Whataboutism isn’t just a fallacy, it’s evil

Back around 2003, I had a conversation about abortion with a liberal friend. She couldn’t get her head around the idea that I, a pro-lifer, sincerely cared about some inconsequential cluster of cells that happened to be human, happened to be technically alive. She wasn’t a cold or cruel person; she just didn’t understand the point of even mustering up a thought for a person you can’t even see.

What kept her up at night, she told me, was the thought of an Iraqi mother scrambling around in the bombed-out ruins of her house, calling out the names of her children, fearfully searching for their bloody remains. That’s the scene that brought a lump to her throat and made her feel panicked, made her feel the urge to rescue, to change things. Not abortion.

She knew I supported the Iraq war at this time, so that’s why she brought it up. Mercifully, I can’t remember how I responded. I hope to God it wasn’t some kind of hawkish, utilitarian garbage about how collateral damage is a shame, but it’s inevitable in wartime. If that’s what I answered, I’ll have to answer for it on judgment day.

If someone gave me a chance to respond to my liberal friend today, I hope that I would say something like what Fr. Martin tweeted out the other day, after the news served up two kinds of tragedy at once: The repeal of Ireland’s abortion ban, and the news that parents who approach border guards seeking asylum will have their children removed from them, to be “put into foster care or whatever.”

Here’s what Fr. Martin tweeted, in quick succession:

As several friends pointed out, the message calling out pro-lifers got tens of thousands of retweets, but the one calling out social justice activists got mere hundreds. But don’t fool yourself that this is evidence of liberals once again refusing to be self-reflective. If Fr. Pavone (for instance) had tweeted out similar paired messages to his audience, you would have seen the retweet numbers reversed, with pro-life conservatives cheering on the jab at liberals, but nervously ignoring the jab aimed at them. Left and right are equally guilty of this silly game. We love it when our enemies’ oxen get gored, but we want our own pet oxen to be left alone.

I believe Fr. Martin knows this, and that was part of the point of the tweets. Not only did he demand that each group inspect its own consistency, he demanded that we see that these two questions must go together. These two groups of people, left and right, must go together. Don’t we see that we both want the same thing, overall? Don’t we see that we’re not, in fact, enemies?

All humans deserve justice, whether they exist inside or outside the womb. It’s all right to put your emphasis more on one form of work than the other. It’s all right to be called mainly to advocate for the unborn, or to mainly advocate for immigrants, or some other vulnerable group.

But it’s not all right to believe that, because your work emphasizes one kind of work for justice, then work that emphasizes some other kind is foolish, trivial, misguided, or even evil. We can say “X is important to me” without proceeding to “. . . and therefore, Y is stupid, and if you care about Y, then you’re stupid, too.”

Love is generous; love overflows. This is the hallmark of love: It wants to expand. Love always helps us see more and more good in more and more of humanity, not less. We may not be called specifically to devote ourselves to fighting abortion or to fighting social injustices of various kinds, but if we have scorn for those who do, then our work is not motivated by love. We should stop and ask ourselves what it is motivated by.

The Lord never gives us a Sophie’s choice. If we find ourselves making a choice like that — saying “my cause is so vital that your cause can go to Hell” — we can be sure that we are not doing the Lord’s work.

We hear a lot about “whataboutism” as an increasingly popular fallacy these days. “You say you care about that microscopic little embryo,” my liberal friend might have said, “But what about the grieving mother searching for her actual born child that she knew and loved? What about him?”

Or, “You say you care about a bunch of dirty illegals busting into our country uninvited,” my conservative friends will say, “But what about the tiny child torn limb from limb before he even has a chance to see his mother’s face? What about him?”

But whataboutism isn’t just a logical fallacy, it’s a message from Hell. Hell always wants to diminish. Hell always wants to reduce. Hell always wants to narrow your point of view, divide your affections, sequester your heart. Hell wants you to believe that there’s only so much love to go around, and so you better parcel it out carefully, divvy it up without allowing in distractions like compassion, gentleness, mercy, or humility. Hell wants you to feed your sheep by stealing food from the shepherd next door. Hell isn’t satisfied with seeing you do wrong; it wants you to insist that you’re doing it out of love. Hell doesn’t just crave suffering; it wants to drain joy dry.

I am pushing myself to reject this kind of thinking. It is not from the Lord. I can’t work and strive for every good cause at once; but if zeal for thy house makes me bulldoze my neighbor’s house, then that’s not zeal at all; that’s just another name for damnation.

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Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Do Christians do good because they fear Hell?

satan drawing

Imagine that I go for a walk in the mountains. Halfway up, I come across a little unexpected stream, with bracing cold water that sparkles over the mossy stones. The sweet smell of the waving weeds intoxicates me, and for one giddy moment, the shadow of a falcon races over my path. There are berries and wildflowers, sweet breezes and a new kind of birdsong, something wild and delightful that I’ve never heard before.

So I tell everyone about it. Most people say, “How beautiful! I love the mountains, too.” But one guy sneers, “Yeahhh, I’d scuttle up there too, if I shared your primitive fear of carnivorous valley monsters.”

I go, “Huh?”

And another guy goes, “Why, I don’t blame you a bit. It’s probably emotionally healthy for someone with your neurotic anxiety over coronary disease to take an aerobic uphill hike.”

And I go, “Yeah, but—”

That’s kind of how I feel when I talk about being a Catholic, and two different types of atheists respond. When I posted about my little girl’s belief in God, the first type berated me for “[t]elling a 5-year-old they need to obey a magical ghost who lives in the clouds or else terrible things will happen to them.”

And I’m like, “Huh?”

And the second one is like the much more civil atheist, who said that he would have had a far less polite response to the first atheist, speaking “as someone who doesn’t worry about going to hell for doing whatever I feel like.”

And I go, “Yeah, but—”

These two atheists have something startling in common: They both assume that a major feature of Catholic life is a constant fear of Hell.

Now, I believe in Hell. And I do fear it. At least two of my daily prayers specifically ask God to preserve me from that fate. But does a fear of Hell motivate good behavior?

When someone is nasty to me, my first reaction is to respond in kind (and too often, I give in). My second reaction, though, is to say, “Wait, wait, wait. Can I do a little better?” And why would I do that?

If you can stand another analogy, imagine that I’m sitting at a table with a beloved friend and mentor—someone who has always been kind and patient with me, and who is always secretly fixing things up to make my life better.  Today he has prepared a delicious meal, with all my favorites: five courses, perfectly matched wines, everything fresh and prepared with love and skill.

So I’m enjoying this meal tremendously, talking, laughing, having a wonderful time. Suddenly my host looks out the window and says, “Oh look, it’s that guy who commented on your post! Why don’t you wrap up one of these extra rolls and toss it to him?”

And I say, “NO!!! No, no, NO! It’s mine, all mine! I’m too tired! He’s a jerk! Why should I! Nobody cares about me! I can’t spare it anyway! I can’t believe you expect me to do that! Wahhhhhhhh!” and I fall to the floor, pulling the tablecloth with me, and lie there in a puddle of spilled gravy and broken glass.

Or, I could say, “Ehh, it’s just a roll, and I have this huge feast. Okay, buddy—my host seems to see something in you that I don’t. So here you go.” And I do it because I love my host. Am I afraid that he might cut me out of his will if I don’t share the roll? Maybe—but in practice, the relationship just isn’t like that. I worry less about his wrath than I do about my own foolishness: When I behave badly, it’s because I’m not thinking of him or his generosity at all.

Most of the time, when God asks us to do something good—to do something better than our original impulse—we do it not out of fear of punishment, but because we recognize that God is so good to us, so generous. And most of the time, all he asks us to do is to toss the other guy a roll. It’s not fear that motivates good behavior. It’s because we realize that God has given us a tremendous amount of love, and the least we can do is to pass it on from time to time.

Is the fear of Hell a useful way to control my sinfulness? Sometimes. But most often, if I commit a mortal sin, it’s when my heart is halfway in Hell anyway—so the fear of going there is not much of a deterrent. I behave much better when, rather than trying to avoid Hell, I’m trying to act more like I’m already in Heaven. I’m much more likely to share the wealth if I take a minute to look around and realize what a feast I have in front of me.

So yes, I fear Hell. No, fear of Hell doesn’t usually do much to change my behavior. Believe it or not, atheists, but that’s how it goes!

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This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.

When Hell has a hashtag

Rops_-_Satan_säht_die_Hexenbrut.jpeg

The BBC says, “if you believe in that sort of thing” because it does sound pretty goofy: A mysterious Mexican demon moving pencils around at the behest of eleven-year-old Mackynzie, who wants to know if Conor likes her or not. Who would believe nonsense like that? If Hell has its own hashtags, how scary could it be?

Read the rest at the Register.

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Happy New Year! You’re Going to Die.

Gedenck_O_Mensch_sich_wer_Du_bist

Anonymous painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’m telling my daughter the brightest version of something that is true, and something that we all need to remember: that the best way to deal with death and the afterlife is to remember, always, that it’s our behavior right now that decides which path we’re on. It’s a good thing to spend some time thinking about death, not to terrify ourselves or to revel in dark things, but to shed some light on our present choices.

Read the rest at the Register.