open thread: moral quandaries
what to do, what do do?
My last post on Juvenescence featured an anonymous piece written by a woman who, after a long career in US educational publishing, recently found herself tasked with the job of stripping alternative family structure content from social sciences textbooks aimed at high school students.
She wasn’t given a choice, the order came down from legal and was signed off on by her company’s board. Like all US publishers, her company is being forced to comply with the Sunshine state’s recently passed “don’t say Gay” law (and other state-by-state laws of the same regressive, censorious ilk). As a middle manager with a staff to consider and paymasters to please, the author had little choice. But that’s different from saying she had no choice. She could have refused and then quit on principle — but what good would that have done? So she did what she felt was wrong but safe thing and took the risk of writing about it. Reading the piece her agony and ambivalence is palpable. It’s a brave piece made all the more moving by the fact that she is harder on herself than anyone else. This is what hard choices do: They make us examine ourselves.
The world is changing so rapidly it seems that many of us are being faced with stark moral choices on an almost daily basis, not just at work but in our personal and family lives. In many cases, the right or correct thing to do isn’t clear or obvious. Social mores are shifting along with the market. There are people and ramifications to consider on both sides of every difficult choice — what lawyers call “a balance of harm” — and often there isn’t a clear or correct answer. And yet choose we must. And we do.
Because indecision is a choice in itself — one that often comes with the most destructive consequences of all.
As a writer of fiction, memoir and journalism, I have long been fascinated by stories of people in a state of moral quandary. Moral quandaries are central to all great literature and narrative art. In my own work I am always circling back to them, putting my characters in classic double-binds then prodding and examining their decisions. This is cruel of me because double-binds are a special kind agony, but what’s the point of creating characters if you don’t get to torture them to see what they do?
If you’ve ever been in terrible muddle (which I’m sure you have, as have I, more times than I can count) you will know the feeling: A yearning to put an end to the exhausting limbo-hell of vacillation. A frantic desire for the safety of resolution. But big choices require action and certainty. And it’s hard to be certain when there are sure to be consequences of your decision on both sides. How can you choose the right path without knowing the outcome in advance? What if you regret it later? Is there a compromise?
(Sometimes, yes. For instance: comply with the atrocious law in order to protect your livelihood and livelihood of your staff but find a way to get your story out there in the hope that other conflicted people might know they are not alone. It’s not particularly satisfying but it’s something. A weak sort of compromise, but compromises are weak by definition, unlike clear choices which are stark.)
SO! On this weeks’s Memoir Club thread, I invite you to share your most fascinating, agonising, inspiring, maddening classic double bind stories, whether personal or fictional. What’s the most difficult moral quandary you’ve ever faced? What famous stories in literature or cinema did your own quandary remind you of at the time? What choice did you make (if any) and what was the outcome? Did you regret your choice in the end or are you satisfied? Have you even looked back? (Some people don’t. I am not one of them.) How did your moral choice change your life and the lives of those around you? How did you make your choice and stick to it? What happened?
Open threads are only open to paid subscribers. They are fantastic lively discussions full of fascinating likeminded people I have come to consider friends — so please do consider joining us on the other side of the paywall. I’ve dropped my subscription price for the month of May so consider taking advantage of the special offer while you can.
Have a lovely Tuesday. Hope to talk to you soon!
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