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LOOKING UP THE SLEEVES OF SHADY-ASS MORAL MAGICIANS

When I was in college, a friend of mine worked at a clothing store and one day told me to come in and he'd get me a huge discount. Sounded great so I drove right over. When there, I learned that his huge discount was ~99% off retail, meaning I'd pay about a dollar for every $100 worth of cool new clothes of my choice. If you don't know what kind of deal this is, it's called "hooking up a friend". In undistorted language, however, we all know what it really is: stealing. (I didn't wind up "buying" any clothes that day.)

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This friend was eventually caught giving the "discount" to himself, and subsequently fired. Shortly afterward, I asked him how in hell he thought his scheme was a good idea. Back then, his answer surprised (and kind of sickened) me. The company paid such crappy wages, he claimed, especially given how much money they had from ripping customers off with overpriced clothing, that he deserved the clothes. It was a moral issue for him to get his due.

That day I gained insight into how some men rationalize away wrongdoings: they lie to others and themselves by twisting their wrong into a right, an injustice *they committed* into an injustice *committed against them*. Although the whole situation was somewhat of a shock, it didn't concern me much. For if this friend kept at his ways, I figured we'd eventually just not be friends any longer. (Or vice-versa; for in my view, stealing as a young man doesn't mean you've got an unredeemable soul for life or something.) But what happens when such deception -- of others and of one's self -- becomes accepted culturally, on a grand scale?

In the attached New York Times opinion piece -- which is currently one of the most popular articles for the paper, with sympathizing readers and commenters worldwide -- its author *proudly* tells a twisted tale of his unpaid college debt. He proclaims, "I chose life. That is to say, I defaulted on my student loans." How is it possible to be self-righteous about deliberately not paying back money that one borrowed from a fellow man? Intriguingly, just like my once friend, the author gains his (pseudo) strength by attempting to turn the moral tables, to make the villain the victim and the victim the villain. For instance, he condemns collection agencies as "greedy vultures", criticizes colleges for charging tuition at "lunatic levels", and even strikes at "the nature of American life" itself as being "predatory". So instead of taking responsibility for defaulting on a loan -- that is, in undistorted words, for stealing money -- the shyster-thief transforms himself into a sufferer-saint.

[Oddly enough, at one point in the article the author even altruistically shares tips on how others in debt can escape the "system's" justice: "Get as many credit cards as you can before your credit is ruined. Find a stable housing situation. ... Live with or marry someone with good credit (preferably someone who shares your desperate nihilism)."]

As a teacher from childhood once told me, "The world is a great place, with wonderful people, but there will always be a small percentage who choose to be slime." In my view, some of that slime -- the more sophisticated bad guys (and gals) -- have perfected an unethical sleight of hand, convincing others and themselves that their despicable actions are actually good. The author of this NYT piece is one such moral magician. May we all be aware of the tricks of his kind.

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Jesse McCarthy is the founder of jemslife, an educational resource offering personalized teacher and parent coaching.

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