WITH PHYSICAL OSTEOPOROSIS the bones become fragile or brittle that a simple fall typically results in a non-trivial measure of damage. There numerous cases where I have slipped and fallen here and there. But to this day, no fall has ever resulted in a broken bone. Nothing even close to that.
It seems to me that something akin to moral osteoporosis has become more and more common place. Let me explain with an example.
I am obviously a black person. And there have been moments when I have been called a “nigger” by a black or a white person who, for example, is passing by in a car. (And yes, black people can be quite derogatory in their use of the term “nigger”.) But to continue. The simple truth of the matter is that being called a nigger by someone passing by has ever come even close to bothering me or diminishing my moral sense of worth. No such instance has come even close to causing me moral or psychological pain.
To be sure, I fully grasp the utter moral impropriety of the racial epithet “nigger”. But from that reality it hardly follows that I should be psychologically pained just because someone passing by in a car yells that racial epithet at me. Not at all. Quite simply, recognizing the wrongful behavior of venomous name calling does not entail that one must be scarred or deeply pained by the name calling.
Moral osteoporosis, then, is none other than a psychological configuration where a person is too easily damaged psychological merely by an instance of inappropriate name calling by someone passing by, where there is absolutely no physical threat at all. Lest there be any misunderstanding: If someone whom I regard as a dear friend was malicious in calling me a “nigger”, I would certainly end the friendship. But as I noted in an essay published many years ago entitled “Sexism and Racism: Some Conceptual Difference,” the unexpurgated truth is that the term “nigger” can be used—and certainly has been used—in affirming ways, as with the remark “You are my sweet nigger”. Barring some quite unusual circumstances that remark is no more negative than is the remark “You are one bad ass individual”. The latter remark does not mean that one is a morally bad and despicable person. Quite the contrary, the remark means that one is exhibiting some serious and ever so admirable instances of excellence and strength of character.
We have an analogous case with the sentence “You are one mean motherf—ker”. Of course, the literal interpretation is quite negative. But an indisputable truth is that the remark can be a tremendous instance of praise and admiration. Clearly, it most certainly has been used in that way in the past. And it still is still being used in that way nowadays.
We have moral osteoporosis, then, when a person is so fragile that she or he is hurt by the use of a term or phrase even when it is absolutely and unequivocally clear that the term or phrase was being used in an ever so positive way.
Of course, if Person Alpha perceives that Person Beta is a quite fragile individual, then Person Alpha should certainly refrain utterances that, when taken literally, mean something that is quite negative. Alas, one of the very deep, deep signs of trust between two individuals who truly great friends is their having the wherewithal to grasp the positive use of terminology. As the great sociologist (the late) Erving Goffman noted, the reality is that a person’s non-verbal behavior plays an absolutely crucial role in how her or his utterance should be understood. On the one hand, a person’s non-verbal behavior can reveal tremendous venom and a deep condescending attitude. On the other hand, a person’s non-verbal behavior can reveal truly phenomenal depth of admiration and appreciation. If a person, indeed, has a truly deep sense of moral worth, then she or he will have very little trouble (typically none at all) in correctly grasping the positive moral uptake of the utterance question. By contrast, if a person has a very fragile sense of worth, then just the opposite holds true for her or him; for she or he will often have trouble seeing the positive in what was clearly meant to be ever an ever so affirming remark.
A person’s physical bones can be tremendously fragile or the person’s bones can be ever so strong. Likewise, a person’s moral bones can be tremendously fragile or they can be phenomenally strong. Painfully, although we are making enormous progress in medicine, it would appear that moral osteoporosis is becoming far too commonplace.
© 2016 Laurence Thomas