Moral Self-Licensing and the Anti-Trump Roar


With a new workout routine, watching movies and documentaries on my smartphone is no longer an option, so I’ve switched to audio-only podcasts, beginning with Crimetown.  Because that show is currently in process and only released week-by-week, I quickly had to look for additional shows and remembered that some conservative commentator had blogged in a positive way about Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History.  The first episode, “The Lady Vanishes,” proves that the conservative’s interests could not have been driven by ideological sympathy, because Gladwell is clearly as left as his podcast’s title would lead one to believe if taken without irony.

Looking mainly at the treatment of a female Nineteenth Century painter and a recent female Australian prime minister, the episode revolves around the concept of “moral self-licensing,” whereby a person, group, or even nation does something morally good (like elect a female leader) and then takes that as a license to return to the corresponding bad behavior (like applying sexism to political decisions).  The idea sounds superficially plausible, especially over the course of a slick podcast, but I’d suggest it’s a bunch of hooey in the way he uses it.

The painter, Elizabeth Thompson, undeniably going up against her era’s sexism doesn’t prove the thesis, but only that the art establishment was ready to display an excellent painting despite its creator, but not quite ready to make her part of the establishment.  Female politicians who break glass ceilings are not immediately followed by additional women in the same role not because people are sexist, but because personal decisions and the gradual pace of cultural changes limits voters’ choices.

For whatever reason, the people in line for leadership roles are not fifty-fifty by gender, so elections will not be.  Even without a smidgen of sexism, it would take time for lists to balance, and that’s if there were not innate differences between men and women that affect the choices that they freely make.

Toward the end of the podcast, Gladwell’s game is obvious.  He lists countries that have had only a single female leader, and second on the list is Germany, whose first female leader is still in power.  That can hardly be evidence of the thesis.  Gladwell emphasizes that his list is only partial, which makes it peculiar that he wouldn’t substitute Germany with an example that doesn’t rely on prognostication.

That’s not the worst of it, though.  In this podcast, released in June, well before the election in the United States, Gladwell clearly assumes that Hillary Clinton would become president, and he insinuates that the United States would follow the supposed pattern of moral self-licensing and continue to be a sexist country anyway.

In that light, the shock of the outcome for progressives is easy to understand. Liberals had already prepared their arguments for why the United States wouldn’t disprove its sexism by electing Clinton, and the country didn’t even elect her!  Not only that, but she lost to a man who had said sexist things repeatedly, both privately (about grabbing women) and publicly (as with Carly Fiorina).

Emotionally, the election result was therefore something of a twofer, not only producing shock and outrage, but providing an opportunity for more of the left’s own moral self-license.  Expressing disbelief at their country’s horribleness marks them as morally pristine, thereby excusing whatever shortcomings they may have in other areas and directly giving them leash to indulge in their worst instincts, be they personal viciousness, snobbery, or some other quality that they deep down know to be immoral, like shirking an implicit promise to avoid bias in news reports and historical analyses.

  • The Misfit

    Why do you always describe your political positions in a negative? This concern about the progressive argument as you describe it informs you to all the ills in the world. You never offer a conservative view or remedy to all the ills you see. You offer boilerplate remedies like “less regulation” and ” choice ” . What real governing plans have you ever presented?

    • Justin Katz

      I’ve helped develop specific legislation on a variety of issues, most significantly an education savings account policy and the elimination of the sales tax. I’ve also written reasonably complete proposals for other policy areas, such as health care.
      Broadly, though, I think your objection ignores the state of debate, particularly in Rhode Island. We’re barreling in the wrong direction. The first step must be to get people to see that reality. To wit, when the conversation moves from what businesses we should subsidize to what taxes we should cut, it would be more timely to say, “This one.”