Thursday, September 27, 2012

Put your thinking cap on....

One of the books I reread every few years is C.S. Lewis' 'The Screwtape Letters.' I enjoy the device, the humor, and the sharp insight into human nature. For anyone unfamiliar with the book, it's a short compilation of letters--half of a correspondence between Screwtape, a senior devil, and his nephew and protege, Wormwood.

Wormwood's task is to secure the damnation of a particular young man, and we discern his progress, or lack of it, by reading the letters of advice from his uncle. As many times as I've read it, something always jumps out at me, and this time, it was Screwtape's musings about how much progress they and 'their father below' have made by encouraging a desire in humans for continued novelty, with one advantage being that they are never satisfied.

Screwtape goes on to say that the thirst for novelty 'is indispensable if we are to produce Fashions or Vogues' of thought, and explains that the 'use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.'

This got me thinking, as it might anyone, including those who do not attribute the course of history to a spiritual struggle between good and evil. I wondered, quite apart from cause, if this were a true observation--that the popular outcry is against dangers which are not really dangerous, and the acclaimed virtue is a step away from a corresponding vice. If so, what would they be?

The second half of the problem, in our time, seems obvious to me. The most loudly acclaimed virtue of the day is 'tolerance.' And who would disagree that it is a virtue? But while any objective measure shows that tolerance has greatly increased, we seem only to hear about when it is perceived to be absent or imperfect. The actual fruit of the movement to promote (enforce?) tolerance is _intolerance_ of anyone who does not say the correct thing, or has any opinion that can be characterized as intolerance and thereby discredited.

Examples abound--the hate (some of it quite visceral and ugly) directed at Dan Cathy by the supporters of tolerance because they refused to...tolerate...him having an opinion about the subject of gay marriage that they didn't like. No matter that no evidence existed of his ever having actually discriminated against anyone; it was his beliefs which were such an affront to them that he couldn't be allowed to have them in peace.

Another example is the ongoing effort, most recently at the current UN session, to criminalize any expression deemed offensive to Muhammed or Islam. Quite apart from the rather thorny problem of who makes that determination, the practical result is 'promoting tolerance' by being...intolerant.

So perhaps Lewis was on to something. I am curious if anyone has other ideas about this? Other vices or virtues, now or in times past, that support the idea that 'each generation direct[s] the fashionable outcry...against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix[es] its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice [it masks].' I would think examples could be found in education (perhaps the self-esteem movement that has increased self-esteem but not accomplishment?), certainly in politics, in art?


  1. First of all I've never bought into the idea that the human existence is some millennial battle between Satan and God (the spiritual battle). Human behavior is internally driven and only modified by codified rules that humans themselves develop - and choose to respect. Even if those rules come from what I think is a man made religious base is irrevelent.

    This came up today when discussing the NFL's recent fiasco using subsitute referees for the first 3 games of the season. I said the issue is a metaphor for life because humans need strict rules in order to live a life that limits their ability to live a less than honorable existence. In other words, the absence of rules allows humans to act on their worst tendencies. So NFL players started testing the limits once they sensed those limits were somewhat fuzzy. Again, whether these rules come from a religious base or a secular base is irrevelent. The rules and the respect for those rules is what counts.

    Tolerance is a sign of human maturity. Unfortunately those who demand tolerance aren't much better at practicing it than those who make no such claim. Muslims who demand reverence for Muhammad are just as likely to demean the beliefs of other religions as those who they accuse of blasphemy. Liberals are probably more hypocritical than conservatives only because they are more likely to demand tolerance while they practive intolerance.

    Humans have a long way to go.

  2. No disagreement with your final statement, but I was hoping to see some thoughts on the actual question. The impetus for the post was not the question of whether human history is or isn't a reflection of spiritual matters, or the hypocrisy of the tolerance lobby. It was the question of whether Lewis' observation was true or not (that society will expend energy against the 'vices' of which it is least in danger, and extoll virtues which actually encourage or promote an underlying vice. I just thought of another example, perhaps--starting in the '60s and '70s, sexual 'freedom' was promoted as a virtue--as a triumph over inhibition and repression, and as a positive for 'health.' But was it perhaps instead (or also, or in some cases) just a way to engage in vice--licentiousness, etc.?

  3. I think that's what Lewis was driving at, and while those examples (virtues) are easier to come up with, I can't think of examples of the vices, as much. A climate change skeptic would identify that issue as one those evils or ills that people are alarmed about, but of which they 'are least in danger.' Any ideas? (Basically, this was a purely intellectual proposition, rather than a discussion on any particular issue.)

  4. I admit to having a hard time getting my arms around the issue. I did think of the gay marriage movement as an example though. After all, there is little harm to anyone else if two gay people decide to marry yet it's fought tooth and nail by conservatives hell bent on preserving marriage - even while the institution itself is under assault by the very people who are against gay marriage: heterosexuals who often get divorced. I'll re-read this a few more times to see if I get a better handle on this.

  5. Great minds think alike, apparently...:) The same thing occurred to me as a possibility. For one faction, it's a critical 'danger,' (and I have endured a fair share of misunderstanding and abuse over the years because I won't condemn them as being motivated by hate, or bigotry, or ignorance) but is it the imminent danger to society, especially as compared to other things, that they believe it to be?