Sunday, November 20, 2016

People and Ideas

One of my favourite websites on the internet (which is, after all, the only place you're likely to find websites) is TV Tropes. It's all about various tropes, or artistic conventions, used in fiction and TV. It was intended as a resource for writers, but I just read it for fun. I won't link to it, since you can just Yahoo it or Duck Duck Go if you want.

I came across the above photograph on it. The article it is taken from is titled 'Accidental Nightmare Fuel', and is dedicated to unintentionally frightening moments in movies, TV shows, etc.

The caption on the photo is: "Sure, she's smiling now, but wait until she sees the picture." The point being that the bunny looks downright evil in it.

True enough, but that's not why this picture stuck with me. It's that...the little girl is so adorable, and innocent, and happy-looking! She melts my heart.

The picture has deepened a 'mood' that has come upon me over the last few years. 

You know, I can be a very irritable and caustic kind of fellow-- although I'm generally polite for public consumption, anyone who knows me well would know that my sense of humour can be mordant, to the extent that I regularly find myself confessing my uncharitable jokes in sacramental confession

And yet, despite my occasional surges of misanthropy, I increasingly find myself feeling sorry for everybody.

Look at that little girl in the picture. So full of excitement, and enthusiasm, and dreams, and spontaneity! Everybody started out like that. If they become jerks, it's usually through disappointment or trauma or some festering wound.

I think everybody is like that little girl, deep down.

Added to this is the fact that everybody is going to die. And not only going to die, but going to miss out on some of the things that they wanted with all their hearts. And going to lose people they love.

I only agree with one thing that any New Atheist ever said, and that's this comment by Sam Harris: "Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime?"

(Of course, it doesn't stop me from being a jerk a lot of the time. But I do try to remember and pull back from it. Sometimes.)

I wrote a poem trying to express and dramatise this mood. One reader very kindly said it moved him to tears.

But! But! But!

At the very same time I find myself having a more tender attitude towards people, I find myself having a tougher attitude towards ideas. I mean bad, evil ideas.

Longtime readers of this blog (and there are a few) may have noticed a hardening of my attitude in recent times. I suppose you could say I have 'shifted to the right', in some regards.

Being a fan of the genial G.K. Chesterton, and being cognisant of the effect that cyberspace can have on personality, I've always tried to be courteous and reasonable on this blog, and in other virtual spaces. I'm proud of the fact that I've always used my full name and made known my place of employment, so nobody can accuse me of hiding behind anonymity.


I have to admit that I'm becoming much less convinced of the value of being courteous and reasonable-- if you are not dealing with courteous and reasonable opponents.

Think of the liberal left in Ireland. They have their knives out for the Catholic Church. They are not fair, or objective, or reasonable.

If you met one of them in a pub or at a party, since you would be face to face and the likelihood is that you are both ordinary likeable people, you could well have a reasonable and polite and cordial conversation about Catholicism (or euthanasia, or gay marriage, etc.). Both parties might say things like: "You have a point", or "I see what you're saying".

But afterwards, what difference would it make? In all likelihood, your interlocutor is not going to become any more reasonable or fair-minded as a result of the encounter. He or she may be the most reasonable person when it comes to the affairs of everyday life, but ideology works differently.

I hear Fintan O'Toole is a very nice chap, and I believe it. But week after week he launches venomous attacks against the Catholic Church, the unborn child, the institution of marriage and many other precious things in the pages of The Irish Times.

A nice guy, when he's not writing in favour of the right to kill human beings
I have no animosity against the man himself, but I think his ideas deserve to be met with unbridled hostility. And the same goes for many others. 

The clash of ideas and the interaction of human beings are not the same thing.

We should always be kind to people. I don't think we should always be kind to ideas. In fact, I think we should be pretty ruthless to bad and dangerous and destructive ideas.

I think that it's not only permissible, but often even necessary, to resort to polemic, invective, scorn, ridicule and animosity when we find ourselves confronted with evil ideas. Not when we are debating with people who are genuinely open-minded, but when we find ourselves facing an implacable enemy.

Political correctness, for instance, deserves no quarter. Using terms like 'LGBT', or referring to a man as 'she', or being cornered into delivering strings of apologies ("I absolute think that discrimination is wrong, nobody is more horrified by discrimination than me") is NOT wise. You may think you are being urbane or temperate, but you are in fact being conditioned, in pursuance of a very conscious strategy on the part of your opponents.

Ideas matter, and bad ideas deserve our hostility. 

I am sure that the Association of Catholic Priests-- the left-wing priest's association in Ireland, which is always trying to spread heresy-- is full of priests who are very pleasant and kind and loveable people, on an individual level. They were all sweet, wide-eyed toddlers once. But the work they are doing is very often (unwittingly) the Devil's work. It kills souls.

The same is true of other bad ideas, religious and secular. Of course, some are less dangerous and harmful than others. But many of them, religious and secular, simply need to be squashed with extreme prejudice.

(I am well aware that only months ago, on this blog, I was talking about my fascination with the 'virtual space' of pluralism, and the concept of society being an extended group of friends. Well, I've thought it through and changed my mind-- that was a passing phase.) 

We sometimes hear the argument: "You can win the debate, but lose the soul." Of course this is possible, and prudence would recognise where it is a danger.

But in reality, I think this danger is vastly overstated. Most people who enter a debate are already committed to a particular point of view. They are highly unlikely to change it soon no matter how gentle or rough you are.

It is the audience who is swayed. After all, most 'debates' are not one-on-one. Most debates are open-ended, involving print and broadcasts and posters and graffiti and all sorts of other media.

Another claim you sometimes hear is that bluster and indignation are counter-productive, since people only get heated when they can't prevail using sweet reason, or when they doubt their own arguments.

How true is this? If someone were to accuse you of making obscene phone calls to their grandmother, would your knowledge of your own innocence prevent you from becoming agitated about it?

Or if someone were to claim that one of your teachers in school, who was a bully and a sadist, was practically a saint, would it be surprising if you became flustered in arguing this?

Sometimes the demand is made that a discussion should produce light rather than heat. Well, heat and light generally go together. 

Sometimes you hear someone say something like: "People are more important than ideas". In a literal sense, I agree with this, but what does it really mean?

Take the presumption of innocence. That's an idea. But it's an idea that protects real human beings.

Or 'reproductive rights'. That's an idea-- an idea that has killed millions of innocent human beings.

I have been thinking about this a lot in recent months, and I am more and more strongly of the opinion that Catholics (and others) have been losing simply through conceding-- through not showing up, through not speaking up. Through being excessively apologetic and tentative and cautious.

Tried to 'dialogue'. Look what happened to him.

The gold standard of debate is generally taken to be the Socratic dialogues written by Plato-- which are not so much an adversarial process as a kind of interpersonal encounter, a shared journey towards truth.

That may have been appropriate to Athenian gentlemen of Socrates's time, but it hardly seems appropriate to our current situation-- outside the context, perhaps, of good friends having a good-humoured discussion over coffee, on a long walk.

That is not our situation. There are very powerful forces in our society who want to silence opinions they hate-- prolife views, the defence of religious liberty, and a whole host of others. If they cannot silence them, they wish to stigmatise them, to marginalise them, or to moderate them as much as possible.

Refusing to shut up, or to be cowed, or to be apologetic, is a victory in itself.

I think we should be kind to people, the good and the bad. But I don't think we should be kind to bad ideas, especially when the people advancing them (who may be lovely, lovely people in many ways) have no real interest in 'dialogue', or discussion, fairness.

That's not the time to be a bunny-rabbit. Unless it's one mean bunny-rabbit.


  1. Yes. And without the ceiling of a taught faith, there is little to prevent any brittle human idea from being elevated to a creed, so many people, I think, seem to make political causes the foundation of their lives. That makes argument more difficult, since the risk of giving offence is greater.

    Language, too, is important, as you say. Whoever comes up with a catchy phrase involving 'freedom' or 'rights' has the upper hand: how can anyone argue against those things? The Church ought to come out all guns blazing, dusting off and polishing up words like 'vocation', 'duty', 'fatherhood', 'motherliness' or 'sacrifice' until they shine radiantly, and reclaiming words like 'love' and 'hope' and indeed 'life'.

  2. What is interesting to me is the difference made my emphasis and priority and balance. Nearly all moral systems and value systems look alike when they are laid out in an abstract way, but they are so VERY, VERY different in how they are lived, how they deal with conflict between different goods and evils, their whole atmosphere and so forth....

    I could not agree with you more about the need to reclaim our own watchwords. "Reverence" is another that I think could be usefully rehabilitated.

  3. Of course, "made my" should read "made by" (it's a pity you can't edit comments).

  4. Thinking about people as opposed to ideas, the word 'unworthy' occurred to me as a candidate for revival in this context. The old-fashioned rebuke 'That was unworthy of you' makes it possible to uphold a person's dignity even in the very act of pouring contempt upon their words or ideas. Heresy, after all is unworthy of the heretic. I think this is good not only for the person on the receiving end of the remark, but the person who makes the remark and indeed anybody within earshot.

    1. I'm not sure I agree! I see the point you're making, but for me the problem is that it's taking the debate onto the plane of character, which is where I would like to keep it away from. I suppose I think that we should treat debate almost as a court-case between opposing professional attorneys-- keep personalities out of it entirely-- purely to stop animosity from developing.

    2. Ah, I see. Except, I suppose, these days, perhaps it really has to be made explicit that an attack on argument isn't an attack on character. But yes, the legal analogy makes sense.