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“Culture warrior” and the fallacy of misplaced concreteness

In point of fact, the left isn’t any less confrontational than the right; it’s just confrontational about different matters.

(Image: Adi Goldstein/Unsplash.com)

One of the least illuminating descriptors that makes its way around the Catholic commentariat is “culture warrior.” The term is invariably used by someone on the left in order to excoriate a right-wing Catholic for his opposition to abortion-on-demand, gay marriage, restrictions on religious liberty, etc.

This resistance, we are told, amounts to “negativity,” “divisiveness,” and of course, “an unwillingness to dialogue.” I can only smile when I hear this from representatives of the left, for they seem blithely to overlook their own rather fierce resistance to the culture in regard to a wide range of issues. When people on the port side of the Catholic commentariat hold forth against racism, xenophobia, homophobia, militarism, capital punishment, environmental pollution, the current immigration policy of our country, etc., how are they not engaging in culture warfare? How are they not being, in their own way, negative, divisive, and reluctant to dialogue?

Two champions of the Catholic left—and particular heroes of mine—are Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King. Both of these worthies stood boldly athwart what they took to be dysfunctional features of the culture of their time and both were willing to endure mockery, marginalization, and imprisonment.

One would be hard pressed to characterize Ms. Day as willing to dialogue with representatives of the military establishment or to describe Dr. King as open to friendly conversation with the keepers of the Jim Crow structure. Both chose forms of confrontation, nonviolent to be sure, but certainly designed to get in the face of their opponents. Both were extremely “divisive,” and I would not hesitate for a moment to call them culture warriors.

And while we’re at it, might I suggest that the current Bishop of Rome is not one to pull any punches when he notices something negative in our society. If you don’t think there is a fair amount of culture warfare going on in Laudato Si’, Evangelii Gaudium, Amoris Laetitia, and Fratelli Tutti, I would suggest you haven’t read them very carefully.

In point of fact, the left isn’t any less confrontational than the right; it’s just confrontational about different matters. And it’s not any more dialogical than the right; it’s just willing to dialogue in regard to different subjects. Truth to tell, both left and right are, in their distinctive ways, following the suggestion of St. John Henry Newman that the Church moves through any given culture the same way a foraging animal moves through its environment—which is to say, assimilating what it can and resisting what it must. They just differ in regard to precisely what should be resisted and what can be assimilated.

And this brings me to the point of this article—namely, what Alfred North Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” By this term, the great philosopher meant the tendency to treat pure abstractions as something real, as identical to things, objects, and events. Abstractions can, of course, be useful, but when one mistakes them for the concretely real, one obfuscates rather than clarifies whatever is under discussion.

So consider the abstraction “culture warrior” as used by a left-wing commentator as a negative characterization of his opponent. As we have shown, it can’t possibly name anything real, since the accuser is every bit as much a culture warrior as the accused. It therefore functions as a smokescreen for what the accuser really wants to say, and I can think of at least two possibilities: either he doesn’t think that the issues his opponent is criticizing should in fact be criticized, or perhaps he feels that the way his opponent is characterizing the issue is unfair. In either case, the real matter is obscured, and the use of the term doesn’t move anyone even a bit closer to the truth.

Infinitely preferable to trading in insulting abstractions that apply as much to oneself as to one’s opponent is to engage in the tough work of authentic argument. The Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan urged all thinkers to follow the four epistemic imperatives: be attentive (see what is really there to be seen); be intelligent (form plausible hypotheses to explain a given phenomenon); be reasonable (make judgments so as determine which of a variety of bright ideas is in fact the right idea); and finally, be responsible (accept the full implications of the judgment made).

To do so is to argue about concrete matters, or in the language of Aristotle, to stay on the “rough ground” of what is real.

There are many reasons why the Catholic conversation has become dysfunctional, especially in the social media space: tribalism, ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, Girardian Twitter mobs, etc. Might I suggest that the fallacy of misplaced concreteness is another key reason?

And might I further suggest that whenever you see the term “culture warrior,” you might, at least in your imagination, throw a penalty flag, realizing that constructive argument about the real has just been derailed?


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About Bishop Robert Barron 199 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.

14 Comments

  1. It is not the issues on which Right or Left participate in their respective culture wars that should be the concern of our hierarchs. No, what should concern our bishops is Truth -discerning it, teaching it, and interpreting it from the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church. We’ve had far too many bishops concerning themselves with eco/socio/political matters which is not their role in the Church. Leave that to the laity.

  2. In all of the moralizing about “the left” vs “the right,” there is the delusion that there is truth “in the middle.”

    On the day he died, “The-Word-Made-Flesh” spoke of his birth:

    “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”

  3. Wonderful article! Anyone who regards “culture warrior” as “a negative characterization of his opponent”, as an unfitting epistemic model to deal with the current cultural climate, clearly does not pray the Breviary, especially the Office of Readings.

  4. The bishop makes the error of conflating the Left and Right. Catholics are to be orthodox. Day was, she opposed abortion despite being what one might call a liberal. But many Leftists are not orthodox. Some are attempting to subvert the faith itself and not just on life issues. Fr. James Martin SJ comes to mind. Perhaps the bishop might be better off defending the faith from any side and calling out those who seek to undermine it. He will find most of those come from the Left. It isn’t Latin Mass Catholics who are seeking to promote abortion or the sexual revolution.

  5. Dorothy Day and MLK jr. would not be confused about life or death for innocents. They would not be found in such a group. I think too many thoughts are connected and politicised to confuse the people. We are ok to have opinions on many issues but a child in the womb trying to escape death somehow eludes politics wouldn’t Christ agree? He was very confrontive about truth. It takes discerning but it is clearly there.

  6. I really appreciated the clear thought and insights in this brief article. And I got more from it than the previous two (long) articles I just read on CWR. I was surprised to find Bishop Baron wrote it since some of his recent articles … equivocate on the subject matter. I hope this means we will be seeing his return to his earlier orthodoxy, and clarity. Rick from Oregon Glory to our newborn Christ!

  7. “How are they not being, in their own way, negative, divisive, and reluctant to dialogue?”

    Any disagreement is “negative,” but disagreement does serve a purpose. It is actually a form of punishment. It could be used as a “weapon,” and it appears that Satan is aware of this (hence the complaint about “negativity”).

    The truth is “divisive.” Jesus Himself said that he had not come to bring peace on Earth. Either the policy/law is unjust, or it is just. There isn’t a middle ground.

    If by “reluctance to dialogue” one means refusal to change one’s mind or capitulate “the field of battle,” then certainly this can’t be done. What should happen is that debate on certain topics shouldn’t be allowed in the first place. If you know the truth (i.e. abortion is wrong) then there shouldn’t be any discussion allowed. Other topics – such as taxation – are certainly legitimately debated.

    The advocacy for any immoral practice seems to me to be complicity/cooperation with it, is a sin, and could be outlawed. It is the media enabling of debates or a “platform” for people to speak which causes many problems. If there was just censorship, many issues (and evil “movements”) could be avoided. This is probably the hidden reason for why absolute free speech is advocated for. Speech can be used for good or evil, and the Catholic Church has condemned any right to free speech as an error, since at least the nineteenth century (e.g. the Syllabus of Errors).

    “Infinitely preferable to trading in insulting abstractions that apply as much to oneself as to one’s opponent is to engage in the tough work of authentic argument.”

    “Insulting abstractions” are either the sins of slander/libel (calumny), contumely (reviling), both, or – perhaps – can be charitable. (Jesus had no problems with calling out the religious leadership for their sins.) As such, the sins could be outlawed.

    If someone doesn’t want to logically argue, but has a different idea in mind (perhaps a fist fight), there isn’t much that a person can do than keep his cool. However, any observers are ill served in a public forum that allows this behavior. I understand that there were rules of debate in the Middle Ages during the scholastic period. Formal debates now can and sometimes are subjected to just rules.

    Ad hominems have a tendency to “pollute” the intellectual environment, and are counterproductive except for as an example to be held up to be shamed.

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