An Exceptional Moral Standard.

Coates writes “if we believe in American exceptionalism, then we must subject our country to an exceptional moral standard” (8). How might we formulate such an exceptional standard? What might this scrutiny look like and how will we as everyday citizens be a part of it?

7 responses

  1. Exceptional, by definition, describes a subject that proves unusual or above average than another subject by comparison. To formulate an exceptional standard for morality requires both the society in need of reformation (America) and a baseline society or groups of societies (i.e. previous iteration of American morality, the surrounding world) in which to compare the revitalized, exceptional moral standard to. This new standard, by implication, needs only to become “more moral” than other standards in order to appear exceptional. Morality, then, cannot serve as a subjective measure, but instead must adhere to a universal set of regulations in order for adequate comparison among societies.

    Formulation of a new American moral standard requires clear establishment of the former standard that proves insufficient for the society’s wellbeing. Coates defines the parameters of America’s current morality (or lack thereof) when he expresses, “I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store” (9), and, “But more than any shame I feel about my own actual violence, my greatest regret was that in seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you” (95). These excerpts reveal America’s current moral standard, which encompasses tolerance of racism and crimes of hate. Rather than empowerment in the face of adversity, Coates implies a helpless, fearful mindset among oppressed minorities (used as a survival mechanism by these victims) through majoritarian exploitation of an individual’s body—observed in Coates’ statement, “But these officers had my body, could do with that body whatever they pleased, and should I live to explain what they had done with it, this complaint would mean nothing” (76). In addition to tolerance of violence from the majorities, the vulnerability of minority members inadvertently promotes an America void of true equality and justice.

    To recreate morality in America—so that it proves exceptional when compared to previous versions of itself, as well as the standards of other countries—requires an elimination of distinct social groups and economic hierarchies. Without classification of white and black, the rich and the poor, America promotes an environment in which all individuals could truly thrive. Without these labels, societal expectations and stereotypes cease to exist. Additionally, reshaping the American Dream—which Coates defines as “acting white, […] talking white, […] being white” (111)—into a personal pursuit of dignity (fulfilled through work and community) removes the glorification of superiority that fuels America’s current state of moral degradation. By rewriting the American Dream as a desire to discover the satisfaction of a meaningful life—instead of “to be white”—America can rebirth its moral standards. This new morality would reflect the societal upheaval of superficiality through its revitalized foundation upon the pursuit of dignity.

    This new “Exceptional America,” despite its potential for remarkable morality, does not promise a perfect moral standard. Rather, Exceptional America only provides the framework to become “more moral” than its former self. Living in Exceptional America would constitute a society that no longer tolerates racism or fosters the exploitation of minorities, but would not protect against other intolerable crimes (i.e. rape, human trafficking, homicide, etc.) because the exceptional morality needs only to exist as comparatively better, not absolutely good or perfect. Citizens would better engage themselves in society (in comparison to the current America) by pursuing dignity in the form of relationships, value from work, etc. instead of materialism, but even these more meaningful lives would not be devoid of immorality. Without adherence to an absolute morality, exceptional moral standards cannot completely abolish immoral acts. While an exceptional morality proves attainable for America, a perfect society ultimately remains out of reach.

    • This idea of exceptional morality only needing to be marginally better than the preceding morality is brilliant. So long as we believe in America as an exceptional country, we must acknowledge that it attained that status only by improving itself, by reinventing its image and striving for the best. In this way the American Dream (and the very idea of American exceptionalism) is dependent on a kind of fluid morality–whatever is more moral than the last iteration’s morality. The Dream should not be stagnant, it needs to grow in order to still be The Dream. The Dream needs to represent everyone, to push for ever more morality, even in the face of it’s own shortcomings.

  2. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Between the World and Me, illustrates the repercussions of American exceptionalism and urges people to embody a moral standard that goes past good intentions and well-oiled thoughts. Throughout Coates’ life, he experiences American exceptionalism and its hypocritical notions. As his schoolteachers present the noblest heroes as nonviolent and peaceful, Coates lives in a country that stems from the murder and slavery of others. While people promote the importance of communication and harmony, police officers shoot down innocent African Americans in the streets. American exceptionalism bases itself off of the morality of intention, instead of the morality of actions and consequences. Coates challenges these ideas and proclaims, “The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream” (33). With Coates’ criticism of America’s exceptionalism, he hints at the exceptional standard that must arise. Instead of a standard that clings to the idea of American glory in a world of struggle, people must place their morality within their actions. What one “means” no longer plays a role, the most important indication of exceptionalism emerges from outcomes. Everyday citizens can lead their life through actions, not empty words. Slavery, segregation, and the desecration of black bodies can no longer be discarded as mistakes. People can no longer watch as this country tears apart the lives of the oppressed. Actions become the means, and the consequences will represent American exceptionalism.

  3. To formulate an exceptional moral standard would be to formulate and understanding and awareness of racial, cultural, and ethnical, differences. Many people recently tell themselves and others that they “don’t see color”. I was at a leadership camp last summer and we were discussing the issue of racism in our schools and our communities. One leader said that to not see his Latino skin was to ignore what culture, history, and struggles make him who he is. This stuck with me because, like many, I liked to believe that I “did not see color”. Now as we read this novel, it is even clearer that to ignore one’s color is to ignore their history, culture, and struggles. This book describes what Coates experiences as he grows up in West Baltimore as well as the struggles of control over one’s own body, over security, and over one’s life are constant for those of black people in the United States. To formulate and exceptional moral standard we must not “claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal terror”(8) or “live with the fruits of our history and… ignore the great evil done in all of our names”(9). We must, as my camp leader said, see color and all that encompasses our history and cultures through education, discussion, and action in order to formulate an exceptional moral standard. We, as everyday citizens may be a part of scrutinizing our moral standard by seeking education and understanding of all races and cultures that are a part of the continual American history.

  4. *note: this is intended as the fourth part of an extended response to all of the questions.

    4) One of the most fervently damning quotes in all of Between the World and Me reads as follows: “‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies,” (42). He also writes with equally-determined conviction, “You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold,” (71). Finally, he passionately argues, “It does not matter that the ‘intentions’ of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary. Our world is physical,” (33). Among these arguments and assertions, however, are two noticeable flaws: firstly, the denial of what is, by all historical accounts, an exceptional moral standard; and secondly, the rampant denial of progress, and the corresponding refusal of its impacts as sufficient evidence of development beyond old racialism. Combined as one, and put more easily, progress is the exceptional moral standard upon which American exceptionalism can largely be based, no matter how vehemently Coates denies this—and like I said earlier, it does not promise retribution, nor force one to except glory to substitute for justice of any capacity—but no nation was perfect back in 1776, no nation is perfect today, and so our only points of fair relative comparison are to other nations and epochs in time. This harsh truth of human, and, by extension, national imperfection, seems to be anathema to those that believe in the delusion of equal outcome, in that all people are born, will live, and shall die as equals; unfortunately, this ideology, as juxtaposed with equal opportunity, is erroneous. This is not to declare that race is a measurement by which inequality ought to be drawn—in that an individual is not superior or inferior because of their hair and hue—but it is to run a tragic contrast to the tenant that “all men are created equal.” We know, because of history, that individuals vary largely on a number of facets: beauty, intellect (though there is dispute over the malleability of this trait—largely as an extension of the nature versus nurture debate in psychology—but I digress), the household that they are born into, and the aggregate wealth of those that came before; to put it more bluntly, equal opportunity—in the sense of everybody starting off from the same point and with the same opportunities—is also fallacious. That is to say, equal opportunity, at its core level—as I comprehend it—is rooted in the protection of individual rights that allow everybody to possess a potential, if not necessarily the same potential, to succeed. So, from here I could dart off onto incorporating discussions of white privilege, critical race theory, institutionalized racism, and all of those related concepts, but I’d rather not write a novel; after all, the primary point that I’m getting at is that America is not a utopia, because utopias are a figment of fantasy novels. Therefore, an exceptional moral standard by which to judge it may not be extrapolated from abstract utopian morality—we can’t judge the past by the standards that we have developed today, except to note the impacts of historical progression—and as aforementioned, we cannot divorce the state of a nation from the norms of its geography and epoch. So, when we acknowledge that statement as truth, and then examine America through this lens, it does not remove the evils that were committed on its soil, but it does, at the very least, contextualize them; this is that point at which it becomes pertinent to dispel the illusion that slavery was some sort of unique result of racist “whites” in America or abroad. In fact, it’s called the slave trade because, in spite of the popular media images, the Africans were enslaved in Africa by other Africans and then sold to Europeans and shipped to the new world, wherein the vast bulk of them arrived in South America and/or the Caribbean, and wherein a tiny percentage came to North America; this is not, by any stretch, meant to be read as some sort of declaration of relative innocence along the lines of, “oh, hey, America only enslaved a few hundred-thousand, it’s not that bad,” for slavery as an institution is an evil practice, just not a uniquely, or even majorly, American one. To compound this, only a small minority of “White America” actually owned slaves, there are still millions upon millions of slaves right now in Africa, and if we consider my contention that progress is evidence of moral exceptionalism, then I offer this: America was hardly unique in its implementation of its institution of slavery, but it was, as far as I know, extraordinarily unique in the fact that it went to war with itself to abolish it. Though I remain skeptical of Coates’ claim that slavery was never so-to-speak destined to end, if one holds that assertion to be the truth, then America’s voluntary and unusual actions are evidence of holding oneself to an exceptional moral standard; so, to answer the original questions, how might we formulate such an exceptional standard? Easy—we already have—but give me a moment. And what might this scrutiny look like and how will we as everyday citizens be a part of it? This one’s trickier because its wording makes it sound reminiscent of some sort of grand unified neighborhood watch that lives only to scrutinize those that operate outside of their system of principles—which would consequently beg the question of just what principles those were? The real issue here is not that America needs to develop a moral standard; it’s that it needs to develop, amidst all of the political polarization and vehement radicalization of both major sides, a more cohesive identity. I’ll explain this by way of example, using the “black-on-black violence” that Coates describes as jargon; in this vein, even a rudimentary review of literature or articles would reveal a great divide between who is deemed to be at fault for this specific phenomenon that has appeared in the “killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit.” The first step would be to come to a consensus as to who is at fault and then respond accordingly with a solution that is tailored to that discovery; as I’ve stated, I’m not going to jump onto a partisan bandwagon, so please remember that this is intended as an arbitrary example and nothing more. With respect to any such situation, as I’ve stated, the American exceptional moral standard comes naturally with its ability to reinvent itself and change over the generations, so that the moral problems and terrible truths of one epoch may be solved and looked back upon as relics of the past; this is also the point at which we must remember that emotion must ultimately, in the general area of policymaking, play second-fiddle to facts—that is to say, we must not erect legislature because of guilt any more than we would do so for unscientific and vitriolic feelings of “racial” supremacy—for in identifying a problem, we must look at the truth, as well as the facts, that underpin it, and then begin creating solutions. And that is arguably the only real job that we possess as everyday citizens: to investigate, to stay informed, to remain open-minded, to not be ruled by sentiments of any flavor and/or variety, and to solve problems with reference to their causalities, in much the same way psychiatrists attempt to treat mental disorders by examining the individual particulars of their patient’s case—as in, don’t reach for the pills first when treating the newly-widowed.

  5. The land of the free, the home of the brave. America was created on the foundation of freedom, the idea that both patriotism and individualism were essential to America’s existence. Over the past two centuries, America has developed into a powerhouse of a nation, a land of innovation, success, and great influence. Most Americans themselves truly believe that America is great, that America is the best nation on this earth.
    This belief that America is exceptional has created a fatal flaw in our nation’s development. Coates explained this error, arguing that our nation “cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error” (8). But that is precisely what America does. We Americans insert ourselves into countries who do not want us, we discriminate against minorities and women, we fail to feed millions of our children, and then we cry that no one is perfect, that we are a new country, that we are doing the best we can. Coates has experienced the true repercussions of this American belief in exceptionalism, living oppressed and endangered because of his skin color, with no solution in sight.
    He argues we must form an “exceptional moral standard” to counteract American exceptionalism. The first step in solving the flaw that Coates identifies is in education. It lies in teaching the necessity of equality, teaching the uncensored (and often gruesome) history of our nation, teaching every child the importance of actions. Teaching young children that their beliefs, their voices, their bodies can make a difference and that, together, make a huge impact is the first step in securing the exceptional moral standard that Coates called for.

  6. In order to formulate an exceptional moral standard, the “Dreamers” that are discussed throughout the book must first be brought into reality. This would consist of white Americans accepting that the safety and control they have enjoyed is a complete illusion. That the plundering of minorities and their bodies was instigated by white ancestors and that the power dynamic could easily shift. If this simple fact is accepted, and dreamers are brought to reality, than a “moral standard” will be better able to be formed and applied to everyone equally. This standard will be a concrete thing that cannot be muddied by intentions. Coates makes it clear that it is irrelevant what someone’s intentions were in doing something, it is only important how that thing effects others. For instance, if a police officer is to shoot an unarmed black boy, it is irrelevant what his intentions were. This is why a moral standard is called for. This code would consist of general truths that do not change due to intentions or prejudices. For instance, taking another person’s life when they are not a threat to your safety is wrong. What is more important than deciding upon these standards is living by them. Many Americans say they support black lives, yet take no real action to help when life after life is taken. This is why Coates does not care for intentions. Intentions cannot protect people. People have to protect people. Wether it is speaking up when hearing offensive language, or stopping to bare as a witness when seeing a black body held up by the police, the moral standard and real change rely on active involvement by all Americans.

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