The Morality Trap
A nonprofit arts organization here in Los Angeles — call them “The Org” — recently announced the inauguration of an annual scholarship, named in honor of a deceased colleague, which will aid a deserving student in his college studies. The Org, staffed by well-meaning unpaid volunteers, believes in helping and promoting promising talents, and the generous grant The Org is offering might change some young man or woman’s life, allowing the recipient to devote time and energy to being an artist and a student, instead of a wage earner.
To be considered for this prestigious scholarship, applicants must demonstrate extraordinary talent, aptitude, and determination. They must prove their seriousness. And they must distinguish themselves from hundreds of others competing for the prize.
And per The Org’s guidelines, they must also be someone of “good moral character.”
Since art is often subversive, revolutionary, and threatening to the corporate-political-religious institutions that control society, one could argue that “good moral character” is a fundamental handicap to someone wishing to be an accomplished artist. Let’s assume, however, that an artist can in fact work within the system, illuminating, enlightening and challenging her fellow citizens without constantly calling attention to the inherent flaws in the machinery. How does one define “good moral character”? One person’s sin is another’s sexual preference; one person’s agnosticism is another’s ungodliness. The Org might as well have required applicants to demonstrate “innate beauty”.
The problem with the “good moral character” clause is deeper than the impossibility of creating a uniform definition. The troubling ramification — which The Org doesn’t seem to fully understand — is that so-called “morality clauses” have been used for decades as an instrument of discrimination, allowing ugly prejudice to hide behind a scrim of imagined virtue. Nearly every minority group of every skin color, national background, and religious persuasion has at some point in American (and World) history been disqualified from or denied access to the grand prizes of mainstream life, the political offices and boardroom chairs, because of alleged faults in “moral character.” The phrase has been pernicious code for “someone we don’t like because he is different from us,” and it sounds a lot more palatable than “someone we don’t like because he’s Latino” or “someone we despise because she likes to have sex with other women.”
Knowing many of The Org’s board members, I’m confident that they aren’t bigots. On the contrary, they celebrate diversity and multi-culturalism. Their trip down the slippery slope of judging what is (or isn’t) “good moral character” is an unwitting one, born not of hatefulness but ignorance. The Org doesn’t realize that the best way to discourage “the wrong kind of people” from winning the scholarship is to outline exactly what won’t be tolerated, e.g, “no record of violent crimes.”
Requiring applicants to demonstrate “good moral character” buys into the same failed paradigm that has stuck us with 8 years of the Bush Dynasty, wherein a grossly unqualified and incompetent candidate wins the grandest prize extant largely because he says the right things about prayer and Christ and keeping our country safe from faggotry — and then behaves with the utmost immorality when managing the nation’s treasury and armed forces.
An arts organization dedicated to making the world an incrementally more beautiful place should avoid the morality trap.