Form-Over-Content Morality: Denying Service

Posted on June 26, 2018 by

Charges of hypocrisy are popular in the current political landscape, and hypocrisy is certainly a vice, if a minor one. But much of what’s going on in these charges is an emphasis on form over content. To say any action is immoral requires an understanding of what it is in reaction to. Spitting in my face at dinner because I served peas instead of carrots is uncivil. Spitting in the face of your murderer is proper defiance.

Currently the right is claiming that those cheering restaurants denying service to Sarah Sanders and Kristjen Nielsen are being hypocritical if they would also be opposed to florists denying service to gay people. But these aren’t even apples-to-oranges comparisons: they’re apples-to-underpants.

To recontextualize, the claim that denying service to Sanders and Nielsen is the same as denying service to gay people is roughly like saying, “if you’re opposed to imprisoning gays, you should be opposed to imprisoning kidnappers.” Imprisoning is, of course, quite wrong if the imprisoned hasn’t committed a crime.

But there’s a huge difference between being a man who wants to marry another man, and being a an agent of a criminal organization that is kidnapping and jailing children. Right now, we have cages full of kids who were ripped from their parents, and in many cases there is no clear plan for returning these children[1]. Not that this crime needs to made worse to deserve the horrid punishment of no tacos, but when those children were kidnapped, they also had all their toys confiscated[2]. That may seem a minor addition, but to be dragged from your mother, and then have the stuffed animal you’ve used for comfort torn from your hands and thrown in a box is a bizarre and unnecessary addition of cruelty to an already cruel action.

So to say that Nielsen and Sanders deserve the same deference as two men who wanted to buy a wedding cake is perverse. The mere form of denying service is too thin to be judged right or wrong; indeed the right to refuse service under some circumstances has long been legally established.

What’s not legal is to deny someone service because of their race, religion or gender. And that makes sense: too much evil follows from it, and locking people out of economic access because of their skin color is how we wound up with a long-standing underclass in this country. Sometimes our freedom to say “no” needs to be balanced against a much greater moral imperative.

But sometimes that freedom is a just expression of outrage, and must be preserved. There is a difference between responding to someone’s skin color, sex or beliefs, and responding to someone’s actions. This is fundamental to moral understanding, and the effort to strip away the content of these cases is either ignorant, or an intentional effort to further undermine ethical thought by an administration which has employed lies and tweet-length rhetoric to ratchet up hate.

One further point: the right has also been claiming “Obama did it too!” This is almost too childish to respond to, but to the extent that Obama did it too, that doesn’t make it right! I thought we learned this in grade school, but apparently it’s a lesson that some never internalized. Now, clearly, what Obama did was different,[3] but he’s hardly blameless.[4] It’s important that those opposed to Trump own up to this. And supporters of Obama who are saying, “he didn’t separate children from their parents!” are, to some extent, guilty of focusing on a difference of form. Yes, what Trump did was worse, but both presidents have been jailing families who are seeking asylum, in many cases from political situations that the US caused or abetted.[5]

None of this excuses the current climate of hate and the abuse of government power that the Trump administration is fomenting and committing. Since there’s little hope of anyone in the upper levels of the government being held accountable for these crimes, giving them some degree of discomfort from public shunning seems the least we can do to express our moral outrage at their actions. If Sanders and Nielsen want to be served by people who come from south of our border, perhaps they should think about how they can make recompense for their actions. Simply complaining that gay people have claimed a right to be served only highlights the extent to which they don’t understand the basic ethical question at play.