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Good Old Middle-Class Hypocrisy

[Christianity Today, July 13, 1998]

Pundits and commentators, who normally consider themselves more open-minded than the plodding masses, have been rocked by a discovery in the last six months: when it comes to a president’s indiscretions, most people just don’t care. "But you’re supposed to be outraged," you can almost hear them pleading. "That’s your job."  Sorry, Jimmy Olsen; middle-class morality ain’t what it used to be.

What it used to be, middle-aged readers may remember, was "hypocritical." The charge was that conventional morality was a false front: seemingly upright citizens would deplore sexual hanky-panky, and publicly condemn anyone who strayed—but their private lives they were not so pristine. The sad suburban couples in John Updike’s stories illustrate this thesis: on the surface, big happy families; underneath, sneaking and adultery and broken hearts.

One goal of the sexual revolution was to eliminate the false front. Fooling around was to be freely admitted, even celebrated—the more "love," the merrier. No one’s indiscretions would be condemned.You’ll still find people waving this anti-hypocrisy banner, as if it were a new upstart idea that they alone are brave enough to champion.

No, hypocrisy is not our besetting national sin. If anything, the reverse is true. Americans no longer do naughty things secretly, while condemning the same conduct in others; instead, while we are increasingly reluctant to condemn anything or anybody, we actually live more circumspectly than they did a couple of decades ago. Since the mid-eighties, generalized promiscuity has been on the decline. First herpes, then AIDS, sobered up the party. The tragic mess of abortion added accumulating grief, hardly an aphrodisiac.

Sex moved from the bedroom to the living room TV, a less risky site. There, competition among the media prompted an increasingly wide display of the varieties of sexual experience. Once people did it but didn’t talk about it; now every imaginable practice is talked about frantically, and loves that dared not speak their name won’t shut up. We’re forcibly educated about practices that the ordinary person will never experience, and may have no desire to experience. There’s much more talk than action.

When the comprehensive survey, "Sex in America," was published a few years ago, the results made headlines: ordinary people weren’t committing adultery, weren’t sleeping around, weren’t just-misbehavin’ to nearly the extent everyone had presumed. Among married couples, ninety-four percent said that they had been faithful to each other during the previous year. Among singles, a third of women and a fourth of men said they’d not had sex at all, all year. Similiar proportions could claim only "a few times," indicating that over half of singles were not doing much swinging. I had this finding inadvertently confirmed when I went to buy the book.  "Do you have ‘Sex in America’?" I asked the plump young man behind the counter. "In my case, no," he said sadly.

In his new book, "One Nation, After All," based on interviwes with middle-class Americanas in eight communities, Alan Wolfe demolishes the popular misconception that a typical American "insists everyone conform to a stern moral code, yet personally violates that code." In fact, Wolfe concludes, "Most middle-class Americans uphold strict moral standards for judging their own behavior but are extremely reluctant to judge the behavior of anyone else." He attributes this widespread tolerance to the conjunction of 60’s culture and corporate culture, both rigorously non-judgmental. While generally approving the live-and-let-live outlook of his subjects, as one might expect of a good liberal sociologist, Wolfe adds: "I’m not sure toleration is always the best thing. I think at some point you have to make judgments."

Of course, people do make judgements, they’re just ashamed to admit it to pollsters. They chafe under this gag rule, but know that openly criticizing others’ behavior would be scandalous. Voicing moral objection is the last great act of social transgression.

This is one explanation, I think, for the bizarre popularity of tabloid TV shows—the ones that showcase pregnant strippers and bald men wearing dog leashes. The titillating appeal is that these characters are so plainly worthy of decent folks’ ridicule. They’ve been pre-selected by show producers to give better-behaved citizens something to hoot at.

When questioned in a public poll decent citizens have to put on the long face of tolerance. But when the shades are drawn, tabloid TV gives them a chance to act up. It’s not sexual urges they’ve been compelled to restrict, but their minds—their intelligence, wisdom, and common sense. Thanks to Jerry Springer, upstanding citizens can occasionally be as naughty as they wanna be.

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