating yourself for public consumption to come back to a primarily private sense of yourself but I think it’s the most important thing you can do for your own well being and quality of life.
By the way, I loved the first part of this post. You must have been an excellent teacher.