Friday, January 27, 2012

In Defense of the Indefensible

Warning: Intense authorial irritation alert.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, characterizing Voltaire's sentiments towards his opponents, paraphrased his habitual attitude in one scintillating, oft-quoted line: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It is a mischaracterization of Voltaire—the man who was too generous to make an enemy of Satan also closed his letters with "écrasez l'infâme"—but through its association with Voltaire the sentiment has taken on a life of its own. "I will defend to the death your right to say it" is the exit line of superior liberal tolerance, the verbal apotheosis of the assertion that everyone has a right to their own opinion. It seeks to capture all the humility of Socrates and all the honor of the martyrs. If the new humility is false and the original honor grossly misunderstood—if Voltaire does not deserve credit for the virtue implied in the line—at least we can agree that it is a real virtue.

Or can we? Charity towards our intellectual adversaries is a real virtue; but defending their right to say what they please—"to the death!"—may not always be charity. There are opinions that merit no defense for their possessors, opinions that are so uncharitable in themselves that a defense of their expression is uncharitable both to the ones expressing and to society as a whole. I am thinking, for example, of "expressions" like those of Westborough Baptist Church, or the "expressions" of pornographers. To defend their right to express their opinions to the death is simply not defensible.

But instances of the truly indefensible are rare; and, given our diseased intellectual climate, becoming rarer. In a world were natural law is not merely ignored or treated as irrelevant, but actually contradicted by schools, media, entertainment, and government, we can no longer consider even some radical ideas "indefensible," or insist that "no decent person" would hold them. It is more possible than ever before for a man of good will—by which I mean a man who wants to love his neighbor—to be sincerely deluded as to what loving one's neighbor entails.

But pass those things that, though naturally indefensible, are no longer so recognized by many; and pass those things that are still considered indefensible by most of our society, despite the erosion of beneficial taboos. I want to talk of the truly indefensible, about things that now, even now in our corrupt and deluded age, no decent person would do. I want to talk about supporting Newt Gingrich.

Or was it supporting Romney? Or Paul? And as for Santorum ... ah, well; no decent person could support him.

We Catholics, we traditionalists, are a bunch of hotheads. I write that with little affection. We are so disgusted by the "tolerance" of the world—by the acceptance of things that are vile, and ought to be seen as vile—that we cannot tolerate even minor differences of opinion. We cannot believe that someone could be honestly wrong. We eat our own—oh, not more than the secularists do; but we ought to eat our own less. Gingrich—philanderer, thrice-married, egotistical; Romney—statist, Mormon; Paul—insane; Santorum—supporter of torture. And of course, they are all hypocrites. And their supporters are not, cannot, be "decent people."

I am reminded, as I read what some Catholics write concerning the Republican primaries, of other internecine wars. The case for and against Iraq and Afganistan. Novus Ordo v. Tridentine. Female modesty. Oh, some of these things are less trivial than others—but they share the capability to turn otherwise rational Christians into anathematories. There was the unresolved debate about Live Action and lying, a debate that included Janet Smith, Peter Kreeft, Christopher Tollefsen, Edward Feser ... These are not stupid people. These are not bad people. They areI cannot but thinkfundamentally decent people. And they did not agree.

Notice, I do not say that "they could not agree" much less that they could never agree. Opinions can change; conversions can happen; those who are in the wrong can be persuaded. Debate can be fruitful. But not when you start your sentences with "No decent person ..." It is a line that has been used during the Republican primaries by candidates against each other, and by supporters of one candidate against supporters of another. "No decent person ..." I am tempted to say that no decent person would begin a generalization with "No decent person."

But that would be just indecent
as well as bad tempered, unproductive, imprudent, uncharitable, and unwise.

1 comment:

  1. More people need to get an education via the seminar method.
    I think many have difficulties letting go of the little things because everything taught to them came out as doctrine no matter what level of importance it had.
    When you get old and wise enough (or at least think you do) to have your own opinions, you ape the people you learned from and present any and all of your ideas with the same vigor. It follows though, that the mind conforms to the spoken word, hence the intolerance to opposition even in the little things.

    That is my theory. (Which is neither hold absolutely, nor think it explains the entire problem.)