Monday, October 2, 2017

Back from Trip, Thinking About American Catholicism, the "Both-Sides" False Equivalency Argument, and Ethics of Survival

I'm sorry to have been silent for a week. Steve and I spent last week in New Orleans visiting friends and family, and as we did so, I couldn't keep up with blogging — even, to any great degree, with following the news. I'm back now, and among all that I might talk about (the dire situation in Puerto Rico and the morally bankrupt response of the Trump administration to it; the event of mass murder in Las Vegas last evening), what is foremost in my mind today, for the purpose of this blog, is a discussion I read in the past day or so at the National Catholic Reporter site.

It was a discussion of the indirect, hidden way in which NCR continues to censor comments in discussions at its site, while permitting some comments that are clearly hate-tinged and harmful (especially to queer persons) to stand, to go uncensored. As anyone who has followed this blog over a period of time may know, I have long had my thoughts about this matter, and have myself experienced censorship in NCR discussions, so that I long since decided no longer to take part in those discussions.

Not when the moderating rules of those who hold the censorship tools in their hands are never really disclosed, and are used in sneaky, arbitrary, capricious ways to censor some folks and not others . . . . But this behavior is, as I have also noted in posting after posting here, par for the course for almost all public dialogue taking place in the American Catholic church. At its worst, there is outright supression of public dialogue engineered by the Catholic right, as with the disinvitation of Father James Martin to speak at Catholic University's seminary when online vigilantes attacked him, or with what happened recently to Shawn Copeland and her proposed lecture at Madonna University. (See Patricia Miller's good essay this past week at Religion Dispatches about these matters.)

This kind of censorship has gone on for a long time in American Catholicism, and was an acute and diagnostic feature of the reactionary Catholicism of John Paul II and his orthodoxy watchdog Cardinal Ratzinger. What is happening with folks like Father Martin or Shawn Copeland is nothing new. The new twist is the effectiveness of organized hate campaigns on social media as blunt, instrumentally powerful lethal bludgeons to force Catholic institutions to do the bidding of the Catholic right.

Through it all, centrist Catholic organizations like NCR have, in their own way, always been susceptible to these same hate campaigns ginned up by the Catholic right, but have handled their pressures in a less forthcoming way than many other Catholic groups have done. They have played the false-equivalency, both-sides game while reserving to themselves the right to weed out of the Catholic conversation some voices they consider off-limits, while allowing other voices — again, I would point to the ugly, hateful comments about queer people still permitted to stand in public discussions at Catholic journal sites — wide latitude. Because, you see, these statements represent the "other side" . . . . 

The name of this game: some voices count; others do not. And we decide — we who are the "center" of American Catholicism, the watchdogs who preside over the space in which "both sides" come together to form the "center" via public discussion. And, no, we will not disclose the rules we apply as we make the decision about whose voices count and whose do not. To us, this is self-evident: some people count and others do not. Look around you and you'll see that rule applied so constantly and so successfully that it's obviously a rule of the moral universe.

It's a rule essential to the way we organize ourselves economically in American society, to our capitalistic economy. Unless something is radically morally awry with our economic system, how could such a rule be wrong?

I don't normally read articles at NCR, Commonweal, or America any longer — unless people whose judgment I trust share them on social media — and I avoid discussion threads at these sites (insofar as they continue permitting discussion threads). I avoid them like the plague, because — as a queer person — I feel soiled and stuck through with sharp barbs anytime I wade through these discussions. I have been made explicitly unwelcome at several of these sites, unwelcome to speak out and defend myself or other LGBTQ people against homophobic attacks without fear of being censored when I speak out.

One comment in a discussion I did read recently at NCR struck home. It hit its mark. It was a dismissive attack on Catholic "bloggers" as immature, psychologically needy people who set up blogs to pretend that their lives are important and that what they have to say is worth reading. 

This comment hit its mark because it made me begin to view myself, through the optic of the center, as less than, as defective, as unneeded and unwanted — and deserving of my relegation to the outer darkness beyond the lit center. Perhaps the person offering this assessment as a way of assuring herself and others that the cozy, inbred, parochial discussion spaces of the Catholic center are "real" discussion spaces while the discussion spaces at Catholic blog sites are off-center and therefore "unreal," and so they can easily be dismissed, is right: perhaps the entire reason I began blogging here some years back was to reassure myself that my puny little life and voice had meaning. Perhaps.

Something else strikes me, though, in what this regular contributor to NCR discussions — who regularly defines herself as the "center" — is saying as she attacks the Catholic blogsphere as, in general, eccentric, unsafe in contrast to the safe "center" represented by NCR and its ilk. What strikes me is that religious institutions which expect to meet the serious demands of the world in which we are living now need increasingly to think less in terms of establishing a "center" in which "both sides" meet and more in terms of surviving. They need to think more in terms of helping a beleaguered social system and beleaguered ecosystem survive.

The "center" works hard to establish itself as a space in which some voices count and others do not. There can be no center otherwise. An ethics of survival focuses on something else altogether. It recognizes that the disparate tidbits of information we may need in order to survive may come to us from a very eccentric place, from a very unimportant person — from those who do not occupy the center at all, but who occupy a place far on the margins of church and society.

An ethics of survival privileges all voices but especially those of the margins, since those most likely to see the dangerous holes in our social and ecological universes are those on the margins — who are most immediately affected, almost always in deleterious ways, by those holes. And who therefore have a vested interest in repairing the world and its holes because of the suffering they experience due to those holes . . . . In privileging the voices of those on the margins above all, an ethics of society combats the attempt of some powerful and "normal" voices to suppress other voices considered impotent and abnormal — and so its privileging of all voices is not the values-free "objective" stance of the "both sides" myth. The ethics of survival takes sides. With the least among us . . . .

On the face of it, you'd think that a community calling itself catholic would instinctively see the wisdom of this way of thinking, and would stop privileging some voices and ignoring or discounting others primarily because they appear odd, marginal, and eccentric (literally, "out of the center"). On the face of it, you'd think a community calling itself catholic would be intellectually curious, ravenous for information about how the world ticks no matter what source provides that information — since the word "catholic" has a universalizing imperative built right into it.

American Catholicism is not really any of these things. It is not intellectually curious. It is not conspicuously interested in hearing the voices from the margins. Some sixty percent of white Catholics in the U.S. — those with most economic and institutional clout in the American church — voted for Donald Trump. I rest my case about the intellectual curiosity and openness to the marginal in American Catholicism.

American Catholicism is, for an institution that claims a universalizing imperative as its organizing impulse, remarkably non-communitarian in its approach to, well, everything imaginable. It is remarkably content with the individualism of American culture and its capitalistic economic base. It is remarkably content with writing off oodles of human beings as unworthy of attention and deserving of their status far from the center of church and society. Because they have not worked hard enough and have not been moral enough and have earned that status . . . .

And because it is all of these things, American Catholicism is, to a great degree and with notable exceptions, not contributing to the survival of the world at this perilous point in human history, not contributing to tikkun olam. Instead, its wealthiest and most powerful members have placed Donald Trump in the White House, while its intellectual elite hungers after "both-sides-count" analysis that in no way privileges the voices of the most vulnerable members of society, though Jesus himself told us that the least among us are the strongest sacramental sign of his presence we can find anywhere in the world.

The survival of the churches at this point in history depends on giving their lives away to help the world survive. That cannot be accomplished as long as the strongest adherents of churches huddle in safe spaces in their self-defined centers, and refuse to pay attention to much-needed information that will never come to them as long as they choose to huddle in those arrogant, stolid centers — because that information is to be found among people and groups the center has deliberately defined as eccentric.

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