In an atmosphere of high moral separation, individuals and organizations respond to consequences that are immediately felt. The result of this phenomenon is that interest convergence becomes the chief form of persuasion. To convince someone to do something, we no longer appeal to right and wrong, we appeal to how it will affect them personally. And often this involves dramatizing less immediate consequences to make them feel more direct.
This is clearly seen in the recent spectacle of advertisers pulling out of The Rush Limbaugh Show. When the consequence of supporting Limbaugh with ad revenue was his constant racist commentary, no businesses were pulling out, because that commentary was not affecting them. The legion of white, middle-class e-activists who are responsible for pressuring former advertisers in response to Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke were silent for years while Limbaugh wantonly attacked black folks. When those e-activists mobilized, the companies saw that supporting Limbaugh was starting to affect them directly, and they acted. So you can see how moral separation affects us at each level:
1) The people with the time and energy for e-activism didn’t act in defense of justice for all, but rather in defense of someone they could easily relate with: another middle-class, white person.
2) The companies that pulled their ads didn’t do so because Limbaugh finally went too far (in fact he has said much worse), but rather to appease their customers.
3) Limbaugh did not apologize in the interest of getting back to civil discourse (he makes $50 million per year by being professionally uncivil), but rather to appease the remaining companies who might consider pulling their ads.
Now, if you only pay attention to the last part of each of those, you get something good: e-activists successfully pressured companies to remove ads from Limbaugh’s show and this led to his apology. But does that description capture the complexity of what happened?
The problem with interest convergence is that its utility depends on a high degree of moral separation. Our goal is to reduce moral separation so that instead of dramatizing distant effects to make them feel more immediate, those effects will actually be so immediate that people will simply respond intuitively to them.
Interest convergence cannot be used to address the root problems in society, because its effectiveness is symptomatic of those very same problems. The more we repair the foundation of society, the less effective it becomes. And the more we celebrate its victories, the more we need to remind ourselves that they are symptomatic of decadent times.