Tuesday, June 30, 2020

“Are We Forgetting George Floyd?” Thoughts on Moral Obligation During These Times


As I watch the protests unfold, I find myself noticing a few things. First, the death of George Floyd seems to be increasingly forgotten in the protests… or at least the media coverage of the protests. Second, as they move forward, they seem to be focusing less about the treatment of African-Americans in this country and more about whatever the demagogues leading the movement want to cancel next in our “cancel culture.”
I don’t say this out of any political bias. Regardless of whether the people who called the Police had a valid reason to do so, Mr. Floyd’s killing was entirely in opposition to the Catholic teaching on the reasonable use of force. We should demand a just reform of those things that made it possible.
The problem is, the current protests don’t seem to have anything to do with these things. Now they appear to be largely about “canceling” statues and the people they represent. As I wrote in a previous article, some of those objections are valid… but some are not.
Unfortunately, we are an easily distracted people. So I suspect—and I pray that I am wrong—that if anybody remembers the protests at all five years from now, they will remember it for the stupid things some extremists among the protestors are doing, while remaining utterly convinced that whatever the full (non-extremist) movement does in the future can be written off as more of the same extremism.
This can’t be the Catholic attitude. No, we can’t condone it when certain demagogues try to attack our saints and their statues. We can’t condone it when some turn to rioting and risk the lives of others. But we can and must stand up for true justice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes justice as:
1807 Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion.” Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor. “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”
It means that, since each human being is created in the image and likeness of God, we must treat them as such, not in a way that we would be unwilling experience (cf. Matthew 7:12). Justice cannot have benefits for one group in a way that harms others. Unfortunately, people sometimes confuse which is which, and deny one’s person’s rights in the name of an injustice they call “rights.” For example, the “right” to abortion absolutely negates the right to life for some, and in recent Court rulings, “Gay rights” are infringing on the freedom of religion recognized in the US Constitution.
So, White Supremacy is unjust because it benefits one ethnic group at the expense of other ethnic groups. Any semblance of it must be stamped out. But Abortion is not a right, but unjust because it benefits one group at the expense of those who are not yet born. “Gay marriage” is unjust because it dictates to a religious group what moral beliefs they can and cannot practice§ to the benefit of those who want to make the religious group accept different morals.
Recognizing that distinction, we would work for justice for ethnic minorities. Racial discrimination is against our Catholic beliefs. But, while we cannot support abortion or same sex “marriage,” we can work to make sure women have support and real health care when they are in a crisis pregnancy—this is justice to the woman and the unborn child. We cannot support attempts to redefine marriage, but we can work to protect people with same sex attraction from being attacked or otherwise maltreated on the grounds of their sexual inclination. The promotion of wrongdoing as a “right” by others never excuses us from doing what is actually right and just.
Bringing this back to my introduction to this article, what we have is certain set of demagogues and extremists who are hijacking a legitimate and urgent need for social justice in favor of their own antipathies. But their own injustice does not excuse us from working for real social justice. The George Floyd case reminds us that real injustice does exist and must be addressed. We cannot lose sight of that just because certain individuals in that call for justice are behaving unjustly towards us.
_________________
(†) This may be the fault of media coverage. For example (to pick two extremes), CNN seems to focus on what Trump does, while Fox seems primarily focused on the CHAZ/CHOP zone. If any of this has anything to do with reforming the very real problems going on right now, the media isn’t showing it.
(‡) As St. John Paul II pointed out: 
The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination. (St. John Paul II, Christifideles Laici #38)
(§) To expand without bogging down or diverting the article: If a religion believes that Same Sex “marriage” is a sin and those members of the religion who openly practice that sin are causing scandal, the state is violating the rights of freedom of religion in favor of the benefit of a small group by forcing the religion and individual practitioners to do what they think is morally wrong.

Monday, June 29, 2020

“Good For Me but Not for Thee.” Thoughts on the New Iconoclasm

It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.(G.K. Chesterton)

The protests that began as protesting the killing of George Floyd have evolved into a new iconoclasm. This current mob-driven activity assumes that the existence of a monument or symbol exists solely to champion an evil as perceived through the eyes of the demagogue leading them.

In some cases, the perception is right. Some symbols, like the Confederate flag, took on meanings like resistance to the Civil Rights rulings of 1954 and beyond. Some statues were erected as defiance against the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War. In those cases, I have no problem with the legal removal from a place of public honor to a museum (where it can be displayed with proper historical context). 

The problem is, often the demagogues assume that their assumptions on why a monument exists is the only possible reason it could exist. This is an argument from ignorance fallacy, and too often a straw man. If the perceived reason is not the same as the actual reason—especially when the perceived reason comes from historical ignorance—then the attempts to remove the monument or symbol come from bigotry in the sense of the G.K. Chesterton quote at the beginning of this article.

For example, the demonstrations around religious monuments (or monuments perceived to be religious) involve either assumptions about the motives, or ignorance about the historical events about the person or events. St. Junipero Serra was vandalized for “crimes” he wasn’t guilty of. St. Louis IX is being targeted for “Islamophobia.” The assumption is that even the smallest deviation from the perceived 21st Century sensibility is deliberate and malicious. But 21st century perceptions of history are no less biased than the perceptions of previous centuries. They just have different biases. As an example, 19th century American historical biases tended to be “Protestantism = Good.” They focused on the worst abuses that existed in any part of pre-Protestant Christendom and treated as if it was doctrine that had to be destroyed. The 21st century bias tends to be “anybody who doesn’t conform to our thinking is a bigot.” Both are wrong to apply as a general principle, even when there are legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.

The problem is, these biases cannot accept the idea that conditions were different in different times and not all differences were the result of malice. For example, opposition to Islam in the Crusades was not rooted in xenophobia or a lust for conquest. It was based on the belief that aggressive Muslim nations had unjustly seized the Holy Land and were intent on conquering Europe as well. Yes, some Crusaders committed injustices, things that cannot be condoned under the more fully matured teaching of the Church today. But it would be factually wrong to assume that the injustices that existed were the intention of the Crusades in general.

We need to remember that unjust accusations by some members of a group often have the side effect of alienating people from accepting just accusations from the group as a whole. Yes, it’s a fallacy of composition, but it’s easy for people to think “these accusations are false, therefore all accusations from these people are false.” The story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf illustrates this danger. I have unfortunately seen some Catholics (falsely) reason that because the attacks on certain Catholic saints are so obviously false, the legitimate objections to certain Civil War monuments must also be false.

What we need to do is to be certain that our facts are correct and we understand the context of a time. We must also be careful that we don’t fall into a double standard, condemning them for something we turn a blind eye to when our standard harms us. Yes, slavery is something shameful in America’s past. No, we can’t try to explain it (or any other evil) away with special pleading. If “X is wrong” is universally true, then we must also oppose X when our own side does it (for example, if we condemn the violence of a mob that acts in a cause we oppose, we must not make excuses when mob violence is done by our side). But if X is not universally wrong, then we need to clearly demonstrate why this incident which we condemn is different from that incident which we condone. Otherwise, we come across as ignorant or hypocrites, and we are part of the problem.

____________________

(†) For example, the sack of Constantinople. But remember, the Pope at the time condemned it when news reached Rome.


Saturday, June 27, 2020

Injustice, Protests and the Mobs: What’s a Catholic To Do?

Watching the United States today, we’re seeing an alarming transition from a Republic that is—in theory anyway—based on the rule of law to an ochlocracy (A political system in which a mob is the source of control) where anger at a real or perceived injustice is used to extrajudicially target people that demagogues dislike. 

Yes, it’s indisputable that we’re here in the first place because the rule of law was unevenly applied to certain groups of people… many of whom have lost faith in the system we have. The question is what are we to do when legitimate grievances with illegitimate tactics. After all, as Catholics we cannot accept an evil means to achieve a good end.

We need to be clear on this before acting against injustice. Yes, if an institution is corrupt, it must be reformed. But not all methods used to demand reform are morally acceptable. Unfortunately, a certain subset of those seeking redress are choosing an evil means—demagogues using mob rule—to intimidate or even attack those they dislike. 

Let’s not just blame the other side here. The tactic of mobs is not limited to specific ethnic, political, or other groups. Nor is it limited to the United States alone. The tactics of the Nazi Brown Shirts in the 1920s and 30s might serve as an example of how bad a mob directed by an ideology and demagogues might become. So, we cannot say, “it’s their fault” while ignoring the wrongs we might tolerate on our own side. Conservatives need to be aware of the groups (like nationalist and white separatist/supremacist mobs) claiming to associate with their causes. Liberals need to be aware of the groups (like the antifa and others) claiming to associate with their causes. No faction is free of extremists.

Unfortunately, too many demagogues find the extremists on the other side to be a useful tool to discredit legitimate concerns. If one faction raises a concern and that faction has extremists who march with them, it becomes too easy for an opposing faction to treat anyone sharing a concern as agreeing with the extremists. (This is a guilt by association fallacy, by the way). It is quite possible to have something in common with an extremist group without accepting their extremist positions. For example, Antifa might have things in common with the Democratic Party, while white separatists might have some similarities with the Republican party, but that doesn’t mean that the Democrats and the Republicans openly support their worst barbarisms. So, even if we wish that one party would be more forceful in rejecting the extremists, we can’t automatically assume that the failure to do so is a blanket endorsement of evil.

Unfortunately, the mobs are making these associations. If a Catholic says “black lives matter,” other Catholics assume that he or she has capitalized each word and supports the extremist movement that has appropriated the slogan for themselves. If a Catholic says that they think that he or she has to support Trump because the other choices seem worse, other Catholics assume that he or she has openly championed the worst parts of his policies§

But we can’t do this. The Church expressly calls Rash Judgment a sin. We are not to accuse a person of a moral fault that we simply assume he or she must believe. We need to be certain that there are facts to base such an accusation on. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out (#2478):

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

Unfortunately, when we fall into mob rule, we don’t give a favorable interpretation to another (often falling into a fallacy of equivocation or accent), we don’t ask how the other intends it (often falling into a straw man or hasty generalization fallacy), and in our rush to correct, we don’t correct in love.

Once a mob falls into rash judgment, we often find that people who were not to blame for an injustice gets harmed in the violence and the demagogues claim that, while regrettable, it’s perfectly “understandable” that they act this way. But this is where we need to consider the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12). If we do not want to suffer injustice, we must not personally cause or take part in injustice to others. If we want others to consider the harm that they indirectly they cause us, we must consider the harm we indirectly cause others.

So, the past injustices a group suffers does not justify members of this group from inflicting injustice on others, regardless of what unjust members of the “others” have done. However, this cuts both ways. If it’s wrong for the mob to unjustly target groups based on the acts of some, we must not target entire groups with accusations based on the wrongdoing of some. So, if we see protestors carrying signs saying “black lives matter,” we cannot automatically assume they mean to support the radical group Black Lives Matter.

Another thing to remember is that laws that are just in themselves cannot be disobeyed just because the government is behaving unjustly. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it:

Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Prov. 8:15: By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things. Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good,—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver,—and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good. For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws. (STh., I-II q.96 a.4 resp.)

To use an extreme example, we’re not free to rape and murder just because the regime that passed laws against them is morally evil#. One who argued that laws against such things in Nazi Germany weren’t binding because the Nazis did not have legitimacy would still be culpable« if they refused to obey those laws. It’s when a law is intrinsically unjust in itself (for example, a law in Nazi Germany that required you to turn in Jews you knew were hiding) that we are obligated to oppose it.

Applying it to our present crisis, laws against rioting and vandalism remain just and binding, even when protestors are rightfully angry about a flagrant injustice in the legal system and frustrated by the fact that nothing seems to change. An unjust law might be giving permission to group X to do something that is illegal for group Y. If the permitted act is unjust, Group X must not do it. If it is just, it is wrong to deny it to Group Y.

If we think the legal system is unjust in some way, we may legitimately work to legally overturn it. If we find a monument honoring somebody offensive cannot be borne, we may legitimately work to have it legally removed. But rioting, behaving like vigilantes, putting other people at risk or destroying cannot be done… whether the government turns a blind eye to it or not.

What is a Catholic to do in these times? Behave justly, show compassion, and love our foes. That means we don’t turn a blind eye to the evils done by groups we favor while condemning the evils done in groups we oppose. If we would be angry if something was done against us, that is a huge clue we ought not to be doing it ourselves, whether by commission or omission.

_____

(†) While the United States votes on who is elected to represent us, it is not a democracy in the literal sense of the term. 

(‡) As always, I try to alphabetize my dichotomies to avoid the appearance of siding with one.

(§) Before anybody falls into Whataboutism, and accuse me of overlooking something, we can usually reverse these examples. For example, the Catholic who morally believes they can’t vote for Trump is often accused of supporting all of the evils of the Democratic Party.

(#) This is where those extremists go wrong when they think that saving unborn children justifies murdering abortionists. The laws against murder and the laws against vigilantism are just in themselves.

[«] No doubt in such a regime, those laws would be enforced unjustly, never enforced against the regime, but evil by them does not justify behaving unjustly ourselves.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

On “Pride” and Prejudice: a (Semi) Socratic Dialogue Through Manga

Those of you who don’t follow my blog’s Facebook page, might be unaware that on occasion I’ll use manga publishing software# to do apologetics comics. The following started out as a blog piece, before I decided to transform it into a manga dialogue. Of course, the Catholic cannot call evil acts “good,” and unfortunately, people aren’t as likely to respond to Iimi* in the way Paula does. But if we remain respectful of others, we might get into dialogue with others.























_____________

(#) ComiPo.
(*) Iimi (Irene Inez Mary Iscra—the mascot of the blog. Her initials were chosen as the initials of “If I Might Interject.”)

Sunday, June 7, 2020

On Whataboutism—Its Form and Fallacies

Preliminary Note

I’d like to start by framing a (logically valid) syllogism for an argument that goes around the internet:

  • If [X] Then [Y]
  • Not [Y]
  • Therefore [Not X]

Standing alone with X and Y, it’s a valid form known as modus tollens, and it’s true as long as the premises are free of fallacies. So, when it’s used, it sounds credible. But if the premises are fallacious, then the argument is invalid and the point argued is not proven. So, every time you see an “If you really cared about X, you’d care about Y” argument, be careful that the premises in the argument are true.

Introduction

One of the tiresome things I see on the internet is one of the slogans used in objecting to a high-ranking member of the Church speaking about the issue of injustice, or a company making a symbolic protest (not to morally equate the two): “But what about…? Why didn’t you do anything about…?” The term for this tactic is Whataboutism, and both sides in a faction war are guilty of using it. Whataboutism involves several linked fallacies—which we need to look at—to assert that the person who is concerned with one issue is not really sincere because he or she is not giving other concerns the same weight. Sometimes that accusation might be just, but often it’s used to change the issue in a way that benefits the person who uses it.

Before I begin, let me say that this is not an exhaustive list of fallacies. As I write this, each fallacy I discuss reminds me of two more. So, either I have to limit myself to the most pressing ones, or this becomes a huge tome of an article. I’ve opted for the first option.

Also, remember, we are talking about human beings here, not programmed machines. We all have blind spots. The people who are angry over an issue and those who question the sincerity of that anger might be quite sincere about their concern even if one of them should happen to be wrong. We do need to show compassion to the real concerns people have, even if we end up having to charitably correct some of them.

The Red Herring Fallacy

First, we have the Red Herring fallacy. This fallacy involves a diversion from the topic at hand. If we’re talking about Topic X, invoking Topic Y is irrelevant, and intended to divert the argument. If we talk about X, the relevance of Y needs to be established. We often see this tactic employed when the New Pro-Life Movement (NPLM) and the Original Pro-Life Movement (OPLM) brawl on social media. When the topic is abortion, members of the NPLM cite other moral issues. When the topic is on another moral issue, members of the OPLM invoke abortion. But, when the issue is intended to be abortion, the invocation of another topic is a distraction. Meanwhile, if the issue is another moral issue, invoking abortion is a distraction. It’s only relevant to invoke these topics if the issue is a broader discussion. This is probably why both sides spill ink or bytes over who is “really pro-life” when neither side has reached an agreement on the definition of pro-life, and both sides are probably defining it with the intention to exclude their opponents.

In recent times, we’re seeing some critics of the protests invoke this fallacy. We see some ask, “Why didn’t you object when somebody was killed?” or “Why didn’t you get angry when a police officer was killed protecting people from looters?” When introduced with the intention to divert the issue of George Floyd, it is a red herring.

The Either-Or Fallacy

The second fallacy is the Either-Or fallacy. The assumption is that Either people always respond the same way to a type of thing, Or they’re insincere or hypocrites. Those people using the slogan then argue, they are not always responding in the same way, and from draw the conclusion they are insincere or hypocrites… and the internet brawls erupt. This dualistic thinking assumes there are two—and only two—options to choose from. But, if there are more than two options, like the possibility of “Neither A nor B” or “Option C” being intended by the person being challenged, the dichotomy is false. 

We see this from those who disagree with the George Floyd protests… especially when the Pope and Bishops speak out on it. They mention the lack of protests over previous incidents of police killings of African-Americans, or a lack of similar outrage over the deaths of police officers or non-black individuals, and argue that since they don’t show it, they’re not focused on justice. 

The False Analogy Fallacy

That ties into our third fallacy—the False Analogy. This one focuses on the perceived similarities between two events and claim that they should be treated identically. While sometimes it is a valid objection, it becomes a fallacy when the differences between the two events are greater than the similarities. So, in our current case if civil unrest, the argument assumes that to be trulyoutraged over an injustice requires holding an equal level of outrage for each similar incident.

But while the similarity invoked through whataboutism involve people being killed. The differences involve the identity of the killers, the motives for the killings, and the circumstances of the current level of anger. The similarity that the Whataboutismforgets is forgets that we are dealing with people, not machines that respond the same way to the same output. People get angrier over time. They might hope that this time the courts would respond in a way they think just, but eventually they get angry and become convinced there is no justice to be had. The fallacy forgets this and forgets that the protests in all these cases reached a critical mass after those involved assumed that they would get no justice for their grievances. 

So, when citing a police officer killed by rioters as a refutation, it overlooks the different levels of hope for justice or past history of injustice. Will the killers of police officers during the riots face justice? Probably, if they can identify and find those responsible.

The Straw Man Fallacy

The strawman is a fallacy that misrepresents the argument into a caricature that is easier to refute. Refuting the caricature gives the impression of refuting the actual argument. But the strawman is not the actual argument. One has to answer the actual concerns.

An example of this is to respond to the slogan “black lives matter” with the slogan “all lives matter” or “cops lives matter.” Now these counter slogans are true, but they are addressing something not argued in the first place. The “black lives matter” argument is not saying “ONLY black lives matter.” So, while saying in response, “all lives matter” or “cops lives matter,” is technically true (all human lives do matter), that’s not the intention of the slogan. The purpose is to say “black lives also matter” to people suspected of thinking some lives matter less than others. That’s the issue to respond to.

Equivocation and Amphiboly

The interpretation of that slogan can go wrong through the fallacies of equivocation and amphiboly. Equivocation occurs when we give a term with more than one meaning a meaning not intended by the author. Amphiboly occurs when we emphasize a term in a way that gives it a different meaning§ than the author intends. These can be deliberate or unintentional. 

So, in the slogan “black lives matter,” some critics of the bishops have committed the fallacy of equivocation to think that they were referring to the radical movement which coopted the term. When the bishops were emphasizing that African-Americans deserve the same treatment as others, some have accused them of promoting the values of the radical group.

As for the fallacy of amphiboly, some have taken the term “black lives matter” and turned it into “black lives matter,” implying that other lives don’t. Thus, outraged, they respond with “all lives matter,” thinking they are standing up for all human life, saying “but what about X?” But they put the emphasis on the wrong word. The original accent seems to have been “black lives matter,” meaning that we can’t treat them as unimportant. 

I confess I fell into these fallacies once upon a time. Out of a Catholic pro-life conviction, I thought that everybody should hold that “all lives matter” (and they should!), but I missed the point of the slogan, not realizing that it was calling to be treated as equal, not separate. It’s a reminder that we should never assume that our casual interpretation is correct without checking to make sure that is what was meant by the one who is making a statement.

Other Considerations

We can’t automatically assume bad will on the person we disagree with, of course. A misunderstanding can easily be sincere. There are all sorts of baggage attached to words, and if we’re unaware of our limitations, we can go wrong while thinking we’re doing the right thing. The person we disagree with might not be a racist or an antifa… even if it turns out the person is wrong. As Catholics, to avoid calumny and rash judgment, we have to avoid making assumptions or spreading negative reports about someone without verifying that our assumption is true. Under the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:2), we are required to do this regardless of whether or not the other reciprocates. So, even if others misinterpret or misrepresent us, we are not excused from treating them as we want to be treated.

And this obligation cuts both ways. If it’s wrong to misjudge the motives of the people speaking out for social justice, it’s wrong to misjudge of people who disagree with the tactics used. While individuals or groups involved in the disagreements might be wrong#, we can’t 

Conclusion

As I said in the beginning, I could have easily added many more examples of fallacies that are packed into the assumption of “whataboutism.” But these are included so the person who encounters (or uses) the arguments might see why they are flawed and should not use them. Since we who profess to be Christian must seek out the truth and live (charitably) in accordance with it. This means we can’t accuse people of things they’re not guilty of and we mustn’t repeat false accusations.

While it’s possible that a logically bad argument coincidentally winds up with a true conclusion@, it can’t prove the conclusion is true. So, being aware of the logical flaws with the whataboutism arguments helps us from assuming that bad arguments must be true and irrefutable.

 

___

(†) In logic, the fact that an argument is invalid or unsound doesn’t mean the conclusion is false. It means that the argument cannot prove the conclusion. So, debunking the argument of Person A doesn’t automatically prove that the conclusion is false. To do that, you need to respond with a valid argument with true premises that cannot be refuted. To use an analogy, in a criminal trial, the Prosecutor has to prove his case of guilt is sound. The Defense lawyer who refutes the Prosecutor’s argument hasn’t proven his client innocent. He’s just demonstrated that the Prosecutor’s argument isn’t proven.

(‡) Whether or not you, the reader, personally agrees with the justness of the anger or not, we all need to recognize that the anger is real and needs to be addressed justly.

(§) To understand this, take the following sentence: “I never said you took the money.” Read it aloud seven times, each time emphasizing a different word. See how every change of emphasis changes the meaning of the sentence? This is why, when I think there’s a danger of amphiboly, I try to italicize the word I think should be accented. Of course, I don’t always catch it.

(#) I am speaking in theory here. I am not pointing fingers at any specific person. The focus is to determine right and wrong so the reader might ponder how it might apply in their experience, not to score points against my political “foes.”

(@) For example, if a person believes that “all red things are poisonous” and, as a result, escapes eating a red object that happens to be poisonous, the conclusion was true in this case, even though the reasoning behind it was false.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Double Standards: Not All Injustices Are Viewed as Equal, But They Remain Unjust

“When you see a nation, an entire nation simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.”

—Bill De Blasio, Mayor of New York City

“However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators' ability to gather and demand change. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders.”

—Open Letter of 1200 health care professionals

One thing that shows up during the protests#—just as they have any other time there is injustice—is the attitude of “But, what about X? Why are you focusing on Y instead of X?” Alternately, we see “Why are you focusing on this now when you were silent all these other times?” These comments usually spark internet brawls, where the people who think Y is more important than X respond with anger, thinking that these objections show that the people who say them “don’t care” about injustice.

It’s true that some people do say these things because they don’t care. But others have legitimate concerns about injustices that others either don’t care about or don’t understand. I think the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12a) is important here: Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. If we want others to care about the injustice we suffer, that shows caring about the injustice others suffer is a moral imperative. Saying Y is more immediately urgent than X is one thing. But holding a double standard based on one’s own biases of what is important and what is to be guilty of injustice as well. 

In other words, before you say, “That’s different,” remember that some people think the same way about your cause. If you don’t want others to dismiss your cause, don’t dismiss theirs, even if you think one cause is in more urgent need of correction than another.

I began reflecting on this when New York City mayor De Blasio announced that he was going to tolerate protesters violating quarantine rules but keep them in place for religious services, because these cases were an exception to the rule. Since the (presumably) peaceful right of assembly is included in the same amendment as the freedom of religion, we have a clear-cut case of the double standard. If the laws of health are so important that religious groups cannot hold services because of the risk of increasing the spread of COVID-19 then, logically, the risk of thousands of people gathered in close spaces to protest must be held to the same standard. And health experts are expressing grave concern over the rioters spreading contagion. Some “health professionals” have apparently signed a letter saying that the need to protest outweighs the need to quarantine, but it’s the same double standard. What determines a “need” is based on what the person considers important and what others consider a need is not.

But that’s precisely the attitude behind the injustice that is currently being protested—the recognition that the treatment of certain people and issues are being handled unjustly based on what those in charge think is important and what they don’t care about. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the protestors’ perception§, they resent that what they have seen as injustice for decades was dismissed as not important or not as bad as they thought. 

This is why the Golden Rule is important in all times and all circumstances. If we want to have people treat our cause justly, we must make sure we treat the causes of others justly. That doesn’t mean “give in to everything.” Justice is giving to others what is their due by right. A human being must be treated like a human being in all circumstances. But when a demand unjustly harms others, giving into it is not just. For example, we cannot give into the demands of a manifestly unjust group like Planned Parenthood in the name of “justice,” because their promotion of abortion harms other human beings, treating them as less than human.

Having one standard of treatment for one group, and a different standard for a second group is unjust, regardless of whether the second group is treated better or worse than the first. If seeking the public good is a requirement of good government, it cannot be selective in making or enforcing laws out of sympathy for one group or antipathy for another.

In dealing with the quarantine laws, regarding the protests and the freedom of religion, we must not have different standards for different people. If the conditions of contagion bar large groups from meeting, we must apply that to all large groups. But if the conditions do not bar all large groups, then we need to make clear what differences make one group safer than another.

Otherwise, especially if it becomes clear that the different standard is based on indifference or antipathy to one group, we’re guilty of injustice.    

 

____

(‡) At the time of my writing this article.

(#) When I speak of protests, I am of course speaking of peaceful and lawful protests, not rioting.

(†) For example, I find it sad to see some people are angrier over the symbolic actions taken to protest the death of George Floyd then they are over the actual death of George Floyd.

(§) I’m more inclined to think now that they have a valid objection than I was ten years ago. That’s because I have ten more years of experience in what goes on in the world and ten more years of studying Church teaching than I had before.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Guilt, Innocence, and Resentment

One thing that annoys people is being lumped into a group that they have nothing in common with and being lectured to as if they held the characteristic being condemned. It’s understandable because that kind of lecturing is part of the fallacy of composition(stereotyping) that runs along these lines: Person A holds an offensive trait. Person A belongs to group X. Therefore, Group X holds the offensive trait. Through that reasoning, Person B, who also belongs to Group X, is assumed to hold that offensive trait. The result is Person B begins to resent the accusation personally, and often discounts the offensiveness of that trait, thinking it is false or exaggerated universally.


The resentful response is understandable, but it is also dangerous. Even if Person B doesn’t hold that offensive trait, that doesn’t mean that the offensive trait doesn’t exist. So, if enough people think like Person B, then blindness to—or downplaying of—the evil emerges. From this reaction, we see the counterreaction that assumes that the whole group must be guilty and anyone who denies they hold that trait is either lying or in denial about their guilt.

This kind of thing becomes a vicious cycle, with people growing more entrenched in their views. Some people reach the point of denying or downplaying the guilt of those who are guilty. Others become bigoted against people in Group X, assuming the guilt is universal§. The result is the actual evil never gets corrected, and each time it comes up, mutual resentments prevent an effective response.

The obvious example of this is the recent killing of George Floyd. There is understandable anger over the behavior and mindset that led to his death. And there is understandable resentment over being accused of that behavior when one doesn’t hold it. But it’s not the only example. We’ve seen this happen in the clerical abuse scandal, and the debates over whether policies on illegal immigration are unjust. In all of them, the evil exists. But some portray the evil as a universal, and some of those who resent the universal accusation denying the existence or the extent of the evil. Because of these, factions become entrenched.

So, what are we to do? Obviously, the evil exists and has to be corrected. Those who resent being lumped in with the ones doing evil can’t deny that. At the same time, not everybody is guilty of that evil, and we must not use rhetoric that accuses everybody for the guilt of some. 

This is where we need to watch out for a second fallacy, the guilt by association fallacy. In this fallacy, the fact that somebody with somebody repugnant who holds a view makes the view itself evil. So, in modern times, the fact that radical movements oppose an evil is often used as a justification for rejecting the opposition of the evil, often confusing the end with the means. In our most recent crisis, some have used the fact that radical groups are violently demonstrating in the protests against racism as a reason to reject the protests themselves. That rejection does not logically follow. Likewise, the fact that anti-Catholics misuse the abuse scandals for their own purposes does not mean that anger over the actual scandals should be ignored. Just because racists make use of the concerns of illegal immigration does not mean there are no valid concerns.

The repugnance we feel against an evil does not excuse us from our moral obligation to speak truthfully and with charity. The anger we feel against being falsely accused does not excuse us from opposing the evil that the false accusation is based on. As Christians, we are not allowed to use calumny or rash judgment against our foes, and we are not allowed to turn a blind eye against evil either. This requires us to look at what is and respond accordingly.

Unfortunately, determining what is true doesn’t fit in well with the mob mentality of an enraged social media site. It’s easy to reject anything that doesn’t fit in with our preferred narrative. We call whatever goes against that narrative, “fake news.” And some of the news is fake. But not everything we dislike is fake, and not everything we like is true. To avoid calumny and rash judgment, we have to determine whether our accusations are just before we repeat them, and we have to make sure our apologetics are true before we share them.

I won’t say that’s all we have to do to solve our problems, because there’s a lot more to it than that. But I imagine if we were aware of this problem and did our best to avoid doing these things, perhaps we would be able to focus more effectively on the actual injustices that need solving.

But if we won’t individually look at our own responses here, we’re only adding to the problems.

_________

(†) This shouldn’t be confused with the Guilt by Association Fallacy (I’ll get into that one later in the article). 

(§) Sometimes we see both sides turn this into “Instead of focusing on THIS, we need to focus on THAT,” where “this” is an issue they don’t care about and “that” is an issue they care about. However, both issues can be important.

(‡) One example is, Hitler used the German people’s desire for security and order (which are legitimate needs) to gain support for his evil plans. The fact that so many went along with that evil serves as a warning to look at the plans put forward. But his evil actions do not make the natural desire for security and order “Hitlerian” by nature.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Opposing Evil Outside and Inside

There's battle lines being drawn

Nobody's right if everybody's wrong

Young people speaking their minds

Getting so much resistance from behind

 

It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound

Everybody look what's going down

 

What a field-day for the heat

A thousand people in the street

Singing songs and carrying signs

Mostly say, hooray for our side

 

—Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth

 

Scrolling through Facebook the other day, I saw a troubling trend. The anger over the George Floyd killing and the anger over the riots were pitted against each other, so that any expression of sympathy or concern was seen as an endorsement of the opposing evil. So, being angry at the killing was seen as an endorsement of the riots, while being angry over the rioting was seen as an endorsement of police racism. Any expression of opposing the extremes on both evils tends to be treated as a “both sides” moral equivalence.


The problem is, there are evils on both sides and each side must oppose the extremists on their own side if we are to see any real reforms. Those who are angered by the killing of Mr. Floyd need to make clear that rioting is not an appropriate response. Those who are angered by the rioting need to make clear that support for the police in general does not mean giving the police carte blanche when an officer does wrong or if a particular police department has an inherent injustice. 

The teaching of the Catholic Church applies to all factions here: “One may never do evil so that good may result from it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1789). That includes turning a blind eye to an evil because we believe in or otherwise benefit from the good. Prudence may dictate how we respond in opposing evil, but we can never ignore the valid concerns of others, even if we cannot accept their response.

The Catholic Church has openly condemned the killing and the racism it forces us to confront—that condemnation even coming from the Pope, who called opposing racism a pro-life issue. But I have seen some Catholics say that the Church should focus on “real” issues instead, while others say that the Church has not “done enough.” I think both of these subgroups are using the murder of Mr. Floyd as a proxy for their battle over ideology, wanting the Church to behave as they think. We should reject both of them as we seek to solve the evils in our country because both are (even if sincere and blind to their errors) focused on partisanship.

I’m not saying that the two evils cancel each other out here, or that the existence of an evil in one group negates the valid concerns that group has. I’m saying this: When we oppose an evil, we need to make sure we do not embrace or tolerate evils in our own group out of expedience or thinking “that’s not as important.” In opposing racism, we must make it clear we also reject evil means of opposing it. In opposing rioting, we must make it clear we also reject the evils that sparked the rioting.

If we won’t do that, we’re not working for justice, but partisanship. And nothing will change as long as we do that.

 

________

(†) For my non-American readers, America doesn’t have a national police force outside of the limited nature of the FBI and the US Marshals. Some of our states don’t even have state police, having only local city or county jurisdictions. So, any reform of “the system” actually means reforming many systems, some better than others, some worse. Problems with police brutality have come from both “Blue” and “Red” states, regardless of which party is in political power at the national level. (As usual, I put the terms in alphabetical order to avoid appearance of bias), so reforming this issue is not going to be simply a matter of “regime change.”

(‡) Please be aware that, by referring to these two subgroups, I am not saying that all people opposed to a certain evil are guilty. Please review THIS if you think that by saying “some,” that I mean all.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

We’ve Been Here Before—And It's Time We Stop

Lest somebody misinterpret what I’m reflecting on in this post, let me first say this:

Whether we call it murder or willful manslaughter (I find it difficult to grasp the nuances of what determines the legal difference when the murder is not premeditated), the death of George Floyd was an unjustifiable act of police brutality that must be condemned. Those involved should be held accountable to the degree they were responsible for the death. When it comes to discussing this, there should be no “but” in our words that negates our condemnation. If there is some sort of regional or national problem that makes his death a “symptom” of a greater problem, we should be looking into what sort of just response needs to be carried out to correct it quickly (as opposed to a meaningless gesture).

FULL STOP.

NOTHING that I say below should be interpreted as trying to downplay that evil.

What I have to say next is not an attempt to defend or explain away any injustice, past present or future. Nor is it a blanket accusation. If you’re not guilty of what I’m about to discuss, then I’m not speaking about you. Only God has knowledge of what’s in your hearts. I do not.

Having issued my statement against that evil act, I find myself dismayed to see once again how the tragedy of the death of this man is—like every other tragedy caused by evil—being exploited by some (not all) people who use it to attack the factions they were already opposed to. 

Let’s face it. We’ve been here before, and every time we arrive, we leave with no changes except a greater divide between us. We have too often seen the unjust killing of a person, followed by rioting, followed by people making excuses for those who unjustly killed or those who unjustly rioted. Under this endless cycle, nothing ever gets done because nobody ever tries to break away from it. In fact, it’s always the fault of the “other side” that an evil happens. 

Think about the noise for a moment. Think about how many times over the years decades you have heard some people say that “if he had only cooperated with the police, this wouldn’t have happened” or “the fact that this happened is because of national racism.” Now think of the silence—the silence over the thing happening when our favored party is in power but was condemned when the other party was in charge. The silence is about as deafening as the noise.

What I’m speaking about here isn’t just a problem with America’s shameful history of minorities being terrorized by bad cops. Whether it’s racist cops and rioting here, or terrorism followed by the mistreatment of migrants all over the world, we will always find people coming up with unjustifiable “justifications” that this is tragic but unavoidable, while that is condemned as a proof of evil by the other side. Often people combine the two. Some ask, “Why are we focusing on this when we don’t get upset by a worse issue?” To argue that way falls into a tu quoque fallacy where the evil of group A that we oppose cancels out the evil of group B that we favor. 

I’m saying that if we want to work for justice, we need to stop making excuses for one side and focusing on the evils of the other. We must look at ourselves too and see if we’re being hypocrites by way of selective outrage. The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) tells us that whatever we want others to do to us, we must do to them. If we want others to behave justly towards us, we must behave justly towards them. Because, while people are not very good at seeing their own hypocrisy, they are very good in seeing it in others. So, if we’re outraged at others for turning a blind eye to something, be aware that they’re looking at us in the same way. Both sides look at each other with disgust and nothing gets done.

That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about speaking out against an evil until we clean up our own mess. Evil must be opposed wherever it rises up, after all. But it does mean that opposing evil is not limited to pointing fingers at the other side. Remember, the “other side” is doing the same thing about us.” If we get angry at them labeling us hypocrites, then let us be sure they have no opportunity to justly do so.

At this point, I figure the reader either understands what I am saying, or wrongly thinks I am siding with one of the factions. So, there’s probably not much more I can say. So, to wrap up, I would say this: regardless of what we do, there will always be some sort of appalling evil we will need to respond to. In facing that evil, we will need to be certain that we scrutinize our own motives and demands for hypocrisy, eliminating when we see it. Otherwise, the other hypocrites will use our hypocrisy to justify their own stance. And nothing will be done.

We’ve been here before too many times already.

And it’s time we stop.

______

 

(†) Regardless of whether they reciprocate.

(‡) Unfortunately, we have the example of the “Original Pro-Life Movement” vs. the “New Pro-Life Movement” continuously falls into this trap, both accusing anyone calling for them to clean up their own house of insisting on this.