Sin and Society

Chapter 4: The Grilling of Sinners

Edward Alsworth Ross

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

THE American people finds itself to-day in the position of a man with dulled knife and broken cudgel in the midst of an ever-growing circle of wolves. The old regulative system is falling to pieces. Few of the strong and ambitious have any longer the fear of God before their eyes. Hell is looked upon as a bogy for children. The Gospel ideals are thought unscientific. As for the courts, they seem to have nothing but blank cartridges for the bigger beasts of prey. Upon the practicers of new sins there is no longer a curb unless it be public censure. So the question of the hour is, Can there be fashioned out of popular sentiment some sort of buckler for society? Can our loathing of rascals be wrought up into a kind of unembodied government, able to restrain the men that derisively snap their fingers at the agents of the law ?

(76) That the public scorn really bites into wrong-doers of the modern type may be read in the fate of the insurance gang. If, as some assert, American society were already split into classes, each with its standards and its opinions, these robbers would have taken asylum with their own class, and from the thick of their 1 crowd" would have waved a gay and mocking hand at the wrathful public. Haughty Roman patricians, Spanish hidalgos, French seigneurs, or British noblemen would have done so, heeding the curses of the commonalty no more than the chattering of daws. But the insurance thieves were self-made Americans, country-bred, genial, sensitive, uncarapaced by pride of caste. Their sense of superiority was, after all, a short and feeble stalk that soon wilted. They did care what people thought of them, and so to the grave or to exile they fled from the vitriol spray of censure. If only we can bring it to bear, the respect

77) or scorn of the many is still an immense asset of society in its struggle with sinners.

The community need feel no qualm when lashing the sinner. We are bidden to forgive our enemies, but not the enemies of our society, our posterity. For society to "resist not evil" would be folly, because for most of us society's attitude fixes the guiding ideas of right and wrong. Any outrage we can practice with impunity comes finally to be looked upon as a matter of course. To the aggressor the non-resisting community practically says,

Trample me, please. Thanks! " Thus it becomes a partner in his misdeeds. The public that turns the other cheek tempts a man to fresh sinning. It makes itself an accomplice in the undoing of a soul. It is the indulgent parent spoiling the child. It is therefore our sacred duty, not lazily to condone, but vigorously to pursue and castigate the sinner. It is sad but true

(78) that the community is prompter to correct the wife-beater than the rebater or the dummy director. Such indifference to the soul's health of eminent citizens is deplorable.

There is fair hope that out of public opinion a means of rational defense may be developed, provided only we renounce certain false notions which now hinder the proper grilling of sinners.


Sometimes the hounded sinner reminds us through his spokesman that "He moves in a higher world into which we may not enter." Oftener he counters by saying, --if his sinning is very lucrative it will be said for him, - "In my place, you, too, would have bribed the inspector, or doctored the goods, or exacted the rebate." "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone." In this vein an

(79) apologist sneers, 1 Those who are chattering about predatory wealth would not refuse to take over corporation stock even in the R____  properties." The truth is, however, the censor need not take the attitude of "I am holier than thou." What if the critics are no better than they should be? Sinners are scourged, not to proclaim their moral inferiority, but to brace people to resist temptation. May not a weak man, untempted, prop a stronger man who is under temptation? Opportunity puts one's baser self in the saddle; whereas the comment of the disinterested spectator utters his better self. If the baser self of the tempted man could not profit by the rebuke of a public made up of men no better than he is, many of us would fall into the ditch.

Slow, indeed, would be moral uplift, if the public allowed itself to he silenced by the tu quoque of the malefactor. Of course it would be inspiring to be charmed on

(80) from height to height by the voices of seers and the example of heroes. But Isaiahs and Savonarolas are rare; and certain practices must be outlawed at once if we are not to rot down together. In meeting new forms of sin, we have nothing to rely on but the common conscience ; that is, the deliverance of the best selves of most of us. It is the neutrals, not the belligerents, that humanize warfare. It is the onlookers, not the champions, that uphold the rules of the ring. Not because they are better men, but because they are in a less trying position. So it will be not the quickened consciences of the principals, but the hisses of the crowd on the bleachers, that will protect shipper from railroad, lift the plane of business competition, restrain the oppression of workingmen, and stop the feeding of human seed-corn to swine.



Back Bay stockholders are assured that Iowa's maximum rate law is a shameless cheapening of railroad services by the banded customers of the road, and ought to be defied. Gas magnates snap their fingers at municipal regulations on the pretext that such ordinances express only the self-interest of gas consumers. Employers flout factory laws on the ground that the legislature stood in awe of 1 the labor vote." In some circles the feeling is growing up that obedience is the part of a dastard. The moneymaker begins to insist that the inconvenient law embodies nothing but the will of the stronger or bigger class bent on oppressing the weaker or fewer, and claims the right to break such a law if he can. Now, this is moral gangrene, so deadly that no one

(82) with the infection ought to have place or influence in society.

The truth is, law is shot through and through with conscience. The uprising against rebating, or monopoly, or fiduciary sin, registers, not the self-interest of the many, but the general sense of right. To be sure, an agitation against company stores, or the two-faced practices of directors, may start as the "We won't stand it " of a victimized class; but when it solicits general support it takes the form "These things are wrong," and it can triumph only when it chimes with the common conscience. In the case of child labor, night work for women, crimping and peonage, the opposition springs up among onlookers rather than among victims, and is chivalric from the beginning. The fact is, the driving force of the great sunward movement now on is moral indignation. Not one of the attempts to shackle the newer stripe of depredators lends itself to interpretation in

(83) terms of self-interest. In every instance the slogan has been, not "Protect yourselves," but - Put down iniquity!"

The special-interest man ignores the moral energy that inspires the uprising against latter-day sin. He scoffs at a law on the ground that it was enacted by a bare majority of "hayseed " legislators, ignorant of legal philosophy and the fitness of things. He does not care to notice that this close vote records an overwhelming public sentiment, the outcome of a long, disinterested agitation. Or he complains that the statute is "precipitate," and pleads for - conservatism." 

"Conservatism! " piled on top of inertia and the strangle-hold of sinister interests, in a tumultuously changing society, where an evil condition may be rapidly worsening while we speechify and procrastinate! Here is a growing evil, - so much blood of brakemen on cars and rails. Give heed, ye legislators! No impression. The legis-

(84) -lator removes his cigar long enough to sneer, 61 hot air," "mawkish sentimentality," - they take the risks." So, on with the slaughter! Let the wheels redden until the totals are formidable. "Now will you act?" No, "interference" would "undermine individual responsibility," or be "unconstitutional." So let the mangled pile up, until, like the cuirassiers in the ravine at Waterloo, their bodies fill to the brink the chasm of selfish incredulity. So is it with the uprooting of child labor. Once the pocket-book interest has twined itself about the evil, the wreckage of child life has to be mountainous, ghastly, and sickening, before the public can be stirred to the point of breaking the grasp of the employers on the throat of the legislature. The same obstacles delay the advent of mine inspection, tenement-house reform, the abolition of grade crossings, the enforced fencing of dangerous machinery. Thanks to the inertia of large bodies and

85) the power of special interests, the relief inevitably comes ten to twenty years later than it should. To add, now, conscious "conservatism," is like setting the brake on an overloaded wagon being hauled up the bare western slope of a sandy hill on a July afternoon !


It is human nature to resent difference, and the time was when people could afford to go asunder on the width of a hat brim or the form of baptism. But such stress on the non-essential is sheer folly, now that the times summon us to close ranks and war down the Newer Unrighteousness.

Public opinion as lord of conduct is not old, - less than a century, in fact. It could not arrive until the weakening of caste, class, and local barriers allowed the "public " to form. Even to-day, the American public is too incoherent to make a good policeman.

(86) Besides the antipathy between whites and blacks, there is the friction between natives and immigrants, the feeling between Christians and Jews, Protestants and Catholics, the inter-denominational jealousies, the mistrust of the churchless, the gulf between Philistia and Bohemia, the chasm between alley and avenue. Although its class barriers are lower, American society is more deeply cleft by race and nationality than is western Europe. Inter-confessional friction is greater here than in the all-Catholic or all-Protestant societies. Thus it is that in seeking to focus the indignation of the law-abiding, we are hampered by a lot of hold-over antipathies. "First things first." To-day the distinction between righteous and sinners is the main thing, for upon a lively consciousness of that distinction rests the hope of transmitting our institutions undecayed, of preserving our democratic ideals, of avoiding stratification and class rancor. Yet most people act as if some-

87) -thing else were the main thing. They see conduct in the false perspective of a Chinese drawing, where a glance tells you that the man approaching in the middle distance will surely overtop the house in the foreground ! Just as in the South the senseless agitation of the race question is delivering that section into the hands of the railroad corporations; just as in the Far West Mormonism is a red herring to drag across the trail of some iniquity when the public is hot on the scent; just as "Catholicism in the schools" raises a dust behind which franchise grabbers can operate; so the divisions and cross-purposes of decent people give the sinner his chance to get away.

It is the honest man who falls into heresy. But the latter-day sinner is sleek, orthodox, and unoffending. He conforms in everything save conduct. No one can outdo him in lip homage to the law and the prophets. It is the law-abiding who are scandalized by one another's nonconform-

(88) -ity. They split on beliefs and practices because they care for such things. But men who take the cash register for their compass are nobly tolerant. This is why, in these times that try men's fortunes, sinners rush to one another's aid, excuse and support one another under fire. The monopolists, small and great, local and national, grope their way to one another, strike hands, and as "captains of industry " present to their critics an unbroken front. The security jugglers, from the county-seat town to Wall Street, feel that as "authors of prosperity" an injury to one is the concern of all. Adulterators and commercial crooks rally as "enterprising business men." The puppets of the Interests, from the town council to Congress, stand together as ".statesmen." On the other hand, the public they plunder, like Martha "troubled about many things," divides on race, creed, or style, pelts the nonconformist more than the sinner, and lays on a little finger where

89) it ought to wield a fist. Thus the wolves hunt in packs, while the watchdogs snap at one another

At a moment when the supremacy of law trembles in the balance, when our leading railroad magnate complains that it is not easy to carry on a railroad business, "if you always have to turn to the legal department and find whether you may or may not," how bootless seem agitations to put " God" into the Constitution, to enforce strict Sabbath observance, to break up secret societies, or to banish negroes to the Jim Crow car! These fatuous crusades against Gorky and Madame Andrieva, against "Mrs. Warren's Profession," against "anarchist " immigrants, against the Mormons, against undraped statuary, or the "un-American " labor union, or the foreigner's Sunday beer, recall to mind the monks of Constantinople, wrangling over the nature of the Trinity while the Turks were forcing the gates!


In a national war, the common peril hushes petty discords and attunes differing men to harmonious efforts. But to-day is wartime. Our assailants are none the less formidable because they grew up among us and walk the same streets. While the wizards of smokeless powder and submarine boat have been making us secure against alien foes, we have grown into an organic society in which the welfare of all is at the mercy of each. The supreme task of the hour is to get together and build a rampart of moral standard, statute, inspection, and publicity, to check the onslaught of internal enemies.


By vice we mean practices that harm one's self; by sin we mean conduct that harms another. They spring from different roots and call for different treatment. Sin grows largely out of the relations into

(91) which men enter, and hence social development, by constantly opening new doors to wrong-doing, calls into being new species of sin. Rude law recognizes three kinds of stealing, developed law ten kinds, the law of to-day seventeen kinds. By the time it is abreast of our present needs, it will discriminate perhaps thirty kinds. The same is true of other types of wrong-doing. Vice, on the other hand, being personal, is less affected by social change. New forms, like the cocaine habit or bridge gambling, are invented, not developed by social growth.

As a disease of the social body, vice differs as much from sin as scrofula from locomotor ataxia. Vice encounters barriers fixed by nature; in the end its wage is death. Sin, on the other hand, flourishes if society does not make haste to check it. The unopposed sinner makes his way upward towards sunshine, whereas the unchecked vicious man gravitates toward night. The spectacle of vice, sleek, honored, and envied, is not pos-

(92) -sible, for a practice that works out this way is not vice. But the sight of the unpunished and unrepentant sinner, successful and honored, shocks the righteous, disheartens the weak, and demoralizes the young, who ought to cherish, for a few years at least, the ennobling illusion that the right always triumphs.

Like a ship with a foul bottom, a nation heavily weighted with lewd, drunken, and gaming members cannot keep up with its rivals, and hence the warfare against vice must go on. But efforts should be centred on the young, training and fortifying them to resist the lure of the perilous paths. It is for them we banish or regulate the vice shops, bar obscene literature, and watch the stage. Not so with adults. The effort we expend on persons who go astray with their eyes open is mostly wasted. Usually they cannot be saved, nor are they worth saving. Certainly let vice be made odious. But when the public exerts itself to stamp out

(93) drinking and the social evil, it slackens its war on sin, and, moreover, it simply forestalls natural process. Nature limits at last the spread of vice, and the sooner those of congenitally weak will and base impulses eliminate themselves, the better for the race. The go-cart for children by all means, but for adults the stern command, "Stand alone, or if thou canst not stand alone, then fall! " With respect to hell, there is something to be said for the open door. Self-interest, too, is quietly crowding the vicious to the wall. In the end the hard drinkers will be barred from all desirable employments.

Sin, on the contrary, is not self-limiting. If a ring is to be put in the snout of the greedy strong, only organized society can do it. In every new helpful relation the germ of sin lurks, and will create there a pus centre if social antisepsis be lacking. 'When how tragic a figure is the victim of sin! To perish of diseased meat to make a

(94) packer's dividend is sadder than to perish through one's own thirst for whiskey. The invalid bled by the medical fakirs is more to be pitied than the "sucker " fleeced in the pool-room. For the man who is the prey of the evil inclinations of others surely has a better claim on us than the man who is the prey of his own evil inclinations.

Men rather than women are the natural foes of wrong. Men burn at the spectacle of injustice, women at the sight of suffering. "White," "decent," "fair play," "square deal," voice masculine conscience. Men feel instinctively that the pith of society is orderly struggle, competition tempered by rules of forbearance. The impulse of simple-minded men to put down "foul play " and "dirty work " is a precious safeguard of social order. But the impulses of simpleminded women are not so trustworthy. When they smother red-handed bandits with flowers they are anti-social; when they launch into random vice crusades they

(95) are often little better than pseudo-social. Now, the rise of great organizations for focusing the sentiments of millions of women has lately brought about a certain effemination of opinion. In the main, this has been salutary, for it has redressed many wrongs against women and children, and exalted the- home " point of view. Yet it has taught us to hail as "a great moral triumph " the spectacle of a corporation-owned legislature obsequiously aiming the terrors of the law at the grown man who gives another man a cigarette paper! In the end, values are so topsy-turvied that a branch of a famous women's organization deems it fitting to ask the President of the United States, "Did you receive sixty bottles of beer from the Brewers' Association, and did you or your representatives send the brewers a letter of thanks on White House stationery for the same package, and what became of the sixty bottles of beer ? "

The loss of moral leadership by the

96) clergy is often deplored; but what else is to be expected, when so many clergymen appeal to the feminine rather than to the masculine conscience? To-day the virile, who see in graft and monopoly and foul politics worse enemies than beer, Sunday baseball, and the army canteen, scoff when the pastor of the indicted boss of San Francisco pleads,

He never was known to smoke or take a drink. He never was seen in front of a saloon bar." In political battles, the sinister interests easily rally the religious people by standing for a "lid on" policy. This throwing over of the vice interests by the corporation interests is the secret of the "good government " that is the boast of latter-day commercial oligarchy. In the struggle of a city to free itself from corporation bondage, is not the psychologic moment always punctuated by a hectoring deputation of clergymen to summon Mr. Mayor to enforce to the letter the Sunday closing ordinance, followed by a blast from the pulpits

(97) when the mayor declines to play the traction company's little game? Not long ago a reform mayor was discredited because, emerging late from his office, he descended into a basement lunch room, and ate at the same counter with street-walkers and nightbirds. The pastors of the strait-laced magnates who had never stooped to anything worse than stealing a street were scandalized at the mayor's elbow-touch with disreputables, and appealed with success to the ossified Puritanism of their flock.

Our moral pace-setters strike at bad personal habits, but act as if there was something sacred about money-making; and, seeing that the master iniquities of our time are connected with money-making, they do not get into the big fight at all. The childdrivers, monopoly-builders, and crooked financiers have no fear of men whose thought is run in the moulds of their grandfathers. Go to the tainted-money colleges, and you will learn that Drink, not Graft,

(98) is the nation's bane. Visit the religious societies for young men, and you will find personal correctness exalted above the social welfare.

The standards the old Puritans battled for are now established. Organized opposition to them has ceased, and the tide of battle has rolled away to a new quarter. Satan's main onset to-day is on the side of sin, rather than on the side of vice. Therefore the strategy of the situation summons society to draft off more of its forces to the aid of the "social Puritans." Are the accredited leaders of moral sentiment good generals in so heavily shelling the trenches of vice? Are they not slow in recognizing the key positions in the Holy War of today?

Let him who doubts where the battle rages mark how fares the assailant of sin. To-day there is little risk in letting fly at the red light. What an easy mark is the "tenderloin " ! Rare is the clergyman,

(99) teacher, or editor who can be unseated by banded saloon-keepers, gamblers, and madames. Their every - knock " is a boost. If you want a David-and-Goliath fight, you must attack the powers that prey, not on the vices of the lax, but on the necessities of the decent. The deferred-dividend graft, the "yellow dog " fund, the privatecar iniquity, the Higher Thimblerig, far from turning tail and slinking away beaten like the vice-caterers, confront us rampant, fire-belching, sabre-toothed, and razor-clawed. They are able to gag critics, hobble investigators, hood the press, and muzzle the law. Drunk with power, in office and club, in church and school, in legislature and court, they boldly make their stand, ruining the innocent, shredding the reputations of the righteous, destroying the careers and opportunities of their assailants, dragging down pastor and scholar, publicist and business man, from livelihood and influence, unhorsing alike faithful public ser-

100) -vant, civic champion, and knight-errant of conscience, and all the while gathering into loathsome captivity the souls of multitudes of young men. Here is a fight where blows are rained, and armor dinted, and wounds suffered, and laurels won. If a sworn champion of the right will prove he is a man and not a dummy, let him go up against these

Because society develops, comes into new situations, runs into strange perils, finds old foes with new faces and enemies masquerading as friends, it is folly to train its guns ever on the same spot. Yesterday's battle-cries of conscience cannot thrill us, and so the battle-cries of to-day may have little meaning for our children's children. They, perhaps, will be worrying about the marriage of the tainted, or the two-child system. Every age has to reconnoitre its foes and mark where they are massing. Like a rudderless steamer on a river of savage Africa, society, caught in the current

(101) of evolution, dips, lurches, drifts, swings, exposing now port, now starboard, to the missiles of fresh enemies that present themselves in strange guise at every turn of the stream.


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2