My previous post, Teabagging Jesus, provoked a lengthy discussion in the comments, which devolved into a general argument about the supposedly unfocused and shifting nature of liberalism. At one point, a guest commented that people who
harass confront (let’s use a polite term here) women in front of abortion clinics are motivated only by a good-faith concern for those women’s souls, not maliciousness. It’s important that we all understand that, the guest contended. After some reflection, I decided the topic deserves its own post.
The commenter in question appeared to be a religious Christian, so I searched my memory for a fitting Biblical parable here. Alas, I think the best fable addressing the worn argument that actions are to be judged by the actor’s intent comes not from the Bible, but from Ancient Greeks — the myth of Oedipus.
Contrary to popular belief, the story of King Oedipus is not a smirk fest about some limp-wristed loser who bungles his way into killing his father and sleeping with his mother; it’s a story about a heroic and obsessively good man whose high road brings him straight to a place where he commits heinous deeds; about how always making what seems like the right choice can still result in you doing something horrible. It is not for nothing that Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex ends with the protagonist gouging out his eyes; blindness — which, in art, routinely signifies moral blindness — figures very prominently in the sequel, Oedipus at Colonus. The protagonist spends most of the sequel complaining that he’s not responsible because he didn’t know — but the most the Gods will give him is a dignified death. The message, as it were, is clear: moral blindness may be marginally better than knowing, deliberate wrongdoing, but it is not its own excuse.
People often do horrible things with what they perceive to be the best intentions.
Adolf Hitler just wanted what he thought was best for Germany. (Indeed, many even today demand respect for Nazi officers who, it is said, engaged in genocide and unspeakable cruelties against civilians simply out of misplaced patriotism and military duty, not out of hate. Frankly, it’s baffling to me why surrendering one’s judgment and abandoning one’s values in order to mindlessly follow orders is something to be respected.)
Joseph Stalin would, if asked, point out (I’m sure) that he did what he did in order to turn a technologically backward, predominantly agrarian country with a high rate of illiteracy into an economic and industrial powerhouse, and to win the war against Germany — in both of which goals he succeeded, thankyouverymuch. And if he had a few million of his own citizens killed in the process, oh well, into each life a little rain. Judge the means by the outcome, comrade. What have you accomplished lately? Lenin, widely considered to be Koba’s warm and fuzzy predecessor, was certainly adept at rationalizing terror along those exact lines.
Islamic terrorists believe — if you can bring yourself to listen to their own words — that the random killing of infidels is necessary to bring about a better world. They want peace, justice and family values, they say so themselves — but I wonder how readily those Americans who defend anti-abortionists on the basis of intentions would extend the same logic to the 9/11 hijackers, or the Boston Marathon Bombers, or the folks who blew up those trains in Madrid and those other trains in London, or those who kill daily in the Middle East. After all, they too, are trying to save all our souls.
The list of people who have hurt and/or killed innocents with ostensibly noble intentions is long indeed. Abusive parents. Abusive partners. Rape apologists. George Zimmerman. Michael Dunn. Curtis Reeves. Every other gun-rights “hero” who blows someone away for ostensibly rude behavior, poor sartorial choices or being the wrong race. Every paranoid out there who feels like the world owes him an easily dispatchable villain for self-affirmation. Homophobes. Racists. Antisemites. Religious fundamentalists of any stripe. Men who kill girls for the temerity of trying to go to school. People who commit “honor killings”, corrective rape and FGM. People who commit war crimes because of “military honor”. Slave owners (no, really). Antiscience cranks. Leaders who engage in violent political repression — shooting at demonstrators, jailing political opponents, outlawing free expression — in the name of safeguarding the regime, or saving the economy, or neutralizing an alleged foreign threat, or helping the poor .
Intent counts for very little when you are doing harm. In fact, the greater the harm, the less intent matters. That is because, the greater the harm, the more one’s professed bona fides is suspect. Imagine a rapist who claims he only did it because he is deeply in love with the victim. Problem is, you don’t do fucking rape to someone you love. (Hopefully, you don’t do rape to anyone, of course, but committing a self-serving act of violence is particularly at odds with the claim that you love the object of that violence.) That has got to be a strange notion of love, indeed. (If you think I’m being Captain Obvious here, check out all the stuff that’s been written about Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her — by people who should know better. Whatever Almodovar meant by that movie — I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and entertain the possibility it was an exercise in meta-cinema — the interpretation of critic gods and arthouse audiences is as vivid an example as I can find of just how pervasive and deeply ingrained misogyny is in our culture.)
Anti-abortionists are overwhelmingly right-wingers who are staunchly opposed to maintaining any social safety nets for children and their parents. This completely exposes their “culture of life” talking points as so much posturing. If you value human life above all, why would you clamor against affordable health insurance, free school lunches and all other measures calculated to ensure that children are adequately clothed, fed, housed, cared for and educated? Why would you be so keen on making sure that women who suffer pregnancy-related complications die from them? If you care about human dignity, why would you try to turn rape victims and poor women into incubators intended to supply “deserving” couples with babies?
The way I see it, if you need to become an enemy of humanity in the name of helping humanity, you would do well to just drop dead. And so, beyond simply understanding what moves anti-abortnionist kooks, I really don’t care about their idealism. As I’ve said many times, an opinion isn’t validated by its mere existence. A warped and inhumane worldview does not deserve respect or deference just because someone honestly and wholeheartedly buys into it. I have no doubt that most people who act contemptibly or get behind odious policies do so with the aim of bringing about a better world — it’s just that the “better world” they envision looks a hell of a lot like Mordor, and it’s not a place where I’d want to live.
So yes, I am intolerant of some things — guilty as charged. But, for what it’s worth, what people do for recreation with other consenting adults isn’t one of them. I don’t care how you live, as long as you harm no one else and as long as you don’t try to get everyone else to validate your views by being forced to live as you do.
That’s my “liberal relativism” in a nutshell.