Moral authority--who wields it and where does it come from? There is arguably no one better to explore this issue than someone who has had the mantle of that authority cast upon her without seeking it or even wanting it. It literally came from above, you could say, when an airplane collided with the New York skyscraper where Nikki Stern's husband Jim happened to be that day. Saddled with her unspeakable grief, she found herself equally weighed down by this new role that society and media had created for her: insta-pundit. Does proximity to tragedy grant one special moral insight? Stern is uniquely situated to recognize this modern phenomenon and the power with which our pop culture imbues celebrities, politicians and other so-called opinion leaders.
In her latest book, part memoir and part commentary, Stern deploys her enviable wit to tilt at society's windmills in a voice empowered by her starring role in arguably the most seminal event of our lifetimes. The painful and public loss of her husband on September 11 and the changes to her life since that day mirror the patterns of loss, anger, despair and rebuilding that our nation as a whole continues to experience. Before you know it, you'll feel a sense of optimism born of the notion that if she can greet each day with humor, intelligence and yes, hope, then it seems possible that we may all collectively as a nation be able to do so as well.
I spoke with her on the eve of the publication of Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority.
CS: Explain just how you came to identify this issue of "moral authority."
NS: Well, my husband was killed on 9/11; he worked in the north tower at the World Trade Center. Suddenly, there I was, a "9/11 widow" in the middle of an event that was both historic in the most significant sense and also, for me and the other family members, deeply personal. And as we, and everyone around us struggled to make sense of what had happened, there seemed to be a kind of iconography that attached itself to the relatives. We were "the 9/11 families." And that iconography also seemed to grant to us a sort of specialness, almost as if, by virtue of our proximity to such a grand tragedy, we were possessed of a special, moral wisdom. Some people began to refer to that as moral authority, as in "The moral authority of the 9/11 families..." And in the middle of my grief and shock and confusion, it occurred to me to wonder: what does that mean? What was suddenly visited upon me - besides grief and shock - because I lost a loved one on 9/11?
CS: What was it like to find yourself in this unenviable role with people coming to you for these sorts of pronouncements?
NS: There were these two different levels at which the aftershocks of 9/11 were taking place: the private aspect, of course, and the public aspect. The 9/11 families, in particular those that lived in and around New York, were invited to participate in a number of decisions and processes related to the event, from what kind of memorial would be built to the rebuilding of downtown New York to, eventually, input into hearings that had to do with security and safety and addressing terrorism and even mental health. There seemed to be an expectation on the part of decision-makers and eventually on the part of some 9/11 family members that family input was...how do I put this?...morally significant. Now I think grieving people deserve respect and careful treatment and I am well aware of the symbolism we families seemed to represent as "survivors" or standard-bearers or representatives of the victims. I am grateful that we were invited to participate in some of these processes; it was both healing and necessary. But there was, for a time, a sort of weight given to the opinions of the victims' families that appeared to be based on some sort of moral wisdom or perhaps a moral stake we'd supposedly acquired as a result of being victims of terror.
CS: Can you give me an example of a time when you sort of realized "what is going on here?"
NS: A number of family "representatives" became members of committees associated with the rebuilding efforts, part of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which was formed to oversee rebuilding efforts. They had been invited as one of a number of stakeholders who were going to have input into plans to rebuild at ground zero. Of course there was some sensitivity among those whose loved ones had died as to whether the site itself held any meaning, i.e. whether it was a burial ground as opposed to, say a crash site or battleground. But as I mentioned, there were a number of stakeholders with varying opinions and perceived needs. Yet the 9/11 families for awhile held the upper hands; their opinions, their needs were perceived as morally more significant. There was, frankly, a great deal of pontificating at some of the meetings and I was profoundly uncomfortable with the thought that some sort of ranking system was in play. I've since noticed that tragedy tends to confer a status on its victims - well, some of its victims - that suggests that they have a moral leg up on the rest of us. That doesn't seem right.
I must also say, as one of those victims or survivors, I was seen in a very strange light - and this is an example of how a private event can become public and the victim can become "special" in an almost creepy way. I know people suffer different levels of loss and process loss in different ways and many things may constitute loss, not simply human life. But the way in which 9/11 families were set apart - and I believe this happened with some of the first responders as well, which might make more sense - allowed people to feel as if they were part of the public drama if they could get close to or attach themselves to someone who'd experienced the loss first-hand. And so I had strangers and near-strangers and people I hadn't seen in quite some time trying to pass themselves off as friends of mine or people who were close to me or knew and could practically feel what I was going through.
CS: Unfortunately losing a spouse due to violent crimes is not in itself unique. But this was something that...everyone felt attacked, everyone felt vested in. And, I don't know what that was like for you because it's very different to feel the horror that we all felt in general compared to the specific horror you felt and it seems like people were reaching out to you with that kind of a bond. Were you thinking: "you have no idea."?
NS: I did at first and then I became suspect of those feelings. The certainty that we were unique could easily morph into the certainty that we, as victims, were somehow "special" - not in a good way, of course, but in a way that suggested we were, ah, "touched." But anyone who suffers a loss in the context of an event that also has historical significance is going to feel that way. People who suffered a loss at Columbine, which was maybe the first school shooting to crash into our consciousness in the way that it did; anyone who has gone through large and fully covered earthquakes and disasters; Katrina,certainly. I think those people feel "you can't possibly understand" and of course when you go through something like that, no one [else] can possibly understand. None of that gives you a moral leg up on anyone else. And I'm sure there are people who would say "well, that was never assumed, that was never implied, and that was never inferred." I beg to differ. I think it's probably hard to see almost 9 years on but I think each and every time an event happens, we immediately make icons out of particular individuals. Having those heroes or martyrs may create a kind of comforting reassurance for us, but it puts a terrible burden on victims and maybe on us as well.
CS: So how does Nikki Stern define moral authority?.
NS: One of the things I discovered while I was looking around for a definition of moral authority is that contemporary definitions are almost nonexistent. By combining various definitions of the words "moral" and "authority", I came up with an authority that derives its power from an assumed virtue and also, given what I'd observed, one that tended to set itself apart or above. I also think our easy and unthinking acceptance of the notion prevents us from examining those people or institutions, concepts or ideas we imbue with such authority. We don't question moral authority even though we question other kinds of authority; we don't subject it to the same level of reason, of critical thinking. It cheapens the notion, maybe even turns it into something outmoded. Suddenly this celebrity, that victim, this wise doctor, that phenomenal talk show host - these people are all about an authority that tells you to accept it because it is so certain. Moral authority has become not about being moral but about being right; and when someone is right and certain and absolute, someone else is absolutely wrong. Don't misunderstand me; I believe there are parameters that help us establish what is right and wrong; I believe in moral behavior. But I think morality is a group as well as an individual effort. But the authority to influence, to lead, to persuade is not, should not be about planting one's flag in the ground and saying "this is the way it is and you can't question me because I know."
CS: As part of your exploration, you take a look at how the brain works and I think that's an interesting approach. Talk about that.
NS: After I began to see - and object to - the relationship of this idea of moral authority as tied to certainty, I began to look at our relationship to the notion of certainty. What is it that allows people to claim they're right or that they just know? We all may find comfort in certainty and in people or movements that preach certainty but what is it to be certain? I'd seen an article in the New York Times by a Princeton professor about how our brains trick us into taking in information and then separating it from its origins before sending it to another part of the brain, so that by the time it ends up where it is stored, we've forgotten how we learned what we learned. That makes it both harder to remember if the information was true and harder still to dislodge it from our brain. It's why it's so difficult to change people's minds. But knowing that allows you to institute a, let's call it a "work-around:" you know your brain plays tricks on you so you learn to assess information in a certain way from the beginning. Not being aware of how the brain works, not being mindful of what we can know and what we can't know can lead to an over-reliance on assumptions we've made over the years, many of which may be based on outdated information. Yet we are very fearful of questioning those assumptions.
CS: So why don't you fill in the blank for me just off the top of your head: "[Blank] because I say so."
NS: It is so because I say so. I am right because I say so. My god is the true god because I say so. When we were young, our parents didn't need to explain anything to us when they asked (or ordered) us to do something because they knew more than we did. There was a level of expertise and experience that came into [their saying] "because I say so." But something isn't right [simply] because you say it's right. That's not how it works. There has to be some reason, some explanation, and we have to approach the idea that something is right or even true with some flexibility, because anything that we know because of evidence that's been presented to us or accumulated by us is also subject to new information. That's the most significant problem I have with the concept of "absolute certainty:" that it doesn't seem to allow for new information. Someone may say "but moral standards don't fit that approach," but they do; that is, moral standards are subject to new (and improved) information as well. If not, we'd all still be okay with slavery or genocide and even in those places where they are still practiced, I'd suggest that people know it to be wrong - perhaps they refer to those practices as something else because they understand it's wrong.
The idea that there is some entity who cannot, should not be questioned because he, she, they or it is coming from a standpoint of moral certainty makes me hugely uncomfortable because it seems to shut down the possibility of growth. No, we don't want to slide backwards - that's the reason for attention to the greatest common good - but we also don't want to close off growth, including moral growth. One more thing: as hard as it is to live in a world of uncertainty, what uncertainty does allow for is possibility. If you don't know, you can, of course, assume an outcome. You can also hope for an outcome and then work hard to ensure a good one.
CS: I'd like to suggest the book be called "Buy This Book Because I Say So." To that end, give me the takeaway. What is it you hope that people-- once they do buy your book--will walk away with?
NS: We live in uncertain times and in an uncertain world. In reality, that's always been the case but we continue to have difficulty with the idea that human history is cyclical. We look for comfort, something steady to moor us during the bad times. Understandable. But retreating to the safety of unexamined beliefs, sacred assumptions and fear-based biases is NOT how to get through uncertain times. No good has come, no good can come of going into one's private space or private group or private belief system and say: "I'm/we're right and you others are wrong; we have nothing in common; my set of facts is better than your set of facts, na na na." That's where we are right now and it truly feels like a sort of devolution, which is very discouraging. Worse, everyone's an expert, everyone knows best, everyone hangs only with the people who agree with them. People don't think about coming in[to] the middle and looking for common ground. Difficult issues - abortion, religion - people don't, can't imagine finding common ground. Why should they; they're certain of their beliefs. They are, their beliefs are, their group is infallible. But there is no certainty. Our brains are not wired that way. But we humans are wired to think, to measure, to take stock, to examine, to re-examine. We're also wired - I choose to hope what I'm about to say, by the way - we're wired for compassion. We don't always choose to access that part of our consciousness, just as we don't apply or hone our critical thinking skills, or use our ability to reason. But we could, to various degrees; most of us, save perhaps the psychopaths, could think and reflect and try just a bit of skepticism and questioning (which is not at all like being cynical but is rather a way of taking measure of a situation). What a difference that would make! How much more likely would it be that we'd find common ground, and yes, acknowledge and even live with our differences, if we could just do that?
Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority is published by Bascom Hill and available in bookstores and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and at www.nikkistern.com