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Kathy Griffin and the Vanishing of Argument

It is a commonplace on the left that claims to objective truth are thinly-veiled plays of power, attempts by one group to impose its views on another. Accordingly, “truth” is construed as a function of the will of the individual.

Kathy Griffin

By now the whole world has heard about comedian Kathy Griffin’s appalling staged-photo of herself holding a mock-up of the bloody, severed head of Donald Trump. Despite her rather pathetic apology, a firestorm of protest has broken out pretty much everywhere. To say that this stunt was in poor taste or, in the parlance of our times, “offensive,” would be the understatement of the decade. At a time when the most barbarous people on the planet are, in point of fact, decapitating their enemies and holding up the heads as trophies, it simply beggars belief that Griffin would have imagined this escapade as an acceptable form of social protest.

But I would like to situate what Griffin did in a wider context, for it is but a particularly brutal example of what is taking place throughout our society, especially on university campuses. Speakers of a more conservative stripe, ranging from serious academics such as Charles Murray and Heather McDonald to provocateurs such as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, have been shouted down, obstructed, insulted, and in extreme cases physically assaulted on the grounds of institutes of higher learning throughout the United States. Very recently, at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, a tenured professor was compelled to hold his biology class in a public park. His crime? He had publicly criticized a planned “Day of Absence” during which white students, staff, and faculty were coerced into leaving the campus, since people of color claimed they felt “unsafe” at the college. For calling this blatantly racist move by its proper name, the professor was, of course, himself labeled a racist and mobs of angry students shut down his classes, forcing him to lecture in the park. 

What is most striking to me in all of this is the obvious lack of anything resembling rational argument. Students are not posing counter-positions, marshaling evidence, drawing logical conclusions, proposing more convincing scenarios, etc. In a word, they are not arguing with their opponents. They are bullying them, drowning them out, intimidating them, physically attacking them. This is not only irrational; it is deeply disrespectful, for it fundamentally denies the humanity of their adversaries. Nowhere is this de-humanization more patently evident than in the case of Kathy Griffin’s protest. And the impatience with argument is rooted in a more basic assumption of many on the left—which is precisely why this violence is breaking out in environments where a radical ideology holds sway. I’m talking about the questioning of objective truth and the concomitant hyper-valorization of the self-assertive will. It is a commonplace on the left that claims to objective truth are thinly-veiled plays of power, attempts by one group to impose its views on another. Accordingly, “truth” is construed as a function of the will of the individual. I determine the meaning of my life, and you determine the meaning of yours; I decide my gender and you decide yours—and therefore the best we can do together is tolerate one another’s choices. 

But when there is no truth, there can be no argument, for argument depends upon a shared appeal to certain epistemic and ethical values. If I might propose an analogy, it’s something like the common rules that make a game possible. Precisely because the players all agree to certain strictures and delimitations, real play can ensue. If every participant is making up the rules as he goes along and according to his whim, the game promptly evanesces. Indeed, if we continue with this analogy, the game, in fact, doesn’t simply disappear; it devolves into bickering and finally into violence, since the players have no other recourse for the adjudication of their disputes. Now we can see why it is a very short step indeed from epistemic and moral relativism in the classroom to violence on the quad. Since I can’t argue with my opponent, I can only silence him, de-humanize him, shut him down. 

The valorization of will over intellect is described by the technical term “voluntarism,” and the roots of this ideology are tangled indeed. Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault were advocates of it in the twentieth century, and they both found their inspiration in the nineteenth-century German theoretician, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (Superman) stood blithely beyond the conventional categories of good and evil and determined the meaning of his life through his limitless will to power. The problem, of course, is what happens when two Supermen clash, when two limitless wills collide. The only path forward, Nietzsche correctly intuited, would be warfare—and let the strongest survive. What should be clear to everyone is that this has remained anything but high theorizing, that in fact Nietzsche’s vision now dances in the heads of most young people in our society today.

Are we surprised, therefore, that stridency, anger, violence, censorship, and the will to power dominate the public conversation? I realize that it might sound a bit frumpy to put it this way, but the path forward is better epistemology.

About Bishop Robert Barron 126 Articles

Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, “Catholicism” and “Catholicism:The New Evangelization.” Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

8 Comments

  1. Bishop Barron;

    When writing a serious commentary is it really a good idea to use Kathy Griffin as a starting point?

    • Actually, it is a good idea to take Griffin as an example of what’s wrong with our current society when offering serious commentary on the breakdown of civil discourse. She is effectively the poster child of what’s wrong with the mindset described in this essay, and mercifully, her escapade earned her some well-deserved rejection by many throughout our country. There still seems to be a fair number of people who recognize what she did as wrong. Griffin is still, however, a human being who has fallen into error, and we have to be careful to not blur the line between contempt for what she did and contempt for her as a person.

      To ignore the rest of the article’s excellent points to focus on distaste for the example used is also a good example of not arguing, and inadvertently proves the bishop’s point. Our society is suffering from this breakdown, and without serious effort to push back against it, may well disintegrate into violent chaos. We need a restoration of commonality that has been undercut and destroyed by years of education being co-opted to serve leftist causes. Universities used to be bastions of the free exchange of ideas, and now, in too many cases, are fascist regimes trying to smother other views that do not align with what is fashionably and subjectively deemed true and good at the moment. As Chesterton noted: Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.

  2. I agree fully with the analysis but felt it should also have pointed out that the primacy of the will is asserted in opposition to the role of the intellect, which is the faculty whereby we know truth and by which we reason logically.
    The progressive denial of the role of the intellect in European history from the Middle Ages until today is the ultimate cause for the excessive reliance on the will as described in the analysis.
    The existence and role of the intellect is hardly mentioned in many philosophy books (and I assume, courses) today – people often look vacantly at a speaker who dares to assert its existence and function. A sad decline into philosophical ignorance which contrasts sharply with the sophisticated balance and therefore wisdom achieved in the Middle Ages.

  3. When a so-called “man of God” starts defending Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, it’s easy to see why the catholic religion is struggling to fill it’s pews.
    And I bet I can guess where you stand on the morality of Donald Trump. The catholic church has been plagued with hypocrisy for ages. Now that they are involved in politics, it’s out in the open for all to see.

    • I suggest you re-read the following passage: “Speakers of a more conservative stripe, ranging from serious academics such as Charles Murray and Heather McDonald to provocateurs such as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, have been shouted down, obstructed, insulted, and in extreme cases physically assaulted on the grounds of institutes of higher learning throughout the United States.”

      Nowhere did Bishop Robert defend the arguments of Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. He defended their right not to be “shouted down, obstructed, insulted and …physically assaulted on the grounds of institutes of higher learning throughout the United States” simply for arguing positions the left (and presumably you) do not like, but are unable to argue against. Your response rather proves Bishop Robert’s point.

      • …and positions that the right, (and presumably you) do not like.
        In the U.S. all have every right to speak their minds and the messages that incite others to hatred, as those who disagree have every right to protest them.
        What the church continues to do is to defend un-Christian, indecent behavior in the name of getting support to pass laws that all must be ruled by Catholic beliefs. When Catholics can support someone like trump, it seems to me that you are willing to sell your souls to the devil to get what you want. That’s not the Catholic religion I was raised to believe.
        In my (proud to be left) opinion, all churches should be doing everything in their power to speak out against hatred & treating people indecently. In my opinion, separation of church & state is as important now as it was when our forefathers created this great nation. Religious freedom is for all religions, not just your’s.

  4. “I would like to situate what Griffin did in a wider context.”

    Mistake. There is an old axiom in show business that if you want to make it in the biz and if you got no talent it’s always a good idea to do something outrageous which will get you some attention. That’s what she did, that’s ALL she did, and to take what she did as anything more than that is a mistake, because at some point you would be taking what she did seriously, and to have that adverb in a sentence about here would be oxymoronic.

    Let her fade away.

  5. It’s terribly ironic for this Catholic to be touting rational discussion when the Church has not included it in their pronouncements on birth control, gay rights, or pederasty. Take that plank out of your own eye, sir.

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