Windows and Mirrors - Moral Silhouette - Florence Sprague - April 2022
Moral silhouette. Such an evocative phrase. While I quickly recall the general topic of the article wherein I saw it—the Berlin Wall—and I recall the phrase—moral silhouette—so evocative while still so malleable, yet I cannot recall the source of the article or the precise meaning the author imparted to this phrase. Was it the wall itself, the people who resisted it, the people who built it, or the Cold War in totality whose moral silhouettes the author was seeking to evoke? It could be any or all of the above. Some manifest in my mind as negative space for the harm done, some more like old-fashioned silhouette paper cuttings, for persons of courage in the face of brutality. These are events of my lifetime. How long beyond the lives of those then living will these moral silhouettes persist?
It makes me wonder what kind of moral silhouette I might leave, our country might leave, and how both are changing with time and events, and what happens to the spirit when forced to compromise on principle?
This was recently brought to mind when I viewed an interesting webinar about the Underground Railroad in upstate New York before and after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp). The professor posed several overarching questions which he felt were still relevant to us today. I can only paraphrase. One was approximately, “What is the impact of compromise on a moral stance on the polarization of people?” In 1850, politicians desperately sought to keep the country together. The Fugitive Slave Act was meant to do just that. With its serious penalties, both civil and criminal, on Northern officials and on those who aided persons escaping from enslavement, this compromise polarized the abolitionists, and those disapproving of slavery in the North. They must either cease their opposition to slavery and their aid to those seeking freedom, or they must take much greater risks to uphold their moral beliefs. This could be thought of as meaning a lowered moral silhouette from inaction on belief or an expanded moral silhouette from acting on principle in the face of danger. Which way would my silhouette have gone? I am not optimistic.
Today we are faced with a wide variety of moral dilemmas. We may not immediately recognize them as such, and the ethical path of action is often ill-defined and disputed, but the dilemmas abound. At what cost, to self and society, compromise? More and more people are refusing to compromise. In 2022, the Fugitive Slave Act does not look like much of a compromise; it looks like a win for the slave states. But at the time? I generally think that compromise is a reasonable way to respect all points of view. This framework makes me see that it may not always work.
Of course, we cannot all be John Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, risking all and never wavering. The icons of moral resistance in any era are icons for a reason—they do the extraordinary. We can all ask ourselves, “What is the moral silhouette of our times and communities? What would we like it to be? How do we make that happen?” Then we can all consider the issues of our day deeply, with kindness, thoughtfulness, and open hearts. And we can act to the extent of our abilities, alone and in concert with others, to enhance the moral silhouette of our era and our society.