For the last few years, a hot-button cultural debate in the United States has been raging over multiculturalism and the competing claims of Afro-centrism and Euro-centrism. But under cover of multiculturalism, something has been smuggled in that could have far greater consequences: The belief that morality itself is culture-bound and therefore, in an increasingly pluralistic society, wholly malleable.
Moral revolutions are usually obstreperous affairs, bannered on the covers of newsmagazines. This time, multiculturalism stealthily slid into moral relativism without anyone paying much attention to the confusion between the anthropological and moral realms. Yet, the new swell of moral relativism challenges the predicates of our moral system. It says any behavior is all right, as long as there is some culture or subculture that permits it. All this converts the popular T-shirt slogan -- ''It's a . . . thing. You wouldn't understand'' -- from a cultural assertion into a new moral standard.
It was on these grounds that Harvard Professor Orlando Patterson excused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' alleged remarks to Anita F. Hill. He asserted that what Mr. Thomas supposedly said ''may have been completely out of the cultural frame of his white, upper-middle-class work world, but immediately recognizable to Professor Hill'' as a form of ''down-home courting.'' In other words: It's a Southern black thing. You wouldn't understand.
It was on similar grounds that two Palestinian emigres, who had slaughtered their Americanized teen-age daughter, asked for acquittal. As a friend of the family said, ''We follow our religion.'' // If the parents hadn't disciplined their wayward daughter, ''they'd be embarrassed in front of everybody.'' In short: It's a Palestinian thing. You wouldn't understand.
With Leona Helmsley, it's a rich thing; with the Mob, a Cosa Nostra thing; with crooked politicians, a political thing; with looters, a poverty thing. You wouldn't understand.
Applied to culture, this may be a sensible formulation. We don't always understand other cultures, even other American subcultures, and we often are not in a position to judge customs, languages, aesthetics, mythologies, even cosmologies. Applied to morality, on the other hand, it can become a license to do anything you like and not feel responsible, since no one's moral coordinates can be imposed on anyone else's actions -- certainly not the coordinates of white middle-class morality. The result is not just that people think they can get away with anything, it is that they believe they are entitled to get away with anything.
As fundamental a change as this is, one reason it has received so little attention is that no one really objects to it -- at least in his own bailiwick. For years, liberals have offered explanations for what might be regarded as antisocial behavior by the underprivileged, the disenfranchised and the marginalized. These explanations, as one saw vividly after the Los Angeles riots, often sounded remarkably like excuses. If society was at fault for creating a culture of poverty, individuals were not responsible for abiding by the values of that culture. In any case, many liberals have become uncomfortable about judging the poor and minorities by prevailing white middle-class standards of moral conduct.
If anything, conservatives found morality even more flexible than liberals. What liberals were excusing because of poverty, conservatives were excusing because of wealth and patriotism. As both Wall Street and Irangate made clear, amorality in the furtherance of the conservative cause is no vice. In this view, Michael Milken and Oliver L. North were both heroes snagged by legal technicalities, not wrong-doers receiving justice.
Perhaps the major casualty of moral relativism has been the notion of guilt. For when there is easy absolution, there is no guilt -- at least not moral guilt. To everyone from the drug lords to insider traders, getting caught was the real crime. Recently, former Wall Street sovereign and current convict Milken labeled the six counts of criminal fraud, to which he had pleaded guilty, as ''securities violations.'' For Milken and his advocates, there is no wrong involved. ''It's a Wall Street thing. You wouldn't understand.'' The idea of wrong isn't in their moral vocabulary anymore.
Similarly, Mr. North cannot conceive that he may have done wrong and hence he cannot possibly feel guilt -- though he baldly lied. ''I know the difference between right and wrong,'' he wrote, ''and I can tell good from bad. But I also know that the more difficult decisions come when we have to choose between good and better. The toughest calls of all are those we have to make between bad and worse.'' Mr. North makes these calls and gets cheered for them, but -- it's a conservative thing. You wouldn't understand.