Against the Theater of Nihilism: On Charlottesville and the Universalism of Human Dignity

"When Judge Douglas says that whoever, or whatever community, wants slaves, they have a right to have them, he is perfectly logical if there is nothing wrong in the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong."

--Abraham Lincoln, October 13, 1858, Debate at Quincy, Illinois


What saves social-media condemnation of racism from being an exercise in circular self-satisfaction, or from being a stalking horse for the denigration of other human beings in turn?

Not the happenstantial assertion of a fashionable opinion, but the reality that every single human being, from conception on, bears the ineradicable dignity of creation in the image of God, redemption in Christ, and destination to Trinitarian communion: it is that reality, characterizing every instance of the human species as such, every incarnation of the one, universal human nature, which requires the rejection of racism, without qualification.

But when positivism supplants the universal reality of natural law and supernatural fact, then even when the sum is right (condemnation of racism), the addends and the consequents will bear within them anti-human exigencies, isomorphic with racist positivism.

That is, if identity politics is one's reason for condemning racism, then we have one identitarianism confronting another, and Hegel has shown that that means a struggle to the death. There can be no peace when tribes go to war, unless one destroy the other.

The only true condemnation of racism comes from recognition of universal facts: the human, as such, must be respected and protected--universal human dignity, not identity politics.

Getting this right is essential if we are not to forget dignity in turn. Our Constitution is wholly determined by the natural-law commitments of our Declaration: EACH human is endowed with certain inalienable rights--above all, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

There are several implications:

1) We won't seek to destroy the lives of those we oppose. Of course, those who would harm must be disempowered. But they must always be loved. We certainly don't want to break another human being. That's the work of demons, not of saints.

2) We won't forget that there are no permanent enemies on earth. Our conduct in trying to restrain the criminal will be as mild as can be. This is a basic principle of ius in bello. It is a Christian and a human imperative.

3) We won't use the condemnation of racism as a means to weaponize political disagreement. That is, if we recognize the natural-law basis for giving racism no quarter, we won't assume those who vote differently are evil, because recognition of the inherent dignity of our fellow human requires us to give the best possible construction of his or her behavior. And, in politics, there are all kinds of things we will miss (from social positioning--our own and that of those we grapple with--to differing apprehensions of a world more subtle than our ability to keep up with, especially if we aren't in the habit of reading great books, imbibing great art, walking in the woods, and giving thanks for the world.) Recognition of the dignity and equality of our enemies will reinforce our so necessary humility.

White supremacy may be the stupidest ideology in the sorry roll-call of ideologies. There is nothing to be said for it. This is strangely impressive: there are all kinds of truths and moral imperatives jumbled up, say, in the murderous system of communism. No such luck with white supremacism. It asymptotically approximates (as it seems to get stupider as time goes on) that great unicorn of the history of ideas: what Lonergan would call a pure counterposition.

But meeting such lunacy with a mirror ideological positivism of another group resentment is the coming of a storm in which all cows are wet. Simple self-assertion versus recognition of universal equality and inherent dignity: one leads to the nihilistic collapse of common life; the other, to the healing of our social body.

[Because of our devotion to the dignity of all, we pray for the dead, especially for the repose of the soul of Heather Heyer, who stood before the murderousness to which tribalism leads.]