Monday, June 29, 2020

“Good For Me but Not for Thee.” Thoughts on the New Iconoclasm

It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.(G.K. Chesterton)

The protests that began as protesting the killing of George Floyd have evolved into a new iconoclasm. This current mob-driven activity assumes that the existence of a monument or symbol exists solely to champion an evil as perceived through the eyes of the demagogue leading them.

In some cases, the perception is right. Some symbols, like the Confederate flag, took on meanings like resistance to the Civil Rights rulings of 1954 and beyond. Some statues were erected as defiance against the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War. In those cases, I have no problem with the legal removal from a place of public honor to a museum (where it can be displayed with proper historical context). 

The problem is, often the demagogues assume that their assumptions on why a monument exists is the only possible reason it could exist. This is an argument from ignorance fallacy, and too often a straw man. If the perceived reason is not the same as the actual reason—especially when the perceived reason comes from historical ignorance—then the attempts to remove the monument or symbol come from bigotry in the sense of the G.K. Chesterton quote at the beginning of this article.

For example, the demonstrations around religious monuments (or monuments perceived to be religious) involve either assumptions about the motives, or ignorance about the historical events about the person or events. St. Junipero Serra was vandalized for “crimes” he wasn’t guilty of. St. Louis IX is being targeted for “Islamophobia.” The assumption is that even the smallest deviation from the perceived 21st Century sensibility is deliberate and malicious. But 21st century perceptions of history are no less biased than the perceptions of previous centuries. They just have different biases. As an example, 19th century American historical biases tended to be “Protestantism = Good.” They focused on the worst abuses that existed in any part of pre-Protestant Christendom and treated as if it was doctrine that had to be destroyed. The 21st century bias tends to be “anybody who doesn’t conform to our thinking is a bigot.” Both are wrong to apply as a general principle, even when there are legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.

The problem is, these biases cannot accept the idea that conditions were different in different times and not all differences were the result of malice. For example, opposition to Islam in the Crusades was not rooted in xenophobia or a lust for conquest. It was based on the belief that aggressive Muslim nations had unjustly seized the Holy Land and were intent on conquering Europe as well. Yes, some Crusaders committed injustices, things that cannot be condoned under the more fully matured teaching of the Church today. But it would be factually wrong to assume that the injustices that existed were the intention of the Crusades in general.

We need to remember that unjust accusations by some members of a group often have the side effect of alienating people from accepting just accusations from the group as a whole. Yes, it’s a fallacy of composition, but it’s easy for people to think “these accusations are false, therefore all accusations from these people are false.” The story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf illustrates this danger. I have unfortunately seen some Catholics (falsely) reason that because the attacks on certain Catholic saints are so obviously false, the legitimate objections to certain Civil War monuments must also be false.

What we need to do is to be certain that our facts are correct and we understand the context of a time. We must also be careful that we don’t fall into a double standard, condemning them for something we turn a blind eye to when our standard harms us. Yes, slavery is something shameful in America’s past. No, we can’t try to explain it (or any other evil) away with special pleading. If “X is wrong” is universally true, then we must also oppose X when our own side does it (for example, if we condemn the violence of a mob that acts in a cause we oppose, we must not make excuses when mob violence is done by our side). But if X is not universally wrong, then we need to clearly demonstrate why this incident which we condemn is different from that incident which we condone. Otherwise, we come across as ignorant or hypocrites, and we are part of the problem.


(†) For example, the sack of Constantinople. But remember, the Pope at the time condemned it when news reached Rome.

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