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February 3, 2005 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Vol. 2, No. 39

  Making morality just another name for villainy
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

The poets, it seems, knew all about it. It sometimes takes the rest of us longer to figure it out. Shakespeare, for instance, said of Iago, the one whose interests seemed above reproach but whose heart was double: "A man can smile and smile and be a villain."

And T.S. Eliot wrote once: "To do the right thing for the wrong reason is the worst treason."

Point: However moral an action may look, it's the intention behind it that determines its total value.

We saw some of that ourselves recently, perhaps. In the middle of a tight presidential election, the question of gay marriage -- a highly debatable and volatile subject which does indeed require a great deal of discussion, a veritable Solomon's circle of thinkers -- suddenly showed up on the ballots of 11 highly contested states. Strange, perhaps, but effective. Effective but not necessarily moral.

Interesting, too, is the fact that the issue of gay marriage has seldom been heard about since in political circles. What once seemed to be the harbinger of doom on a 24-hour timer has suddenly disappeared. No one has rushed any altars in any of those states. No one has held up the office of the county clerk anywhere to steal marriage licenses or forge names on them. Apparently the worst is over, the threat has been bested, the coast is clear again. If in fact it was ever endangered.

Clearly, people do highly laudable things for obviously nefarious reasons.

Women ought to know. After all, they've been living with the problem for centuries. Women who would commonly carry a three year old, a sack of potatoes and half a basket of wet wash at the same time, for instance, couldn't get high paying jobs because "protective labor laws" said that women could not work in any position that required them to lift more than 40 pounds. At home they could, of course. But on the job, never. That kind of protection cost women a lot of jobs that provided steady work and, better yet, guaranteed pay.

In fact, issues of work hours, conditions and categorization of labor by sex were all used to keep women from competing with men for public or professional employment. You have to wonder about the motives.

But during World War II, protective legislation and its division of labor into male/female taxonomies, for all practical purposes, disappeared overnight. To lure women into the work place during a period when the size of the male labor force declined, lawmakers forgot what women couldn't do because now they wanted them to do something else.

When the men returned from the war, however, "protective" legislation was revived. Laws that had long lain dormant were suddenly being used again to force women out of jobs they had proven they could do and were intent on being able to keep. The reason was always the same: "This is only for your own good, dear." The low wages are for your own good. The short hours are for your own good. The fact that you are not permitted to negotiate your own contract is for your own hapless good, dear. And all the while we will profit from it by getting the better jobs, the higher salary, and the longer hours.

It took years of revolution, revilement and rejection for feminists to overcome such gendered and exploitative thinking.

You'd think all of that would surely be over now. You'd think all the negative derogation of women would be gone. You'd think that in an age when men go to the moon, build nuclear bombs and prepare to clone each other that they'd be able to figure out that women are fully human, too. You'd think that we would all be better able to think through the meaning of our best actions to the moral foundation of our real motives. Think again.

In India Diminishing returns, by Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, NCRonline.org, Feb. 15), women are still the least preferred sex, often because sons are required to perform the funeral rituals that assure a parent's entry into heaven, largely because dowries conferred on daughters are seen as money lost to the family of the daughter and conferred on the family of the future son-in-law. Wasted, in other words.

In India, therefore, family planning revolves as much around sex-selection as it does around numbers. So successful has the elimination of girl-children become, in fact, that the shortage of women portends a shortage of sons in the future. Suddenly, the question of female infanticide is a new kind of problem for men and so is in the process of review.

In China, the problem has become even more acute. After 25 years of a one-child policy, the male-female population rate is now grossly unbalanced. There are simply not enough women for men to marry in a country that has for centuries been family oriented. As a result, prostitution, once almost unknown in China, flourishes, male gangs are rampaging through the cities, and AIDS is reaching epidemic levels there, as it is in so much of the rest of the world.

So, in one city, Guiyang, China, (See The New York Times, Feb. 17) the local government has announced that is going to "firmly crack down on the criminal activity of drowning and other ways of brutally killing female babies." The inclination is to applaud. Say "finally." Breathe a sigh of relief. Feel civilized.

But wait a minute. The great change did not come because women and a feminine perspective on life are valued. The change is coming for women because it is in the best interests of the men of the land.

From where I stand, this looks like one more instance where motive is a great deal more important than the program, important as the program may be. However, it makes me want to look again at some of our other plans. The election in Iraq is being celebrated, but tell us again why we really invaded Iraq and what cost to the people this ongoing occupation really entails? National security is imperative, of course, but tell us again how it is that legislation that erodes civil rights can possibly make us more secure in the long run. We applaud the fact that women can finally get high-level academic degrees in theology but, in that case, tell us again why priests can't be married and women can't be ordained? National Guard vehicles in Iraq will now receive the armor they needed two years ago, but tell us again why it is that the national budget is high on military expenditures but low on veterans' benefits.

This time don't simply tell us what's happening, tell us why it's happening -- and who's really benefiting from it all?

Maybe we ought to start examining why we're doing what we're doing. If we really want to be moral, that is. Otherwise, we run the risk of making morality just another name for villainy, for treason.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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