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The Devil Is (or Isn’t) in the Details of “Behaving Badly’s” Search for Morality

Will secular moral solutions ever topple the ideological momentum of an amoral market?

As with various moral quandaries perplexing humans for millennia, the author too stops short of any concrete moral conclusion.

In a world nearly numbed by asynchronous talking heads, think pieces, counterfactuals, crony capitalism, ideological crisis, and climate catastrophe, a new brand of moral ambiguity emerges. Or is it an old brand, repackaged for contemporary conspicuous consumption? Regardless of the era, vice is a tale as old as time, and author Eden Collinsworth works wonders to produce a fresh spin on one of the humanity’s oldest dichotomous positions, morality.

Behaving Badly: The New Morality in Politics, Sex, and Business feels almost too present in its titular suggestion. Far beyond cliché, the author mines an array of interviews and case studies toward a collective interpretation of if and when society has progressed, regressed, or maybe just remains fixated on how to transgress. The author’s experienced background in high-level international business provides a potent context that suggests influence for this work’s central thesis. Collinsworth has functioned as corporate consultant, contributor to think tanks, BUZZ magazine CEO, served in multiple modes of print publishing from traditional outlets from Doubleday and Arbor House to corporate conglomerates like Hearst Media. It’s an interesting change of pace for a vastly accomplished and well-connected professional to pivot in search of enlightenment ethics.

Collinsworth knows how to garner mass appeal with a seemingly broad approach to her investigative pursuit. After a traditional definitional start, the author jumps from interviewing a convicted murderer to leaning on another detestable societal outcast, the highly educated objectivist neuroscientist. In all seriousness, the early chapters cultivate a kind of origins of moral cognition theme that attempts to “explain” how we got to present.

Chapter four attempts to encapsulate world history’s varying flaws at conceptualizing morality. The result is a clever if inevitably abrupt polemic. Tethered together, an incomplete collection of cultural superstitions and primitive belief sets place humanity at the butt of a joke not quite finished so much as continuously updating. There’s a bit of devil’s advocate on the part of the author, a desire to play trickster with the ideas that haunted societies for centuries.

Who Is the Dreamer?

In some ways, Behaving Badly brings to mind the recently completed auteur TV critique of popular culture’s nostalgia movement, Twin Peaks: The Return. Part of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s investigation into their own meta-textual past (Lynch in particular) included what many TV critics observed to be moments when characters (and director) clearly appear to be stopping to smell the roses in a meta-textual sense. In some ways, it became opaque that Lynch greatly appreciates, even marinates, in his process of discovery. A similar pattern emerges throughout Collinsworth’s work, and it places the reader in a position to determine whether the slow burn will culminate in an ultimate reveal. The slow burn pays off in somewhat obvious topical ways, including inevitable tie-ins to Brexit and the 2016 election cycle.

As chapter nine’s title suggests, “The Political Function of Ethics” works as both thesis and punch line. The author critiques with precision how processes of overt political theatrics, no matter how vaudevillian they may appear, deploy cynical ideologies wherein ethics function as a mere set of inexhaustible tools with which ruling classes manipulate the populace.

Indeed, one through line that can be interpreted is a secular search for morality that permeates across many chapters. Consider the opening of chapter seven, which carries the title “Pros and Cons of Doing the Right Thing”:

When morality is pitted against profit, morality sustains itself only as long as we are determined to do the right thing. We might wish to do the right thing. We might aspire to a greater good. We might admire excellence. But in our day-in and day-out lives, we struggle with what is less than good or less than excellent, while our apathy vies for supremacy (72).

Fortunately, Collinsworth benefits from strong ties to people in or near high places of organizational power. She peeks into the window of a former CEO and whistleblower, an apt marker of corporate resistance as one will find. The interviewee confesses the social consequences faced due to whistle-blowing, a scarlett letter warning for those willing to register personal conviction against corporate protocol.

If this account is to be extended across the present state of Western democracy, then it remains unclear whether secular moral solutions will ever topple the ideological momentum of an amoral market. Perhaps this points the reader back to the book’s subtitle, which suggests a new morality (or “morality”) exists in the same fashion that “fake news” exists as a dualistically oppositional co-defined term.

Asynchronous Experience for an Amoral Age

In fairness, most chapters in Behaving Badly are fun to cherry pick through, as they come and go quickly. Some chapters highlight more straightforward moral consequences, including one that considers how physical intimacy may have become morally neutered by technology. The book reads in a relatively asynchronous fashion, but this too can arguably lead to misinterpretation of the author’s intent or perhaps even the context of subjects interviewed or situational theorizations drawn from extended ethnographic description. As with various moral quandaries perplexing humans for millennia, the author too stops short of any concrete moral conclusion.

What weighs the book’s intriguing premise down is a consummate need to render exhaustive details chartering location site visits and the physical layouts taken in during the research phase of the book. Such vivid window gazing along the authorial vision quest blurs an understanding of whether this book seeks to uncover some higher “social truth” (little “t”, as always) or simply pull together a nonfiction screenplay ready for brokered adaptation. Is this a real-life investigation? Are readers headed toward the author’s internal catharsis? Descript minutia pads the word count but could easily be skimmed over without lessening the inquiry. It’s understood that this brand of prosy aesthetic speaks to an intended audience. Indeed, Behaving Badly reads as very New Yorker-esque. So certainly that preferred audience might find a bit more stimulation in this narrativized search for a cross-cultural Holy Grail.

Unresolved Tensions

Ultimately, there’s something at work within the author’s voice. The old adage “the devil is in the details” comes to mind amidst such indefatigable description that accompanies each chapter’s location. In some ways, it’s as if the buildup in description will help to unveil (or perhaps contextualize) each situational bend on reality. The parts of the whole may convey a labyrinthine truth that must be fully expressed in order to come into complete understanding. This is one theory that remains unclear.

Collinsworth constructs details in a way that suggests material culture both conceals and reveals something about the evolutionary shift in human thinking. Maybe there is a covert investigation at work in Behaving Badly, an experiment in play where the reader can translate morality through echoes of modernity and remnants of postmodernity — to “figure out” morality based upon the composition of interview settings and social spaces, cityscapes and ambiance. Such description may unearth a subtler question; does materiality of all forms represent or replace a shared social morality? Or do our new technologies and modes of production and consumption merely mask primitive and cyclical ways of re-presenting same or similar meanings through physical, not spiritual, uses and gratifications?

RATING 5 / 10