Thursday, July 16, 2015

When Feelings Do(n't) Matter

It seems possible that Planned Parenthood hasn’t been doing anything illegal.  The word is that the costs quoted in the video exposé (“thirty to a hundred dollars”) are not the cost for selling human tissue, but merely the cost required to handle, package, and transport livers, hearts, etc.  If so, the defenders of Planned Parenthood are correct to say that they’ve done nothing which is, strictly speaking, illegal.  The legality of their actions should be investigated, but the investigation may well show them to be legally blameless on that technicality.

To be sure, such splitting of hairs isn’t in itself objectionable.  We Catholics are, after all, in the habit of insisting that we don’t buy Masses or relics; rather, we give the priest who prays support, and we reimburse those passing the relics for the (oftentimes expensive) containers in which they ought to be housed.  The distinction between selling a thing and covering costs associated with the thing should be a familiar and acceptable one.

But some will insist that (if this distinction establishes the legality of the actions shown in the video), we should all ignore our disgust at what it depicts.  After all, they say, lots of medical procedures are disgusting, grisly, uncomfortable.  No one wants to watch brain surgery, they say.  And brain surgery is and should be legal.  Therefore, the mere existence of an ick factor shouldn’t make us feel upset about abortion.

Forget brain surgery.   
Have you ever watched in ingrown toenail removal? 

Or … on second thought, have a picture of some dead flowers.

This line of argument is absurd, ironically so.  There is a long-standing tendency on the part of, well, everyone, to contrast the left and the right in American politics in terms of heart and head.  The left has soft heads and hearts, and the right has hard heads and hearts; what Christ really wants of us is a soft heart and a hard head (to paraphrase the eminent Peter Kreeft).

The stereotype is perhaps not completely just, but it is real—real in the sense that many people seem to accept it.  Confirmation bias inclines most people to accept the complimentary parts of the stereotype as applying to themselves, and the negative parts as applying to the opposition.

It’s like the shortest personality test ever.   
Lemons are golden, tangy, cheap, and well-loved?   
 That’s 75% me!

In particular, the identification of the American left with feelings is strong.  Safe spaces exist for the sake of protecting feelings.  Caitlyn Jenner et al. purportedly demonstrate the power of feeling (not biology or anatomy) to determine who you are.  And of course, the Supreme Court’s recent decision on gay marriage is less about legal benefits than about making sure that people living in gay households feel comfortable and accepted by the outside world.

Under the circumstances, it’s highly ironic that it is people on the left who are now telling us to ignore the way the video makes us feel.  Ironic, and disingenuous.

Feelings are important, but they are not answers, arguments, or proofs.  Aristotle often will open a discussion of a question by pointing out what “the many” say: how they gloss a question, what they feel about a problem, how their instincts incline them to talk about a given subject.  Aristotle never stops at what “the many” say, but proceeds to attempt a logical argument, which may or may not come to the same conclusion that “the many” have reached, but which always takes their insight into account.  You might say (adopting for a moment our stereotype) that Aristotle listens to feelings like the left, but rigorously investigates truth like the right.  

Peter Kreeft meets Aristotle
Coming soon to a small Catholic liberal arts college bookstore near you.
Right after I get Photoshop.

In the case of this video, then, the appalled reaction of the many—of us all—signifies something.  When we are appalled to witness an ingrown toenail removed … 

Sorry, sorry—I meant brain surgery.

There.  Much cleaner.

… we tend to overcome our disgust with rationalization: this is gross, but it’s good for me.  The disgust here arises from our natural tendency to recoil from things which may harbor germs or lead to disease (blood, pus, etc.).

But the disgust from this video, I submit, arises from another part of us: from the part of us that sees something sentient being injured, degraded, or treated lightly, and recoils.  This is the same sort of disgust that makes us feel (rightly) upset by J.K. Rowlings’s mandrakes, or by certain of Picasso’s misogynistic portraits, or by F-fty Sh-des of Gr-y, or by seeing a dog abused.

Is that really a feeling we should smother?

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