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Commentary

“Inappropriate” Hardly the Right Word


     
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For my money the fact that so many Americans—at least among those whose comments are quoted on TV and in newspapers—liked Bill Clinton’s brief TV talk after his grand-jury testimony is scary.

First of all, I am not sure what is important is how people feel about all this—it overshadows the issue of the nature of the deeds. The real issue is all about an action by the President of the USA involving a sexually inappropriate—no, actually morally wrong, offensive, and very probably illegal—involvement with not just an employee but an intern. At any of the institutions where I work, if a dean, department manager, vice president, department head or even professor did such a thing, he or she would probably be fired and the sued, plain and simple. A CEO who is sexually "serviced"—and let us not kid ourselves what this was—by a subordinate is a disgrace, for certain. This is rank exploitation, nothing less. And in most places it is out and out illegal—one would suppose it certainly would be in the White House!

And then there is the duplicitous way the press went about disclosing his deed: "Inappropriate" my foot. It would have been inappropriate to have Monica lug books back to the library for him when that’s not in her job description. My asking a professional in my office to make coffee for me or to take my shirts to the laundry is inappropriate. What the president did was gross, if we wish to stick with slang. Or, better, something loathsome, morally odious, entirely unbecoming of someone in his position. Not to mention an embarrassment for the United States government, to have such a pathetic person at its head.

Oh, past presidents have done things off base, certainly. But not usually in the White House and with a 22-year-old intern And not ones who were champions of feminism! It is hard to fathom, even now, and I am no prude by any means.

This business of calling the matter ‘‘inappropriate" brings to mind some deeper issues, however. It is something that psychologists have made popular, mainly because in their role as technicians or scientists they were not supposed to use out and out moral judgments when they considered their clients’ behavior. So instead of saying, "What you are doing stinks or is morally wrong or should be stopped," they started this circumspect way of speaking: "You are involved in an inappropriate relationship" or "What you are doing with your sister is inappropriate." This kind of skirted being forth-rightly judgmental—you know how awful it is to be judgmental, don’t you? Instead it became grotesquely euphemistic.

All of this is the result of a serious philosophical turn in modern times: the belief that ethics or morality are arbitrary, that judging something right or wrong is insupportable, that all values are mere biases. But since that position is impossible to maintain consistently, judgments got smuggled back into vogue in this round about way, by calling what is morally wrong "inappropriate" and what is morally right "appropriate." But not quite fessing up to making moral judgments!

But aside from the intellectual history of ethical discourse, it is worth noting that the skeptical view about ethics—that we cannot know what is right and wrong, it’s all a matter of our opinion, nothing else—helps cads a great deal. They can now dodge charges of being jerks much more easily than in a time when standards were believed to be firmly established. Bill Clinton is taking full advantage of this fact and too many Americans are falling for it: Whoever can really tell what is wrong with what he did; it is just a private matter—is it really, to sexually exploit a 22-year-old intern?

What the president did was immoral and very likely illegal and then how he dealt with it was deceptive and evasive. And we haven’t even heard from Starr yet.


Tibor R. Machan is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and Professor of Philosophy at Chapman University. He is the author of numerous books including Private Rights and Public Illusions.






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