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Morals Among The Unmmoral

Creator: Eleanor Rowland Wembridge (author)
Date: 1926
Publication: The American Mercury
Source: Available at selected libraries

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SOCIAL INHERITANCE is the passing on to the next generation of the accumulated inventions, customs, and modes of thought of the generation which precedes and produces it. That is one way of saying it. A more concrete statement of the same fact is that the Eskimo child responds enthusiastically to the custom of chewing walrus hide, whereas we, in youth, prefer all-day suckers. He considers that a raw fat fish is a holiday feast, whereas we flee shrieking from the cod-liver oil bottle. Is, or is not, whale blubber delicious? The only answer to the question is that blubber is what you like, if you like that sort of thing. And how young must we begin, if we are to thoroughly enjoy fish-oil as a diet? The physical and mental age has not been determined by scientists, but we are safe in saying -- pretty young. The most casual observation tells us that we tend to remain cold to the customs that did not warm us in our infancy, and warm to those that did, whether they happen to be concerned with diet, politics or table manners. Only by a very considerable jolt in later life can our values be reversed, and even then our nervous system is never wholly convinced.


But if this is true of codes and manners, can it also be true of right and wrong? Here many practical moralists will not agree. "Sin is sin," they protest. "The moral law must be the same for all, for conscience is a universal and infallible guide." Nevertheless, an observer of many undeniable sinners, offenders not only against legal codes but also against supposedly natural law, is obliged to differ. If one attempts to understand the psychology of habitual offenders, and to study it as one would study the strange folkways of the Bushman, or the African pigmy, one finds no lack of codes to be sure, but a set of them as completely different from our own as if their votaries too had inherited an alien culture, which, in point of fact, they have.


Perhaps no delinquent exhibits more striking variation from accepted standards than the girl of persistently loose morals. She belongs to a sisterhood which has held throughout history a position of some prominence. She has been laughed at, and thundered against, sought in secret, but shunned in the open, exploited, sentimentalized over, and reformed with such difficulty that she remains the despair of the reformer. In fact, almost every approach has been made to her but the simple one of trying to understand her. And understanding her can only be accomplished by the same means that one attempts to understand, say -- the boll weevil or the gasoline engine. Nothing is gained by exhorting the weevil, the engine, or the girl, if they go wrong. To mend their ways they must be understood.


What is she then, calmly considered as a social fact? The first discovery which one makes is to be expected, namely, that not all of the species are alike. All immoral girls do not have the same code any more than all moral ones. Their one habit of sex irregularity is no more of a bond between them than the bond of respect for morals makes the tastes of a nun identical with those of a pioneer wife who has raised ten children, handled fifty farm hands, and organized the Grange. Both of the latter fulfil their functions within the law, but aside from their possible common ability to feed a crowd, they have probably hardly one habit in common. So with the sex delinquents. Granted their one tendency to a sex life out of wedlock, they not only may have nothing else in common, but, like the rest of us, they are usually violently unsympathetic with any irregularity which varies from their own. They share our human talent of sliding gracefully out from under a law which they ruthlessly apply to others, but again like us, they do it without conscious hypocrisy. They have absorbed uncritically the tradition as it was passed on to them, and they feel among their groups the fine distinctions which an outsider can no more grasp than the non-academic mind can detect a difference between an LL.D. and an LL.B., or the non-musical appreciate the horrors of singing flat.




So it was with Millie, who at fourteen married a miner of forty-two. The marriage failing to be a success, she eloped to the city with a taxi-driver, with whom she now lives. She has a factory job and supports Joe when he has gambled away his wages. She cannot afford a divorce ($60) nor does she particularly wish to marry Joe. "Once is enough," says Millie, and she is very scornful of Ella, who is also eighteen. Ella was also reared in a mining town, but ran away, not from her husband, but with him. She supports him by prostitution with men whom he provides. "Dirty Dagoes" is Millie's comment on Ella, and she turns a cold shoulder. ' 'I am living with my own husband, which is more than you can say," retorts Ella, "and I make a better living, at that."


Yet with all their intolerance for each other's standards they have a certain bond, for both girls are fond of their ill-chosen mates. They have nursed them through many a drunk, or welcomed them back after a period at the workhouse. In short, they show the same consideration for their consorts' peculiarities that many a good wife exhibits toward those of an eccentric but well-loved husband. "The poor fella, he's out of work," explains Ella. Emotionally at least, each girl is, for the present, true to the man of her choice and tries to please him. Each succeeds in holding him as well as any other woman is likely to, and is pleased with herself and with him. Both are subject to arrest under our laws -- and get arrested with about the same frequency and inconvenience as they catch a cold and with as little damage to their self-respect.

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