On Narrative

As noted, I’m reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan at the moment. One of the things he talks about early on is the narrative fallacy, which involves our need to create narratives and see patterns to explain the world around us. This seems a good chance to talk about the meaning and purpose of narrative.

There are two fallacies to fall into here; the first is the skeptical fallacy, which overrates randomness and attempts to eschew all narrative as illusionary impositions upon a fundamentally chaotic and meaningless world. This one is rather popular these days, at least in a superficial form.  

The other is the Narrative or what Taleb calls the ‘Platonistic’ fallacy, which involves being overly certain of a particular narrative, to the point where we ignore contradictory instances and assume that the narrative is the reality it describes. In this way we make false predictions and are caught off guard by what he terms ‘Black Swan’ events; major events that that narrative considered impossible or vanishingly unlikely, but which the actual course of events brought about.

Note that these fallacies, while directly contradictory, are often practiced by the same person, depending on how well his argument is holding up.

To settle the first fallacy first, one fundamental truth we must get straight if we are to think sense about reality is this: there is no such thing as randomness.

‘Random’ refers to a lack of knowledge, not to an actual cause. When we say a given event was random, it means that we either do not know the cause that led to it or that it was of a kind that we could not control or predict. Viewed ‘internally’, however, the event is as logical and predictable as any other. When you role a set of fair dice, the outcome is ‘random’ because the cause of their landing thus or thus is the force and angle with which they are thrown. A person with perfect muscle control could, theoretically, cause the dice to land anyway he wanted by providing just the correct force at just the correct moment.

Or, in another instance, say you are walking down a path in the woods and a dead branch drops off of a tree and hits you on the head. This is ‘random’ from your point of view. But if someone were watching that particular tree and knew its whole history – that is, if he had a correct narrative of the tree – he would understand that the branch had died at such a time and of such a cause and has been weakened in such a way that it necessarily would break under those circumstances.

What this amounts to is that the world around us is fundamentally ordered and logical; events do not happen in a vacuum nor come from nothing. The appearance of chaos is a consequence of our lack of knowledge. It is random to us on account of our limitations, but not on its own account. We have no experience of a truly ‘random’ event, an event severed from logical causation. Randomness does not and cannot produce a single event (which means that ‘luck-based powers’ are pretty much sheer nonsense, but that’s another story).

Sorry, Longshot

Therefore, everything that happens is, in fact, consistent, which means that meaning is derived from the world and not simply imposed upon it, however mistaken a particular interpretation may be. Though one derived meaning – one ascribed cause of the event – is false, yet there must be some cause and therefore some meaning.  

(Note: I have heard that events at the subatomic level appear to be uncaused and random. But this seems to me far too uncertain a proposition to taken into serious account. We cannot observe these events directly much less observe any sub-subatomic events or forces that may be influencing them. As a rule, things on the extreme edge of what we know ought not to be part of a philosophical discussion, since they must be speculative and unconfirmed. Moreover, to prove randomness seems to me impossible, as it would require us to disprove any logical causes. That is, to prove a negative).

The second fallacy is the rather more interesting one. As Taleb points out, we have a strong need to discern patterns and create narratives to explain the events around us. In part this is a survival mechanism; we immediately recognize certain images and sensations as danger signals (e.g. a snake) and react instinctively. That is, we have automatic thought patterns that run unconsciously, producing immediate emotional reactions. Something similar happens in habits, morals, and similar matters, as we noted earlier. Information is costly to acquire, costly to store, and costly to manipulate. Simply put, careful, logical thinking takes too much time and too much energy to practical most of the time, so our brains create little bundles of thought: pre-built conceptions and conclusions (rather like the objects in programming, or like the prepared spells in DnD) to make the process easier and to direct us in day-to-day activities.

So, it is one thing to study a snake and discern its nature; it is quite another to recognize ‘snake=danger=do not tread.’ But the two are not unrelated as we must first have some idea of a snake and that it may be dangerous before we can form that pattern at all (whether this idea is learned or comes ‘ready-made’ as instinct). Moreover, that pattern can be adjusted or overwritten by further understanding of snakes. All this goes back to what I was saying about habits and thought processes; it all comes down to how we think, including the immediate, unconscious thoughts that drive our emotions.  

Footage of the mind at work

Now, here we have to explain something about how we perceive the world. When we perceive a given object, there are two factors involved; the object itself and our idea of it, and the latter will always be less than the former. Our idea of, say, a tree is not the tree itself, but more in the nature of a diagram or summary of the tree that we create in our minds and can never comprise the entirety of the tree.

Beyond this, there is also a third factor: the words we use to describe it, which will likewise be inadequate to the idea, because the words are a representation of a representation. The skill of a Shakespeare or a Dante is inadequate to conveying, not just the thing itself, but even their own idea of a thing.  

Toward the end of his life, the great St. Thomas Aquinas had a vision of God and never wrote another word of his masterful ‘Summa’, saying that all his brilliant philosophizing was ‘as straw’ compared with the reality he had witnessed. Reality is always more than we can perceive, which is always more than we can describe.

This is actually fairly simple when you think about it; the tree that you perceive is an external nature unto itself regardless of whether you perceive it. You perceive it by its interactions with your senses, which form a composite idea of it in your mind, but since that idea is only derived from sensory impressions of the object, it is always less than the object, because our senses do not take in the totality of what they perceive.  

However, at the same time (and this is vital), a very inadequate diagram may still be an accurate diagram, as far as it goes, and may be more accurate than another. A crude picture of a tree may nevertheless be more like the tree than another, similarly crude drawing. Likewise, whether a summary of a book is adequate is a separate question to whether it is accurate. So, Nicholas Nickelby could be accurately summarized as “a naïve young man tries to make his way in the world while opposed by his wicked uncle.” It could not be summarized as “The vengeful form of a drowned child preys upon visitors at an old summer camp.”  

Pictured: Not Nicholas Nickelby

Nor, incidentally, would it be accurate to summarize Nickelby as “a young man takes up with a provincial theater company.” Because while that does happen in the book, it is not the main thrust or point of the story, but only one incident among many. The first summary would give you a better idea of what the book is about than the latter. This even though the latter is more specific to something that happens.

An accurate summary, therefore, encompasses the object as a whole, not a specific element of it, and though it is necessarily less than the object itself, it may be a more or less true image of it.

A ‘narrative’ is our image or summary of a series of events, up to and including the history of the world. It is the pattern that we describe within those events. A scientific theory, for instance, is a narrative to describe observed natural phenomena. We look at fossils and create the narrative of evolution to explain them. We look at the motions of the planets and create the narrative of the solar system.

But, as was pointed out by Aristotle and Aquinas and dramatically demonstrated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these narratives are always contingent upon the unknown. If an observation is made that contradicts the narrative, then either the narrative is inadequate or even false or the observation itself is mistaken.

As noted above, people instinctively form narratives, and they ought to because everything does have a true narrative to it. Randomness is not a cause, which means that every event is causally linked, which is to say part of a narrative. The example of the tree branch that falls on your head was part of the narrative of that tree’s existence, which had a beginning, middle, and will have an end. If you knew that tree intimately, the branch breaking under just those circumstances would not be at all surprising to you.

Likewise, the whole world does proceed on a narrative, though it is one of immense complexity far beyond our capacity to understand in its totality (I can only wonder at people who believe they have discerned the pattern of human society to the extent that they can control or re-engineer it).

Put simply; there is an objective narrative or pattern to reality. Our conception of it will never be adequate or even anything like it, but it may be more or less accurate.

The necessary inadequacy of our perceptions and consequently of the narrative pattern we discern is the source of what Taleb calls the Black Swan event; the unexpected but impactful event that is understandable in retrospect, but not in prospect. Because what we perceive is not the totality of what is there, and the narrative we create from that perception is even further removed from what is actually present. So there are always currents of events happening of which even the most astute observer is unaware.

There are couple things to derive from this. To me, the more I read of The Black Swan the more it seems to me to be Dame Fortuna re-ascendant. This lady loomed large in the Medieval imagination, thanks in part to Boethius, and with her wheel or ball was held to be the mistress of this world; whether triumph or adversity, sickness or health, prosperity or penury came upon one was considered due less to one’s efforts and more to the whims of Fortune. But the point was that her gifts were ephemeral and worthless to begin with; don’t go chasing after the strumpet, but seek wisdom and virtue and other goods that were outside her power.

I would like to go into it more someday, but it seems to me that Christians found this image so appealing in part because there is an element of uncertainty and the incomplete knowledge of the world baked into the Christian claim. The very nature of Revelation grounds the most important points of reference beyond our own knowledge and asserts right at the foundation that we do not and cannot know everything about the world (this, by the way, is why “it’s not in revelation” is not a valid argument against the existence of ghosts, fairies, or aliens).

Setting those weightier matters aside for the time being; remember that patterns of thought determine emotional responses and actions. Narratives are the framework within which we create those patterns. Therefore the narrative by which someone understands the world plays a large role in how he will feel and act. Most of us have a dozen contradictory narratives exercising petty dictatorships over different aspects of our lives.

And the thing about narrative, as Taleb points out, is that it is very rarely subject to intellectual attack, even if by its own lights it should be (note how strongly scientists will cling to their pet theories in the teeth of contradictory evidence). It could be, but only if the subject himself tries to change it. Narratives and thought patterns, those ‘prepared spells’ of the mind are not subject to external control. An addict or a criminal has to want to change and has to be willing to put in the effort to change his own thinking.

But, though intellectual attacks don’t usually work, something else does. Just as only a diamond can cut a diamond, so the best weapon against a narrative is another narrative. When I look at most of the big ideas of the past few centuries (e.g. Liberalism, Marxism), I find the intellectual basis is often very weak indeed. Marxism, for instance, rests on the blatantly contradictory idea that a ‘worker’ somehow remains a worker whatever his actual role in society becomes (among other bits of self-evident nonsense). But they have extremely appealing narratives; the oppressed masses rising up and casting off their chains to take control of their own destiny or free and equal men creating a utopia of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This is why things like Marxism persist despite its horrific track record; the narrative is both powerful and deeply ingrained in the public psyche (It doesn’t help that its current main adversary – ‘classical’ liberalism or libertarianism – employs much the same narrative of oppressed masses rising against their evil overlords, though that is too large a subject to get into here).  

This is what gives these and other ideas their power and influence, not any intellectual or observational support. That, in fact, often comes later and is celebrated precisely because it supports the narrative. “Great ideas” are usually not the source but the consequence of particular narratives (e.g. the theory of evolution did not create the narrative of progress; the belief in progress elevated evolution to its current quasi-religion status. The narrative came first and embraced the science to support itself).

So, to contradict false narrative, we must provide true(er) narrative. Intellectual arguments are primarily important, as far as changing minds go, in lending support to that narrative once it already exists.  

Again, this is why storytelling is so vitally important; the pattern of a story helps to create a narrative in the mind of the audience. This is all the more effective because, the world being as complicated as it is, you can always find real-world examples to back up any narrative you want to create. So, when you have a myopic, warmongering general trying to weaponize the peaceful scientist’s research, you can always say “well, there are people like that,” sidestepping the question of whether this is an accurate narrative about how the military works as a whole and what values and perceptions are being inculcated in the process. Likewise for your standard intolerant Christian browbeating the innocently brave homosexual, or the white cop abusing the innocent Black man. If you have any familiarity with modern fiction you can probably come up with a dozen examples for each of these. As noted before, this is exactly why the Soviet government spent millions of dollars a year funding agents in Hollywood; control fiction and you control the narrative.

This is why I call something like The Last Jedi an evil film; a large part of it is dedicated to tearing down and destroying the heroic narrative of the original trilogy as embodied by Luke Skywalker, re-shaping the pattern to make him a cowardly old man who ruined everything because he had to be in charge. The narrative being “heroes of the past are worthless; you special person today are the only thing that matters and you can outshine them without even trying,” along with a bunch of others of similar vintage. I probably could do an essay about how well that film embodies the current Progressive mindset, probably better than the filmmakers intended (e.g. it shows how shallow, stupid, and myopic it really is).

But if someone embraces that narrative, if it is inculcated into their heart, then that person is made worse for the fact.

On the other hand, the original Star Wars crafts a narrative of “faith in a higher power and personal loyalties are ultimately stronger than any technological terror or tyrannical government,” among other, similar ideas. Someone who embraced that narrative would be made better for the fact.

Which is the point; it is incumbent on storytellers to try to leave their audience better people than when they found them. That is, to write so that if someone were to take their narrative to heart, it would make them a better person. Needless to say, this is a grave responsibility (and includes the necessity of knowing what constitutes ‘better’ in the first place).

Very clearly, the world around us stands in grave need of better and truer narratives. It’s long-past time to start providing them again.

On the Purpose of Fiction

Actions are largely driven by emotional responses, which in turn are created by thoughts.

Now, a man may, of course, act a given way through cool reflection: because he sees it is the thing to do. But he will not do so reliably. The head rules the hands through the heart. A man becomes moral or immoral when he reliably acts a certain way, which he does because he has an instinctive visceral reaction to the event. That is to say, a habit of thought; he runs through the pattern “I see X. X means Y. The proper response to Y is Z” without even having to be aware of it. “I could look at that man’s cards. That is cheating. A gentleman does not cheat. If I were to do that, I would not be a gentleman.” The man for whom this has become a clear conviction would be only vaguely aware of this thought process, but would feel the emotional revulsion to the idea of cheating at cards.

The thing is, it is the ‘a gentleman does not cheat’ that gives the thought its power. A philosophical dissertation on why cheating is wrong may be useful, but it creates little in the way of emotional power. For most people, the argument for why cheating is wrong simply will not fit into a pattern of thought; it’s too complex and requires too many other ideas. Besides which, ideas and actions do not quite overlap. It is one thing to define cheating, it is another to know it when you see it. The will and the intellect are separate faculties.

Therefore, the best way to translate a moral idea into the will is often to frame it in a concrete image.

This is why children tend to follow what their parents do rather than what they say. Words are just words; they are a step removed from the will. But actions are an expression of the will, and so are easier and more natural to imitate.

Most of our moral instruction, therefore, is based on imitation, whether of people we meet in real life or people we have presented before us as examples (much of the rest depends on platitudes or proverbs; easily repeatable thought patterns). We see the example and, based on how it is presented and how it seems to fit into our understanding, we have a certain emotional response; the figure is presented to us as admirable and attractive and so we form the thought “such-and-such an action is like what so-and-so does, therefore it is positive.”

This principle, of course, reaches its highest form in Our Lord Himself, who presents the ultimate image of what we ought to imitate. The next step from there are the Saints, who present concrete examples of what that imitation looks like (indeed, in a sense all moral behavior is imitation of Christ one way or another). Then we have historic, legendary, and cultural heroes, while the most basic example is imitation of the people around us.

At the same time, and built into all of this, is the idea of narrative; the pattern we detect in events and the meaning we discern from that pattern. The actions of exemplary figures, such as Christ or national heroes, is exemplary primarily due to the narrative surrounding them. We regard Winston Churchill as a hero because we understand the narrative as being the forces of liberty and civilization triumphing over barbarism. If we read it as a stubborn Capitalistic-Reactionary standing against and thwarting the destiny of the German people, we would have a very different view of the man, though we may still admire his courage and wit. In any case, the narrative creates the impression of what is admirable and what is not.

As indicated by the example, a narrative may be nearer or farther from the truth, which must be determined on quite different grounds (obviously the mere fact of being a narrative says nothing of its truth or falsehood). But the narrative provides a framework within which we find the concrete illustrations of moral principles. That whole topic will probably require an essay in itself.

Which brings us to fiction, which is the deliberate creation of a concrete moral image within a narrative. Almost like a diagram or drawing of values.   

Something that is often overlooked in discussions of people is the simple fact that human beings exist in time. Their nature is expressed over the course of a sequence of events, and in the context of other events that have taken place. A man logically implies a family, a community, a nation, a culture, and a history (thus the Incarnation of God as man logically includes a nation and culture for Him to be incarnate into, which is one reason the Old Testament cannot be simply ignored). The image of a man properly speaking is an image in time and in the context of events. Thus the proper image of a moral idea must likewise be the image of a series of events.  

Hence the human art of storytelling to provide that image, context, and the accompanying emotional response.

The latter is important, because we don’t only have to see the idea acted out, we have experience a proper emotional reaction to it. A positive emotion to a good image and a negative to bad one.

Again, a gentleman does not cheat. We are presented with an attractive figure of a gentleman, who does things that we naturally like. Say, he is shown to be courageous or kind to children. Then we see that when offered the opportunity to cheat, he turns away in disgust because that is not what a gentleman does. It is part of the moral idea we are presented with that cheating is no part of it. The image would be made more effective if his refusal to cheat led to hardship or sacrifice of some kind.

There was a Lois and Clark episode that actually did this very scenario; where Clark was playing cards with Perry, Lois, and Jimmy and losing badly. He’s sorely tempted to use his x-ray vision to cheat, but he refrains because that’s not what Superman does.

The idea is that the course of events, the narrative, will create the emotional response “this kind of behavior is good; it is what I would like to be” and “this kind of behavior is bad; I don’t want to be like that.” Then in the real world, you mentally associate similar situations with the events you saw or read or heard in the story, prompting a similar emotional response. “This is like when Clark had the opportunity to cheat, but he chose to be honest instead. I want to be like Clark, so I don’t want to cheat.”

The actual thought passes in an instant, but it gives you the visceral response that prompts you to want to act this way or not to act that way.

Now, just as complex ideas are composed of simpler ones and complex arguments are links of axioms, so the language of stories is composed of basic visceral responses. Kindness and Courage, for instance. Beauty is another one; we naturally want to sympathize with someone beautiful. So is humor; an amusing character can remain likable beyond any reason (e.g. Loki in the MCU, or Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon). So, all things being equal, we make the figures whom we want people to like beautiful, kind, courageous, and amusing. We make the ones we want people not to like ugly, cruel, cowardly, and dour. Likely not all in one, since they need to be effective enough to create a story, but we send clear signals that you do not want to be like this person.

Hence, Christians in modern fiction are almost always humorless scolds at best, because we naturally do not like that kind of person or want to be like them. Therefore, we experience a visceral reaction against that figure.

(I rather think the general inertia of modern Christians is due, at least in part, to this effect, reacting against the figures portrayed both in fiction and supposed non-fiction: sheer repetition of negative images of Christians creates it as a pattern of thought in our mind. When faced with standing up for ourselves and the truth, we automatically think in terms of “that kind of Christian” and instinctively react against it. Basically, we’ve had a form of depression imposed upon us).

This pattern is clearest in the old fairy tales. Cinderella is an impoverished noblewoman forced to act as a servant to her wicked stepsisters and stepmother. But because she remains humble and kind, she is rewarded with a supernatural grace which marks her out and which eventually elevates her far above them. We viscerally sympathize with Cinderella because 1. She is beautiful, 2. She is kind, and 3. She is being treated unjustly. Even simply laying those out: “Cinderella is a beautiful and kind girl who was treated unjustly” is enough to evoke a simple moral response and to make us think “I am on her side.” Taken as a whole, the story creates the moral response “it is good to be patient and humble in the face of adversity and injustice” (incidentally, this is why I think the live action Cinderella is one of the few Disney remakes that actually works; because it’s simply a straight-forward telling of the story).

Lily James in Cinderella (2015)

Obviously, not many stories are quite as simple as that. There are usually quite a few and complex responses being conveyed by a given story or set of characters, even in a relatively straightforward story. If you take something like a Honeymooners episode, for instance, you have the specific plot of the episode; say, the Christmas one where Ralph ends up selling his new bowling ball to get Alice the present she wants, conveying the idea of generosity. But you also have the whole dynamic of Ralph and Alice’s abrasive, but loving relationship, Ralph and Ed’s friendship, and the give-and-take of their working-class existence. The show makes us sympathize with the Kramdens, even as we laugh at their antics, and makes us want to imitate them to an extent (e.g. being good-hearted like Ralph or patient-but-sharp like Alice).

The Honeymooners (1955)

Things grow more sophisticated and more complicated with meatier stories. Emma could be summed up as a story about overcoming vanity and the assumption that one knows what is best for others (which is itself a pretty sophisticated idea to impart), but there’s a great deal more going on at the same time, such as snobbery, presumption, patience with the irritating and ridiculous, affairs of the heart, matters of honesty, and so on. The ideas conveyed are subtler and more sophisticated, but once again they are conveyed, even if the reader doesn’t recognize them. We come away hoping to avoid being as vain and snobbish as Emma is in her worst moments and hoping to be as compassionate, sensible, and loyal as she is in her best.

Romola Garai in Emma (2009)
2009 BBC version is the best adaptation, btw

So, I would argue, the primary purpose of fiction is to inculcate moral responses through vicarious emotions.

When I say primary purpose, I don’t, of course, mean that this is what necessarily what anyone who sets out to write a story has in mind. They may not have thought of the matter at all. Nor do I mean that any given story might not be primarily intended by its creator to do something else.

My point is that this is what stories in fact do whether they do anything else. They create an emotional response through the actions of the characters, with the response being either positive or negative, forming patterns of thought that incline us this way or that. It may be a very small effect, it may be a great one, but unless the story has utterly failed as a story – not just as a bad story, like Captain Marvel but to the point where you can’t really take it as a ‘story’ at all, like Octaman – it will not be nothing.

(Not to digress too far, but this is a point to be clarified; there is a difference between a bad story and a work that doesn’t really even function as a story, just as there is a difference between bad acting and non-acting. It is the difference between a book where the characters are carboard, the plot makes no attempt at consistency, and the dialogue is all cliché and a book where the grammar and spelling are so bad that it doesn’t actually convey any coherent narrative to your mind at all. Such books or films can be very entertaining, but not as stories).

This is why stories are so important; they inculcate values, and our values determine how we behave. They are not the only things that do this, as noted above, but they are very powerful tools in that regard. Just as a thousand word description of Audrey Hepburn would not have the same impact as a single photograph, so a five-page dissertation on the nature of courage will not have the same impact as a well-written ‘Conan’ story.

Audrey Hepburn in Green Mansions (1959)

And I would argue that popular, ‘light’ fiction, the pulps and ‘penny dreadfuls’ and children’s tales are perhaps the most important of all in this regard. Because there the emotional response has to be on point. The author can’t rely on reputation, or clever ideas, or stylistic elegance to make people want to read his work; he has to hit close to the basic, fundamental language of value. As Chesterton put it in his seminal work on the subject, “The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.”

Thus popular fiction, it seems to me, tends to be naturally reactionary in its values, regardless of the author’s intentions. It is here that kings and princesses thrive, great individual leaders take center stage, men are heavily masculine and women very feminine, and things like honor and courage and loyalty make up the major themes. Even when it preaches revolutionary doctrine, a work of popular fiction most often needs to have traditional values at its core in order to make people pay attention. Harry Potter, for instance, has some trendy talk of tolerance and racism and so forth, but these lie on the surface of a story about dueling ancient families, the legacy of fathers, friendship, honor, loyalty, and love, with damsels to be rescued and monsters to be slain. Even something as crude as the Friday the 13th series ultimately rests on the idea of punishment for transgressions and the past rising up to strike those who do not respect it. The author may intentionally create a progressive or radical scenario or character, but only intentionally, and the traditionalist values remains the default perspective, because that is how such stories work. Sure, Joss Whedon can have a whole episode of Firefly painting prostitution as triumphantly feminist, but he’s still going to have Kaylee being kidnapped and menaced by the villain of the week every other episode and showing off Mal’s patriarchal authority because that is what makes for an interesting story of this type.

Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox
What? No, this essay isn’t just an excuse to post pictures of beautiful women.

In short, popular fiction, I would argue, is one of the strongest bulwarks of traditional values. Simply put, they can’t afford to be otherwise. Not unless those values have been thoroughly extricated from the audience.

For herein also lies the danger; popular fiction, like Minas Tirith, is a mighty fortress, but it is not invincible. And if it is taken, then the situation really is desperate. Why do you think the Soviets spent millions of dollars a year funding Communist agents in Hollywood? They understood that even a little evil slipped into popular fiction would, if done consistently, be more effective in transforming the west than reams and reams of direct propaganda. Because the fiction creates the values, and the values determine which side someone will and will not listen to in the first place. We come to naturally associate one person with the evil racists or heartless fat cats we see all the time in films and books, and the other person with the poor innocent whom they insult and oppress, and the argument is over before it begins. We don’t even look long enough to notice that the former does real good for real people while the latter is narcissistic to the point of insanity. We see the pattern and react automatically according to the value judgments inculcated, in part, by the fiction we consume.

This is why popular fiction must be taken very seriously, and all efforts to remove or alter classic works must be strenuously resisted. This is also why it is so important that new and vibrant authors of good will to produce good work and we the audience should be seeking out and supporting such works. If our culture is sick because it’s been drinking polluted water, then the thing to do is to provide clean water. Or at least good beer.  

First Post up at ‘The Everyman’

My first post is up at the new Catholic / Conservative commentary site The Everyman, which you definitely should check out. It’s only a week or two old, but there’s some good stuff there.

In our day, of course, telescopic charity has never been easier. We have television and the internet to bring us tales of want and injustices from all corners of the world to stir our heartstrings. Of course, sometimes this brings real help and attention to people who genuinely need it and who would never have received it otherwise. But there is another side to it, and it’s one that I think is too little addressed.

The fact is that modern media creates an illusion of immediacy where none in fact exists. It has a tendency to fixate our attention, whether in sympathy or anger, on people thousands of miles away whom we have never met and whom we in fact have no contact with whatsoever. But, because we so often hear about them and hear them debated endlessly on the news, we can come to feel like we are involved, and that we must show ‘charity’ to one side or another.

But such ‘charity’ typically doesn’t result in any concrete action for good or evil. As C.S. Lewis pointed out in one of The Screwtape Letters, love and hatred for distant public figures or the people we see on the news is largely imaginary; we do not know these people, they are “lay figures out of newspapers.” As private citizens, our scope for doing either good or ill to them is effectively non-existent. Outside those immediately present, not one person out of a thousand is actually going to have any effect on, say, missionary work in Africa or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor does voting or campaigning change this; it may or may not be a good thing to do, but again any one person’s scope of action and consequent responsibility in these matters is so narrow as to not exist.

Read the rest here.

On Moral Ambiguity

“There are precious few at ease / with moral ambiguities / so we act as though they don’t exist.”

That’s a lyric from the show Wicked, in which the Wizard – here portrayed as wholly a bad guy, rather than an ultimately harmless ‘humbug’ – sings about why he deceived the ignorant and superstitious people of Oz. I find that rather funny: here is a character who is thoroughly villainous, singing to another character who is thoroughly virtuous about how morally ambiguous their situation is. This in a play that is almost painfully black-and-white in its ideas of morality. The ‘ambiguity’ is simply that a character who, in the context of the story, is considered a good guy by most people is actually a bad guy and vice-versa.

I was never that impressed with Wicked as a story (the music’s very good, though), partly because it is so very one-note. Elphaba is a good girl whose only flaw is that her attempts to do good always backfire, and to whom the world is completely unfair for no other reason than that she has green skin. She never accomplishes anything of note, nor, apart from precisely one song, does she ever come close to cutting the impressive figure of the Wicked Witch of the West, to the point where you have to wonder why anyone is afraid of her (even if it’s propaganda, why would the corrupt government try to build up someone who is in fact so thoroughly ineffectual?). She even needs to be rescued by her boyfriend at one point, mostly because she doesn’t actually know how to do magic; she simply has ill-defined powers she doesn’t understand due to circumstances outside her control (Why is this show considered ’empowering’ again?). Meanwhile, the Wizard is completely villainous, though equally unimpressive, while Glinda is only character who could seriously be called ‘ambiguous’ just because she’s too shallow and ditzy to do the right thing until the very end, when she abruptly grows a spine. And the people of Oz are portrayed as complete hypocrites or superstitious morons, ignorantly confident in their own rectitude while viewing the world through the narrowest and most empty-headed of lenses.

There are a lot of ways to describe this, but a depiction of moral ambiguity isn’t one of them.

This is something I notice a lot in modern fiction: modern writers always seem so confident that they are more realistic and complex and full of ‘moral ambiguity’ than stories from the past, when it’s most often quite the reverse. All they do is portray figures who were generally shown to be good before as being evil and vice versa and call that moral ambiguity, or realism, or some such thing.

For a good example of what I mean, compare the original King Kong with Peter Jackson’s remake. In the latter film, Kong is almost entirely a positive character. Sure, he’s implied to have killed many people before, and he kills many people here (the film is extremely inconsistent in its tone), but he’s never really portrayed as wrong for doing so. Ann stops being afraid of him pretty quickly, and she’s completely on his side by the midway mark. Meanwhile, Denham is, if not evil, at the very least a very unsympathetic character; a thoroughly myopic buffoon who causes most of the problems of the film and continually endangers the people around him while doing little or nothing to redeem himself. The same with the ‘human world’ of 1930s New York, which is pretty much played completely as something to be despised.

Now, in the original it was different. Kong was neither the good guy nor the bad guy, he was simply a wild animal; magnificent and sympathetic at times, but always dangerous and unpredictable. Ann never stopped fearing him, for the very good reason that, even though Kong protects her and seems to love her after his own fashion, he’s still a very dangerous creature with little idea of consequence or morality (as shown in the scene where he curiously starts stripping her clothes off). Moreover, his compassion extends only to Ann; everyone else he pretty much kills without a second thought (including a random innocent woman he mistakes for Ann). We sympathize with Kong, but he’s not portrayed as a positive force.

Denham is also a more ambiguous character. Like Kong, he is admirable in his own way, but also rather dangerous. He’s willing to expose other people to danger, but he’s also always going to do what he can to protect them (note his story about the cameraman and the rhino). He takes massive risks, but he isn’t callous about his people, and he’s perfectly willing to put his own life on the line for Ann’s sake (in fact, everyone of the crew practically jumps at the chance to run to her rescue, to the point that they have to turn people down). Yes, he makes a huge mistake in bringing Kong to civilization, but he does it for understandable motives and he at least tries to avoid any unnecessary risks, warning the reporters off when their flashbulbs enrage the monster (in the remake, Denham urges them on to take more photos).

In short, Denham in the original is a basically good man carried away by hubris. Denham in the remake is a callous moron who carelessly gets people killed. Kong in the original is a magnificent, but dangerous wild animal tragically destroyed by his encounter with civilization. Kong in the remake is a victim of the myopic greed of men in the benighted past.

Or take another example: in the original Mighty Joe Young we had the character of Max O’Hara (also played by Robert Armstrong), the show promoter who convinces Jill Young to sign a contract bringing Joe to the States to put him on stage. When she decides she’s had enough, he promises her that after one more show they’ll send Joe home…then keeps pushing the final show back further and further to squeeze a little more cash out of him, until Joe finally snaps and goes on a rampage.

Now, in a modern film, O’Hara would almost certainly be portrayed as thoroughly bad guy: a heartless corporate suit whose only concern was money. But he isn’t: he’s genuinely a decent, kind-hearted man (we see him defending one of his cigar girls from some loutish drunks) who was simply carried away by greed. After things fall apart, he comes to his senses and puts everything on the line to make amends.

That is real moral ambiguity: fundamentally decent people doing bad things because they were tempted or carried away in the moment or because it ‘seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Or ultimately positive forces (such as the civilized world in the original Kong) committing grave errors or being forced by circumstances to destroy something magnificent because there’s no other way.

Wicked has no moral ambiguity; it’s just a good person being ostracized because the people around her are mostly horrible, then ineffectually opposing a corrupt government and bigoted populace. It is only the fact that these characters are ostensibly ones we know from another source where they played different roles that makes it appear to be anything else (ditto for Maleficent).

And this is pretty much how most of the supposed ‘realism’ and ‘ambiguity’ works in contemporary fiction: take a label that the writer imagines means “good guy” for the audience and slap it onto the villain. So, the ‘ambiguity’ is that the police officer is corrupt, or the priest is a hypocrite, or the US Military is evil (was anyone surprised in Daredevil when the Punisher’s former commander turned out to be a bad guy? Does anyone actually expect Muslim extremists – rather than evil veterans – to be behind terrorist attacks in contemporary fiction?).

In fact, of course, this is actually far more one-note and black-and-white than older fiction tended to be. In The Longest Day, for instance, there’s a scene where a US soldier guns down some Germans trying to surrender because he didn’t know what ‘Bitte! Bitte!’ meant (it means ‘please! please!’). That doesn’t mean the Americans are suddenly the bad guys and the Germans the good guys. It doesn’t even mean that this particular soldier suddenly becomes unsympathetic; it’s just one of the tragic mistakes that happens during a war (The Longest Day has a lot of that sort of thing: these days it probably would be condemned for being too sympathetic to the Nazis). Likewise, there’s the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Sam wonders whether the dead Haradrim soldier was really evil after all, or whether he was just a normal person who would much rather have stayed home.

Now, both The Longest Day and The Lord of the Rings are fairly ambitious and sophisticated works, but as the examples from King Kong and Mighty Joe Young show, this extended to lighter fare as well. Just consider, say, The Mummy, where Imhotep is a monster, but also somewhat sympathetic in his deathless love. Or the way Creature from the Black Lagoon created sympathy for the murderous Gill Man, far more so than for at least one of the human characters, who is nevertheless mourned when he gets killed and goes down in the process of partially redeeming himself. Or take The Thing From Another World, where the obsessive Dr. Carrington’s insane actions are discretely erased from the record after the monster is defeated.

I could go on; the point is that I see much more genuine moral ambiguity in old works of fiction that came from a real understanding of right and wrong than in modern works that self-consciously try to be ‘edgy’ or ‘subversive’.

Why Relativism is Intolerant

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help noticing that people who argue that truth or morality are relative tend to be much more intolerant than those who adhere to the idea of objective values. The tolerance they boast of is purely specific: that they don’t object to certain given acts (e.g. homosexuality) that traditionalists do. Like Father Brown pointed out, they only forgive sins that they don’t really think sinful. Against real differences in philosophy, principle, or even politics, relativists tend to be the most narrow-minded and intolerant people you will ever meet.

Thinking about this the other day, I realized that it makes perfect sense that this should be so. Because when you remove a topic from the realm of objectivity, you introduce a factor that wasn’t there before: choice. If something is merely a matter of taste or individual preference, then the question of why you have this particular taste or preference enters in.

If ethics are a thing like mathematics: a matter of reason, then two people may disagree on ethical questions, but if they both believe in objective value then they will not (unless they are arguing in bad faith) assume that the other’s ideas are a matter of arbitrary choice which he could have chosen otherwise if he wished. They will think that each is working off of the best he knows, and in any case that the truth is something impersonal and exterior to both. Moreover, if value is objective then understanding and applying it is a matter of skill and aptitude: differences in which are only to be expected.

However, once you make morals subjective, so that each person chooses his own and no one’s is better than anyone else’s, then if someone has a moral objection to your conduct the question arises “why do you choose this moral value if you know it’ll hurt me? In fact, what does it say about you that you have such taste? There must be a reason, and the reason must be in you.”

In other words, subjective value puts all the onus on the person who holds a given value system rather than on the system itself, because it contains the idea that each person chooses his values and could choose otherwise if he wished. Thus if someone objects to, say, homosexuality, it is not because he sees by reason that it is morally wrong and believes it in the impersonal way he understands mathematical formulas, it is because he personally hates people who act that way and wants to hurt them for some pathological reason. It is not a matter for debate or reason (you can’t reason people out of tastes), but merely for condemnation. There is no space for mutual respect for someone trying to follow the best he knows even if you think him mistaken (as Grant honored the Confederates even if he thought their cause “one of the worst for which men ever fought”): the fact that he chooses to hold this shows him to be a fundamentally evil person. If he weren’t, he would think like me, because I know that I am good.

I notice most modernist ideas produce the exact opposite effect that they claim to intend.

 

Establishing Morality

In addition to establishing setting, character, and plot, it is important, when writing a story, to establish morality. That is, to make sure the audience will consider your protagonists to be on the right side and your antagonists on the wrong. It needs to feel that the protagonists deserve to win.

Obviously, this is not the case in every story: you can have one where both sides are wrong, or the protagonist is a villain, or so on. Only, if you do that, you still need a reason why people should care what happens.

For a simple example of this being done well, I offer the episode Rooting for the Enemy from Milo Murphy’s Law. The idea of this one is that Milo – a middle-school boy cursed with absurdly bad luck – decides to help out his school football team by rooting for the other team, ensuring that his bad luck rubs off on them. It’s a funny premise, but the problem is that this does look a little like cheating. By imposing his abysmal luck on the opposing team, isn’t Milo unfairly influencing what is after all just a game?

The show sidesteps this in a clever and amusing way: they establish that the opposing school is already cheating, since they’ve been purposefully failing all their best football players for years until their team is basically made up of “a group of angry adults.” Not only is that cheating, but it’s a lot meaner than anything Milo does, putting his team in an impossible and rather dangerous position. So, when Milo plays unfair, he does so to redress a much worse unfairness that the other team has done.

This device also serves to one, give Milo a reason to be at the game in the first place (the team specifically asks him to stay away, as his bad luck inevitably spoils their chances, but since they’re obviously going to lose they give him permission to come this time) and two, put his team into a position that would require Milo’s intervention to extract them.

Now let’s look at an example of this done badly: the episode The Mysterious Mare-Do Well from My Little Pony (yes, My Little Pony has its share of bad episodes). The premise is that Rainbow Dash, after receiving praise for saving ponies in need, becomes even more self-absorbed than usual, to the point of being arrogant and careless. Her friends then show her up by creating a masked hero who is better than her at everything, forcing her to confront her bad behavior.

The major problems here are one, that the other ponies never tried simply talking to Rainbow Dash about her behavior, and two, that Rainbow didn’t do anything wrong. The worst you could say is that she was getting careless and rude, but she was still helping people. Also, Rainbow becomes seriously depressed and upset over the situation (she has a history of emotional fragility), but still the others don’t simply tell her what’s going on and even rub it in her face at one point, which is frankly a lot meaner than anything Rainbow does (all the more so because, when they do tell her what’s happening at the end, it takes her all of two seconds to agree with them, meaning the whole rigmarole was unnecessary). It’s jarringly out of character for them to behave this way, and frankly our sympathies are entirely with Rainbow Dash. The episode failed to justify the actions of the ‘good’ characters relative to the actions of the ‘bad’ character.

The Milo episode works because the writers recognized the potential moral pitfall and carefully turned what could have been a liability into an asset, making the story stronger and raising the stakes. The plot device of the other team cheating by keeping their players into adulthood both provides the conflict and justifies Milo’s actions. One side is cheating in a way that could cause real harm, so Milo rectifies it by arguably cheating to help his friends.

The MLP episode doesn’t work because the writers failed to establish the conflict to the point that it would justify the heroines’ actions. This could have easily been solved by simply having a scene of Twilight confronting Rainbow Dash and having her blow her off and by having another scene where Rainbow Dash’s self-aggrandizement actually caused real problems, rather than just being annoying. Those two scenes would have pretty much salvaged the episode by putting the morality of the story on firmer grounds.

The point is that basic moral rules are as important in creating a good story as anything else. If the characters’ actions don’t fit the reaction we’re meant to have to them, the story won’t work.

Doctor Simon’s Remedy

There was a small town somewhere tucked back among the hills. The people there were much the same as everywhere; some beautiful, some ugly, most rather plain. Several would have been lovely if not for noticeable scars, and all got cuts and abrasions once in a while.

One day a traveling doctor rode into town upon a brightly colored wagon. He claimed to have the solution to all their problems of ugliness, pain, and scaring.

“The problem, my good people, is skin! Why is one person beautiful and the other ugly? Nothing but skin! Why are some left with scars from past mistakes while others are not? No fault of their own; it is all because of skin! Why do you suffer from cuts, bruises, and other painful abrasions? Skin, skin, skin! My solution will spare you forever from these ills, and will cost you not a penny. What is my solution, you say? Simplicity itself; remove the skin!

“Think about it; each one of us a squishy, flesh-coated skeleton, walking nightmares. When all are beautiful, no one is, and when all are ugly, ugly is beautiful. No more cuts, no more bruises, no more scars. Have you ever heard of muscle scaring? Or bone? A skinless world is an equal world, where none must suffer and each may face the world with a straight back and unafraid!”

His remedy was met with unexpected enthusiasm. Of course, those who were already beautiful, or who only rarely suffered from bruises and the like thought he was merely a quack, and those who were generally plain thought his idea interesting, but probably not worthwhile. The ugly and the scarred, however, flocked to his wagon. A man with a terrible scar running down his face volunteered to be the first.

Well, the remedy didn’t quite go off as expected. Having one’s face cut off is a rather unpleasant experience, and then of course the doctor had to stop after that because the poor man was bleeding all over the place. But Doctor Simon, as was his name, assured him that this was just a temporary reaction, and that he only need keep replenishing his blood with a supply he, Doctor Simon, would provide until the body accustomed itself to the lack of skin and then they could finish the procedure.

This man, Mr. Portnus, declared himself satisfied and left the tent praising the doctor’s skill while trialing a stand holding a large vial of blood hooked up to his veins. The town was shocked by his new appearance, but he and the Doctor insisted that was just a reaction to what was new; once more people had the procedure, everyone would soon come around.

And more and more people did get the procedure. Mrs. Sodor had the skin of her arm removed, Mr. Prasman had his leg stripped, even the Vicar went and had the skin of his chest removed. The more people who had the procedure, the more were interested in it. They all began speaking of how wonderful it would be when their bleeding stopped and they would be able to finish the procedure, so all the town would be skinless. Mothers had started to bring their children to have it done, and there was talk about training the school teacher to do it in class. It became something of a point of pride to have had part of your skin removed. Those who had been uncertain to begin with had it done just avoid being ostracized, and the beautiful people in town who weren’t interested at all and who still thought the whole thing horrible began to get a lot of nasty looks from their neighbors and to be snubbed by their friends. A few of them gave in and had the procedure done.

So things went on; almost the whole town went wrapped up in bandages and trailing vials of blood, thinking about how very clever they all were and how much better it was now that they didn’t have to worry about bruises and scars, and that the ugly and plain didn’t have to worry about their looks, and how horrible those who hadn’t gone through the procedure really were. So high and mighty, pleased with themselves, vain and snobbish.

True, a few people had bled to death, but that was own fault for not keeping their supply topped off, wasn’t it? And there did seem to be quite a few nasty infections going around, but that had always been the case and people were just more open about it. And, well, one had to pay the good doctor for another supply of blood every day, and there were a fair amount of bandages to be purchased, but that was the fault of the beautiful, wasn’t it? If they paid in, it’d all be cheaper for everyone. Besides, they were the ones going about saying you should stop going to Doctor Simon, that you shouldn’t have had your skin removed in the first place, and on and on, bothering the poor souls until they didn’t know what they were doing. They were morally responsible, really. If only they’d go along with it everyone would be fine and maybe then they’d stop bleeding at last.

Some of the few beautiful people left were saying that the rest of the town really ought to see another doctor and have their skin replaced. As if that were possible! You can’t go back, and anyway putting the skin back, even if you could, would surely result in some very nasty scarring, and the whole point of this procedure was to avoid scarring. They were saying the people should do it for their children, but sure it was much better just to give the children the procedure as soon as possible so they’d have the most time to adjust. That way the next generation would be able to fully enjoy the benefits of a skinless life!

Meanwhile, Doctor Simon had become by far the richest man in town. The few beautiful people left soon learned to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, lest they offend him and his servants. Even those who had had the procedure took care to always speak well of the Doctor. After all, if he took offense, where would they get the bandages and blood transfusions they needed? Even worse, he might not complete the procedure once the bleeding stopped.

And so the whole town took on rather a frightened air. No one would speak ill of the Doctor, and even a failure to praise him was looking on with suspicion. No one dared question the procedure publically, and as more and more people bled to death, or died of infection, everyone just sort of stopped talking about it. Better to focus on the wonderful things the Doctor’s procedure had brought them, rather than moon about what couldn’t be helped.

After all, one couldn’t go back.

The Land Before Time and the Proper Approach to Prejudice

Over the weekend I posted my first video review, of The Land Before Time. I discovered how time-consuming such things are to make, and so I wasn’t able to address everything I wanted to. In particular, I glanced over the film’s approach to prejudice, partly because it’s actually kind of a minor theme compared to its dealings of faith and love (Cera’s the only character who evinces any real bigotry), and partly because it’s not a subject that really interests me that much. Everyone and their dog talks about the evils of prejudice these days; that and global warming constituted the main bulk of my public school education. It’s gotten to the point where I think it actually does more harm than good: people are so sick of being lectured about the evils of racism that they actually start to wonder whether the racists have a point. At least, that’s my experience.

(And for  the record, no, the racists don’t have a point. In the first place, a cursory knowledge of history shows that virtue and excellence are to be found in every race under Heaven. In the second, the Christian faith is clear both in Scripture and Tradition that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, but all are the children of one God, made in His image and likeness. And finally, any differences in accomplishment observable between the children of Europe and the rest of the world are explicable culturally and vanish to the extent that that culture is expanded. That Christendom was long limited to Europe and hence to ‘white people’ is a historical accident brought about by the Muslim conquests).

Anyway, I oppose racism, but I also oppose our chosen method of combating it, which is to view everything through the lens of race and insist that some races are naturally racist and need to own that fact, which will somehow lead to racial harmony. In other words, we fight racism with racism. Call me crazy, but I always thought that would backfire.

(By the way, if whites are ‘born racist’ wouldn’t that, by LGBT logic, mean that racism is okay? I mean, if they can’t help the way they feel, that means there’s nothing morally wrong with it, right?)

What I would propose instead is something more like what’s shown in The Land Before Time, and was a popular notion before critical race theory became the order of the day. Cera’s an unrepentant bigot for most of the film. Littlefoot responds by trying to make friends with her. He doesn’t demand she change before he’ll have anything to do with her; he just tries to be as nice to her as he can, partly because that’s just the kind of person he is, and partly because he recognizes they’re in the same boat together. Even when she’s being a complete jerk, he still shows her kindness, as when she refuses the food they’ve gathered in favor of trying to get her own, and he just tosses her down some anyway.

I’ve always been of the opinion that prejudice and bigotry ought to be met with good-will and, well, tolerance. People don’t change their convictions overnight, and they’re not likely to change if you just arbitrarily demand they do so while constantly insulting them. Instead, it’s best to prove them wrong by your own actions. What changes Cera in the end is the fact that her friends do show her great kindness despite her bad attitude. She sees for herself that she was wrong because her friends have proven her wrong; that they’ll be there for her when she needs them, even if she won’t be there for them.

The point is that you can’t just demand someone change: you have to give them a reason to. Constantly telling someone he’s a horrible person who can never change is unlikely to inspire him to reform.

The Dangers of Attacking Hypocrisy

There’s nothing more popular these days, either in the Church or the surrounding culture, than attacking hypocrisy or moral pride: Pope Francis talks about it all the time, and slinging accusations of it back and forth has become something of a pastime among Catholics of differing traditions. Of course, the Other Side uses it as a “shut up criticism free” card whenever anyone dares to criticize their behavior or suggest that perhaps their way of life isn’t the most conducive to health and happiness.

I think this is a very dangerous state of affairs for the Church, and that we seriously need to downplay this kind of talk, especially with regards to one another.

fred_barnard07

“Seeing as I am so very ‘umble…”

In David Copperfield we have one of Dickens’s more interesting villains; Uriah Heep. Heep is a man of lower class and oily manners, constantly talking about how “’umble” he is and affecting submissive manners towards his social superiors. Before long, however, it becomes clear that Heep is an ambitious, selfish, amoral man whose humility is a blind that he uses to manipulate and control those around him. In fact, he loathes the rich, well-mannered, ‘respectable’ people, like Copperfield himself. He is eaten up with envy and considers all their good manners, morals, and ‘respectability’ to be nothing but pride and hypocrisy.

To take another literary villain, consider George Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, who blames Darcy for the ‘pride’ that led Darcy to refuse to continue supporting him after he had already given him several thousand pounds, which Wickham had squandered on immoral, lascivious, and idle living. Wickham likewise accuses Darcy’s sister of being proud because she had come to her senses in time to avoid being seduced by him. Basically, ‘proud’ to Wickham means ‘anyone who presumes to be more moral than is convenient to me.’

Now, neither Dickens nor Austen lacks for examples of real pride, snobbishness, and hypocrisy. In David Copperfield we have the merciless Murdstones, the snobbish Steerforths, and the cruel Mr. Creakle. In Pride and Prejudice we have the haughty Lady Catherine, the unctuous and ridiculous Mr. Collins (who is offended by Elizabeth’s refusal of his marriage proposal), and the snobbish and hypocritical Bingley sisters, who look down on everyone they consider below their circle, despite the fact that their money all comes from trade. But both authors had the moral subtlety to know that those who lack morals, or who are deficient in that line, very often compensate themselves and sooth their own self-loathing by accusing their superiors of being proud, hypocritical, and self-righteous.

So there is a great danger in warning against moral pride and self-righteousness; the danger is that it is extremely easy to accuse anyone with any morals of having that particular sin. Practically any act of virtue, prudence, or good-judgment is sufficient to render an accusation of self-righteousness plausible.

I’m not, of course, saying that there is no such thing as self-righteousness or that we shouldn’t be on guard against it. What I am saying is that we should be extremely hesitant to either make that accusation or believe one that is made by others. We should be very careful when and how we bring it up. To speak against clear, easily-defined sins is far safer (for our own spiritual wellbeing) and, without a doubt, far more needed in our current world.

Moreover, to speak against moral pride is easy; as I say, everyone does it, and everyone feels confident that they know someone who has it. Very few people feel ‘attacked’ by it (unless specifically directed at them), and those who do tend to be sufficiently morally aware not to resent it. Most of us, when we hear a lecture on moral pride, can take refuge in the assumption that we are decent people who bear no one any ill will (meaning that we feel fairly calm and amiable at the moment) and easily redirect the admonition to our neighbor who dared to lecture us on our parenting techniques the other day.

To speak against one of the favorite sins of the moment, such as fornication, pornography, laziness, self-indulgence, abortion, homosexuality, and so on, however, is another story. These are things that either you do or you don’t; if you do, you can’t hide from that fact by a pleasing self-assessment or fob it off as being directed at someone else. They are concrete facts, and your only two options are to reject the admonition outright (which is uncomfortable in itself) or to regret that you did such things. In either case, I believe it to be far more useful in awakening the conscience than attacks on hypocrisy and spiritual pride, though these may be the deadlier sins.

Now, I know some of you are thinking “But Jesus attacked hypocrites all the time! In fact, He was much harsher with them than with anyone else.” Yes, but we must remember two things: first, Jesus could look into men’s hearts and know that they were hypocrites: we can’t. Second, Jesus never hesitated to call out the more prosaic sins either, but these were more or less common knowledge at the time: everyone knew them. No one had to be told that stealing, fornication, adultery, and self-indulgence were wrong, but they did need to be told that a rotten interior life necessitated repentance as well. That is not the case of the modern world. Today, everyone knows the importance of the interior life, but comparatively few people know or understand the basic principles of practical wisdom. We don’t need to be told not to be hypocrites as much as we need to be told not to be selfish, greedy, lustful, and lazy. These days the story of the publican and the Pharisee would almost be reversed: the publican would pray “I thank you Lord that at least I am not a hypocrite like that Pharisee over there! I may steal, extort, sleep around, and laugh at my neighbors’ pain, but at least I’m not a hypocrite!”

This doesn’t mean we need to be ‘flinging accusations’ around or anything; only that when we talk about morality, we should focus on warning against the specific, unmistakable sins more than the vague, non-concrete ones. Not that we should ignore these (they are, as noted, among the most dangerous), but that we should be careful about how we approach them. Besides, a man only becomes aware of his spiritual pride by being aware of his real sins: if he’s able to ignore them, he likely won’t be aware of his own hypocrisy. To be aware that we commit real and disgusting sins regularly, and that we want to do so is to recognize that we are not a very fine person after all. To awaken a man to the obvious sins is also to awaken him to his pride. Not always, but I think far more often than a direct attack on spiritual pride does.

In short, to warn against hypocrisy is at least as dangerous as a simple condemnation of obvious sins. We should warn against both, but the latter should be much more the focus of our efforts, while the former should be approached with great caution lest we encourage the very thing we seek to cure.