A conversation that occurred between great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and an aspiring musician provides three-fourths of today’s title. The young man played a sequence of notes to Monk, and asked him “What would be the right continuation?” Monk replied, “Wrong is right.” Another jazz icon, guitarist John Abercrombie, provides a similar anecdote about something said to him by bandleader Herb Pomeroy:
“You’ve got all these scales and all these chords … but if you hear a melody while you’re playing, if you really hear it and it happens to go outside the chord progression, if you play it with conviction, and you really hear it, it works.”
Now, jazz isn’t life, though there are frequent similarities. (Isn’t life largely an improvisation in response to events?) All the same, it’s worth examining the “jazz ethic” as proposed by Monk and Pomeroy together with the prevailing sentiment in American society that “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
“Two wrongs don’t make a right” has the sort of compact simplicity that appeals to the level of the mind beneath the operations of reason. In that regard it’s like a lot of aphorisms. It contains no reasoning. It’s entirely proscriptive. And it’s hard to argue with…if, that is, you fail to lean back and think for a moment about the innumerable counterexamples.
A moral law is always stated as an absolute. It omits the reasoning behind it from its lineaments. That aids concision, of course, and concision is a key element in forceful expression. But a moral prescription or proscription without the applicable who-what-when-where-why-how is impossible to defend. (NB: Not “indefensible,” which means something entirely different.)
In the context that follows a “wrong,” what would appear to be a second, equivalent “wrong” might not make a “right,” acontextually speaking…but it might nevertheless be sociodynamically correct. It might even be mandatory.
This morning, Ken Green weighs in on the subject at Power Line:
I would contend that we actually have a moral obligation to respond to things that are destructive of the social order (as the whole Mad Maxine “Get in their Face” mentality of public protest is), and even more, we have an obligation to respond to those things effectively and educationally: teaching those engaging in destructive behavior why that behavior is wrong. And what better way to do it than to essentially treat people as they are treating others, so that they can come to understand why it is bad?
Green invokes the famous example of “Tit For Tat” strategy, which, in an iterative game that features both positive and negative “payoffs,” is more likely to lead to optimal outcomes than any other approach. (Cf. Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation.) Beneath the strange, compelling success of “Tit For Tat” lies a truth that must not be overlooked. Indeed, it’s so important that to look away from it, even for an instant, to make room for the prescriptions of would-be social engineers invites disaster:
Justice itself requires that we answer a “wrong” with what many have deemed an equal “wrong.” For there is no defending what the justice system does to those it catches and convicts…except that the penalties it inflicts conduce to the reduction of destructive behavior, over time.
In the Sermon on the Mount, when Christ told us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” He omitted the context: evils confined to intimate interactions. He did not suggest that justice itself be abolished. There cannot be law without justice. Similarly, we cannot have a society that upholds a standard for behavior unless those who violate that norm are made to suffer its violation upon them. “Wrong” does not magically become “right;” it is merely justice: the enforcement of a standard to which all must adhere.
Every codification of justice has embedded this rule, from the Lex talionis to the most sophisticated systems of our time.
This has implications for the ongoing social battle between the Social Justice Left and us of the Right. In a way, it’s even consistent with Christ’s dictum. When we reply to an indecency from the Left by treating them as they have treated us – imposing their standards on them, rather than granting them indulgence under our preferred standards – aren’t we just using their behavior toward us as an indication of how they would like to be treated? This is jazz, isn’t it? If the Golden Rule applies, it must apply to all of us equally and impartially, no?
You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong. Justice is not postponed… Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation”
Just some early-morning food for thought.