Monday, November 13, 2006

Some more points on controversies in general.

My understanding of, and relationship to Catholic faith was forged in large part out of controversy. Whatever drawbacks that may entail--and there are some pernicious ones--one of the benefits is that it has taught me some lessons about controversy itself.

I have written before about the problem of what I call "spectrum thinking." Basically it is the liberal correlate to what they themselves accuse conservatives of, i.e., "black and white thinking." The supposition that the intellectual sins of binary thought can be healed with the universal salve of thinking in "shades of gray" strikes me as futile and misologist, for several reasons.

First, the entire science of logic itself, which I hope has not been entirely rejected as a criterion of valid argument, is founded not on impressionistic grays but on a complex multitude of binaries. It is an irony of the advocacy of "shades of gray" that it purports to recognize the complexity of life--when in fact, complexity is done infinitely more justice by the acknowledgment of irreducible difference implicit in the analogy of "black and white," than by the disavowal of difference implicit in suggesting that they are always part of the same spectrum. Thus it is not surprising that the spirit of spectrum thinking, thought it postures as the "open minded" option, at the same time effectively works to obstruct dialogue on matters of truth, moved as it is by the fear that should anything be discovered true, its contradictories would then be judged false. The horror!

Second, spectrum thinking never actually transcends binary thought; it only has different opinions about which activities are "white" and which ones are "black". If the ideal of spectrum thinking is the pious advocacy of multiplicity in thought, then this remains nevertheless a single ideal, which will nevertheless compete with other ideals incompatible with itself.

Third, and this is the big one, spectrum thinking creates an artificial relationship between the two "ends" of the spectrum as being contraries.

An important point: I am not saying that spectrum thinking is wrong in suggesting that the two ends are different, even incompatible, such as they are (liberal<-->conservative, right<-->wrong, etc). What I point out, rather, is the reification of the fact that the two 'poles' are different, and treating that difference as a single fact before deeply understanding the nature of the poles individually.

In simpler terms, just because two perspectives negate each other does not mean that they are simply negations of one-another. Certainly, polarization can de facto create the phenomenon in which two sides begin formulating stances for precious little other reason than to spite the other side. This happened between Catholicism and Protestantism, at least on the parish level, from the 19th century on through to Vatican II. Catholics alive today were told not to read Bibles when they were children, even though the injunction against reading vernacular Bibles was withdrawn in 1836.

Yet polarization is not the heart or the real problem in controversy; it is merely a cancerous growth on top of it.

When I was on the high school "Lincoln-Douglas" debate team, the coach went to great lengths to explain to us why each case written needed to state a "Value" and a "Criterion". Every argument regarding any subject whatsoever presupposes a central value, i.e., a desire, a goal, a priority--the thing relevant to the subject at hand which is at stake in the debate. Yet that was not enough; there also needed to be a criterion, which is the standard or rule according to which the debater can argue that he or she respects/fulfills/achieves the value.

What is interesting in this case is that the two opponents would usually have different values, or in the case of having the same values, different criteria by which their arguments measured their own success. Thus frequently debaters would argue whose value took priority and why; and who achieved it better.

This is partially where I have learned that controversy arises not necessarily out of opposing values or even different values but, most commonly, different priorities of values. Of course I don't mean that this is the only source of controversy. Different working definitions, understandings and misunderstandings, notions of human nature, and so on are at work as well; and this milieu (I love that word, by the way) is that out of which bubbles the different ordering of values that everyone holds.

Let's consider sexual purity as an example. Now, secular culture does not generally put a high value on sexual purity, but even then the thing refuses to let go of the popular consciousness entirely. In a secular forum thread, a study was mentioned that in many places girls are starting to have sex as young as ten years old, with boys not much older. Some of the forum-goers found this "disgusting". They did not have any epistemological basis for having that opinion; where they could moralistically condemn pedophilia on the grounds of the harm that it caused, they could scarcely argue that 'consensual' sexual activity was any more wrong for ten-year-olds than it is for 17-year-olds, whom the forum-goers nigh universally felt entitled to an active sex life.

Note the distortions that would arise if we applied spectrum-thinking to compare secular internet culture to traditional Christian morality; accentuating their being at opposite ends of the poles, the common stereotypes of permissive vs. repressive moralities comes up, and before you know it some Newsweek editorialist is celebrating the swing from the latter to the former. Nobody asks whence these positions came, what their real essence is, and whither they are going. Spectrum thinking is a popular and quintessentially American exercise in missing the point.

What is the operative anthropology of the two poles? What is their history? How do the terms of the dispute operate in the scheme of the whole? What does each side fear losing most? What are the expressions that are being used? Are there misunderstandings at play? What are the deepest ideological presuppositions? Where does this difference really come from? Finally: can either "side" be said to approximate true claims better/more often than the other? If not, why? If yes, but not completely, why?

As a last point, and a slightly non sequitur one at that, I point to Copleston's "History of Philosophy" series as a prime example of a good understanding of controversies. I may be wrong, but I don't recall spying even a single instance of spectrum-thinking in his whole work. He must be a truly "black and white" thinker.


Matt of C G said...

Ah, so this is what waits for us behind your veil. This post reminds me of a homily you gave during your pastoral internship. The one about the parable of Lazerus and the Rich Man and how the "blacks are very black and the whites are very white." I just chalked it up to the possiblity that you were alluding to the actualization of the third chapter of revelation and left it at that.
Shows how much I know, sheesh!

With that, I always thought the objective nuances of Roman Catholic thought were self-evident. Especially since we perceive ourselves as being either a man or a woman and never truly androgynous.(Despite the diseases of chimerism and that "xxy" condition I can't remember the name of.)

Let's just hope that a "naMbla" advocate doesn't take your sexual purity example out of context and use it a justification for himself. :O :P

Jeff said...


It's true that Catholic theology sees sex/gender as being essential components of who we are; not mere accidents of biology or accessories that can be changed, pache sex-change advocates. But there is also a legitimate "Jungian" element to our sexuality. Qualities that are 'stereotypically' feminine - tenderness, kindness, gentleness, openness, humility, receptivity - are essential components for the salvation of every soul. Thus every male must see Mary as an archetype not only for his wife but for himself as well.