“In the beginning was the Word

It is the word that is at the heart of responsible communication.

When we no longer hear “the other”, that is when we are irresponsible.

When we no longer tolerate each other, that is moral irresponsibility.

Moral irresponsibility, dis-ables us as ethical health care professionals.”

Mirah Wilks, Invited Speaker, Round Table Debate, PsySSA Congress , 21/09/2016

On Moral Reasoning and Rights, Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz once told a group of his law students, that he was hounded by a Holocaust denier to participate in a public debate, which Dershowitz continuously refused.   Finally, Dershowitz agreed – on condition there was a series of three public debates:

“First, we’ll debate if the Earth is flat; then we will debate if there is a Santa Claus; And then we will debate whether the Holocaust really happened.”

Joshua Green (2013) Moral Tribes, p306.

Needless to say, his would-be opponent declined. The outright refutation by Holocaust deniers of the systematic Nazi annihilation of a People, is morally reprehensible and repugnant to civil society. In light of the current South African academic groundswell movement of de-colonization, moral and public self-flagellation and political restitution, Dershowitz’ astute response illustrates a meaningful and pragmatic lesson for us all as ethical practitioners: moral debate is not simply about seeking a singular truth.

The richer our multiple truths, the greater our professional abilities.

Moral disgust, according to Jonathan Haidt, et al (2008) is the single determining factor that he questions how and for whom does moral disgust influence moral judgement? In his four studies (2008) involving different ways of inducing disgust he found a causal relationship between feelings of physical disgust and moral condemnation. Similarly, practitioners’ silence around the refutation of those “Others” who fail to measure up to a heteronormative sexual binary, is perplexing and unprofessional.

Clark and Fessler (2014) propose that the evolutionary account of how the role of disgust has expanded in humans from protection against ingesting pathogens and the threat of contagion to that of filling a niche in normative psychology by “providing a means of actively signalling disapproval to norm violaters.” This strongly held belief serves to sustain inflexible norms and values of those in power, to the detriment of all marginalised Others.

There are multiple truths on South African university campuses at this time of the 2016 # Fees must Fall.  Social media is rapidly shaped and defined by incendiary hate speech, hate crimes against sexual minorities, blatant racism, and a grotesque paucity of moral reasoning.  How did this happen in the rarefied spaces of Socrates, Fanon and Mandoza?  Who is the uber arbiter of this ultimate and singular truth?  And what do we do with that noble information?  Fundamental to being a moral minded practitioner professional, there should be a modicum of deep thinking. According to REBT founder, Albert Ellis, in using such words as should, could and would, we enter the world of irrational thinking. We need to find it within us to dispute such improbable thoughts and language in those that are determined to uphold irrationalities as truths.

Decolonisation of language is an essential start. Reconsideration of the oppression and suppression of human rights is a necessary way forward. Thinking in ways that don’t support the enslavement of ideas and human rights, such as: sanctioned gender-based violence, corrective rape, economic abuse, genocide and endemic intolerance, is fundamental for moral change. In professionally adhering to the Ethical injunction to do ”No Harm”,  who decides if we inadvertently harm others, by either our omissions (oversights, exclusions, lapses)  or our commissions ( instructions, contracts, directives)?  Should there be some latitude for moral ineptitude?

If being “real” is immersing oneself in other’s cultural perspective(s) – then yes, that is the preferred manner of responsible communication. These cultural tapestries are infused with layers of tastes, colours, textures, musicality, dance, religious rituals, laws of purity, food laws, sexual laws, laws of gender contact, respect for authority, burial laws, moral disgust and degrees of tolerance for others. The thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and emotions that drive us to communicate in particular ways – can be the de-railers of our ethical professional responsibilities.  Our words and actions, based on our inflexible beliefs, can become our dis-enablers.

While we all fuel up self-righteously on our Constitutional Human Rights, when do we show our humanity? To whom to we show our social responsibility? When do we take the time to really hear the Other?  What is our rush to discount or marginalise the Other? And why are we so good at sustaining the path most traveled?

The thought-provoking theme of the 22nd PsySSA Congress, Response/Ability: Crisis or Catharsis has raised many issues of personal commitment and professional responsibility. The answers always lie within us.


Clark, J.A, Fessler, D.M. (2014) The Role of Disgust in Norms, and of Norms in Disgust Research: Why

Liberals Shouldn’t be Morally Disgusted by Moral Disgust.  DOI 10.1007/s11245-014-9240-0

Ellis, A., Becker, I.M., and Powers, M. (2007) The Practice of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, 2nd ed., New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Green, J., (2013) Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between us and Them. Penguin Press.

Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G.L., and Jordan, A.H. (2008) Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgement, Pers Soc Psychol Bull, August 2008: 34(8): 1096-1109.



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