Thursday, June 4, 2020

Guilt, Innocence, and Resentment

One thing that annoys people is being lumped into a group that they have nothing in common with and being lectured to as if they held the characteristic being condemned. It’s understandable because that kind of lecturing is part of the fallacy of composition(stereotyping) that runs along these lines: Person A holds an offensive trait. Person A belongs to group X. Therefore, Group X holds the offensive trait. Through that reasoning, Person B, who also belongs to Group X, is assumed to hold that offensive trait. The result is Person B begins to resent the accusation personally, and often discounts the offensiveness of that trait, thinking it is false or exaggerated universally.

The resentful response is understandable, but it is also dangerous. Even if Person B doesn’t hold that offensive trait, that doesn’t mean that the offensive trait doesn’t exist. So, if enough people think like Person B, then blindness to—or downplaying of—the evil emerges. From this reaction, we see the counterreaction that assumes that the whole group must be guilty and anyone who denies they hold that trait is either lying or in denial about their guilt.

This kind of thing becomes a vicious cycle, with people growing more entrenched in their views. Some people reach the point of denying or downplaying the guilt of those who are guilty. Others become bigoted against people in Group X, assuming the guilt is universal§. The result is the actual evil never gets corrected, and each time it comes up, mutual resentments prevent an effective response.

The obvious example of this is the recent killing of George Floyd. There is understandable anger over the behavior and mindset that led to his death. And there is understandable resentment over being accused of that behavior when one doesn’t hold it. But it’s not the only example. We’ve seen this happen in the clerical abuse scandal, and the debates over whether policies on illegal immigration are unjust. In all of them, the evil exists. But some portray the evil as a universal, and some of those who resent the universal accusation denying the existence or the extent of the evil. Because of these, factions become entrenched.

So, what are we to do? Obviously, the evil exists and has to be corrected. Those who resent being lumped in with the ones doing evil can’t deny that. At the same time, not everybody is guilty of that evil, and we must not use rhetoric that accuses everybody for the guilt of some. 

This is where we need to watch out for a second fallacy, the guilt by association fallacy. In this fallacy, the fact that somebody with somebody repugnant who holds a view makes the view itself evil. So, in modern times, the fact that radical movements oppose an evil is often used as a justification for rejecting the opposition of the evil, often confusing the end with the means. In our most recent crisis, some have used the fact that radical groups are violently demonstrating in the protests against racism as a reason to reject the protests themselves. That rejection does not logically follow. Likewise, the fact that anti-Catholics misuse the abuse scandals for their own purposes does not mean that anger over the actual scandals should be ignored. Just because racists make use of the concerns of illegal immigration does not mean there are no valid concerns.

The repugnance we feel against an evil does not excuse us from our moral obligation to speak truthfully and with charity. The anger we feel against being falsely accused does not excuse us from opposing the evil that the false accusation is based on. As Christians, we are not allowed to use calumny or rash judgment against our foes, and we are not allowed to turn a blind eye against evil either. This requires us to look at what is and respond accordingly.

Unfortunately, determining what is true doesn’t fit in well with the mob mentality of an enraged social media site. It’s easy to reject anything that doesn’t fit in with our preferred narrative. We call whatever goes against that narrative, “fake news.” And some of the news is fake. But not everything we dislike is fake, and not everything we like is true. To avoid calumny and rash judgment, we have to determine whether our accusations are just before we repeat them, and we have to make sure our apologetics are true before we share them.

I won’t say that’s all we have to do to solve our problems, because there’s a lot more to it than that. But I imagine if we were aware of this problem and did our best to avoid doing these things, perhaps we would be able to focus more effectively on the actual injustices that need solving.

But if we won’t individually look at our own responses here, we’re only adding to the problems.


(†) This shouldn’t be confused with the Guilt by Association Fallacy (I’ll get into that one later in the article). 

(§) Sometimes we see both sides turn this into “Instead of focusing on THIS, we need to focus on THAT,” where “this” is an issue they don’t care about and “that” is an issue they care about. However, both issues can be important.

(‡) One example is, Hitler used the German people’s desire for security and order (which are legitimate needs) to gain support for his evil plans. The fact that so many went along with that evil serves as a warning to look at the plans put forward. But his evil actions do not make the natural desire for security and order “Hitlerian” by nature.

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