Speaking of Enemies
David Mills on Good Men & Bad Opinions
The other day a friend sent me what he thought was an encouraging—or perhaps a convicting—message. It quoted G. K. Chesterton’s words in his Autobiography about his friendship with George Bernard Shaw. “I have argued with him on almost every subject in the world, and we have always been on opposite sides, without affectation or animosity. . . . It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend.” The writer continued:
They didn’t me. I think Chesterton’s natural charity, and his extraordinary innocence or naiveté, led him astray. In speaking of Shaw the way he did in the Autobiography and in other places, he said something untrue, which will have misled people who depended on his judgment.
Shaw was not a particularly admirable character, and Chesterton should not have let his listeners and readers think he was. And Shaw spoke for truly evil causes, eugenics and Stalinism, for two, and Chesterton should not have let his listeners and readers think these were views a good man could hold. He and Shaw were on opposite sides because Shaw was on the wrong side, and a side he should have known—must have, at some level, known—was wrong.
The problem here is the same as that raised by the pro-life leader who tells the press that he respects the abortionist—which I examined in “Nice Killers” in the January/February issue of Touchstone—but this writer asserts that we ought to say such things as a matter of principle. It is “a higher, and a better, way” to speak well of bad men.
I can understand a pro-life leader, having to answer a reporter’s loaded question, and knowing that all the propagandists of darkness are waiting for any excuse to declare all pro-lifers to be fanatics and murderers, saying more than he ought to have said. I cannot understand someone who has the time to reflect on the matter, urging other Christians to lie.
To praise your opponents is not a “higher way” if they do not deserve praise. It is a lower way, because it is lying—or in Chesterton’s case, and in the case of many who think this way, sincere and naive misjudgment, which is no less wrong and no less misleading because sincere and naive. It is true that we ought not to impugn others’ motives and character when arguing with them, but it is not true that we ought to praise them instead.
To make the question practical: Would we want President Bush to speak about Bill Clinton or Al Gore as Chesterton spoke about Shaw? Would not such praise of men like them indicate either politically motivated dishonesty or considerable moral insensitivity?
For some reason, many modern people feel the need to personalize arguments, so that the only way to avoid abuse is praise. The classic rules of debate avoided this problem. The debater argued the points at hand without making any judgments one way or the other about his opponent. His opponent might be a saint or a villain, but the debater’s sole task was to prove him wrong with argument and evidence. One could have a gentlemanly argument with a good man or a bad man—though after the argument, one might invite the first for lunch and escort the second politely to the door, while keeping him away from one’s daughters and one’s silverware.
The debater will only rarely comment on his adversary’s character, and I think usually only when the other has invited it. When, for example, in arguing with an apologist for sexual disorder, the apologist insists that his own sexual experience proves the need for greater freedom, the debater can rightly point out in response that a man who has less control over his penis than a beagle cannot present his own sexual desires as an argument for the expansion of sexual freedoms.
Someone may note that Jesus ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, and may point to the abortionists converted because pro-lifers cared for them, as arguments for speaking kindly of abortionists. But Jesus is not recorded as denying that the prostitutes were fornicating for money and the tax collectors cheating their neighbors. He knew why a woman might feel she had to sell her body and saw that she was often less guilty for her desperate act than were many upright citizens for their willful pride or their abuse of the poor. But he would not have called her pure. And he told such people, at the right time, to go and sin no more.
The Pharisees of the four Gospels are the better parallel to the abortionist, and Jesus condemned them—not just their acts—to their faces and in public. The prostitute had usually been driven onto the streets, the tax collector almost always driven into the business (he inherited the job from his father, and the Romans demanded their money no matter what). The Pharisees, like the abortionist, chose to do what they did. No one trained by the rabbis had to become the sort of Pharisee who hated Jesus. No one who goes to medical school has to become the sort of doctor who kills babies.
If I am right about this, the modern Christian may have to speak to (or of) the abortionist in the way Jesus spoke to (and of) the Pharisees. He called them “white-washed tombs.” Jesus said, in public, that people who prided themselves on their religious purity were, despite their outward display of piety and religion, on the inside rotting, stinking, maggot-ridden. We may need to speak of the abortionist in the same way, especially when he displays his piety by boasting of his care for women.
This is, as are so many things in the Christian life, a matter of calling and discernment. Not everyone is called to such speech, and everyone who is must work and pray for the ability to know when and how to speak. The one called to speak is trying to imitate Christ, in a case where failure to imitate him well can harm human souls. By speaking at the wrong time, and by speaking either too “nicely” or too harshly, he will obscure the truth for others, not only the abortionist but also the “moderate” American who does not have any fixed view of what the abortionist does.
The man who stands outside abortion facilities and shouts “baby killer” as the abortionist drives in tells the truth, but probably not in a way or at a time that does any good. But neither does the man who says nothing when he should speak, or speaks as if the abortionist were not in fact an abortionist, in the hope of winning his good will and having a chance to convert him. Both are lies. A Christian cannot lie, even if the lie might someday help bring a man to repentance. This lie can end in dead babies and damaged women.
Do Not Speak
I am not saying that everyone who argues for legal abortion—which is a truly evil act that ought to be recognized as such by any moral agent—is a bad person. Some of them may suffer from a moral version of invincible ignorance. They may have been so blinded by their upbringing, life, and culture as not to see what in other cases (clubbing baby seals, say) they do see. But we have no way of knowing this—no way of knowing what God alone knows about the state of their hearts and the degree to which they are culpable—and not knowing, we should neither speak of the advocate of abortion as a good person nor speak of him as a bad person without reason and good evidence.
But this is only to say that we give him the benefit of the doubt, though we assume that the advocacy of abortion is normally a sign of moral degeneracy. (That it is often presented as altruistic and in the most idealistic of words does not change the fact that the person who can argue for it has lost his moral sense. This is a truth our grandfathers would have thought self-evident.)
This is a point everyone agrees with when applied to the advocates of the murder of abortionists. It is not a thing a good man advocates. And this settles the question: And the answer is neither Chestertonian praise nor attacks on character. A rule on how we ought to speak of people who commit murder must apply equally to the abortionists and their assassins. If you will not say that you respect the latter, you cannot say that you respect the former—and vice versa.
To speak of either of them as good people—to speak of them as Chesterton spoke of Shaw—is to tell one’s listeners that the opinions they hold are those a good man can hold. This we must avoid at all costs. It is to say, however accidentally, that words and ideas do not matter, that the evil words that proceed from the mouth of man do not defile him. Or else it is to say that a good man may promote murder, which will only encourage other good men, and men not so sure, to do evil.
“Speaking of Enemies” is the second of a two-part series that began with “Nice Killers” in the January/February issue.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Speaking of Enemies” first appeared in the March 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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