12 October 2015

Freaking Out about the Church

Most people familiar with the Catholic Internet have seen it before: someone accusing someone else of coming "unhinged", or "flipping out", or as Fr. John Zuhlsdorf puts it, "having a spittle-flecked nutty".  It's the internet.  People flip out.  Standards of decorum are suspended.  Tongues are loosed. There are crazy people out there.

But I'd like to suggest that accusations of people "flipping out" or "coming unhinged" are sometimes used not as diagnoses of real defects in authors or their works, but as ways of marginalizing certain ideas.  What are the standards for deciding that someone is "unhinged"?  How do we know that someone's writing is "nuts"?  When is shrill polemic justified?

When people write and speak, they do so in a community of discourse framed by certain patterns of expression and presumed points of agreement.  I discussed this recently.  The way we speak, the sorts of things we talk about, and the metaphors we use to talk about them, all create a loosely shared context of understanding within the community.

This linguistic background or set of "obvious" beliefs and expressions is not essentially natural, nor is it immobile.  Instead it is constantly created and developed by the particular acts of speech within the community.  The more we become accustomed to hearing and understanding a certain way, the more we tend to speak and think that way ourselves.  Sometimes people realize this and try to intentionally alter a community's pattern of speech.  Usually they fail.


These structural features of human communication apply also to standards of behavior: etiquette and morality.  I do not mean to say that etiquette and morality are pure social constructs, any more than I meant in my previous post to suggest that the metaphors constitutive of normal expression are purely arbitrary.  No, standards of behavior, just like the analogies in language, tend to have a foundation in reality and the nature of things.  

But at the same time, all of these systems exist for humans as features of communal behavior, and therefore they are not purely universal and objective, but also have in them reflections of the mutability and arbitrary freedom of humanity.  They are subject to fashion.  They emerge and decay with the conditions of particular times and places.  They are chaotic and difficult to anticipate in detail.

In language, the rules of speech are flexible, and exist as a set of possible expressions, rather than in the form of fixed laws.  (Grammatical pedants do not understand this, and create a positive morality out of attempts to enforce their own habits of speech.)  This fact becomes clear when we learn a foreign language, where the question frequently occurs: Is that something people would say? Does that construction sound off?  The space of plausible grammatical constructions is paralleled by a space of plausible descriptions—attributions and combinations of characteristics that are meaningful and "make sense".  And above these there is a space of plausible judgments, which someone might claim or reasonably defend.

Morality is learned.  The demands of justice are learned through the facts of our needs and relationships, and the particular way we must fulfill those demands is learned through the repeated admonitions and praises of our parents, teachers, friends, and relatives.  Justice is real.  Morality is real.  It is an actual, inescapable feature of human nature.  But the specific demands of justice depend in part on the facts of our time—the laws of the state, the customs of society, the conditions of surplus and need, wealth and poverty.  And we learn these specifics from each other: in part through experience and observation, but much more through habits of praise and condemnation.


To be an orthodox Catholic is to exist on the margins of society.  Not always economically, perhaps not socially, but culturally and ideologically.  It is a fact that we orthodox catholics bear about with us—our beliefs run directly counter to the spirit of the age, and our moral views, if we stated them flatly, would be considered extreme by the average person.

In a community which is on the margins by default, in which members are constantly confronting the mainstream, trying to explain themselves to it, and trying to reduce their separation from it, there is a silent question: Am I an extremist? Am I crazy? Have I gone beyond the pale?  Different people deal with these questions in their own way, depending on their temperaments and intellectual habits.  Some are truly indifferent to the matter.  A few bask in their marginality, always trying to flaunt the expectations of the mainstream.  But most set up little barriers in their mind.  They pick out someone a bit further out than them and say, "Oh no, I am not extreme, that group is extreme.  I am not irrational, that person is irrational."  In this way the marginalized person often has more hostility for the slightly-more-marginal group, than for the mainstream which is much more distant from his own stance.

So we end up onion-like layers of marginalized Catholics.  The cultural Catholics who go to mass but definitely aren't conservative, the conservative Catholics who read the Catechism but definitely aren't traditionalists, the traditionalist Catholics who value the deposit of faith but definitely don't go in for the whole Latin Mass thing, etc.  The series could go on.



Each group has a way of drawing its own lines.  How do they do this?  Well, remember that the space of plausible judgments is determined by the habits and expectations of a community of discourse.  One can say something plausibly only if the community has been "primed" to hear and accept it.  On the margins, everyone has already been primed to believe, and is incessantly being primed to believe, that what is being said within the community is extreme or insane.  Which means that denunciations of extremism and insanity are always going to have a footing.  The marginal ideological community is already insane according to the mainstream version of rationality.  When one part of it denounces another part of it, it is simply absolving itself of its own marginal status by confirming the mainstream's condemnation of the other part.

What I have just described in part of a much broader phenomenon.  People like to be normal.  We like this because it sets us at ease about our own behavior, and assures us of our social position and the stability of our relationships.  Normality means that everything will be at least OK.  But normality exists only as a set of possibilities which are determined in contrast to things which are considered abnormal.  The comfort accorded to those who believe themselves to be ordinary (whoever they may be), is dependent on the stigmatization or exclusion of those outside the mainstream.  Classes and groups and determinate associations exist by exclusion, because it is exclusion which creates the difference necessary to identify and name the group.



So sometimes we see people attacking their ideological neighbors in a gambit to win themselves more mainstream status.  But marginalization doesn't just help people get closer to what's normal.  It also helps create a sphere of acceptable behavior within their own group.  It helps to create the group.  And this isn't always a bad thing.  How do we maintain order in society? By the penalization of criminal behavior.  How do we maintain orthodoxy in the Church?  By anathematizing heresy.  It's necessary.  But the state and the Church are legitimate authorities, whom we can reasonably look to for moral instruction and guidance.  What happens when the state absolves itself of the responsibility to educate for justice by the promulgation and enforcement of laws?  We end up with civic confusion and disunity, widespread criminality and chaos. Eventually alternative forces arise to form the public and create civic order. What happens when the hierarchy of the Church absolves itself of the responsibility to teach the faith by condemning heretics and disciplining the disobedient?  We end up with ecclesiastical confusion and disunity, widespread heresy and clerical abuse.  Eventually alternative voices arise to impose some sort of orthodoxy and try to establish discipline.

Today there is tremendous confusion in the Church.  The voices who should be speaking for the tradition have lost track of the tradition, and are intermingled with voices preaching worldliness and the acceptance of vice.  And in the midst of this confusion, in the absence of due authority, the laity are increasingly stratified by the depth of their familiarity with tradition and the authorities they choose to look to.  So we end up with these little islands of ecclesiastical consensus, each trying to define its borders with sandbags piled up against the rising tide of decay.  But of course it should not be so.  This is how it was during the Great Schism of the 14th century, which paved the way for the Protestant Reformation.  Are we headed down that path again?


In any case, my point, and the point which originally motivated this post is this: pay attention to indictments of speech and viewpoints based on whether they are "un-hinged" or "beyond the pale".  Most of the time these phrases do not designate a real loss of sanity, but are part of a sandbagging operation, meant to consolidate an ideological subgroup by defining and excluding the unacceptable.  Think to yourself instead: what was this person's point?  Was it a reasonable point?  Was it stated appropriately?  Chances are, among whatever imperfections, you will find something true.  And hopefully sooner or later the present chaos will end, and the due authorities will liberate us laymen of having to define our own orthodoxy.