On Binary Boors

C.S. Lewis once commented that a language was losing its heart when more and more adjectives became mere synonyms for “good” and “bad.” It is tiresomely well documented in digital culture in the famous like/dislike option, where nuance is a nuisance.

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Utter the word “progressive,” and watch a subtle sneer spread across the face of the conservative. It also works the other way around, of course, although in that case one might also notice a slight flaring of the nostrils. Since I teach Medieval Philosophy, I have to spend the first class flushing the ears of my students from the knee-jerk words “bad, horrible, retrograde, backwards, etc.,” and teach them instead to hear a benign adjective that simply refers to a period of time. What Lewis feared so long ago is everywhere in contemporary discourse. Sloganeering often displaces conversation, and fine-tuned indignation the habit of simple listening.

Evolution is not easy to observe, but devolution is on daily display. It’s easy to watch our humanity in retreat. Zoologists will tell us that the cognitive and affective reactions in non-human animals tend to reduce themselves to “favorable” and “unfavorable,” or “pleasant” and “dangerous.” Watch a dog that doesn’t know you as it slowly checks you out to see which of the two classes you inhabit.

What distinguishes human beings is the wide palette of distinctions we bring to any experience. We can see good in bad people, and (a somewhat easier exercise) bad in good people. We can distinguish between cognitive differences (true, probable, false, doubtful, implausible, etc.), moral differences (good, bad, neutral, virtuous, sinful, admirable, etc.) and “productive” differences (well-done, poorly-done, skillful, clumsy, etc.). Our world abounds in shades and ambiguities, and not just clarities and convictions. We all bristle when watching courtroom dramas on television and see a witness attempting to illustrate an equivocation or point out an obscurity, and hear the lawyer bark back: “Just answer yes or no!”

Even Christian conservatives who love to demonize “communism” could stand to pause and reflect on the fact that their faith tradition has produced perhaps the only viable communist societies on earth: we call them monasteries. Likewise, despisers of “capitalism” might examine their conscience as to whether they should use any of the capitalist economy’s technical gimmicks, like the internet, to propagate their critiques.