The smart but acerbic Mark Shea has posted, believe it or not, an apology for his tone and attitude in writing in recent months. It's a beautiful example of a real-not-fake apology, and I am probably not the only person who is glad to see it; Shea is usually, I think, correct, but sometimes I can't stand to read him even when I agree with him because, well, he can be mean. Smart, but dismissive. So I am glad to see this apology, and sincerely wish him fruitfulness in his efforts to respect persons more.
I wanted to highlight part of it, which I think is a good statement of an error that many persons fall into when they write or post about politics (or entertainment or economics, for that matter). It has to do with the notion of "using persons as means to ends," which in Catholic moral theology is an absolute no-no. (It is probably also forbidden in other systems of ethics, and should be in more, as it's more protective of the weak than is your standard Golden-Rule-driven system). A pithy way of putting the same principle is "The opposite of love is not hate; it's use. The opposite of loving a person is using a person."
Mr. Shea writes that he has a strong compulsion to fight against any notion of reducing persons to a means to an end, and yet he himself is guilty of the same crime in the rhetorical arena:
Observant readers will grasp that this has more than a little to do with my intensely strong reaction to the notion of using people as means to ends–as though the person himself is merely a tool. Hence my intense reactions to such questions as abortion, torture and the whole Live Action thing[*], all of which involve reducing people to things or means to an end. But there’s a bitter irony in all that too... I really saw this weekend that I have myself long had a habit of reducing other people to means to ends, depersonalizing them, and treating them with little or no respect. It works this way: If I am arguing with somebody who seems to me to merely be in intellectual error..., I will treat that one with respect. But when I feel as though I am engaged with somebody who is wilfully refusing to get the point, I will generally reach a point where I decide “Okay, you refuse to listen honestly or reply honestly, so I will henceforth respond to you only for the sake of those third party bystanders watching the conversation who will listen. You have just been reduced to a Thing: a means to the end of talking to them.” In addition, my attitude toward Public Figures is much the same. I tend not to see them as human beings, but as sort of semi-fictional characters. People who don’t fully exist but who are In the News and therefore symbols or representatives of ideas.
Observant readers will grasp that this has more than a little to do with my intensely strong reaction to the notion of using people as means to ends–as though the person himself is merely a tool. Hence my intense reactions to such questions as abortion, torture and the whole Live Action thing[*], all of which involve reducing people to things or means to an end.
But there’s a bitter irony in all that too... I really saw this weekend that I have myself long had a habit of reducing other people to means to ends, depersonalizing them, and treating them with little or no respect. It works this way:
If I am arguing with somebody who seems to me to merely be in intellectual error..., I will treat that one with respect. But when I feel as though I am engaged with somebody who is wilfully refusing to get the point, I will generally reach a point where I decide “Okay, you refuse to listen honestly or reply honestly, so I will henceforth respond to you only for the sake of those third party bystanders watching the conversation who will listen. You have just been reduced to a Thing: a means to the end of talking to them.”
In addition, my attitude toward Public Figures is much the same. I tend not to see them as human beings, but as sort of semi-fictional characters. People who don’t fully exist but who are In the News and therefore symbols or representatives of ideas.
That last bit is significant: the Public Figure as a nonperson, someone who has surrendered part of his or her humanity. It is so common that we hardly think about it. Sometimes it may be naturally necessary, a simple consequence of being in the public eye; for example, our legal system literally strips public figures of some of the privacy and defamation protections that "private citizens" enjoy. That may be necessary to balance their rights against the rights of a free press in a country that highly values freedom of speech and information. But it's not generally necessary for individuals to treat public figures as nonpersons.
It's so very difficult, though, to avoid seeing them -- and using them -- as mere symbols. Look at the vitriol people spew towards political candidates from the party they oppose (yes, indeedy, it goes both ways). Spend a few minutes reviewing political posts from your friends on Facebook and ask yourself, "is the subject of this post being used as a means to score a political point?" Has your friend reduced a public figure's personality to the content of one statement or one political position? Has your friend extrapolated the figure's entire intellectual or moral character from the content of one political position? Is your friend mocking a politician or celebrity in a way that offends human dignity -- denying the individual humanity of members of a group because of their sex, sexuality, race, religion, or class? Has your friend singled out a particularly unattractive individual as a convenient representative for a whole group of people? Has your friend perpetuated an assumption of malicious intent behind an act, when a benevolent interpretation is far more likely to be accurate?
Yeah, I am seeing a lot of that. And over the past year or so, I have developed more and more distaste for it to the point that I don't enjoy posting anything with political content. I rarely even openly criticize them, because in social media, to criticize is to widen the audience (my followers see what I reply to on Twitter, my friends see whatever I comment on in Facebook).
It's surprisingly difficult to criticize public figures for their political stance without falling into the easy habits of mockery and, well, using people.
And yet, political speech is important speech, and moral speech is one of the duties of the Christian. So how do you post anything at all that involves a public figure without using him or her as a means to an end?
I think one important principle is to restrict your criticism to actions, behavior, and decisions without trying to see into someone's heart and criticize his character. Christians ought to be much better at this than the average person, and much better than we are. My observation is that it's very common for the general public to conflate identity and behavior, but we have a long tradition of distinguishing between "sinner" and "sin." We fall into this error too, and we need to catch it and root it out wherever it exists. It's difficult, because for various reasons right now, the conventional wisdom is extremely suspicious of the notion that it's even possible to "hate the sin and love the sinner;" right now, for instance, Catholics are engaged in defense of our beliefs about marriage, and a large number of people have an interest in portraying us as holding those beliefs not because of our theological convictions about marriage as an image of the life-giving reciprocal self-gift that is the relationship between Christ and the Church (pfft! who can follow all that?), but because the Catholic Church "hates gays."
Another principle is to take care with adjectives that modify the person rather than their actions, statements,or positions. This is one of my pet peeves. I occasionally follow a group blog about Catholicism in American Culture, but have mostly stopped reading it because one of the bloggers thinks it's fun to repeatedly refer to a particular Democratic politician as a "worthless hack." I don't care how odious her political positions are, and I don't care how intellectually vapid her justifications are for what she does. No one has any business describing any other human being with an adjective like "worthless," and for a Catholic blogging as a Catholic to do so is an offense against God to whom we are all beloved. Period.
Rooting out depersonalizing adjectives while still making a legitimate point is largely a matter of recasting the sentence. Does it sound like there's not much difference between "Smith is disgusting" and "Smith disgusts me?" Still, the first is a statement about Smith and the second a statement about your feelings toward Smith; the latter's more defensible, and represents a rhetorical habit that holds the line against depersonalizing adjectives. Still better, if it's an accurate characterization, would be something like "When I heard about Smith's vote on the House bill, I felt disgusted." To write something like this reminds you not to let your feelings generalize from action to person. If you find yourself disgusted by a person -- that is to say, by the sum total of all that they are -- then you have a beam in your eye.
I don't think the prohibition against using persons as means to an end entirely rules out satire as a rhetorical tool, but satire must be deployed carefully lest it devolve into dehumanizing mockery. We have a long history of trenchant political cartoons that make their point concisely by depicting real persons (or groups of persons) in symbolic or representational ways; by extrapolating certain general conclusions from specific statements; and by isolating specific political positions while at the same time putting a face to them. The same kinds of shorthand are at play in circulating memes and carefully selected unattractive photos. When is this okay and when is it not?
Unfortunately, I think a good deal of it has to do with how skilled you are at making your precise point. Let's say that you wish to make a point of your opinion that a certain politician's well-received statement "A," if taken to a logical conclusion, leads to the statement "B" which would not be so popular; you hope to show that holding "A" is equivalent to holding "B" and thereby convince many people to reject "A" who wouldn't otherwise see the connection. You have a tough line to walk: you need to show that the politician's position on "A" is consistent with "B," without actually mischaracterizing him as explicitly stating "B." Political cartoonists get a certain amount of leeway, I think, because we're supposed to understand that a cartoon is a form of shorthand. But the line can be tricky to draw. Take this cartoon that appeared in the Sacramento Bee soon after the still-under-investigation ammonium nitrate explosion in West, Texas:
The point of the cartoon is clear: Texas Governor Rick Perry promotes industrial deregulation as a means to encouraging economic development, but deregulation can reduce industrial safety and perhaps lead to incidents like large facility explosions (coming so soon after the explosion in West, the unstated implication is that loose industrial regulations may have been a factor).
Now I happen to lean toward erring on the side of deregulation in a poor economy, I support the notion of states being able to set some of their own levels of regulation according to local needs, and until the investigation is complete I am reluctant to jump to conclusions about whether the West explosion points to a need to tighten Texas's safety rules. That is to say, I ought not be inclined to cut this cartoon any slack. But I happen to think this is a well-crafted cartoon that makes its point very effectively. I think it follows the general tradition of political cartoon shorthand, arguing that the logical conclusion of reducing regulation is accepting more risk of industrial disasters.
But it's not so clear-cut. Other people (not surprisingly, including Gov. Perry) argued that the cartoon is beyond the pale: that it exploited the victims of the West explosion to make a political point, "mocking the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans." You could also argue that it is unfair to Governor Perry, if you think that it implies that Perry approves of industrial disasters; here's an example of another artist's cartoon that I think does cross that line.
The SacBee cartoonist, Jack Ohman, defended the cartoon, writing, "My job... is to be provocative." I think he's right, but we have to ask what the political cartoonist is supposed to provoke. Second thoughts about previously unexamined opinions? Yes. Dehumanizing or false beliefs about a person or persons? No.
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So how do we push back against dehumanizing political speech? The first step is, as always, attention to the beam in our own eyes -- the kind of self-examination and purging to which Mark Shea has just vowed to recommit himself. Refuse to return a blow for a blow, and commit yourself to scrupulous attention to the ethics of your own writings.
Only then can you turn your attention to charitable correction of others' failings. And even then, you have to distinguish between the bad thing So-and-so said, and the badness of So-and-so himself.
One principle is to remember to push back against dehumanizing remarks from the people on "your side" just as fervently as you would push back against similar remarks from the people on "the other side." Maybe more fervently, because the argument might carry more weight coming from you.
As much as I would like to, incidentally, I can't give up on anyone; can't roll my eyes and sigh, "You just can't argue with him." It comes down to that theological virtue we call Hope: no person is beyond reach. On the other hand, I might well be the worst person to try to reach a particular individual, so interactions with other's errors mean constant discernment of whether my decision not to engage is correct (because what I'll choose to say is unlikely to make things better) or cowardly (because I've given up on their ability to see reason at all). It's not easy, but then, staying true to truth often isn't.
[*]Footnote for those who aren't familiar with this reference. "The whole Live Action thing" refers to the "stings" carried out in Planned Parenthood offices by the group Live Action, in which a young woman posing as a client who sought an abortion tried to catch PP workers violating the law; for example, she might pose as an underage girl pregnant by an older man. Shea has argued forcefully against these and other tactics that rely on deception to produce bad publicity.