Saturday, March 24, 2012

Normal People, Bullies, and Totalitarians

Philosopher Stephen J. Heaney draws some interesting and useful distinctions in a piece at The Public Discourse. On every issue, it seems, there are three types of people on a particular side - "normal" people, bullies, and totalitarians. Our public controversies and the will of the people are often thwarted, distorted, and vitiated by the fact that there are too many bullies and totalitarians and not enough normal people populating the public square and occupying positions of power in government.

Here's part of his essay:
The normal person who wants to use contraceptives is glad he can purchase them and use them without interference. The bully smears the name of those who oppose contraceptive use by impugning their moral integrity or calling their thinking outdated. The totalitarian insists that even people and institutions opposed in conscience to the use of contraceptives must purchase them.

The normal person who claims to be pro-choice is glad that abortion rights have been obtained. The bully rallies the troops to force charitable organizations to donate money to abortion providers, threatening the charity’s very existence if it does not comply. The totalitarian insists that every OB/GYN perform abortions, or get out of the profession.

The normal person who approves same-sex marriage is glad that same-sex marriage is available. The bully tries to silence his opponents by calling them bigots, and trying to shut down their businesses. The totalitarian insists that government officials, and ministers of various faiths who oppose same-sex marriage, must nonetheless open up their facilities to such ceremonies, and even perform these ceremonies, or face the consequences of the law.

The normal person who approves of same-sex marriage, or abortion, or contraceptive use is only too happy that, if he desires, he can provide charitable services to others in the manner he thinks best, and is content to let others provide those same services in the manner they think best. The bully will shut off funding to those who refuse, for moral reasons, to provide the full range of services he would like to see. The totalitarian will make it illegal to fail to provide this full range of services, even though far fewer people are now served, because many charitable providers have been driven out of business.
Heaney also distinguishes between "good" and "bad" totalitarians:
The typical totalitarian fails to make, or even disdains, certain distinctions concerning conscience. One such distinction is that between what I must (or must never) do, and what I may do but am not required to do.

Let us say, for example, that a law is put in place saying that no one may eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I like PBJs, and prefer to eat them occasionally, though I am not morally bound to eat them. We would probably say that this law is unreasonable, unfair, and a serious economic blow to the makers of peanut butter and jelly and all their related industries. However, it would make little sense to say that it violates my conscience.

If, on the other hand, my beliefs prohibit me from ever eating PBJs, then a law that demanded that I eat them would be a gross violation of my conscience.

The “bad” totalitarian is often acutely aware of the difference between these situations. In fact, he often knows that what he is doing is wrong, and is counting on getting others to do it as well, so as to cover for his own evil.

The “good” totalitarian, however, is unable or unwilling to make a distinction between these situations. All he sees is that I don’t want to do what he wants me to do. It makes no difference to him whether I don’t want to eat the sandwiches, or I don’t want to stop eating them.

The totalitarian apparently figures that, if it was reasonable for the law to stop him from doing what his conscience permitted — say, buying contraceptives — because his position was not reflected in the law, then it is equally reasonable for the law to make you do what your conscience does not permit — say, buying contraceptives — because he is in power. Since his position is so clearly good, he reasons, it must be accepted by all.
The totalitarian doesn't care about your conscience. He cares only about your compliance.
One conscience, one will: this is the demand of such a regime. The individual must become absolutely one with the totality. The normal person will respect your human rights. The bully will run roughshod over your human rights. The totalitarian needs you to repudiate your human rights.

Nor will such tactics end with one or two violations. Operatio sequitur esse: a thing can only act according to what it is. The totalitarians of this world are not petty thugs. They are intellectuals with a vision, and they will see their vision enacted, no matter who they have to run over, because they are certain it is good for you.
Read the rest of his column at the link. I leave it to the reader to decide where President Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would fit in Heaney's taxonomy.