The Misuse of Language by Conservatives

Saturday, November 08, 2003



I hate to call out an individual. Yet a perfect example of something that irks me is being provided by a fellow Catholic blogger.

Over at Mark Shea's there are a number of references and links to recent activities by gay activists that Mark calls "brownshirt" or "fascists" tactics.

The scenarios Mark posts links to with titles like "brownshirts on the march" included a court case. A judge ruled that a child of a lesbian couple that split up cannot be taught "homophobic" religious teachings by the woman who kept custody. How does that compare to the brownshirts?

The was a reference to a lesbian couple that sued a Catholic school for not accepting their daughter. No matter what we think of the legal merits of their case, I fail to see a correlation to the Nazis.

Another link referenced a Canadian bishop who fears protestors to his statements on the illegitimacy of gay domestic partnerships. The source was biased, so we have to wonder whether the threat was real. Certainly threats are morally problematic, but can we be certain that this protest constituted brownshirt tactics?

There was also a picture of a Catholic Church in Buenos Aires that was allegedly vandalized by gay activists. The photograph included no text. Vandalism is wrong, but is it de facto a Nazi tactic?

Then Mark referred to the silencing of Reverend Fox during the consecration ceremony of Reverend Gene Robinson as a fascist muzzling of free speech. The expulsion of a Episcopalian priest who dissented with Robinson was also called fascist.

I have been strenuously arguing with Mark, at first in private email, but then in his comments boxes, that this is a misuse of language. There are several problems I have with this use of language.

First, the Nazis chose to be Nazis, while everyone seems to agree that gays do not choose to be gay.

Second, the Nazis appealed to the fears and disgruntlements of the masses to form an unprovoked attack on a minority that did not share equal power with the majority. Indeed, I would say it was this characteristic of Nazism that makes it particularly heinous.

Just as there is a sense that when Black Americans exercise racial prejudice and discrimination, it should not be called racism, so too, one should not compare the tactics of a persecuted minority to the Nazis.

I suspect I just lost many conservatives here. So let me explain this idea a bit further.

If you have ever traveled in Africa, you will discover that most African cultures hold the virtue of hospitality in high regard. Prior to the age of colonization, there may have been brief skirmishes between tribes, but they basically left each other alone, at least in the sub-sahara. In general, the pre-colonized African held a high regard for the sanctity of human life, even for the life of foreigners and strangers. Moores and other Africans who traveled abroad tended to respect the cultures they were visiting.

The Europeans came to Africa during the sixteenth century and later centuries with a different attitude. The Africans generally greeted the European with their usual hospitality. In turn, the European almost immediately dehumanized the African in their own minds, and treated the African as an animal - chattel to be sold.

This introduced an imbalance of power into a culture that was completely unprepared for it. The imbalance was rooted in the sin of racism - a tendency to see the other as less than human based on racial characteristics. Once the imbalance was introduced, the African was drawn into a flight or fight reaction in order to try to restore balance.

African Americans inherent this legacy. Despite great strides since the civil rights movement of the 1960's, the Black American cannot live in this society without an awareness of racism. It shows up when she or he walks around in a rich white suburb, where a police officer may stop to question him or her. The Black is aware of it when they go shopping, and are watched more closely by security than their White counterparts. They are aware of it when going to a job interview, or even completing a college application.

Yet, the African American did not create this situation. Rather, the racist culture of the European and Americans created the imbalance of power that is racism by definition. The African American must then decide how to react in a racist culture that he or she did not create. Some will try to beat it by working harder and smarter than their White counterparts. Others will flee into their own sub-culture. Others will choose to fight back - like the infamous Black Panthers.

Yet, the Black Panthers are not themselves racists. Rather, they are product of White racism. Racism can only be exercised by a group that has power over another - the group that initiated the imbalance of power.

This is not to say that everything the Black Panthers or gay activists or other minority groups do is right. Rather, what I am pointing out is that the language of racism or heterosexism or sexism, etc....was created to describe not simply conflict between one group and another. Rather, this language describes an actual imbalance of power between two groups, and says that the dominate group is exercising power inappropriately.

For those who disagree with my definition of these term, remember, these terms were invented by liberals. Don't listen to conservatives when they say we're changing the meaning of the words. In Catholic social teaching, these notions describe social sins, and not simply individual sins. They describe structures of evil that arise when many people collectively dehumanize others outside of their group. An individual can only be guilty of racism to the extent that he or she participates with the dominate racial group in oppression of the less powerful racial group. In this sense, a Black can only be guilty of racism in America by being an "Uncle Tom" and supporting the structures of racism.

Think of it this way....If you can imagine putting yourself in the mind of a sixteenth century explorer, what exactly would lead such a person to land in the Americas and immediately see himself as intellectually, morally, and physically superior to the Native Americans?

Wouldn't the more natural thought be to see yourself as a guest in the land of another people who deserve to be shown some respect for showing you hospitality?

Instead, the Europeans sought to dominate the Americas. In history, some groups have tried to dominate others, and when this occurs, the group exercising domination is in the wrong, not the group being dominated. Just as a victim of sexual abuse cannot be held responsible for sexual sin, victims of social oppression cannot be held responsible for social sin.

Likewise, if it were just one European who dehumanized Africans and Native Americans, we'd call that person prejudiced. When an entire group does it to another group, we call it racism, sexism or whatever applies.

The Europeans and White heterosexual males have not been the sole groups to exercise dominance over others. The Bible tells us that the Egyptians (not sub-sahara Africa) dominated the Jews to the point of enslavement.

What sickness entered the mind of the Egyptian that he thought he could own a Jew? How did this sickness spread from one individual to an entire nation? These are the questions liberals ask.

In Mark's comments, I started out saying that gays cannot be compared to the Nazis because they are a minority. In this sense, they are definitely more like the Jews. Furthermore, since gays are frequently threatened by gay bashers, and even killed very often, I argued that they are more like the Jews than Mark wants to admit. If they act violently, they are exercising self-defense. They are more like the handful of Jews who stood up to the Nazis and took over some of the concentration camps eventually.

One of Mark's readers asked how my world view could condemn apartheid if being a minority is the issue. I admitted that the way I had phrased my argument lead to such a question. I started out speaking mostly of numeric minority, but what is really at stake is minority as lack of power! Even if there are more women in the world than men, they are the minority, because men hold the majority of the power.

What I am trying to spell out now is that a group that has power over another and tries to control that other group is more like the Nazis. The Nazis were guilty of a collective social sin. Minorities may not always be right, but groups that dominate other groups are always wrong.

On the surface, it may seem that Mark has a point about gay activist muzzling the free speech of two dissenting clergymen, or a Catholic bishop in Canada. Aren't they exercising domination?

The answer is no. Gays are generally in a position of having less power than the Catholic Church, the Republican party, and the heterosexual majority. Historically, their relationships have been outlawed, their desires called disordered, and they have even been killed!

Homosexuals have not been able to participate in the power structures that define who they are and how they are to act. Instead, heterosexuals have defined who they are and how they are to act. The heterosexual majority, trying to control the homosexual minority is introducing an imbalance of power (and has been for centuries)!

Thus, I say that the tactics of the gay activists fall more in the category of self defense. They are a people who are forced into the fight or flight reaction by a majority that they perceive as threatening - a majority that does hold more power!

What is power, and when is it right or wrong to use it?

Simply put, power is the ability to influence the outcome of your own life. In the political realm, it means you can influence the formation of laws that effect you. In the economic realm, it is the ability to influence your own participation in the creation of wealth. In the religious realm, it is the ability to worship freely, follow your own conscience, articulate your own experience of God and live the ethics that guide your life without the intervention of others.

Now, I agree with conservatives that no one individual has a right to absolute power or absolute freedom. However, everyone has a right to participate in the discernment of the common good. Everyone has a right to participate in the institutions that give shape to our legal, economic, and cultural mores.

Conservatives will argue that the Church is not a democracy. I respond that the role of tradition in this process is not to squash the process of communal discernment of the good, but to give voice to the views of our ancestors. As Chesterton once said, tradition is the democracy of the dead. Yet, tradition can and does develop (I have several articles on my homepage demonstrating this).

Religious authority should not function to simply preserve the status quo and resist change. Indeed, given that the Gospel is about conversion, Catholic religious authority should be challenging people to constant change and constant openness to the Spirit.

Nor should religious authority simply cram beliefs of the few down the throats of many. This would be domination itself, and would be morally wrong.

Rather, authority should function to preserve the process of the development of doctrine in continuity with the past, but not necessarily blind imitation of the past. We must be open to the signs of the times and what the Spirit is saying to us today. Authority preserves the process, and gently challenges us to spur growth and bring out our gifts. Authority's conservative spirit preserves what is good from our ancestors, but it also must always have a progressive spirit that sees where we are heading and challenges those who are abusing power by trying to dominate the discussion. This was the primary role of the prophets of the Old Testament, and Jesus often acted prophetically to the point where the "powers that be" sought to kill him.

The problem with calling gays Nazis of brownshirts is that they are not a group with power trying to force others to do anything. To the extent they demand "politically correct" speech, they are simply saying they have a right not to be threatened, and this is true! The majority of gays and lesbians are simply trying to say to those in power that we can live and let live. For those who are in the majority to respond by calling gays Nazis is itself a Nazi tactic!

Why is calling gays Nazis itself a Nazi tactic?

The terms Nazis and brownshirts and fascists have become nearly synonymous in Western culture with incomprehensible evil. It is a loaded term used to describe people who seek to absolutely control others to the point of extermination of the other. The evil of the Nazis was historically a specific application of a majority to literally eliminate a minority.

By using these words to describe gays and lesbians, what Mark Shea and those like him are doing is to demonize the less powerful minority more than they already are demonized. In doing so, he is reversing the meaning of the word in the context of a moral challenge. To act as a Nazi in its negative moral sense is to be part of a powerful group trying to dominate or eliminate a less powerful group. Gays are not trying to eliminate or control heterosexuals. Rather, heterosexuals are continuing to try to dominate gays, even to the extent of using God's name to do so.

The specific language being used can influence younger readers, or those who are emotionally unstable to literally carry out further acts of violence against a gay community already beset by violent attack from without. It marginalizes the voice of those who are simply seeking to be heard. This minority group is often so frustrated at society's intolerance that they resort to ineffective means of counter-violence in self-defense. In this sense, Mark is fanning the fires of the very behavior he claims he wants to stop.

There are several logical contradictions in Mark's position on this matter.

For example, he calls it fascism for an Episcopal priest to be dismissed for dissent on the Robinson consecration. Yet, he calls Catholic bishops spineless when they refuse to excommunicate what he perceives as dissident Catholic priests.

Likewise, he calls it fascism when Reverend Fox is stopped from reading graphic descriptions of some common homosexual acts at Robinson's consecration, complaining that Fox's free speech was violated.

Yet, many of his readers would fight to be the first in line to silence a member of Act Up and label the person a fascist if the gay activist used a Catholic episcopal consecration as an opportunity to speak to his own agenda. (Mark says he would let the Act Up member speak).

Ultimately, I think consecrations are not the place for what Fox tried to do, and it does not violate free speech to say there is a time and place for things. Fox is free to voice his views, just not at a consecration ceremony in the manner he tried to do: just as it is inappropriate to show pornography on prime time network television!

Mark calls gay protestors to the Canadian bishop brownshirts, but it would seem OK for Catholics to protest abortion clinics to the point where workers feel intimidated.

What all this amounts to is saying that the word "brownshirt" for Mark Shea seems to be defined as anyone who disagrees with Mark Shea. I guess that makes me a brownshirt.

Here are the problems with this use of language:

1) Logically, it's not a valid philosophical argument to simply call people names. In philosophy, it's called an ad hominem attack, and it does nothing to actually persuade your opponent of the truth of your position. All it does is antagonize and invite those in agreement to cheer for you. If your goal is self glorification, it may be effective, but it's simply not a philosophically valid use of language in debate.

2) Intellectually, the analogy between gay activists and Nazis simply does not hold up. The Nazis chose to be Nazis. Gays don't choose to be gay. The Nazis had power and majority. The gays have little real power and are a minority. Gays are closer to the Jews in the analogy.

3) Spiritually, Jesus reached out to the poor, the marginalized, and those who were thought to be sinners. He calls us to meekness (which is the withholding of power for the sake of others). Saint Peter tells us to express out religious views with gentleness and respect. Saint Paul encourages kindness and tells us to be all things to all people. The people Jesus spoke most harshly to were those who tried to control others through the misuse of religious language and name calling. Given the very real threat of gay bashing, it is irresponsible to use inflammatory rhetoric in reference to gays and lesbians, and such irresponsibility constitutes grave matter in the context of moral theology. In other words, while I cannot judge Mark's heart, his actions appear sinful!

4) Theologically, the whole issue of homosexuality is more complex than conservatives want to admit. The entire concept of homosexual orientation was not discovered until the nineteenth century. Scripture has nothing to say about the orientation, and Tradition has little development on the topic. Regarding homosexual acts, there are sparse ancient references, but they are based on a natural law theory that did not take account of the possibility of an irreversible orientation to homoerotic desire. There are more passages of the Bible clearly supporting slavery than there are verses that even tangentially address homosexual acts. Exegetes point out that all of the verses used by conservatives probably had a different historical and literary context than the questions we are asking today. There is legitimate room for discussion and debate and development of doctrine on the issue of homosexuality. Those who experience themselves as homosexual should be part of that discussion - and not just the gays that heterosexuals select, like David Morrison, but a representative sampling that includes David Morrison, Andrew Sullivan, and other gay and lesbian voices.

5) Name calling as a method of dealing with conflict is psychologically immature behavior. It's simply childish. A more appropriate way for adults to critique one another is to stick to facts and discuss issues with an awareness that the other is not completely wrong or completely evil.

As we read each other, we need to be careful to read critically and spot logical fallacies. Ad Hominem attack seems to be a favorite of conservative Catholic bloggers, and even some of the scholars they might read (though most scholars know better, and try to avoid it).

Look throughout Catholic blogdom and we see "heretics", "dissidents", "feminazis", "bleeding hearts", "lefties", "commies", "racist", "nazis", "bullies", "fascists", "brownshirts", "fuzzy wuzzies", "cafeteria catholics", etc...etc...all thrown about rather loosely, with little discussion of facts and little in the way of a coherent and logical argument.

I am not denouncing the use of labels in general, such as "liberal" or "conservative". This is not name calling so much as trying to locate an opinion on a spectrum. Nor do I mind an occassional playful verbal jab done in humor (I post many of the Curt Jester's playful spoofs on liberals in my humor section).

Nor am I denouncing a fair comparison when it occurs and is backed by solid argumentation. There is nothing wrong with with a conservative asking me if my emphasis on the humanity of Jesus might tend toward Arianism at times if that is what she or he thinks. This is different than just saying "You're a heretic" right off the bat. (Mark has not done this to me. I am merely illustrating an example here from other discussions via email).

What I am denouncing is the tendency to create a label that seems to aim at nothing more than belittling those with whom we disagree.

Even if you define yourself as a conservative, don't get sucked into thinking that people who use such language are speaking the "Truth". If an author is using this type of language most or all of the time, he or she has likely run out of anything meaningful to say. He or she is likely misusing the language out of desperation for lack of a rational argument. It's a sign of weakness, and should not be taken seriously!

I would say liberals are at fault too if all they do is call people names! But there are few liberal or progressives Catholic bloggers at present, so I am primarily addressing conservatives here.

By the way, the scholarly academic community on both sides does do a better job of refraining from this type of language...though they occasionally slip into it. I am not addressing the Grisezes or Ratzingers of the world, except where it applies. I am primarily addressing lay conservative bloggers who are more my own counterpart (I am not a PhD nor a professional academic nor a paid theologian nor priest).

Of course we all slip from time to time, and sometimes name calling can make a point as a last resort. Even Jesus called the Pharisees snakes and sons of Satan. There is some disagreement among scholars whether these are actual words of Christ, but for the sake of argument, let's take the texts at face value.

As the Gospels tell the story, he generally did this to those who tried to dominate others: those who laid heavy burdens on others but were hypocrites themselves. He critisizes those in power - particularly religious authorities within his own religious community.

He never called the Romans or Greeks vile names, except for a Syro-Pheonician woman who already had faith in him. He called her a dog, and then immediately turned around and commended her faith. Otherwise, he refrained from calling outsiders names. This story was probably written precisely as a challenge to Jewish Christians who thought their Gentile siblings were dogs.

Indeed, his ministry seems aimed at bending over back-wards to make outsiders, such as women, prostitutes, adulterers, traitors, tax collectors, foreigners and the poor feel welcome and included. Not once does he insult someone for sexual sins or rash behavior (like vandalism). Certainly he did not approve of sin, but he did not belittle people for falling. He was merciful. His worst insults seem generally reserved for the more deliberate and meditated sins of the stubborn self-righteous hypocrite than the rash acts of passion.

He also backed up what he said with persuasive argumentation, parable, and proverb (not to mention signs). When he calls someone a name, there is always some explanation, even if brief. He spoke with authority, and his authority came from the obvious humanistic truth of his position, rather than office, power, or domination. Insult never stood alone in his teaching, but was always contextualized within a cogent point.

Jesus' way of name calling is very different from one who simply resorts to name calling most or all of the time with everyone who disagrees with him or her. Often, Jesus' discussions with various scribes are cordial, and he even tells one Pharisee that the man is close to the reign of God. He dines with some of them. He even tells people to do what the Pharisees say at times, recognizing that his opponents are not all wrong in everything they say and do.

A very important point about the way the Gospels record Jesus' using name calling is that he does so directly to the person he is challenging. It is one thing to criticise those in your own party, and another to criticize the other party while in your own party's meeting house. Jesus does not call people names as part of his preaching and teaching to his disciples. Rather, he does so only as he is speaking to the one he seeks to challenge. The conservatives in blogdom are usually preaching to the choir in their name calling.

Jesus avoids blanket statements and broad generalizations about groups of people, and directs his challenge at specific individuals. It is one thing to say Clinton is an idiot, and another to say Democrats are idiots. Jesus did not condemn every last Pharisee. We consider Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea among the communion of saints! Both were Pharisees. So was Saint Paul! Jesus does not say all Pharisees are sons of Satan. Rather, while speaking to a specific group, he says "You blind guides..." and points out the hypocricy of his hearer.

Conservatives seem to call people names who are doing exactly what the conservative does - such as exercising self-defense. This is the sin of hypocrisy. Jesus was never guilty of what he condemned in the Pharisees.

Another important point is that there were no such thing as "Pharisee bashers" among the Jews who snuck around and killed Pharisees. When Jesus is recorded as calling people names within historical context, he is not potentially inciting violent acts, because there were no groups acting violently against his opponents. Those with anti-semitic tendencies should bear this in mind when reading the Gospels. Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jews, and he was not encouraging violence.

When we call gays and lesbians "Nazis", we do risk inciting violence, because there are emotionally unstable people who go around beating up and killing gays. Gay bashing occurs almost daily in the United States.

Conservatives resort to name calling almost daily out here in blogdom. Jesus only resorted to name calling as a last resort. Conservatives call people the worst names imaginable at times (ie - Nazis), as though their opponents have nothing of merit to say. Jesus points out the good in his opponents even when he offers harsh critique.

I can't help but believe that Jesus, who could read the hearts of people, had the discernment to know when using this tactic would be most likely to produce its desired results - a change of heart in his opponents. Indeed, at one point, he calls Peter to a deeper conversion by referring him as Satan. This demonstrates that Jesus' intent was never to simply demonize, dehumanize, or belittle others, nor to make an example of them. Rather, he aimed to encourage conversion through his rhetoric. Even when Jesus' challenges go unheeded, I can't help but think his intent was conversion rather than belittlement.

Unless we have perfect Christ-like discernment of the hearts of others, it is best to exercise some humility and refrain from such name calling as much as possible. We'll all slip and sin, but it is probably best to admit our fault and stop doing it when it is pointed out.

I was criticized by some of Mark's readers in his comments because they said I did not say enough to condemn the unjust or shameful tactics of some gay activist. Let me say right here that I oppose all violence of any kind. Thus, I am opposed to the war in Iraq, the death penalty, and abortion too. I agree with conservatives that the tactics of threats and violence and vandalism are ineffective means for achieving the ends the gay activist seeks to achieve. But my discussion is not aimed at gay activists. I am criticizing the tactics of their opponents right now, and we need to stay focused!

To the conservative Catholic who believes in principles of self-defense, the death penalty, just war theory, and so forth, I say that gay activist meet the criteria you set forth in these beliefs. They simply cannot be condemned by your own standards. It is hypocritical to condemn self-defense by gays and lesbians. It is precisely this point that exposes why conservatives often feel forced to resort to name calling alone to combat the gay activist! Try dialoguing more rationally with your opponents instead of mis-using inflammatory language and name calling.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 12:15 PM

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