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containing multitudes

Fri 01 March 2013 — filed under rhetoric

Dreher has this post on how the “Western world” would react if an African pope is elected. It’s wonderful. There’s this amazing panoply of rhetorical amazingness within. It’s primarily a blockquote of something Mark Shea wrote, wrapped in more fireworks.

First, I love the use of the “how can you claim to be tolerant when you’re actually intolerant of intolerance?” argument, every time it appears. It’s like a wonderful medieval weapon that bashes two heads at once: allowing the wielder to simultaneously criticize someone for being both too tolerant and not tolerant enough. The food is terrible and the portions are too small!

I also enjoy the (quoted) criticism of some (unnamed, hypothetical, imagined) liberals for believing themselves to be superior to both Catholics and “natives of Skull Island doing the Kong Dance”. Nobody’s actually said any of this stuff yet, or ever, or whatever, but might as well start criticizing people for doing it in advance. The problem, in these guys’ minds, isn’t that these Western liberals feel smug, enlightened, and above “primitive savagery and mystical mumbo jumbo” — that appears to be fine. It’s that they lump Catholicism in with real savages. The problem, as Shea identifies it, isn’t smug self-satisfaction, it’s smug self-satisfaction about the wrong people. We’re supposed to feel superior to some people, but not to those people. It’s a great twist on the old intolerance-of-intolerance move: “You say you don’t think you’re better than anyone else, but actually you do think you’re better than anyone else, and what’s more, you’re twice wrong, because actually we, not you, are better than anyone else.”

Instead of having the old argument about who is the best, we get to have like a third-order argument about whether espousing the view that nobody is the best actually implies that I think I am the best.

Billy: I bet my dad can beat up your dad.

Timmy: My dad probably wouldn’t fight your dad. He says that dads shouldn’t get in fistfights with other dads.

Billy: Oh yeah? Your dad thinks he’s better than my dad, huh?

[I’m thinking this might be an even higher-ordered argument. Do I think I’m better than you because my Dad rejects the idea that whether he can beat up your dad is a relevant metric of whether I’m better than you? Head asplodes.]

Then there’s also this reference to Gandhi’s views on contraception, and there’s this intimation that someone’s being inconsistent or irrational by agreeing with Gandhi about non-violence and liberation but not with everything else he espoused. I love the deployment of the thought, but hardly see the relevance. Did his views on the procreative act figure centrally in his life and mission? Did he make the resolution of political or moral questions of contraception the centerpiece or even a minor, ancillary point of his efforts on behalf of peace, freedom, and human dignity? No. As I understand it, Gandhi’s teachings on contraception and marriage were not central to his political acts in the manner that they’ve become central to Roman Catholic politics. It seemed to Gandhi (and I’m willing to be corrected here) that there were more important problems in the world to deal with than “for man to allow his most precious possession to run to waste.” (precious bodily fluids indeed!) It’s perfectly reasonable, rational, and consistent to hold Gandhi up as a very important thinker and excellent model of some saintly virtues without agreeing 100% with everything he said, especially about ancillary issues.

Further, Gandhi’s opposition to contraception isn’t even consistent with Catholic views on the subject. It was his opinion that the sex act has has only the generative and not the unitive function. Here, he even out-Pauls Paul: “Once the idea that the only and grand function of the sexual organ is generation possesses man and woman, union for any other purpose they will hold as criminal waste of the vital fluid and the consequent excitement caused to man and woman as an equally criminal waste of energy” (again with the vital fluids! Is this an ayurvedic medicine thing?) And further, he’s even wrong (as far as Catholics are concerned) about marriage: “Rightly speaking, the true purpose of marriage should be and is intimate friendship and companionship between man and woman. There is in it no room for sexual satisfaction.” So, what is the point Shea is trying to make? And why not make the point by referring to Gandhi’s vegetarianism? Look at all of these half-hearted Westerners who say they idolize Gandhi, but just look at the way they treat cows! I guess they don’t agree with Gandhi that cow protection “is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution.” Well, I wouldn’t get to google for those amazing “vital fluids” comments, so there’s that.

It looks like the “cafeteria” metaphor beloved by conservative Catholics is taking over the world. First, liberal Catholics are not allowed to pick and choose among the Church doctrines, and by extension, now nobody is allowed to pick and choose among the ideas of any thinker. Must I accept Aristotelian cosmology when I advocate for Aristotelian ethics, or risk being called inconsistent and hypocritical? Good heavens, what if I agree with Rod Dreher about the excesses of consumer culture and the baleful influence of corporate power (things he very seldom seems to write about anymore) but disagree with him on whether crawfish are better than shrimp? My whole worldview is shattering!

Pointing out that “[some people] love to idolize [some person], but not to actually listen to [his/her] words when they go against what they want to believe” is applicable to everyone, on all ends of every spectrum of every kind of thought. It’s just so useful.



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