Friday, May 14, 2010

Manufacturers of angertainment

Given all my anti-Legion posting, I don't really like linking to anything at the National Catholic Register's site; but when Mark Shea creates such awesomeness as this, I'm afraid I'll have to bend my usual rules:

Some years back, a friend of mine was leaving evening prayer at our local Dominican parish when he found himself confronted by an angry lady scowling at the Dominicans in their habits. My friend happens to be a history prof at the University of Washington. The lady started muttering at him about the monstrous crimes of the Dominicans and how everybody (including my friend) was a blind sheep because they knew nothing about the medieval Church and the crimes it has committed. (Surely, if any subject is taboo in our culture, it is discussion of the sins, both real and imagined, of the Catholic Church). My friend asked, “What crimes do you mean?” She replied, “Why don’t you ask your Dominican friends about the 46 million people they killed in the Inquisition in the 14th century?”

My friend had nothing to say in reply to this. The woman took that as confirmation of her crushing rhetorical blow. My friend was thinking, “That was roughly the entire population of Europe at the time. The Dominicans slaughtered all of Europe and then killed themselves?” The woman wandered off, muttering.

The 46 million (or 5 million) killed by Dominicans, or the Vatican, or Constantine’s Vatican if you are a Da Vinci Code true believer is a classic example of pseudoknowledge. One of those things you pick up somewhere and repeat with a knowing air that substitutes for actual familiarity with the subject you are expounding upon. If somebody questions whether you know what you are talking about, you don’t deal with the question of whether you know what you are talking about. You simply say, “So! You want to make excuses for the murder of innocent people by religious bigots!” in the same tone you use to say, “You left your soiled underwear on my coffee table.” For, of course, at the end of the day, it will remain the case that some number of people (46 million? Several thousand?) were put to death… well, not by the Inquisition exactly but certainly by the secular authorities working with the Inquisition. So the story is close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades and that’s all that matters. The idea is not so much accuracy as truthiness: the sense that you have righteously scored off bad guys. And if they are bad guys, then they don’t really deserve to be spoken of accurately, do they? They should have thought about that before they started killing off their millions, or however many it was. The point is: I am righteously angry and when I have righteousness on my side, I don’t need to know what I’m talking about so long as I land some good hard punches on the jaw of Evil.

Now, you do have to read the whole thing; Mark ties this pseudoknowledge idea into what people think they know about the Scandal (as opposed to the very real problems worth getting upset about) and about Cardinal Law, who probably shouldn't be running a basilica but isn't being sheltered in Rome from criminal prosecution, since nobody in America (or anywhere else for that matter) has actually charged him with anything.

But I think Mark's wider point is just as valuable; how often do we frame our positions, arguments, discussions etc. about everything from politics to moral issues to religious matters against a backdrop of this same sort of pseudoknowledge? And how often do we do so under the mistaken impression that our wrath is righteous anger, while that idiot on the other side of the argument clearly has some rage issues and isn't capable of discussing things with the calm dispassionate reason with which our own arguments resonate?

Okay, so I've just described the Internet--but there's more to it than that. Our culture has built an industry out of the irate pushers of pseudoknowledge, all shouting at each other to make their points. Public discourse has suffered as a result; it's much easier to spread pseudoknowledge in a thirty-second soundbite than to refute that pseudoknowledge in a scholarly article of a few thousand words--because millions will hear and remember the soundbite, and only a handful will bother to get more than a paragraph into the rebuttal, especially if the author is an irenic soul instead of a manufacturer of angertainment.

Mark's really on to something, here. Ultimately it's something detrimental to our consumerist culture, which craves the fast food of drive-by scoring off of one's opponents instead of the real nutrition of a lengthy and peaceful debate which has more to do with the soundness of the arguments offered, than the tribe to which the debaters belong.


kkollwitz said...

National Catholic Register!

Erin Manning said...

Yikes. I'll fix that. This is what happens when you hit "publish" without proofreading! :)

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Any institution which has survived for several centuries is substantially different from what it was at its beginning. The Jesuits, for example, were founded to turn back the Protestant Reformation, but today they appear to be considered one of the most erudite, intellectual, and liberal-minded components of the Roman Catholic Church. I could hardly assume, without evidence, that the Dominicans have not acquired some mission in the world of greater contemporary significance than exterminating Albigensians. Don't a lot of them teach school? I think a Catholic friend of mine said her school was run by Dominican fathers -- she did seem to consider their tutelage something of an ordeal.

Incidentally, while I abhor the use of physical coercion, torture, and military invasion to suppress heresy (and I would expect Erin does too -- she's quite firm about opposing torture in all its forms), I could hardly say that I identify with the Albigensians, who appear to have been devoted to ritual and exalted leadership of their own, hardly a model for modern Protestants, much less agnostics and self-styled mystics.

One reason the Roman Catholic Church survived the Reformation is that the Counter-Reformation included adoption of many of the criticisms first posted by Luther, albeit a bit late to satisfy those who had already left the church. Another is that John Calvin was really depressing. There is indeed plenty of pseudo-knowledge -- vague slogans melt away when anyone starts supplying detailed facts about any era of history.

Magister Christianus said...

Erin, you refer to "the real nutrition of a lengthy and peaceful debate which has more to do with the soundness of the arguments offered." This, however, presupposes that the interlocutors of the debate are able to think both broadly and deeply, that they are well read, that have pondered much, that they are eloquent and in command of the Queen's English. Seriously, when was the last time you ran into such a person? This not about being an intellectual snob, but one does have to possess the tools of the trade to do this kind of work. Given that little of this kind of training is available in our schools, the only kind of training for public interaction is to be found readily is on cable news. It is no wonder that "Our culture has built an industry out of the irate pushers of pseudoknowledge, all shouting at each other to make their points."

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Wow, this may be the first time I have been in full accord with an observation by Magister Christianus. Well said.