There’s nothing so frustrating in discussion of public issues as when the person with whom you’re talking stops challenging your reasoning and starts questioning your motives. Only charity at that point stops you from throwing up your hands: “Okay, I’ll admit it—we’re part of a giant, evil conspiracy to drain all wealth, health, hope and happiness from the universe. Just give me your money, put on these chains, and start chanting ‘Arbeit macht frei,’ alright?”
I ran into that brick wall a couple of weeks ago while discussing the pro-life perspective with a friend of mine. She asked why Catholics care what people of other religions do with their bodies and their kids, and whether they have sex or use birth control. I responded, “We care because that’s what it means to love. That’s what it means to be part of a community: to care what happens to others, and to do what can be done to protect them from evil.”
That wasn’t good enough. If we really cared, we might understand that labor can do damage to a teen, or that the mother and child will likely suffer more in their lives, or that the children of poverty end up in jail or fighting our wars … and so forth and so on. There has to be more going on here than love and compassion; otherwise, we’d concentrate more on these other problems and less on giving a kind of help people don’t want.
Okay, you figured me out. I’m part of one Giant Evil Conspiracy to enslave all America, struggling against another Giant Evil Conspiracy out to destroy the country. It reminds me of how James Longstreet characterized the Civil War in Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels: a nightmare in which you pick your nightmare side, put your head down and try to win.
Now, there’s no way we can take an inventory on every person’s motives for every position. Any attempt to make one group or another “own” one side of the issue eventually does injustice to somebody.
Is abortion a “Catholic/Mormon issue”? Not to all the non-Catholics and non-Mormons in the pro-life movement. Is it a “religious issue”? Not to the non-religious on our side, even if they’re relatively few. Is it a “women’s issue”? You might want to talk to the pro-life women who consider themselves feminists. There are pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans; national platform planks aren’t legally binding.
But as long as people have engaged in politics, there have been demagogues and demagoguery. If you can’t always show that your opponent is wrong, you can always accuse him of being wrong-headed. You’re always guilty of being part of a Giant Evil Conspiracy until you prove yourself innocent.
And you can’t prove yourself innocent. If you’re not in the Inner Circle, you’re at least complicit.
One of the ways we show we’re part of a Giant Evil Conspiracy is by not being consistent. If we’re really pro-life, then we should be anti-death penalty, anti-war, vegetarians, yadda yadda yadda. If we’re really motivated by compassion and concern, we should feel bad about people who suffer, and should support euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, fetal stem-cell research, yadda yadda yadda.
But that begs the question: consistent on whose terms? A person who’s against abortion can be for the death penalty (for the record, I’m not), on the grounds that the penalty is imposed by a legally-consisted court after fulfillment of the due process of law required by both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments; being conceived, by contrast, isn’t even a crime. A person can be against both abortion and physician-assisted suicide because killing isn’t a morally acceptable alternative to alleviating pain or solving the problem of poverty, no matter how compassionate the act may appear on the surface.
The consistency argument works both ways. If killing Johnny Unborn is more compassionate than allowing him to be born into poverty and suffering, why don’t we herd all the poor and homeless into gas chambers rather than shelters and food-stamp queues? What difference does it make if Johnny Unborn gets killed by a D&C in the womb or by an IED in Afghanistan? If it’s wrong to create so large an industry out of killing animals for food, how can we justify the multi-billion dollar abortion industry, let alone publicly funding Planned Barrenhood?
Ah, but aren’t pro-choice people members of the “culture of death”? Aren’t we guilty of a little bit of hypocrisy here?
No, because the “culture of death” isn’t a Giant Evil Conspiracy. There’s no master plan at work, no Inner Circle of amoral technocrats and media moguls pulling strings and issuing orders. It’s simply a set of assumptions about life, suffering, death and human dignity that have managed to turn our cultural values on their heads and put us on the road to Dystopia.
Like the appeal to pity, the Giant Evil Conspiracy is a distraction, a will-o’-the-wisp that leads us into the mud fields of character assassination and useless bickering over imputed versus real motives. But where the “you’re against this because you hate me” argument is merely an adolescent whine, the Giant Evil Conspiracy actively demonizes the opposition: instead of just being ugly and intolerant haters, we’re now jack-booted Brown Shirts, the rank-and-file thugs and propagandists of a nascent Christian Socialist Workers State.
Like the whiners, the cycle stops when we stop addressing the Giant Evil Conspiracy as a legitimate argument. But more to the point, we shouldn’t let the discussion get to that point; if it does, it’s time to walk away while you can preserve some charity. In the end, we’re not trying to win points or win arguments—we’re trying to win hearts and minds.
That’s as much a reminder to myself as to anyone else.