On Doing Evil that Good May Come of It (TLDR: Don’t)

So here’s something that happened yesterday: A guy who should have known better, a stalwart defender of virtue and reason, posted a video on Twitter of a group of tween girls dancing in an explicitly sexualized manner.

It was a long clip, to my memory (I’m not going to click on it again, so if my memory is faulty, we’re going to have to live with that) beginning with low-grade “this is not something I’d want my daughter doing.” Gradually the girls’ dancing became increasingly erotic, to the point that it definitely transitioned into “yes, this is blatantly, undeniably sexualized near-porn,” and I didn’t continue watching after that.

(The girls’ costumes, I should note, would have been fine as bathing suits, for children playing sharks-and-minnows or jumping off the diving board . . . but no amount of clothing could cause the dance this conservative Christian posted to be any other than erotic.)

Anyhow, that was my two minutes of previewing Cuties, a film I was willing to consider might not be nearly what Netflix promoted it as, and a film that I still suspect was attempting to be a serious entry in the discourse against the hypersexualization of tweens and young teens.  I even considered that the video this person-who-should-know-better posted was in fact a deepfake designed to hype up the political divide, though alas with a bit clicking around, the reports from those who viewed the film in its entirety confirm the dance sequence was genuine.  IMDB briefly posted a warning, in reference to another scene in the film, the FYI it was technically in violation of US child pornography laws.  Yikes.

So. We revisit a very old topic, and if you like, you can scoot on over to the The Junior Moral Theologian’s DIY Kit, where I lay out all the moral issues in more detail.  Here I’m just going to repeat myself a bunch of different ways:

You may not do evil that good may come of it.

Having a good intention does not make an evil action a good action.

The fact that something good resulted from an evil act does not make the evil act good.

This is the non-negotiable of any viable ethical system.  Might you find yourself in a horrible situation, in which you are forced to choose among several terrible options, and, in your desperation, choose the one with the least-bad outcome? Certainly.  It’s a fallen world and in the worst circumstances we might find ourselves doing the unthinkable.  It happens.

That does not make the evil action right.  It just makes it the thing you did at a time when you didn’t see any other way.

In the case of, say, a Christian commentator with a large following choosing to post erotica, or a secular filmmaker choosing to train and pay young girls to perform that erotica, we are not speaking of desperate persons forced into a corner and struggling to find any way out.

But, and let’s be very clear here, neither of these two is any different from the rest of us.

Both, we can charitably assume, are in fact seeking to accomplish something good.  The commentator was seeking to warn audiences that the film in question was morally objectionable. The director was seeking to warn audiences that the sexualization of young girls is a serious problem in our day — and before you scoff at that, I can attest from my viewing of the excerpt that the girls’ faces as they performed absolutely communicated a sense of being lost, of not understanding, of not liking, and yet of feeling like they had to do the thing in order to be approved.  The stated artistic goal was accomplished in the scene I saw.  The obvious (to you and me) problem, which makes the film unviewable for persons of good will who are duly forewarned, is that the director went about communicating her (valuable) message in a way that was, in fact, harmful to the girls working for her.

In the same way, the commentator who posted erotica in order to warn against erotica was exploiting the victimization of the girls, and also putting erotica in front of his readers, in the name of an otherwise good purpose.

The habit of using evil to do good is absolutely embedded in our culture.  

In theory we consider lying (that would be a direct, explicit violation of the Ten Commandments) wrong, but in reality our culture has long categories of lies that are acceptable because they are done with good purposes in mind.

If Catholics are wacko extremists on medical ethics, it’s because our society considers the killing of innocent persons to be only wrong if it’s done for unpopular reasons.

National Public Radio hosted a non-ironic, softball interview on the justification for the violent destruction and theft of the property of innocent persons.

I’d be remiss in this list not to mention the whole justifying of adultery as if the average man or woman just had “no choice” but forsake their vows? And yet people will say that, and think that, in the most banal of circumstances.

Maybe you aren’t guilty of any of these, or at least not lately.

Before you get too convinced you aren’t like those other sinners: I challenge you to try to get through a full week without doing something you know is wrong — even if it’s just a little bit wrong — with the motivation of seeking a higher good.

Sin is like this.  For most people, most of the time, sin is not fueled by a desire to do something horrible, it’s fueled by the twisted-up quest to experience something we’re convinced will be good.

“Less evil” is not good.

One of the reasons I expect it was so easy for the director of Mignonnes to justify her decision to pay young girls to perform erotica (and in one case, per IMDB’s original warning to viewers, to expose her breast on film) is that her film was about how normal these behaviors have become.

(FYI for those wondering: The acceptability of pornography is far more entrenched in respectable French society than in the United States.  That’s me reporting first hand experiences among the married-with-kids, stalwart-citizen, professional class of the late 1980’s.  Not something I read in a book.  What I have seen in real homes among people who met every definition of “respectable” in their era.)

The director of the film was not asking the girls to perform something forbidden and illegal (though Netflix should know that the reported frontal-nudity scene is in fact illegal in the US, however award-winning it may be elsewhere). She was asking them to recreate what persons like myself got accused of prudery for objecting to when it appeared at the Super Bowl half-time show this year — albeit in the wholesome USA we have adult women do this to show how “liberated” they are, while the girls from the dance companies, the very best girl-dancers, handpicked to perform on the field on the biggest TV night of the year, look up in adoration.  We reserve the actual girl-erotica for dance competitions on other weekends, thanks.  So, from the director’s point of view, she was requesting the girls repeat what they already were willing to do, and may well have done before, only this time framed in such a way that viewers would be shocked into realizing just how wrong and destructive it is.

That good intention doesn’t justify the evil.

And that’s a shame, because there’s every reason to believe the director was attempting to open a very important conversation on sexual exploitation — just like the commentator who posted the erotica was trying to legitimately warn viewers away from the film that fell so badly short of its mark.

Three girls dancing in a field, 1888: Paul Gauguin - Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven

Artwork: Paul Gaugin, Breton Girls Dancing (1888), via Wikimedia, Public Domain

On Handling Bad Situations Badly

Abusive behavior runs on a spectrum. On the far end are the cases so obvious and egregious that the hardest heart would have to admit abuse took place.  On the near end is the shift from ordinary bad behavior into what can reasonably be categorized as abuse.

The confusion arises when the behavior itself is comparatively mild — certain forms of violence or sexual acting out are always abuse. Over on the milder end of the spectrum, in contrast, we have to use discernment.  Some of the distinguishing characteristics of someone who is behaving poorly but not being abusive include:

  • Admitting to the bad behavior.
  • Apologizing in a sincere manner.
  • Accepting responsibility.
  • Making amends or reparations.
  • Showing a clear change to avoid the behavior in the future.

It’s important here to reiterate: No amount of resorting to an apology cycle can cause rape, molestation, beating, starvation, etc. to be non-abusive. But I want to talk about an aspect of life on the other end of the spectrum, where it is very, very easy for abusive behavior to be tolerated, excused, and even justified.

***

Several years ago my family was party to what ended up being low-level abusive behavior.  Ironically, the incident that sparked the subsequent abusive response was, as best I can tell, a case of someone making a poor judgment call under distressing circumstances, but with no intention of harm.

To give it an analogy, think about the near-drowning incident at our community pool. Obviously the lifeguard-on-duty in that story wasn’t doing his job as well as one would hope. We don’t know the reasons for that, but there is no evidence he was being willfully negligent or choosing to put a child in harm’s way — even if it turns out he just really stunk as a lifeguard.  That would be a bit like the triggering incident in the situation my family dealt with.

Where the abusive behavior came in was after.  Imagine if (and this did not happen at the pool in real life) the other witnesses of the near-drowning closed ranks and tried to pretend no rescue had been necessary.  Imagine if the manager of the pool had attempted to deny there was a problem.  Imagine if, faced with a fear of a lawsuit [we in no way considered such an action in the real event], the owners of the pool resorted to a variety of legal maneuvers to declaim all responsibility, and some of those moves involved blatant lies.

[Again, reiterating here: The pool example is an analogy. Nothing of the sort happened at the pool.  We’re doing a thought exercise to help you create a fictional scenario for the purposes of the message that follows.  I will observe that in both the real story and our fictionalized pool story that stands in for a real-life situation involving innocent people who deserve to have their privacy protected, no children ended up harmed.]

When we think of “abuse” we don’t think of these kinds of actions right away — we think of the battered spouse cowering in the corner with a bloody nose, or the child locked in the basement for days on end.  But abuse runs on a scale, and on the milder end of the spectrum, it often involves behaviors which, in a different circumstance, would not be abusive.

***

So.  On the milder end of the abuse spectrum, it is much easier for those engaging in the abusive behavior to pretend everything is fine. And, now I am getting to the message of this post, one of the ways those people will do it is to shift blame.

If you are going through a nasty divorce from an abusive spouse, you can expect the spouse to blame all your faults, and pick apart every tiny lapse in your managing the divorce in a less-than-saintly manner.  If you are dealing with an abusive professor, you can expect the professor to blame all your weaknesses as a student.  If you are dealing with a sexual abuser, you can expect that person to blame your clothing, your choice of friends, or your dubious morals. Blame-shifting is the language of abuse.

It is important to remind yourself that your failure to handle the situation absolutely perfectly in no way excuses the abuse.

***

By definition if you are dealing with a horrible situation, you are under duress.  It could be a horrible situation like the real pool incident, where no one in particular was to blame and yet still something bad (only nearly, in the real-life case, thank God) happened.  It could be a horrible situation where someone makes a terrible decision but does it without meaning harm.  It could be a horrible situation in which someone under pressure chooses the “easy way out” and throws someone else under the bus in the process. It could be a horrible situation where someone’s addictive behavior or mental illness causes them to harm others.  It could be a horrible situation in which a cold-blooded predator seeks to steal, kill, or destroy.

Regardless: It’s a horrible situation.

People in horrible situations don’t always handle themselves with impeccable poise.

If you cuss out the pool manager just ’cause, that’s on you.  If you cuss out the pool manager in a situation where the pool is evading responsibility for gross negligence that put a swimmer in danger?  Well, maybe you shouldn’t be cussing, but that doesn’t change the fact of the pool’s responsibility for its own operations.

[FYI: Proud to report I don’t think I cussed very much in the real pool incident.  I probably would have cussed if the pool had evaded responsibility, which they did not.  Also my kid turned out to be fine, so it was easy to move on.]

So that’s my message for the day: If you’re in a horrible situation, and other people want to blame their abusive behavior on your failure to respond in exactly the perfect manner, don’t let them.

***

People who respond poorly because you are angry, disorganized, or otherwise handling the situation badly?  If those people are not abusive, they will seek to work things out.  They will recognize their own part in the problem, they will make allowances for extenuating circumstances, and all they will ask is mutual forgiveness as the two of your move forward in solving the problem a better way.  That’s not abuse, that’s just human frailty.

Abusive people, in contrast, will find fault no matter how well or poorly you handle things from your end, they will persist in claiming their own innocence and blaming others, and they’ll do this as cover or justification for their abusive actions.

In our fictionalized pool incident, imagine I cussed out the manager, and the manager cussed me out back.  That’s just mutual bad behavior.  If we are both otherwise innocent, we could move on from that. We calm down, each apologize for our outbursts, and begin discussing what went wrong at the pool and how to rectify it.

Now imagine I cussed out the manager, and the manager stayed cool, calm, and collected, but also carefully put into place a set of legal evasions to avoid the pool’s real responsibility (whatever that was) for what had happened (however we imagine that in our fictional scenario).  The manager might say nothing about my bad behavior, or might blame me: “Obviously the pool is innocent! You can see by Mrs. Fitz’s temper tantrums this is a mentally unstable person!”

That’s how predators act to cover their tracks.

Don’t accept it.

Don’t second guess yourself.

Review the cold hard facts of the case: Did the predator engage in objectively dangerous actions?  Is the predator behaving in a deceitful manner to justify those actions?

If yes, that’s not on you.  Don’t let the predator blame-shift.

René Crevel. Affiche bal masqué: Art Deco style poster showing attendees at a masked ball.

Artwork: Poster for masked ball circa 1924, via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

What to Expect from a Saint

Over at the blorg yesterday I wrote about how, whatever St. Junipero Serra’s sins might have been, an authentic desire to evangelize is not one of them.  Figures I’d say something like that.  Today I want to address a deeper question: What are we to think about the problematic behavior of saints and other heroes?

Let’s begin with some foundational principles.

We know that the Christian faith is unchanging, and we know that the moral law is unchanging.  Murder is wrong yesterday, today, and tomorrow, forever and ever amen.  Jesus Christ is the Savior of humanity yesterday, today, and tomorrow, forever and ever amen.  Thus, the first thing we should look for in a saint: The moral and spiritual ideals towards which a saint strives are unchanging ideals.

–> We expect a saint to love Jesus Christ and to practice and proclaim the Catholic faith as best he or she is able.

Saints overcome obstacles, but they aren’t omnipotent.

From our lives, from common sense, and from the historical record, we can know that there are obstacles to living out our Christian ideals.

Some obstacles are internal, such as physical or mental illness.  These roadblocks to practicing the faith don’t make us less faithful.  What they do is cause us to have to put more effort into loving God, who sees and acknowledges the heart.  While some saints may have awe-inspiring external, easily-visible accomplishments to their name, others do not.

Other obstacles are created by our society, our culture, or the people around us. In another era, a saint might have been able to care for orphaned children by simply opening the doors and welcoming those in need.  In our time, extensive regulations may prevent an individual, family, or religious association from being legally allowed to provide care.

–> When we look at a saint’s life, we have to realistically assess the resources and opportunities that were available to that person living in that era.

Culture clouds our human thinking.

While the natural law is written on the human heart, we know that human beings are fallen creatures. We are tempted to do what is comfortable and self-serving, and often we let our desire for gratification color our understanding of the Gospel.

Thus it is hard for a saint, or anyone, to overcome his or her weaknesses.

Furthermore, our culture affects our ability even to contemplate what the Gospel might be asking of us.  A type of generosity or piety or morality that was encouraged and accepted in one time or place might be rare or nonexistent in another.   When a given concept of Christian morality or devotion is simply not on the radar in our own time and place, it is very, very hard to look over the walls of our native culture and consider a better way of living.

I’m hard pressed even to provide an example, because I know that for any specific suggestion I make of an area where modern Americans struggle with recognizing and articulating the faith (and some other cultures did not), my suggestion will be dismissed as “ridiculous” or “extraneous” or “old fashioned” or “obsolete” or something else.  We cannot see what lies beyond the walls of our own cultural prison.

–> We can expect a saint to respond freely and generously to those aspects of the faith which were understood and practiced in his or her culture, and to make sincere but not always successful attempts to discern and apply Christian doctrine counter-culturally.

Culture feeds certain types of piety.

In contrast, every culture has its virtues as well.  What is often very confounding in the lives of the saints are the examples of virtues that are foreign to our time, but were considered ordinary piety in the saint’s time.  Here I will give an example.

In our time, the practice of physical penance is virtually unknown.  We allow for the merits of offering up unavoidable suffering, but even that is counter-cultural.  One of the great challenges of our time is fighting evils such as abortion and euthanasia, which are fueled by a culturally-driven placing of the avoidance of suffering as the highest good.  Even Christians have difficulty understanding why some of the suffering that life brings might, at times, have to be endured when there is no moral way to avoid it.

We do have a limited understanding of the value of physical penance.  Specific acts of self-discipline are practiced by the most-rigorous of religious associations, and minor acts of self-denial are encouraged for all Catholics during the penitential season of Lent.  However, even there, in our time we always temper any mention of corporal penance with warnings not to overdo it, not to commit self-harm, and so forth.  I am absolutely at one with my wider spiritual culture in that regard.

In contrast, in other eras, we see that the benefit of physical penance was considered of greater value than the avoidance of physical harm that might result.  Hence we have countless examples of saints and ordinary Catholics and even non-Christians carrying on astonishing displays of self-inflicted or self-allowed suffering that, to our modern mind, are contrary to faith and reason.

What’s going on with that? Shouldn’t the saint have known better?

Keep in mind those cultural walls.  When your spiritual culture is telling you that xyz is the greater good . . . if your greatest desire is holiness, you will seek after that good.

–> We can expect saints to be willing to go to extremes to pursue paths of holiness encouraged in their time and place.

Saints take strange shapes.

Where does this leave us?  It leaves us with saints who consistently love Jesus Christ, and everything else is a toss-up.  Saints are people who strive for holiness, but that striving is going to be shaped by his or her personal limitations, by cultural boundaries, and by the types of piety and service that are most encouraged in his or her time and place.

Saints can still surprise.  We look with special awe at those saints whose lives were wildly counter-cultural, because they stand out not only in their time but in ours.

All the same, some saints can make us uncomfortable with just how wrong they seem.  When that happens, there are three questions we should ask:

  • Is the legacy of this saint the right legacy?  Perhaps I’ve been passed a message about this saint that is honestly not what makes this saint an example of holiness.
  • Is this attribute of the saint just a plain old sin?  Every saint recognizes his or her need for the Redeemer.  Unless it’s the Blessed Mother we’re talking about, we know for a fact that some of this saint’s actions were sinful.
  • Is this attribute of the saint a virtue I need to know about?  One of the great gifts of the saints is that they allow us to peek over our cultural walls.

What we don’t need to do is be afraid.  It’s okay to have weird saints in our spiritual family tree.  We are not a religion that worships mortal men. We are a religion that worships Jesus Christ.  Allow the Lord to show when and how to learn from this or that saint, and when you need to recognize that so-and-so just isn’t the best spiritual companion for you right now.

Is this person helping you grow in love? Is this person drawing you closer to Jesus Christ?  Whether it’s a saint in heaven or someone you know here on earth, those are the qualities we look for in spiritual friendships.  It doesn’t matter whether so-and-so is so helpful to your friend or your mom or you favorite priest. Choose to surround yourself with the people who make you a better Christian.

Crystals of dried Coca-Cola: Individual rainbow-colored crystals distributed in a globe-pattern on a black background.

Photo: Crystals of dried Coca-Cola, courtesy of Wikimedia Image of the Day, CC 4.0, by Alexander Klepnev.  I was going to settle for a renaissance peoplescape of Heaven, but then there was this. So this is what you get.  Probably the best use of Coca-Cola yet.

Enemies of the Thinking Man’s Religion

UPDATE: RR Reno apologized.  My comments on that are over at the blorg.

***
Over at the blorg yesterday
, I broke radio silence not because my life is finally pulled together again, but because I couldn’t resist the siren song of bad logic in need of correction.

The internet, mirror of the world, is of course full of people who are wrong.  It holds up just fine without me.  So why this one?

Because in this particular case, the stakes are both high and personal.

First Things magazine — printed on paper and arriving via USPS once a month — is an institution worth preserving. Year after year, issue after issue, it is invariably laden with wrong opinions. That is the nature of a forum dedicated to exploring ideas and hosting discourse on anything and everything that touches the public square.

It’s a good magazine. There are the monthly puff pieces pandering to base (ode to learning Latin, much?); there is superb poetry hidden among the pretty good poetry and the occasional “we’re just glad conservatives are still attempting poetry”; there is someone around to take down the hot new liberal sensation posing as a history book; and there’s the unavoidable Theology of the Body segment (not always so-labelled), the thought-provoking memoirs, and the mish-mash of intellectual headiness including plenty of within- and across-issue back and forth on stuff that deserves to be thought about.

Very few pictures or advertisements.  Sometimes you go pages at a time with nothing but words.  It’s nice.

Complain all you want, and it’s impossible not to when assessing the successors of Richard John Neuhaus, RR Reno has done a decent job as general editor of the place.  That he would post something I think is wrong?  Sure.  Many people I respect disagree with me on all kinds of stuff.

But that he would completely fall off the ledge and lose all grasp of the most elemental understanding of logic?

Something is very wrong here.

***

This is not the first time a notable Catholic writer has gone completely bonkers on the internet.  The Catholic Conspiracy exists because we who write here wanted a place that was a hangout for ordinary faithful Catholics, devoid of the sensation and hypiness that has been the downfall of so many previously-worthwhile Catholic blogs and websites.

Fact: Satan wants Catholic writers to fail.

The spiritual battle is real.

Few things help the cause of the enemy more than watching smart, insightful, faithful men and women evolve into crazypants reactionaries in front of their adoring public.  (“Adoring public” is likely a contributing factor.)

Lord willing, what RR Reno needs is fresh air and new friends and a gracious audience who can allow that yes, we all lose it sometimes.  Presumably his thinking problems are personal issues that are, professional hazard, unraveling in public.  It happens.  Catholic writers are fallen humans beleaguered by the same sorts of problems that beset us all.  So be it.

When the human who’s sinking into this pit, however, is the editor of First Things, now we have a personal problem that’s affecting the common welfare.

So pray for the guy.  Since we mustn’t tolerate falling for false dichotomies, don’t get sucked into Canonize-or-Cancel.  It’s possible to be the head of a storied institution who’s lately been foaming at the mouth like a man who’s spent too much time caged up with Pop Culture, Elite Edition, and still be capable of pulling it together and resuming the good work.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep on pandering to moderates over at the blorg.  Being crazypants only makes half the people mad.  If you want to make everyone hate you, use logic.

Photo: Red Clover, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.  I couldn’t think of a good photo to go with this post, so I resorted to that old standby, Image of the Day.  Apply the metaphor of your choice to make it meaningful.

RIP to Science: One Hair Dryer (Mask Test)

I was attempting to answer the question for my kids of whether an improvised mask, such as a cowboy-style bandana over your mouth and nose, could help slow the spread of disease.

Hypothesis: Even though an improvised cloth mask won’t filter viruses, it does limit the distance air coming out your mouth travels, and therefore reduces how far any germs get spread while talking, coughing, sneezing, etc.

Experiment: Well, about that.  So my plan was to set up a measuring tape on the bathroom floor showing the six feet of “social distancing” and then blow various lightweight items (dust, loose powder, wadded up scrap paper) using the hair dryer.  We’d see how far the hair dryer blows these items when unmasked and how far it blows them when masked with various garments — my favorite scarf, a standard bandanna, etc.

I decided to run some preliminary tests before the kids woke up, because if my hypothesis (or my experiment) was obviously wrong, that was something I could learn on my own, thanks.

I got the measuring tape out, found a scrap of (clean!!) toilet paper on the floor (note to self: CLEAN BATHROOM), and dug out my circa-1994 Salon Selectives hair dryer, currently collecting dust thanks to social-distancing.

==>Thanks Mom! That was an awesome Christmas present, even though I wasn’t sure what to think about it at the time. Just a few months ago we were marveling it had held up so long and showed no signs of giving up the ghost.==>

With the dryer on its high setting, I could blow a scrap about four feet.  I put the bandanna over it, and could only blow it about one or two feet.  Also, there was this slight burning odor, which I figured was all that collected dust burning off.  No big deal.

I was pleased by my preliminary findings, but more pre-testing was in order before calling in my skeptical children.  It was possible, for example, that I was seeing such dramatic differences in how far the paper scrap would travel because I was not consistent in how I aimed the hair dryer.

I did some experimenting with holding the dryer at different angles, un-masked, chasing that scrap of unused toilet paper around the bathroom.  Then I put the bandanna over again.  Not nearly as much air-power, again with the burning smell, and then: Experiment over.  Hair-dryer shorted out.

Yikes.

No amount of hoping I’d tripped a breaker bore fruit. After a quarter-century of faithful service, my hair dryer is no more.

Conclusions:

(1) I should not be left unsupervised with valuable machinery.

(2) An ordinary bandanna provides enough airflow resistance that it can wreck a hair dryer.

(3) If you’re contagious and you want to share space with me, yes, I would much rather you covered your mouth and nose with one of those masks that “does nothing” because it sure seems to me like having your germs go not-very-far is better than having your germs fly closer to me.

(4) I can’t afford to resume this experiment on my kids’ hair dryer, because I have three teenage daughters who will mutiny if I wreck their machine, as they do style their hair in quarantine. Therefore,

(5) I’d be grateful if other people would take up the cause and run experiments to see if my preliminary findings are reproducible.

Thanks!

Me with bandana over my face.

Photo: The guilty parties (me and that bandanna), posing in my makeshift office in the garage.  I love having my family at home all day, and I’m grateful my husband and I can both work from home, no matter how crazy the set-up is. Not everyone is so lucky.  Pretty sure those on the front lines keeping our infrastructure together wish you’d do whatever you can to reduce the odds you make them sick when you run your essential errands, even if it isn’t perfect and 100% foolproof.

Give Your Bishop Benefit of the Doubt

The amount of vitriol directed towards bishops making coronavirus decisions is . . . telling.

I say this as someone who is not, at all, hesitant to call out egregious behavior at any level of the hierarchy.  I have spent enough time inside the sausage-making factory to know very well that there are serious, serious problems in the Catholic Church.  Your bishop having to make difficult decisions under immense time pressure with very little information?  Not the same thing.

If it’s not even your own bishop you’re sending the nastygrams to?  Oh please.  Who died and made you an expert on someone else’s diocese?

***

Let’s try an exercise in Benefit of the Doubt 101.  To recap, from the CCC:

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;

– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

2479 Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.

Now for our practice exercise, here are the extensive restrictions Bishop Guglielmone announced for the Diocese of Charleston on Sunday:

. . . I am granting dispensation for your Sunday Mass obligation for the weekends of March 21-22 and March 27-28. Additionally, all scheduled Confessions are cancelled. Any baptisms planned in the next sixteen days should be rescheduled. All quinceañeras must be canceled or rescheduled. Confirmations will be rescheduled according to each parish’s calendar. Funerals and weddings may occur but will be celebrated privately with just the immediate family present. Unfortunately, perpetual adoration will have to be temporarily discontinued. There will be no regularly scheduled parish activities until further notice. All scheduled penance services are cancelled, and there will be no Communion calls at hospitals, nursing homes, or private homes until further notice.

The sole exception to this policy is the celebration of the final sacraments for those in danger of death. If you need a priest for the Anointing of the Sick or Last Rites, your pastor will provide a number you can call.

Parish churches will remain open during their normal hours so that you can come to pray.

Whoa!  Obviously he hates Jesus, right?  Not so fast.

We cannot, of course, know the inner thoughts of the bishop.  Experience tells us that even our own motivations are often difficult to fully understand. The exercise of using our imaginations to guess at a  favorable reason behind the bishop’s decision does not cause Instant Saintliness to descend upon the man.  But it is good for our souls to carry out this exercise, so let’s do it.  I’m gonna lay out my answer to the practice problem, but this is one of those open-ended essay questions that allows for multiple possible correct responses.

***

I observe that just this week, Bishop Guglielmone laid to rest a still-young priest. If ever there were an incident to make you keenly aware of the precariousness of life and the immeasurable value of a priest’s ministry, that was it.

Next I observe that at this writing, at least ten priests in Italy have died of COVID-19. Many more are infected, and note that survival of a serious case often entails long recovery and debilitating loss of lung function, at least temporarily. We have no information about the long term effects of infection.

Finally I observe that the priests of the Diocese of the Charleston are not known for their retiring manner or unwillingness to minister to the people.  Short of an unequivocal, clearly-defined order, there is just no locking these guys up for safekeeping.  You think your boomer parents are hard-headed? Smart money says that as we speak, countless stubborn old men across the diocese are fuming at being put on a leash by their bishop, convinced that having survived war / cholera / parish council, hell no they aren’t going to back down now.

And yet we know that statistically speaking, we can expect that COVID-19 is going to claim its share of priests.  If you wish to contemplate the role of faith in such outcomes, study the lives of the many saints who perished nobly while ministering to the sick.  The question, then, is not whether we will lose many priests to this epidemic, but rather how.

Now let us review some facts from your fifth grade catechism class:

  • Any person (Catholic or not) can baptize validly, and in an emergency can baptize licitly.  Furthermore, baptism of desire is effective for salvation. Therefore, if you must choose where to kill your priests, this is not the best place.
  • Marriage is probably not the best hill to die on (and you can have your wedding if you’re okay with a small service), and priests cannot ordain so that’s a moot point. Confirmation would be worth considering, and here I’ll insert my rant that I wish all bishops would get more on the stick about the value of confirmation.  Okay, end rant, let’s move on.
  • Confession is a tough one.  There are workarounds, like the drive-through method.   Ask your bishops, charitably, to please consider figuring out ways to safely administer general absolution.  Still, perfect contrition does suffice.  For the moment we will charitably assume that having suspended the sacrament of Reconciliation, the bishop is working diligently on good tactics in view of reinstating it in a priest-protecting manner.  But, remember: Perfect contrition suffices.  Cultivate in your heart a more fervent love of God.
  • Last Rites, in contrast, cannot be delayed (as with Matrimony, Confirmation, or the Eucharist), it cannot be carried out by laymen (as with baptism), there are no substitutes available (as with perfect contrition in place of Confession), and its effects are soul-saving.

My conclusion:

It is horrifying to have to be making these sorts of spiritual-triage decisions, just as it is horrifying for a doctor to have to decide which patients to treat and not to treat.  And yet, your priest can only catch the virus once and then it’s caught.

The bishop’s decision that his men will be deployed to go straight to the most dangerous field of ministry, encountering those who are actively sick, and who are to be ministered to in environments where contagion is rife, suggests that cowardice is not, at all, a factor here.

Pray for your priests, pray for your bishop, and knock it off with the rash judgement.

File:Extreme Unction LACMA AC1994.171.5.jpg

Artwork: Extreme Unction, etching of a priest visiting a deathbed while the family prays, Italy circa 1755, courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Pro-Tip: My kids talked me onto Spotify this winter, and on my way to the most recent parish council* meeting, this bit of colorful music was playing as I prayed for myself and for our priests:

I can report that internalizing the refrain “Don’t Murder Me” was highly effective.  I had resolved to speak at least three peaceful sentences before devolving into yelling at my pastor, and get this: I made it all the way to the end of the night!  And then I yelled.  But not in front of everyone? So that was better?  Maybe?

*Note well: The very moment my pastor asked me to volunteer for the council, I instructed him to kick me off as soon as he got sick of me, no hard feelings, this is what it’s like to have me in your parish. So either he likes having a contrarian in the group or he’s taken on one of those masochist St. Rose of Lima  penances and now secretly wishes he had vowed to roll in nettles every night instead.  I dunno.  Pray for your priests.

What More Do Old People Have to Give?

If you have not already seen it, watch this sorrowful video showing the increase in deaths in Bergamo, Italy, since the coronavirus outbreak began.  The speaker shows you first a newspaper from mid-Febuary: One and a half pages of obituaries. Typical for the area, apparently.  By mid-March, flipping through the paper as the coronavirus epidemic intensifies: Ten pages of obituaries.

Most of these deaths are elderly people.  At this writing, my own grandmother is 96 years old, and though now facing what will probably be her final illness, she’s had many long years of healthy retirement.  My mom died when our children were ages 0-6, and her mother became very ill with dementia about that same time, so for my children, their experience of “visiting grandma” on my side of the family is long road trips to Florida to see their great-grandmother.

They have many happy memories of playing dominoes and taking Grandma to eat out at local chain restaurants, and listening to her approve and disapprove of various styles and habits. Two years ago there was the never-to-be-forgotten discovery of toy bananas when we all went to Walmart, in which the elder and younger generations ganged up against the mother in the middle in the Great Banana Impulse Buy Debate.  (They eventually won, but I exacted my price. Totally worth it.)

It is not unlikely, now, that my grandmother’s final illness will be COVID-19 instead of the slow-moving cancer she’s currently dealing with.  “But she was old and sick,” people will say. Well, yes, but we were hoping to see her again in June.

She’s 96.  We knew last summer that our visit then might be the last. But what if she were eighty?  We’d have lost an entire lifetime of visits for most of the children; none of them would have any but the faintest memory of her.  I would have lost nearly two decades of mentoring from a woman whose vocation and outlook on life is so much like my own, and whose differences are like iron sharpening iron (clean your house, Jennifer!).  I think I can safely say that her children and other grandchildren and great-great-children feel the same: These last nearly twenty years she has enriched our lives so much, despite “doing nothing.”

Suppose you’re sixty right now.  You are looking at retirement soon, you’re tired out, thinking about downsizing, probably dealing with some health problems, and maybe beginning to feel like you haven’t got much more to offer the world.  And yet, if you don’t die of COVID-19, you may yet make it to eighty.  During which time:

  • You could grandparent a child (your own or a neighbor’s) from birth to adulthood.
  • You could mentor a young professional from young adulthood into the peak of his or her career.
  • You could, from the comfort of your desk, armchair, front porch or fishing hole, provide another ten or twenty years of incisive analysis and otherwise-forgotten experience related to difficult issues developing in your area of expertise.
  • You could finally write that memoir or novel, learn to paint, play the piano, or perfect your putting game, and in the process encourage some younger person who needs to hear by your example, your words, or your companionship, “What you are doing is worth it.”
  • You could write letters to the editor and bless out upstart politicians and conceited middle managers, in the process saying what the rest of us wish we had the nerve to say, but aren’t old enough not to care what other people think.
  • If you’re a priest, you could . . . well, you don’t get to retire.  Sorry.  Nice try.

People with “not much more time” still have much to contribute.

I won’t say that every old person is therefore wise.  I won’t say that every younger person facing a shortened lifespan due to medical problems is therefore living the well-examined life.  Nor do I say that the value of human life can be measured in utilitarian terms; your life is of infinite worth even if you can’t do anything at all.

But sick people and old people and the perfectly healthy young person who also dies of this thing do bring value to the world.

Nothing we can do, individually or as a society, can eliminate every untimely death that this new coronavirus will cause.  We can, however, delay the spread of this disease so that our healthcare systems are not swamped, and therefore no one needs suffer for lack of all the current treatments medical science has to offer. Slowing the epidemic also buys us more time for doctors and nurses to learn which existing treatments are most effective, and for researchers to develop new treatments or preventatives that will save people who would otherwise perish.

They are worth it.  Stay home.

File:St. Wolfgang kath. Pfarrkirche Pacher-Altar Sonntagsseite 01.jpg

Photo: St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, Austria, showing scenes from the life of Christ.  I’m sure you can think of ways it relates to this post, but honestly I just thought it was cool looking.  You can read about the artist here. Image courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

 

 

In Which I Offer the Reader So, So Much Penance

#1 Melanie Bettinelli’s aiming for a blog post a day during Lent, and I think I’m in.  Just as a goal, not as a penance.  I’m happier if I’m blogging.  So that’s like a good deed for my family?  Or something? We’ll see.

#2 I’m stalking my spot at the Register waiting for my rant about Lenten penances to show up.  Sooner or later it’s supposed to get there.  Meanwhile, here’s bonus content: There’s a nasty bit of contagion going around today about how the USCCB’s guidance for fasting isn’t really fasting, get it together you wimps.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the shocking world of people who can’t gain weight.  It’s a thing.  It’s an annoying thing, if you happen to be a person who is perfectly capable of storing away all kinds of emergency fuel reserves, and you must grocery shop and cook for the people whose bodies don’t do that.

I don’t have any particular difficulty fasting.  I dislike it.  I’d rather be eating.  But sure enough, unless I’m sick or pregnant or something, my body does a great job of saving up fat for future usage, and carefully doling out a ration of that stored energy if I happen to be not eating.

Not everyone’s body does that.  I live with people who have to plan, for serious, in order to get through a day doing the two little meals and the one normal meal, and yes they totally depend on the part about being able to have a glass of milk in between times.  It’s not about diet.  It’s about having a body that is wonderfully adapted to our world of abundance (unlike mine, which keeps insisting there could be a famine any minute, better stock up!), and very poorly adapted to fluctuations in food supply.

And get this: We have a priest shortage.  Thus the Church in her wisdom, rather than setting a bar ideal for the robust among us and directing those who need to do so to bother Father about a dispensation, has instead made it acheivable to do the minimum.

If you are able to do more than the minimum, I sure hope that’s what you’re doing today.  I also hope you’ve contrived to make sure it’s not so obvious what you’re up to.

#3 I used to be bothered by today’s Gospel, in which Jesus tells us to keep our fasting and prayers a secret, and then there we go getting ashes on our heads two minutes after. I’m over that now.

Jen Fitz, Self Portrait with Ashes on Forehead

Photo: Me with a sample of Fr. Gonzo’s latest artwork.

There’s two reasons why. The first is that the warning is about prayer and fasting, and listen guys, just because my body is in Mass doesn’t mean I’m praying, so that’s a big fat secret, and anyway how do you know I’m not spending the day having two ice cream bars and a giant plate of lasagna?  You don’t.  So I’m good.

Meanwhile . . . the thing about the ashes is that they aren’t a sign of holiness.  I’m sorry if someone got you all confused about that.  The annual application of ashes is like putting on a blanket apology to the world.  Yeah, I suck.  I know it.  Probably don’t know it enough, but I’m at least making a nod that direction?

So FYI, anyone at all can go get ashes.  If you’re wretched and you know it, Catholic Church has you covered.

#4 I’m thinking maybe I should post a selfie a day for Lent.  As penance for us all?

Ha.  Can’t decide if I’m kidding or not.

#5 Since I am no St. Therese, allow me to complain about church music for a bit.  There are two tunes that I have grown possessive about, in a case of sacredness-by-association.  Picardy, the setting for “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” is the first.  Once you’ve created a link between a catchy, soulful tune and a description of the absolutely most intimate moment between creature and Creator this side of Heaven, I just can’t bear to hear the tune co-opted for other, not-so-exalted topics.  Even if the lyrics in question are otherwise unobjectionable (and sometimes they are not, but there are limits to how much I’m willing to make you suffer today), that’s a no.

The other one, and this is where we get all Lenten, is Passion Chorale.  Please.  People.  I know that it’s not Good Friday yet.  I know that you have composed many lovely meditations on Lenten spirituality that have the same meter.  I get that you are trying to make a mental connection on this path to the cross or something.  You are wrong.  Wrong! Stop it!  Give me “Oh Sacred Head Surrounded” or give me silence.  Or a different tune, same meter, that’ll be fine.  There’s nothing wrong with your little Lenty-chit-chat dog ear poetry. But hands off Passion Chorale.  It’s taken.

#6 My husband wishes I would show up at church this evening to hear a rendition of this absolutely awesome music:

But here is the truth about me. This other little chant, which the cantor sung at Mass earlier today, was like getting a late Valentine:

One of my favorite songs.  I only know the chorus, and every year I mean to fix that, and maybe one day I will.  But it sure was easy to keep my Lenten smiley face up, just like Jesus says, with that for our ash-walk music.

Life is good.

How to Look Like a Saint While Heading to Hell*

Head’s up: This post is not g-rated, and it does dissect the allegations in a real abuse case.

To all but those few who knew his secrets, the news about Jean Vanier comes as a complete shock.  (Count me among the shocked).  How can this guy who did so much good — a guy who was seriously being considered for canonization — have been guilty of such crimes?

This is a question we can’t just set aside as impossible to answer.  It is not impossible to answer, and since sin didn’t go to the grave with this latest scandal, we have a responsibility to understand and act on the answer.  So, unpleasant though it be to launch into this topic right now, here are the three things that make it possible for an evangelist to live a double life.

#1 Stealth Predators Test the Waters

It doesn’t matter whether we are speaking of consensual affairs among willing adults or the most nefarious rape, if you want to live a double life, you have to move carefully.  Read this account of an abuse-survivor’s story to see how it’s done.  I chose this story in particular because it shows you exactly how a predator avoids detection (though in this case he got caught sooner rather than later), because we’re looking at a case where the predator tested the waters, fish got away, man had to move on.

What to note:

  • The predator (priest in this case) starts by building a trusting relationship.
  • Early on, the idea of secrecy or covert-ops is introduced (“tell your mom you’re seeing me for spiritual direction”).
  • The first abuse is an action that can be explained away.

Hence the insistence by the predator’s superiors that the abusive encounter was merely a “boundary violation.”  Let’s be clear: A man pressing his erect penis against a woman’s body, even through the barrier of clothing, is engaging in sexual activity.  No decent man will know he has an erection (this is not something men are unable to detect) and choose to physically press his pelvis against the body of a woman who is not his wife.

Legit foreplay for a married couple.  Not legit under any other circumstance, and no sane adult man is going to let a teenage girl become aware he has an erection by physically putting her in contact, even through clothing, with that part of his body.  Nope.

And yet we see in this sample case that the behavior gets excused.  Why? Because it was chosen by the predator for the ease with which he could wiggle away from the charges.  The girl was mistaken.  Either she doesn’t know what she’s talking about (because how does a young teen know what an erection is), or if she does know, then obviously she’s a hussy and she’s making a false accusation — bad family, dontcha know.  I’m concerned someone might be abusing her, and that’s why she’s acting out.  And gosh, I shouldn’t have hugged her, I shouldn’t have let her sit on my lap, it’s just that she reminded me so much of my niece, and she really seemed like she wanted a hug, and listen guys, I realize I had a lapse in judgment.  I’m so sorry.  I realize my mistake, and I’m not going to let it happen again.

A predator who gets away with his or her crimes is someone who operates carefully.

#2 Toxic People Choose to Surround Themselves with Enablers

Obviously the predator has to move beyond those initial tests.  So how do you get away with your abusive behavior when sooner or later word is bound to get out?  You do this by making sure that no one close to the facts is going to report.

To a toxic person, there are two types of people in the world: Those who will tolerate the abusive behavior and those who will not.  The non-tolerators are systematically removed from the toxic person’s circle of friends.

Much of this is self-chosen by the healthy person.  If you have a boss who underpays and overworks, the simplest thing to do is look for another job.  If that friend is always dragging you down with gossip and drama, you start hanging out with different friends.  If a relative is taking advantage of your generosity, you set firm boundaries.

In ministry, self-respecting volunteers and paid staff don’t stick around long if toxic people are in charge.  They move on early. Gradually, without ever having been caught at any serious crime, the predator-in-charge finds him or herself surrounded only by those who will, for whatever reason, look the other way at sinful behavior.

And of course the career-climbing predator has additional tools available to help clean out the org chart.  Whereas a holy person will not lie to sabotage a fellow employee, a skilled predator is well able to build a case against those who need to be eliminated.  An insinuation there, a careful retelling of the facts here, and next thing you know that volunteer who wouldn’t shut up about actually following child safety procedures is out the door.  Once you are in charge of a ministry, it’s easy enough to find some pretext for making a staffing or organizational decision to unload the contingent who gets in your way.

Reality to consider as we pray for our priests?  It is almost impossible for a pastor of souls to know what is really going on in his parish or diocese.  Unless he makes a powerful effort otherwise, his life is going to be saturated by the company of people who revel in winning the game of being part of the priest or bishop’s inner circle, and people who want to play that game are not healthy people. Thus even a holy man is likely to end up enabling toxic behavior — and it’s hard to be a holy man.

#3 The Devil is Prowling and Sinners Lie to Ourselves

Allow me to quote the St. Joseph’s Baltimore Catechism: Venial sin is worse than the measles.

As an expert sinner, let me tell you, it is very, very easy to talk yourself into sin.  Venial sin, mortal sin, all sin.  The smarter you are, the better you can be at making up rationalizations for why this sin here is not a sin at all, and that one over there is maybe just a teeny tiny sin, especially after you consider all the mitigating circumstances.

The degrading nature of sin is plain as day to those who aren’t caught up in the self-built snare of lies used to justify the sinful behavior. That’s why sin hates daylight.  When you suspect you are sinning, you work hard to hide to the sin.  Sometimes you do this by acting in secret; other times you camouflage the sin so it passes as no-big-deal. If it must be discussed, you come up with words and phrases that make the sin sound like something harmless, or perhaps even something healthy.

This does not mean that adultery is just the same as making a frowny-face at your husband when he interrupts your phone call.  This does not mean that abusing a child is the same thing as that time you let the kids have brownies for dinner.  What it means is that the more intentionally we engage in the battle against even our smallest sins, the more easily we can understand how people who are dedicated to a life of good can also be deceiving themselves into committing serious evils.

The teeny-tiny devil who helps us justify our little sins is just a miniature, cute-faced version of the big devil haunting the peripheries.  To commit a little sin, tell yourself a little lie. To commit a big sin, tell yourself a big lie.  Same process.

There is no easy solution to all this.

What we want is to be able to say, “Now that I understand how this happens, I can prevent it from ever happening again!”

Not so much.  All we can really control is our own behavior.  We can choose not to be complicit in corrupt activities.  We can grow in our own holiness so that we are more aware when someone else is pulling out the excuses to justify a sin. We can teach our children and other souls in our care how to recognize and avoid sin in ourselves and others.

To the extent that we have authority to do so, we can take steps to battle against the structures and excuses that enable serious sin to flourish.

Meanwhile, free will’s a bear.  Be as good as you can, help fight evil where you can, and then fast and pray.

That’s what you can do.

File:Bataille Waterloo 1815 reconstitution 2011 cuirassier.jpg

Photograph: French cuirassier during a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, courtesy of Wikimedia CC 3.0.

Related: Repentance, Mercy, and Prudence

*Lord willing, Jean Vanier repented of his sins and is now enjoying the delights of Heaven.  May we all benefit from the bountiful mercy of Jesus Christ who will do anything He can, even die for us, that we each might be saved from our two worst enemies.

Transplaining J.K. Rowling

Quick update: Rod Dreher has excerpts of the ruling against Maya Forstater, if you wish to know what all the fracas is about.  Read it.  Forstater’s crimes are thought crimes and speech crimes.  Is this the society you want?

***
For insight into the state of the culture war, here’s Katelyn Burns at Vox explaining that J.K. Rowling, the poor dear, just doesn’t know any better because she’s been raised by those dreadful backwards British feminists.  Holds onto these horribly unscientific ideas about gender and biological sex, dontcha know.

Full Disclosure: I am one of seven people on the planet who have no opinion whatsoever about the Harry Potter books.  Haven’t read ’em, don’t plan to, don’t care if other people do or don’t. Not my genre.  As a result, I’m in that rare position of not caring, one bit, whether J.K. Rowling and I agree on issues dear to my heart.  But weirdly, she’s been caught holding an opinion not unlike* my own:

Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill

So let’s talk about her need to Woke Up!

Feminism is a Big Tent

The group of people (and I’m one of them) who believe men and women should have equal rights is an extremely large and varied population.  We have, at times, different ideas about what “equal rights” looks like in both theory and practice.  There are sharp divides over questions such as whether women should have lots of children (I think women should be free to do so), whether they should stay home to rear those children (I think women should be free to do so), and whether one ought to practice distinctive gender roles within marriage (I think women should be free to do so).

So it is no surprise that the varied group of persons calling themselves feminist, and holding in some general way to a belief in equal rights for women, would be divided on the question of where male-to-female transgender persons fit into this equation.

Are There Things Only Women Experience?

One of the divides among feminists is about what exactly the female experience is, and how it plays out in society.  Are there power imbalances between men and women?  If so, where and how do they occur?  How does one’s experience of being a woman vary based on social class, race, wealth, education, political power, physical ability . . . all these questions are dealt with by feminist thinkers in varying ways.

And most importantly, feminism has from its inception looked at the question of What does it mean to say someone is a woman?  What does it mean to say someone or something is feminine?

One answer, and the answer to which I and many other women (and men) hold is that something is feminine by simple fact that a woman experiences it.

The Fight Against Gender Stereotypes

We who hold this view do so for logical reasons, but also for reasons seated at the very foundation of the feminist movement.  In fighting for equal rights, a significant hurdle to overcome was the challenge that xyz items (legal status, political power, equal pay, certain jobs . . . and the list gets longer and more absurd the more restrictive the culture) were not open to women, or appropriate for women, because it wasn’t “feminine.”

This leads to experiences like my beautiful, stylish, teenage daughter dropping in at Lowe’s Hardware this week to buy more flashing tape for the construction job going on at our house . . . and being directed to the command hooks.  Yes, she is in the middle of a DIY project  — but it’s not hanging knick-knacks, thanks.  She eventually helped the employees find the product and showed them how to scan the barcode on the box, because she knew what she wanted and they’d never heard of it.

Is construction a “feminine” activity?  Well there’ve been female contractors on all the crews that came to our house, and the parts we’re doing ourselves keep involving me and my daughters . . . so I say yes.  The fight of the feminist movement is to not be told Honey you need to leave that dangerous, dirty construction stuff to the men, it’s not for people like you.

The Experience of Being a Woman is Distinctive

Some of what feminists write about is experiences like this one, where, due to societal prejudice, people still assume girls like my daughter couldn’t possibly know what flashing tape is or how to use it.  Other experiences are distinctively feminine regardless of culture: Menstruation, intercourse as a woman, childbirth, breastfeeding, weaning, menopause . . . these are uniquely feminine experiences.

Cultures vary, and so do the experiences of individuals within a culture.  When we look at situations like the hardware store example, there may well be men who can relate in some way to my daughter’s experience; there may also be women who never experience that low-level bless your heart prejudice.

Likewise, not all women experience their reproductive sexuality in the same way.  There are situations where a given man and a given women might find more in common with each other than they do with some other men or other women.  It happens.

Still, and this is the assertion of the strand of feminism that I and J.K. Rowling appear to have in common, there are certain experiences that are distinctive to being female, and should not be explained away.

Where Does This Leave the Male-to-Female Transgender Person?

Here is an interesting story from those who are old enough to remember a time when transgender wasn’t a thing, we just had drag queens and transvestites and dinosaurs: Back in those days, no one was paying attention to who used what bathroom.  If you looked like a woman, you used the ladies’ room, done.

Passing was everything, of course.  “Success” was the friends sitting out on our porch, he a man of variable sexual interests, his date a man in drag, and our housemate coming in late, chatting for a few minutes, and the next day asking, “Who was that?  A couple from church?”  Well, no.  Good friends, but not church-friends, heh.

Now it is clearly on record that I do not hold that the correct treatment for gender dysphoria is an attempt at a sex change.  But allow me to assert something that I think is important in respecting people who experience gender dysphoria, whether they consider themselves transgender or anything else: Other people who have not been there don’t know what it’s like.

Other people might be able to relate, to some extent, because they have had analogus experiences in some other context.  But to be a man who feels strongly that he is a woman? To be a man who undergoes any number of personal changes in a sincere attempt to embody the womanhood he feels is his own?  That is a unique experience.

It is not the same as having the privilege and ease of being born with a female body.  It is not the same as growing up with a firm sense of your masculinity or femininity.  It is not the same as going through life with the whole world agreeing with you about what your gender is or should be.  It is not the same as showing up in the ER and doctors just know what to expect from your body where sexual differences are concerned.

Can Harry Potter Feminism Serve Transgender Persons?

Among the many strains of feminism in the big tent, there’s a brand that I and many women have rejected.  This brand says that “equality” means men and women must be the same. I need to surpress my fertility, pretend not to have a period, show indifference to motherhood, and all the while prove to the world that I’m just as strong and mathematical and scientific as any man.  (In fact I am more mathematical than most of the men I went to grad school with, but that’s not what confers equal rights — theirs or mine.)

I find this abhorrent.  My equal worth as a woman doesn’t depend on my ability to pass myself off as smaller, pudgier, breast-laden man.  My right to equal pay for equal work doesn’t depend on my supressing my fertility or weaning my baby prematurely.  I don’t deserve to be treated with respect only if I can somehow prove that I don’t experience “girl” emotions or “girl” interests.

We who hold that the experience of being born a woman is distinctive, valuable, and deserving of equal rights and equal respect don’t subscribe to the “woman are defective men” theory of gender differences.  Femininity informs many aspects of our lives, but it is not what gives us equal rights.  Being human is what gives us equal rights.

I assert that for transgender persons, this kind of feminism is not the enemy.  This is the path to genuine respect and genuine equality.  On this path, the unique experiences of being transgender are not brushed away.  Your worth as a human being is not measured in how well you “pass” as the gender you identify with.  To openly acknowledge that being a male-to-female transgender person is different from being born female is to get off the hamster wheel of forever having to prove yourself “woman enough.”

Shall We Cancel Harry Potter?

I don’t expect many beyond my ordinary readership will find this point of view persuasive.  We are living in an age of soundbite philosophy.  Logic and the examined life are, at present, out of fashion — and the fashion police are vicious.  The idea that one could have an honest opponent, or even an opponent whose freedom of speech is worth preserving? Unthinkable.

So J.K. Rowling may or may not hold up in the twitterstorm.  If she does, perhaps Harry Potter becomes one of those embarrassing franchises now requiring the cultural-safety warning.  Perhaps, in one of those twists only our warped times can produce,  Chik-Fil-A starts issuing wizard cows.  Who’s to say?

But I’m grateful there are still a few voices championing the strain of old-school feminism on which I was raised, because I believe it’s a point of view that serves all men and women well.

File:Sojourner Truth, 1870 (cropped).tif

Photograph of Sojourner Truth, whose “Ain’t I a Woman” speeches should be mandatory reading on this topic, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

 

*I am somewhat flexible on the question of whom you sleep with, but I think you ought to save sex for your faithfully wedded spouse.  But let’s not get into the co-sleeping debate, okay?