Morality as Story

The False Charity of Modern Journalism

In 1900, Theodore Dreiser published Sister Carrie, a realistic novel about a girl who drifts into a life of comfortable immorality because she is hungry and poorly dressed. Among her paramours is George Hurstwood, a successful businessman who falls in with her out of idle covetousness and discontent. In the act of running off with Carrie, Hurstwood substantially robs his company. He hustles her onto a train with him, but when they arrive at a distant city and he reads of the incident in that city's newspaper, he is stung:

What hurt him most was the fact that he was being pursued as a thief. He began to see the nature of that social injustice which sees but one side—often but a single point in a long tragedy. All the newspapers noted but one thing, his taking the money. How and wherefore were but indifferently dealt with. All the complications which led up to it were unknown. He was accused without being understood.

If only Hurstwood were living today. Some enterprising journalist would track him down via Twitter and write a sympathetic profile, or Hurstwood himself could lay it all out for us at We would learn how his wife and children treated him only as an access point for resources. He would win our sympathy for the rewards his previous decency had failed to bring him, his ardor for blank and pretty Carrie, and the wacky way in which he came to hold a pile of someone else's cash. Hurstwood would become to us a fellow victim of endemic societal mistreatment, and therefore unsubject to judgment. His story would explain it all.

A False Charity

We have all made mistakes, of course, and are likely to make many more. Our own failings have taught us how often an obese sin is fed by a set of strange accidents, native susceptibilities, misunderstandings, and a broken thyroid. How can those uncontrollable factors amount to meaningful culpability?

If Hurstwood were a real person and alive today, he'd be happy to see how, for journalists, putting a sympathetic face on a perpetrator's crime or vice has become a matter of course. No news report of murder, adultery, extortion, or perversion is complete without the perpetrator's backstory. Every such story contains an evil stepmother, a curse, a bum knee, an unseasonal hurricane, or some other mitigating why factor that craves to supersede the who, what, when, and where of traditional journalism.

And it often does. The personal narrative of the guilty party is presumed to be as crucial to understanding the case as the mere facts are, perhaps even more so. Accordingly, newscasters must give this narrative more airtime. Yes, Mickey brought a gun to QuikTrip, scared everyone there, took some money, and caused other problems. But why, and under what extenuating circumstances (there always are some), and how does Mickey feel now?

Actually, we already know how Mickey feels. He is not a monster. He feels bad, obviously; his regret is nearly implicit in the offense. He shouldn't have robbed the QuikTrip. He wishes he weren't this way that makes it hard for him not to do that particular bad thing. He wishes it hadn't happened. He didn't want people to be hurt, and he's sorry people are angry and hurt. Plus, the fuel delivery scheduled that morning made the whole thing a lot worse than it would have been otherwise, so that was a real shame. But it's over and done and Mickey would like it to be over and done, unless you need to hear his story again.

Getting people to make moral judgments by means of backstory is a storytelling offender's goal, for he aims not so much to have his immoral act pardoned as to have the depth of its immorality denied. The offender wants his guilt not forgiven, but vacated. He does not want to be rehabilitated, but to be understood as not really needing rehabilitation. There is no real news story in the backstory a guilty man is eager to have understood. There is only excuse, the stalest story in the book.

The truly sorry, on the other hand, do not want to tell their "story." They know the real story is only guilt, and the only way for that story to go away is for it to stop being told.

As for ourselves, the tendency to feel sympathy for perpetrators based on their "story" has much to do with our interest in setting a precedent that might someday buy clemency for our own guilt and shame. It is social insurance against the offenses we might one day commit.

Wait, you may say. Surely that is too cynical. Have we no human love? And if we do, how can we who have done wrong ourselves show anything less than reckless mercy to other miserable wrong-doers?

This sympathetic pull of one human heart toward another is noble and good, but it cannot be our schema for dealing with immorality. Justice also has a claim. Moreover, it is a false charity that cultivates sympathy toward those who flout the moral framework on which a just and secure society is built. Loving the sinner does not mean enabling his recidivism and putting a new line of potential victims in his path; nor is it loving to create public farces under which historical, measurable misdeeds can appear to have no historical, measurable consequences.

Consideration for the Victims

And what about the victims? Those who moralize by story often give victims a say, but the victims' say can never be treated fairly. For victims have a social interest in moving on that self-excusers do not. Faithful Marcy cannot win the storytelling contest against rakish Brent. If she dwells upon the wrong done to her by this fellow imperfect human, she appears bitter and unforgiving. If she somehow manages to be sympathetic, she effectively endorses Brent's narrative, and advances his goal of mitigating the facts.

Most victims, therefore (like the repentant), see that it is net beneficial to leave the past behind. They prefer to say little or nothing. It is the Brents of the world who have the incentive to dwell upon the event. They are the ones served by explaining the complications that make the affair sound tragically beautiful—unlike the bare facts. For them, the rococo why trumps boring old who, what, when, and where.

Of course, we must see persons with our hearts if we are to remain human ourselves, but this seeing must be properly located. It must be done personally, not publicly. It belongs in our kitchens and garages, our prayers and prison visits. We owe it far more to those who have wronged us personally than to strangers who have wronged some other stranger about whom we know no more than what we heard on the news. Seeing the hearts of criminals emphatically does not belong in our newsrooms, because it is not news that people have feelings. News is action and events, not personal narrative—especially not the stories people tell to gussy up their sins.

Moreover, telling the whole story can never occur when good manners demand that real-life victims rein in their pain. Moral judgment by story is always biased toward the guilty narrative, which is free to spin itself toward an accidental or ignorant cataclysm. The victim can only gain sympathy by appearing to be forgiving of the offense's basest appearance. In short, morality by story can never work, because the story cannot be told truly.

The Moral of the Story

How, then, can we hear the story of the person? Through fiction, Dreiser showed us the heart of a perpetrator without exploiting a real person. Hurstwood, Carrie, and all their associates serve as a control group. They allow us to research our own hearts in the laboratory that is good fiction. We can read their story and make a judgment uncolored by either our own pain or our assessment of another victim's sympathy. We can see pathetic Hurstwood and obtuse Carrie, and take them as a warning, without excusing sin or re-hurting a real person. These imagined lives enable us to see what is true.

That is a novelist's job, and it cannot be a journalist's job. Since real life has real pain, the false charity of morality by story can only cause more of it. •

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #40, Spring 2017 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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