Outlaw Morality

I confess I used to scan Salon.com fairly regularly, back a few years ago when they were still free and Camille Paglia was still writing for them. I remember reading Tracy Quan’s semi-autobiographical series Diary of a Manhattan Callgirl with a certain guilty pleasure (although as erotica it fell rather flat; if you want your literary sex to be sexy, the last point of view you want is that of someone who does it for a living). In a recent interview with Reason, Quan made an intriguing statement, which I think has a much wider significance than for the sex industry alone:

…I admire the advances of activism. But I have noticed that, though we’re behind politically, prostitutes in America who are accustomed to working illegally are often more trustworthy people than prostitutes who have worked under a legalized system. The value system is an outlaw value system.

I think outlaws are more trustworthy people. They’re forced to think about what they think is right and wrong. You are forced to think about the ethics of your behavior in terms of loyalty. It’s a very tribal mentality: us against the world. In the respectable world, it’s about what you can get away with legally. There are a lot more loopholes in the respectable world. People will tell themselves: “It’s OK because it’s legal.” An outlaw doesn’t have that option.

This quote caught my attention, and it keeps coming back to me. In a way it’s another perspective on a phenomenon that I’ve noticed for a long time, but never known quite how to express. There is an interpley, a give-and-take, between regulation and morality. Ostensibly they are two separate fields, but in practice it seems that regulation influences the way people think about right and wrong. The more of it there is, the more people tend to fall into a dualistic, black and white outlook. Either something is legal, in which case it’s fine, and how dare you suggest otherwise – or it’s illegal in which case it’s wrong and you get what you deserve if you get caught. All attention is focused on The Line, and the dialogue shifts, over time, from the subject of individual actions to the subject of where the line should be drawn. Advocates of a certain behaviour protest that not only should it be on this side of The Line, but that it should be not only allowed but protected from discrimination. Opponents cry out that if it is allowed at all, it will become universally accepted. And all the while the importance of The Line grows, and the less scrupulous satisfy themselves with the thought that so long as they stay within the letter of the law they remain guilt-free. And sooner or later the moralists point to these line-huggers and say “See, it’s not enough to prevent abuse – we need to strengthen the law further”. And the cycle begins again.

Tracy’s point about outlaw value systems is an intriguing one. The idea that if sucess depends on staying on the right side of The Line, then you will do whatever it takes so long as it is technically legal; but if sucess depends on your reputation then you will go above and beyond to establish yourself as a dependable player. I think one of the keys to the outlaw system is that discrimination is not only allowed, it is expected. No one is expected to pay lip-service to technically compliant behaviour; you have to go the extra mile in order to stay afloat. I think that one of modern society’s greatest mistakes has been the stigmatization and deprecation of shame, ostracization, and peer pressure. Part of it was an unavoidable side-effect of the shrinking world, as social networks became larger and larger. But part of it is the fault of a misplaced sense of liberalism that says that if something is allowed, it must be accepted. I’d like to see reputations regain some of their old currency. I want to see more shades of grey. I want more permissive laws, and fewer laws altogether – but I want it to be once again socially acceptable to blacklist a person, or a corporation, because they are rude, inconsiderate, untrustworthy, hateful, exploitive, ungenerous, or mean.

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  1. only caveat I would raise…

    is that if you go back and read the actual history of humanity that back in the days of the “outlaw system”/minimal tribal laws/etc etc.. that the reasons why people got blacklisted was less about them being rude, inconsiderate, untrustworthy, hateful, etc.. but more about people assigning those traits to anyone who they didn’t like or feared or whom they wanted to exploit, which usually meant that women and minorities–whether they be political, ethnic, religions, or whatever–tended to get blacklisted and called untrustworthy etc etc…

    Now.. I’m not saying that the creation of laws outlawing such things as “racism” or “sexism” has necessarily solved the problem.. but taking the converse approach that because these laws don’t solve the problem, that if we just eliminate them that we will thus solve the problem, is not necessarily logical.. nor is it backed up by historical fact, or by looking at current places in the world where there is no established strong legal framework, but rather most law is done with a tribal mentality.. (think Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc..)

    1. Re: only caveat I would raise…

      I’ll ditto that. Historically, blacklisting had nothing whatsoever to do with reason. Take McCarthyism: Someone finds a copy of “The communist Manifesto” in my house and suddenly I can’t get a job. Sheesh people, hasn’t nayone ever heard of “know thy enemy?”

      On the other hand, i am installing Ubuntu Linux on my computer, thus shucking off Microsoft forever. Isn’t that kind of the same thing?

  2. That’s a really intereesting point. . .the quote that is.

    If my particular principles had been supported when I was young, I don’t think I ever would have thought about them at all. It was only because they were so often maligned that I was forced to think about them, and thereby strengthen them and explore them, and eventually embody them as I feel I (for the most part) do today.

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