Whenever millennials do something exciting, smart, fun, or even just plain mundane, they are compelled by the unspoken rules of 21st century society to post about their adventures (or lack thereof) on social media. Thus one lazy and adventureless Saturday afternoon spent preparing a Sunday-school lesson, I felt compelled to post a picture of the essay my topic led me to consult. The act of posting the essay would establish to my friends and follower that even though my Saturdays were nerdy and boring, they were at least sophisticated.
All went well and uneventful until a few hours later when my phone buzzed with a text. My correspondent informed me that I was to be blocked on all platforms due to my incredibly offensive choice of pleasure reading.
The contents of the essay in question, The Political Problem of Islam, and the views of its author Roger Scruton, are apparently so offensive that no member of polite society could possibly muster a legitimate excuse for reading them. My correspondent explained the reasoning to me: the author is a hatemonger and a bigot and there is no reason in even engaging with such a person.
I first received this message in disbelief. Surely it was a practical joke. Social Justice Warriors who carelessly sling the word “bigot” at respected authors fifty years their senior exist on YouTube and Twitter. They couldn’t possibly exist within my circle of serious, educated and pragmatic friends walking about the nation’s capital city.
My correspondent explained this was no laughing matter. In vain, I attempted to reason. Surely it is unreasonable to assume one agrees with everything one reads? Even if someone disagreed with Scruton, there are limitless legitimate reasons why that someone might still continue to read him.
But more importantly, I asked, isn’t it uncharitable to assume that world-renowned philosopher with a complex system of belief writes what he does only out of hate?
My correspondent was not dissuaded. Scruton’s great sins include criticizing immigration policies, opposing gay marriage, and opposing abortion. Three positions that, according to my correspondent, one could only be motivated to advocate because of hate.
At this point in the conversation it finally struck me. Behind all the campus protests, the attacks on free speech, religious freedom, and our polarizing political language lies one root problem: the absence of love.
Anyone who has attended a large family gathering can probably attest that even on the most lovely and joyous occasions there lurk a number of unspoken rules that made the occasion possible.
Uncle Joe is voting for Trump. Don’t speak to him about politics.
Cousin Nancy is a gender studies freshman. Don’t speak to her about… Well just don’t speak to her.
Aunt Teresa made Green Bean Casserole. Compliment her regardless of how awful it is.
The rules make such large gatherings possible and even enjoyable (maybe). But an essential component of the rule’s effectiveness is that they are unspoken. To print them in a Handbook for a Happy Thanksgiving would defeat the purpose and have the same effect as outright rebellion. Success is only possible when all members come to the table in a spirit of shared understanding. It’s possible to compare successful family gatherings to a nuclear standoff between superpowers. Yes, you could destroy the person sitting across from you, but they in turn could destroy you.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Nowhere on earth is the wisdom of that warning more apparent than the family dinner table. This is where the nuclear standoff analogy breaks down. The spirit that makes the successful family gathering possible is more than a mere utilitarian desire not to be destroyed yourself. It is also the recognition that, despite all our faults, it is better to be together than apart. Our love for each other is greater than any desire for uniformity and even though our disagreements persist, kindness triumphs over purity.
Liberal society, like the family dinner table, depends for its success on certain preconditions – or what we might call unspoken rules. The Founders thought our constitution fit only for what they called a moral people. Our history since then can be interpreted as man’s quest to find a system that will remain stable while people do whatever they please. Most have failed (see Communism), but some have seen a measure of success. For instance, science has liberated us from the natural consequences of sex. After the liberation we wasted no time abandoning the ancient virtues of chastity and devotion while the system more or less chugged along.
But there are some problems science has not solved. Despite our best attempts, we still have to live together. Preferably without killing, imprisoning, deporting, and degrading one another. Fortunately our ancestors discovered this for us after much trial and error so that we would not have to repeat their mistakes. After carelessly slinging the conversation-ending-insults of “puritan” and “papist” and at each other, Europe – and post-Restoration England in particular – emerged from centuries of religious war with an understanding that it is better to live together by submitting our passions to unspoken rules of conduct and the shared bounds of custom and law.
As Roger Scruton explained it, in liberal societies, “when conviction stands up to kindness, it is conviction that must go.” Centuries earlier, Edmund Burke made the same observation: “Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend.” Much earlier still, Aquinas mused that the presence of love is what makes good government stable.
Which brings us back to my over-zealous correspondent, to all those college students who think the First Amendment should be repealed, to those who would shout down their political opponents, and to those who throw the label “bigot” at everyone from a late Supreme Court justice to the Little Sisters of the Poor.
None of these crusaders seem to have thought through the implications of their unwavering belief that any dissent from progressive orthodoxy equals bigotry. If they are right, the sexual ethics of the world’s major religions – most of which are inextricably bound up with religious explanations of love and the universe – are nothing more than bigotry and hate. As interwoven as sexual ethics are with religion, the only conclusion is that most of the world lives inspired by hatred. (Yet as further proof they cannot possibly have thought through the implications of their beliefs, progressives seem to have no problem welcoming bigots – their word, not mine – into polite society so long as they are Muslim and/or immigrants.) The legal philosophy of half the Supreme Court and the often-complex arguments advanced by it deserve no consideration by these enlightened twenty-somethings. And their fellow citizens – small business owners and religious do-gooders – must be taxed and fined out of the public square if they hold the wrong beliefs.
“Bigot,” like “papist” before it, is a conversation-ending slur. It denigrates its target and renders any argument advanced unworthy of respectful consideration. It is the default of an adolescent, not of a contributing member of a liberal society. But most importantly, it is ironically itself an act of hate. It destroys the social fabric and the spirit of shared understanding that must undergird a free society. The widespread impetus to denigrate a political opponent is possible only in a political atmosphere completely devoid of charity.
The principle lurking behind the Gospels command to “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is not a principle of moral relativity. It is itself an indictment and judgment stronger than perhaps any other: the judgment that you may be right, but you can be right and still be an insufferable hate-filled imbecile. That’s illustrated by the fact that even the slightest self-examination would lead you to discover you could just as easily be in the wrong. You cast the stone today. You may be stoned tomorrow.
This principle at the root of the Gospels is also at the root of all liberal societies. We are all flawed. But we all have to live together. We don’t have to agree with each other. We can disagree and disagree strongly, but our disagreements must be tempered by the realization that the freedom of all is dependent on a healthy and respectful political climate. There can be no trust – no friendship – between political opponents in a society where political victory is accompanied by systematic humiliation and targeting of our enemies.
Love is the precondition to our society’s success. The recognition that we are as flawed as our opponents and shouldn’t be so quick to drive them from society. What Aquinas called friendship, Burke called manners, Scruton calls kindness, and the Gospels simply call charity are all necessary for the preservation of a free society.
In an increasingly polarized political climate where entertaining but juvenile and hateful sound-bites rule the day, we would all do well to think on what charity means for us today.
Brian Miller is a graduate of George Mason University School of Law. He works at the Center for Individual Rights and is Research Assistant at George Mason University School of Law. He is an Anglican Postulant at Holy Trinity parish in Fairfax, Virginia.Google+