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)

“Pro-life” Trump is engineering an American Kristallnacht

Here’s a ridiculous scenario: Imagine you drive a red car. One day, the mayor of your town says that, every week, he’s going to head over to the post office and pin up a list of people who have done bad things with red cars.

The list includes people who have bought red cars, people who have borrowed them, and people who have stolen red cars; and it includes everything from driving with a broken tail light to deliberately plowing through line of kindergarteners. The list doesn’t specify: It just has names of people driving red cars, and it says they’ve all done something bad.

This goes on week after week, and even though you’ve never so much as failed to use a turn signal, you start to notice that you’re getting dirty looks when you step out of your red car. You find yourself parking around the corner, just so no one realizes that you’re one of those “red car people.” Your neighbor sees you washing your car in the driveway and she makes a disgusted sound and loudly tells her kids, “Let’s go find some other friends to play with.” One morning, you wake up and discover that someone has slashed your tires and beat in your windshield, and “NO RED CARS HERE” is spray painted on your driveway.

You haven’t done anything. But you do drive a red car.

Stupid, right? That is a silly story. Let’s talk about something that hits a little closer to home with some of my readers:

At the peak of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, a priest friend — a holy, kind, exemplary man — told me that when he passed a woman and child on the sidewalk, the woman instinctively shoved herself between her child and him. She made a physical barrier to protect her kid, as if, just because he had a Roman collar on, he was going to lunge over and start groping her child.

How unfair! How grievously unfair, to behave as if every priest is probably a sexual predator, when in fact priests are no more likely than any other man to abuse children.

But at the same time, my priest friend couldn’t blame the woman. When it does happen, molestation of children is an unspeakable crime. And every day, week after week after week, the papers and the TV news carried stories of priests who did abuse children, or who were accused of abusing children, or who didn’t do enough to stop the abuse of children.

Or, maybe they actually did everything they possibly could to stop the abuse of the children, but still, ugh, they’re one of those priests . . . 

We all know what priests are like. We know, because we read it in the news.

Imagine being a priest in this climate. I heard priests debating with each other whether it was safe to go out wearing clerical garb. Why put a target on your back? Everyone you meet has been trained to look at you and think, “Sex crime! Sex crime!”

This is the power of the selectively chosen printed word. This is what can be achieved when you take a story that is true (some people in red cars do commit crimes; some priests do molest children) and play it over and over and over and over again, chanting in the ear of the reader: DANGER. DANGER. WARNING. WARNING. NO TIME TO THINK. ALERT. ALERT. PROTECT YOURSELF.

Protect yourself against what? Why, against people like that: people who commit crimes, people you can easily pick out on the street, because they’re illegal immigrant criminals. Well, they’re illegal immigrants. Well, they’re immigrants. Well, they have brown skin and an accent, and you know what people like that do.

We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish — lists of “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license) committed by “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal).  The important thing is, we have to have constant reminders that there are people coming into our country and doing bad things! Never forget!  Immigrant and crime! They go together.

Never mind that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the constant reminder of facts without context to create an emotional response. It’s not rational. It doesn’t have to be. In fact it works better when it’s not rational (especially when you’ve been training the populace to believe that there is no such thing as objective truth, just facts and alternative facts).

There are already laws on the books about deporting illegal immigrants. There are already laws on the books about arresting and prosecuting criminals. There are already numerous public records of crimes committed in this country. We don’t have a secret court system. Just about every arrest is public record. There are already numerous aggregators of statistics to tell us who commits what kind of crime. Most Americans already agree that crime is bad, illegal activity is wrong, and criminals should be punished by the law.

These lists do not give us more information. They do not “better inform the public,” despite what Trump’s statement claims. All of the information in them is already public information.

There is only one reason to publish a list like this, and that is to whip up fear, suspicion, and outrage. To make people feel unsafe and angry. To constantly remind them (as Trump did in his inauguration speech) that we are drowning in crime, awash in violence, crumbling into ruin, teetering on the brink, losing ourselves in the darkness.

Things are terrible, terrible, terrible. And whose fault is it? Well, I happen to have a list. And I’ll be updating it every week, so you’ll know who to blame.

Now imagine that you are the one with dark skin and an accent. Imagine your kids have dark skin and accents. Maybe you’re legally here and maybe you’re not, but it’s very clear that you’re some kind of immigrant.

Remember: immigrant crime immigrant crime immigrant crime. That’s the important thing to remember. Your neighbors have been hearing it for months.

Imagine that you live in a country where, every single week, your president has been telling everyone that people with dark skins and accents are criminals. Imagine getting your kids ready to walk to school, and knowing that half their classmates have been reading these lists every week. Imagine leaving work at night and finding that a couple of guys have had a couple of beers and they’ve decided they’ve had enough of these fucking immigrants fucking up their country, and if the police won’t do anything about it, then they will.

Think it won’t happen? Why? Because fearful, angry people never lash out at the innocent?

bundesarchiv_bild_146-1970-083-42_magdeburg_zersto%cc%88rtes_ju%cc%88disches_gescha%cc%88ft

Because we’d never let things go that far?

Why not? If we’re not going to say “halt” now, then when?

This is classic scapegoating. It’s what fascists do to gain control. They tell the people, over and over and over again, “You’re not safe. You’re not safe. It’s the fault of THESE PEOPLE. I will protect you from THESE PEOPLE, and then you can be safe.” And then, while you’re thrilled to get his help and protection, you barely notice the other stuff he’s doing, stuff that directly contradicts the things you said you cared about ten minutes ago. Stuff like small government, religious freedom, freedom of the press, respect for the disabled, protection for the innocent and vulnerable.

My friends, I have always thought that Trump would be a bad and dangerous president, a vulgar and ridiculous man, but I thought the accusations of fascism were overblown. I thought it was hyperbole.

I don’t think so anymore. This is textbook behavior. This is how it always starts. This is how totalitarians persuade the population to give him everything he wants: By whipping up fear and anger, by pointing to a scapegoat, and then by offering to take care of that scapegoat for you.

Up until now, I’ve been angry at Trump. Last night, he broke my heart. I wept when I heard of his plans, and I wept harder when I saw some of my friends defending them. Not because I want to protect criminals, but because I want to protect my country. I love my country. This is not what I want for my country.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A good day to remember that everything Hitler did was with the consent of the people, whom he had primed to fear and hate certain groups of people. He started by posting lists of Jews who were accused of committing crimes. He started by reminding Germans of what a shambles their country was in, and then he told them, over and over and over again, whose fault it was.

And then they let him do whatever he wanted.

We have seen this before. We have seen this before. There is no Mexico City Policy, no phone call to the March for Life, no promise of new jobs that can justify the American Kristallnacht that our president is openly trying to engineer.

Resist. Even if you need a job. Even if you are pro-life. Even if your city is full of people who don’t speak English. Even if you think Hillary belongs in jail. Even if you voted for Trump. Resist this path we are on. Remember who you are, and resist.

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EDIT Friday around 5:00 eastern: Thanks to a reader, I realized that I misread and mischaracterized Trump’s statement. It was an honest error, not a malicious one, but that’s no excuse. I have edited the post to make it more accurate.

The original passage, as far as I can reconstruct it, read:
We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish –‘lists of “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal) who have committed “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license).

The corrected passage now reads:
We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish — lists of “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license) committed by “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal).

I apologize for the error. It does not change my argument in the slightest.
Kristallnacht image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-083-42 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons