It’s not that unusual to be asked to ‘support’ some cause via the various ubiquitous social networking sites out there. Some groups still go door-to-door in order to drum up support for their cause. When a celebrity dies, flowers wrapped in plastic get deposited in some key spot, perhaps the site of their death or on the sidewalk in front of their home. I am asked to ‘like’ all sorts of things, from overt causes, to events, to sentiments expressed in pithy, thoughtful words, accompanied by an inspiring picture. What you agree to ‘like,’ what you give money to ‘support,’ these things can say a great deal about you. I hope. I say, I hope, because there is a thing rightly disparagingly referred to as ‘slacktivism,’ the idea that you are doing something beneficial by simply ‘liking’ something. ‘Slacktivism’ would to limit itself to ‘liking’ a picture of something on Facebook, and doing nothing else about it, for instance, sharing your outrage about someone being sentenced to death in an Islamic country, by pressing a button, and thereby feel like you have actually done something.
Of course, that’s just one example of how one’s opinion might not always exactly correspond to the reality in question, in the way that people might think. This is to substitute an acknowledgement of something for the thing itself. This kind of thing is more like thought-control, because, I fear, many people are actually more interested in whether your views conform to theirs than that the evil they have in mind gets dealt with at all.
Socrates approached life from the exact opposite perspective. Socrates—at least the Socrates Plato presents to us—was all about getting to the heart of the matter, because otherwise words were just words, as I fear they are to most of us today.
“I am against discrimination,” says one person today proudly. Socrates would have had a field day with that one.
“What is discrimination?” he would begin. And, if you have read any of Plato’s writings, you would see that Socrates would be able to quickly show how the person who made that statement would have no idea what he was saying. Way too many of us are like that. We have gained very little in the last two-and-a-half millennia.
Socrates wasn’t interesting in making people look bad, and still less was he interested in pushing a political agenda. He just really wanted to know, and he wanted us to know too.
Many people have a hard time accepting the basic truths of Christianity, and I would say this is primarily on account of the fact that they do not understand them, and this is on account of the fact that they do not really understand much of anything. I said above that humanity has not made any progress since Socrates, but I wonder, maybe it’s just modern people: perhaps humanity wasn’t always this muddled? For instance, today, we have a terrible time with the word ‘judgment.’ It is a synonym of discrimination. If you consult a dictionary, these words will have at least two, but more likely, several, distinct definitions, as I’ve indicated in a previous post. Socrates would have wanted to specify which one the speaker intended. Once this had been clarified, he would then move on to ask, why this type of action—discrimination, judgment—was actually bad. And this conversation would end up—like all the Platonic Dialogues end up—with an analysis of what is really at the heart of the matter, what goodness or justice ultimately is. Well, the dialogue would more than likely only manage to tell us what these things are not. Socrates would have shown in the end that the person who said “I am against discrimination,” has no idea what he was talking about because he has no idea what goodness is, about which his statement seems to say something. In other words, if someone doesn’t know what goodness is, how will he know that discrimination is bad?
If we don’t know what the basic root concept is that underlies any moral judgment, such as “I am against discrimination,” what kind of statements is this that that we are making? Ultimately, most of what we say amounts to little more than what the philosopher, Stevenson, called emotivism. What we intend as objective statements are ultimately nothing more than catch-phrases, things like saying “we are good, and you are bad.” It’s tribalism, and reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the children in the marketplace. (Mt 11:16-19) That parable has always intrigued me. I really don’t know that it means in an any exhaustive sense, but Jesus is more or less saying people don’t know what they want because they are fickle, and, we might add, they are fickle because they don’t know what they are saying.
When people talk about ‘fairness,’ ‘equality,’ ‘tolerance,’ ‘rights,’ they are doing little more than what chimps do when they fight over territory. Their exclamations amount to little more than “Us good, you bad.”
There was a trend a few years ago surrounding the phrase “mean people stink.” Nothing you will like on Facebook has a logical character very different from this innocuous phrase.
In a conversation a few years ago I happened to define my task in teaching a course as simply informing my students about the subject. The person I was talking to told me that occasionally I should also basically state how great the subject itself was, that is to say, to basically reinforce the espirit du corps, the group mentality. I had assumed that if the subject was, in fact, good it could speak for itself to this end. What I failed to realize is that many people don’t actually want to know things; they want to be told how great the things are they already like or believe. Even Catholics. That’s not true love of wisdom. And I have to remind you that wisdom is knowledge of God, and so not really something that should be cut-short for other purposes.
One time I was debating abortion on-line. A woman wrote to me to the effect that if I took away a woman’s right to choose I was more or less wanting women to go back in time, “Because, like the saying, barefoot and pregnant.” I was mystified that my opposition to abortion meant I had an opinion on woman’s foot-ware, but, not only that, how a person could believe that an expression, merely because it was an expression people knew, actually revealed truth. Does she believe that there was actually a time when women were made to stand barefoot when they were pregnant?
People don’t mean what they say because they don’t know what they are saying. It’s funny how people can insist on technical precision when it comes to their own craft, whether that be baking, the law, baseball, cars, Tolkien or sewing, and yet be so casual about language when it comes to the higher things – to God and the soul. I’ve been vehemently corrected when I referred to a male dog as ‘she,’ for instance.
If we look at issues like abortion and homosexuality we need to bear all of these things in mind. Most people simply aren’t able to approach the truth of great matters; they are confined to impressions, slogans, stereotypes, and vague categories. I don’t know why this is. A German theologian of the 19th Century, Friedrich Schleiermacher, famously said that religion was not about facts but about feelings. I don’t know for sure, but I think he was simply putting into a coherent form an idea already accepted as true by the world around him, rather than that he invented the idea himself. Whatever the case, this is still a popular view of religion and morality today. If they are correct, does that invalidate religiously-informed viewpoints?
How can people honestly say that religion has to be confined to peoples’ private lives when democratic theory states that people ought to act, indeed, have a right to act, i.e. vote, according to their own consciences? I don’t know whether people who say this kind of thing are ever being honest, or whether this is simply a device aimed at shutting-down views with which they do not agree. I don’t know. If they are being honest, they are certainly being illogical. Why? Anyone, for instance, who says that homosexuality is positive and natural has as little empirical evidence for saying so as religious people have when they make the opposite claim. In fact, I would argue, they actually have a lot less empirical evidence when it comes to the claims Christians make. In terms of homosexuality, Christians can point to thousands of years of human behavior, the theory of evolution, and statistics that indicate that monogamous heterosexual marriage is a far healthier form of life. Homosexuality’s claims are tenuous, and are becoming ever more so as the defense they offer against the negative health associations that relate to homosexuality is that these things are not a result of homosexuality itself but are due to society’s negative view of it.
Whatever the case, my point here is that logical argumentation will not advance matters very far, since, again, as in the case of homosexuality, facts are not going to persuade someone who is convinced that whoever disagrees with the goodness of homosexuality is a mean person. You can’t argue with someone who believes this with religious conviction.
Now, let’s get back to where we began: people act as if words have a socially cohesive power. They do not. I may be against discrimination and you might be too, but we may disagree very heartily over what this means. Chances are if a Christian signs on to something a non-Christian signs on to, they do not believe that they are agreeing to the same thing. When a Christian votes for Person X, he does so for one set of reasons, I doubt the same set of reasons a non-Christian has for voting for Person X.
As it resides in the heart of the individual believer, Catholicism is a vast set of values and types of action, but all of this is reducible to a single or at least very limited set of givens. You might say that everything a Catholic believes follows from the Creed. Of course, the Creed doesn’t say anything about abortion, homosexuality, or genocide in Rwanda, but no thoughtful Catholic would have a very hard time leading you from point A to point B, that is to say, why his belief in Christ necessitates a specific view on other things. There is not a whole lot available to someone who has no firm metaphysical foundation. But be careful here: because one is firmly committed to the Creed does not make him less reflective or rational. I would argue that quite the opposite is customarily the case, since, because a Catholic stands so far apart from the spirit of his time (zeitgeist), he is continually being forced to reflect upon his presuppositions, whereas the person who is ‘of the world,’ is not compelled to do so, as his is the popular opinion anyway. But popular or not, the person who thinks with this age, rarely thinks at all. That person has no final answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”
So, don’t worry about the various causes circling around cyberspace. They have no definite logical content. If someone needs your support, don’t ‘like’ it, pray to God about it. Ask Him to send His grace.
Colin wrote this Article for the Knights of the Holy Eucharist. He has been married to Anne-Marie since 1999, and they are proud to raise their six children, in a small town in Ontario, Canada. Colin has a PhD in Theology and works tirelessly to promote the Gospel. “Just share the Word,” is what he believes the Lord says to him – and so he does. He recently founded The Catholic Review of Books, a printed journal and website dedicated to “all things books” from the perspectives of faithful Catholics. He is fascinated by the concept of chivalry as it applies to being a man and a father in today’s crazy world.