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The Moral Authority Hierarchy of Loss

Sitting down to write about the moral authority hierarchy of loss in the current political landscape, I found I did not know where to begin. Death, although universal, is too terrifyingly intimate to handle indelicately. But the use of the dead as bludgeons to further essentially ephemeral agendas is abhorrent. And we are becoming entirely too comfortable with it.

Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June.  I am tired of being brave.
–Anne Sexton, The Truth the Dead Know

Sitting down to write about the moral authority hierarchy of loss in the current political landscape, I found I did not know where to begin. Death, although universal, is too terrifyingly intimate to handle indelicately. Death has been too close to me for too long. But the use of the dead as bludgeons to further essentially ephemeral agendas is abhorrent. And we are becoming entirely too comfortable with it.

Not long ago on social media, I was scolded by a stranger for criticizing the mother of a school shooting victim. “She lost a child. She can say whatever the fuck she wants,” was the rationale. The mother in question had been awarded intractable moral authority on account of something horrific that had happened to her, as long as she was saying something the commenter agreed with. To this, I responded that I had lost a child as well–did that mean I could say whatever the fuck I wanted, too? The answer was garbled and insulting, as would be expected.

The Moral Authority Hierarchy of LossFifteen years ago last Wednesday, I said goodbye to my daughter, who was just three months shy of her third birthday. She had been born with several congenital heart defects, and though very talented surgeons and cardiologists had tried to save her, she lost her fight. Last Thursday, a family acquaintance lost her four year old son to similar, far more numerous, congenital defects. Does this afford us, mothers of dead children, intractable moral authority as well?

It does not. We are not unique in our epic and overwhelming pain. For as long as there has been life, there has been death. There has been loss and catastrophic heartbreak. There have been grieving mothers and wounded fathers. To live is to accept that life will become a collection of losses, and we must find a way to continue moving forward. And yet we are singular in our sorrow, for each life is beautiful in its own right, simply by having touched the lives of others. Therefore, death is the great equalizer.

Insisting that those who agree with us have the right to remain unchallenged if they become public faces of tragedy is to use death as a way to silence opposing opinion. It shows less compassion and empathy than we imagine we are displaying. It’s an attempt to take away the stark reality of death, allowing us to minimize the ache of knowing that behind each disparate representative of this or that cause, there is a family reeling from an enormous loss of potential, of dreams, of hope. There is an empty space at the table. A room left uncleaned. Shoes left in the hallway. A voice no longer heard from another room. And when the chaos of the immediate event recedes, and public attention wanes, there is the wound that won’t heal.

Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.
TS Eliot, Marina

No moral authority in loss

There’s no moral authority in any loss. It is a vast, unknown sea that those left behind must learn to navigate without tools and often without hope. There are distant shores on the horizon, but no promise of reaching them any time soon. Awarding transient moral authority to survivors complicates the grieving process. It’s complicated enough already.

While those who have lost loved ones in tragic events may choose to highlight a cause, they must also be allowed the grace of identifying their missteps and misstatements. Using their loss as a way to shield them from possibly valid criticism hinders debate, and actually damages their chosen cause. And it reveals a deep, ugly cynicism on the part of their champions. It is not noble to use the pain of others towards a political end. It is callous, and it is cruel.

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Dylan Thomas, A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

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April Joy is a freelance writer based in Arizona. You can find her on Twitter. ...more →

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16 thoughts on “The Moral Authority Hierarchy of Loss

  1. Fantastic insight. I sat at my desk contemplating a “but what about…” comment and in a moment of clarity I noticed my own hesitancy to post. I was hesitating to comment on your post April, because of the loss you experienced and detailed so elegantly above. Hoisted on my own petard as it where. :) Well done.


  2. I think this proves too much, in the sense that one person’s tragedy does automatically cancel the legitimate political anger of another person. For example, in the 1980s, AIDS activists were correct that the government, along with the broad society, had ignored (and often celebrated) a deadly epidemic. They did this in a way they would not have ignored any other epidemic, one that infected straight people. This was a political evil. It was fueled by homophobia and racism.

    Had someone tried to deny the legitimate anger of AIDS activists by pointing out, for example, that their husband had died from heart disease, and that too was tragic, they would have been erasing the difference between the two kinds of death. The political contrast was stark. It mattered. Similarly, someone whose child was murdered by an angry man in a society that fetishizes violence and guns — that is different from a death from another cause. The differences matters.


    • Similarly, someone whose child was murdered by an angry man in a society that fetishizes violence and guns — that is different from a death from another cause. The differences matters.

      What if that angry man with a gun was a undocumented Salvadoran immigrant and the parent of the dead child was using that anger to fuel support for Trump and his immigration policies? Does that difference matter? More importantly, who decides?


        • I agree. Political anger can be deployed in the service of good or in the service of wrong. And one person’s good can be another’s wrong. That ends up making it something that cancels from both sides of the equation.


          • — I am not offering a blanket justification for all political anger. I am saying “I suffered tragedy also” does not cancel political anger, particularly when that second tragedy differs in important ways from the first.

            To argue against political anger, you must establish that either 1) the anger is unjustified or 2) the target of the anger is incorrect.


            Lonely men who are angry at women for their romantic failure — this is unjustified anger (as I’ve written before at length).

            Angry white people who blame “culture war” issues for their problems — their anger is justified, but we progressives are the wrong targets for their anger. Transgender people (for example) did not cause the collapse of the manufacturing sector, nor the rise in opioid abuse.

            Are the victims of gun violence justified in being angry? Is the NRA the correct target?



  3. A lovely and sad essay. I am sorry for your loss. I cannot imagine.

    My attitude towards the “s/he can say whatever the heck s/he wants” phenomenon is that the argument is that the person is mad. Not, like, angry mad but the way we used the term a long time ago. They’re not their proper selves.

    If so-and-so wishes to say “we need to change all of our policies!”, they should just let that out. A terrible thing happened to them. They’re grieving. They should let it out. Like pus from a boil.

    Like you say: It’s when people who are not this person argue that we need to change all of our policies and hold this person up as a reason why that things get weird. You shouldn’t abuse someone who is mad. It’s not good for them. Cindy Sheehan, for example, was picked up, used, and tossed aside. The people who claimed she had moral authority (and claimed this to gain a little bit of temporary advantage) went on to dump her the second her madness evolved and took her to some more logical conclusions of her previous madness.

    The problem is that grief can make you mad. Being granted moral authority by people who want to use you can keep you mad rather than let you wander back towards something approaching health. (Sure, it’ll never be the same. It’s broken. But it can be good again, even though it’s broken.)


  4. Great post, April. Kudos for talking about something that people all to often just accept without thinking too deeply about. And my condolences, as well.

    I remember the first time that I encountered this idea, it was in a Maureen Dowd column about Cindy Sheehan. Dowd wrote something to the effect of: as a mother who lost her son in the Iraq War, Sheehan’s “moral authority is absolute.” I remember at the time thinking that it was one of those thoughts that seemed powerful on the surface but I wasn’t quite sure what it meant.

    What is moral authority? How does one earn it? Does it come from action or does it come from circumstance? What happens when two people who claim moral authority have the opposite opinion? I generally find that the people who deploy these ideas don’t have any actual desire to wrestle with the questions that stem from it. It’s almost entirely meant to function as rhetoric.


  5. The grief over the loss of child borders on insanity. The grieving parent can say exactly whatever the F they want to. It’s a very small consolation we can offer to the grieving to allow their pain to flow without having to contradict their political views. I’ve lost a child myself also to congenital heart defects so i have some idea what this is like. I don’t really know what “complete moral authority” is though it sounds like it would be cool to have and like put it on a business card. Let the grieving grieve even if it is loud and in public. That is very much not my style but especially after very public deaths it seems unavoidable for some.

    I always disliked the phrase “skin in the game” when it was being used in the health care debates. But it does point to a useful idea. Too many people show no empathy or even a desire to understand the issues other face. Now understanding or empathy doens’t mean you will agree with their solutions. It does suggest you have at least tried to understand their POV. Listen to the grieving and suffering, maybe they are bearing the weight of policy preference you don’t. That really might be something you should hear.


    • This is my sentiment exactly. Proximity to the event doesn’t lend moral authority, but it does let the person suffering the loss publicly grieve. Some turn that grief into action, and some don’t, but it seems unlikely that such public venting is going to change anyone’s mind.

      I’ll agree with those who see grief as a sort of madness. As such, I’ll give a pass to almost anything said in such a state.


  6. > Victim statements are an improper encroachment of the civil code on our criminal courts, expanding the role of criminal law to extend into recovery in a civil action, whereas the one concerns a public duty, and the other a private property.

    That question concerns a private right, and not a public duty.

    Not a positive duty, no; unless there is a state-created danger, or other situational factors which would confer liability.

    Recovery is attached to a claim right, which is independent of any injury.

    < But not all injuries have claim rights attached to them. Consider, for example, [ list ].

    Somehow, I think I've heard this argument before.


  7. Excellent post April, and I am sorry for what you have had to go through. The lost of a child is an upset to the natural order and one I dare not contemplate of my own son. The effects of this lingered on with my grandparents and the loss of my uncle when my mother was a girl.

    My son does, however, suffer from pectus excavatum, or a sunken chest. He calls it his cereal bowl. And while not a massive and life-threatening condition, it is something to keep an eye on, as it displaces his internal organs. All of that being said, it gives me no moral authority in any conversation or debate on health care. For this alone is not the axis around which that topic revolves, and to use it as such threatens to derail the conversation, to make it about the person and not the public.


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