By Daniel Fitzpatrick
Daniel Fitzpatrick is the author of the novel Only the Lover Sings. His new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, illustrated by sculptor Timothy Schmalz, was published last year in honor of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. His nonfiction study of the sabbath and acedia, Pharaoh Within, is forthcoming this year from Sophia Institute Press. He lives in Tampa with his wife and three children.
The reasons for despairing of American discourse so abound that any point of common ground must be immediately hallowed. Such commonalities, the shared intellectual real estate of the American mind, are scarcer even than actual homes in today’s outrageous market. It would seem that about all we can agree on is that our method of discourse is broken. There are two sides to every argument in America: the side of those who are right, and that of those who are not only wrong but also stupid, evil, and probably ugly. And ya can’t fix ugly.
A key feature of this systemic breakdown in conversation is a forgetfulness of the difference between contradiction and contrariety. Both indicate opposition, yet while contradiction forbids the mutual coexistence of opposites, contrariety freely admits it.
The distinction flows from the principle of noncontradiction, which states that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time. I cannot, for instance, be both dead and alive. I cannot be awake and asleep. I cannot be in both Tampa and Porto. On the other hand, a single being or organization can consist of many contrary principles. A plant may be both green and white, though not at any one point. Likewise, the hand is contrary to the head, the general to the lieutenant, and the husband to his wife. St. Michael is contrary to Michelangelo, who is contrary to Fido, who is contrary to a rose. All are contrary to God.
Any organization consists of contrary parts directed to one aim. Consider a dog. Its nose, tongue, and paws all work for survival. Likewise, while an army is directed by its highest member, the general, to the single end of victory, every subordinate member plays a role that is opposed in kind to the others but directed to that end as well.
In the rhetoric of the social mediascape which dominates public discourse, all opposition is perceived as contradictory, such that all propositions become disjunctive. One can support either a conservative politician or the dignity of women. One can eat meat or be environmentally conscious. Republican or Democrat. Open-minded or religious. etc., etc., world without end.
Similar disjuncts appear in matters of opinion and speech. We are told that the right to think critically is restricted to those qualified by anatomy, education, or skin color. No uterus, no opinion. Not a biologist? No opinion. Privileged? No opinion. The assumption is that the qualities which distinguish people set them in contradictory relationships. Woman negates man. Biologist negates layperson. Democrat negates Republican.
In a Darwinian universe, each gender, creed, profession, phenotype, and word competes with all others to death. Banished is the thought that all men and women could comprise one genus operating together toward the end of happiness in such virtue as leads to contemplation of the Love that moves the universe. Rather, each must cancel or be canceled in the desperate seizure of the limited pool of resources that alone can supply a happy life succeeded by a bitter death.
So profound has this insistence on the contradictory nature of all opposition become that contradiction itself no longer presents a logical problem. Many would hold each of the following statements true: Only someone with a uterus can have an opinion about abortion. Having a uterus does not make someone a woman. Only a biologist can define womanhood. Men can have children.
Our default standpoint, contradiction having been established as the rule of relationships, is adversarial. While driving home from work in the last week, I have seen a bumper sticker that read “F— your feelings,” another which counseled that I could take the driver’s guns from his cold, dead hands, and—mirabile dictu—the disembodied white glove of Mickey Mouse giving me the finger. In general, we seem to think that things will come to blows anyway, so we might as well get in a good first punch.
We have come to this pass in part because of our political system. The two parties, unchallenged, are locked in a contest for power. Power knows no allegiance to truth or goodness, which become mere expedients. Neither party seeks the good; both seek to win, and the fuel of their victory is the opinion of the American people.
By reducing all issues to contradiction, those in power turn complex fields of decision into buttons to be pressed to galvanize opinion. Thus, abortion, prayer, immigration, race, and so on become wedges for the division and collocation of votes.
The narratives which are constructed around such issues are designed to enforce this sense of contradiction and to ensure that we feel it is not only our opinion but our very being which is in danger of dissolution. Either the child or the woman must die. Either we must build a border wall or our families and economies will be destroyed.
The arguments devolve quickly into casuist insanity. We are told that access to abortion saves women’s lives, while the children killed are conveniently ignored. We are told that some twenty-five mothers may die over the course of 100,000 live births, whereas at most one mother will die per 100,000 abortions; the 100,000 dead children are quietly passed over. We are even reminded of the Jewish gynecologist Gisella Perl, who by committing abortions in Auschwitz saved pregnant Jewish women from immediate removal to the gas chambers. Can we not detect a hint of delirium when we look to the Nazi death camps for support of our sexual ethics?
We would be better off simply admitting our position: we like abortion because it gives us a free pass out of the consequences of our actions. I myself, writing this sentence, cringe because I have been conditioned to cringe at such unnuanced responses to situations demanding the utmost empathy. Yet the empaths are usually the ones screaming in people’s faces, and those who claim to be motivated by the love of all people tend to think almost everyone is an unmitigated son of a bitch. We are told that America is failing because the majority is not allowed to exercise its rule. And yet, to judge from Twitter, the majority of us think that the majority of us are unutterably stupid.
Yet we ought to give the benefit of the doubt where we can. Many who support abortion see it as a necessary evil. They pray for a day when the conditions which demand abortion will be vanquished, when health services, maternity leave, and child care will be available to all who need them.
Nonetheless, the assumptions underlying these arguments remain that economics must be the guiding principle of life, that the government must play the role of utopian arranger, and that what we do not want or do not plan cannot possibly work to our good.
What if we could ensure that children were loved, that women could flourish in all their capacities, and that men would be steadfast? Such assurance exists in the family founded on sacramental marriage in imitation of the Holy Trinity. The culture of contradiction sees in sacramental marriage the cancellation of the self, whereas the complementarity of self to spouse and soul to God forms a unity-in-difference in which the contrariety of man and woman mutually leads each to a beatific end.
Contradiction counsels, “eat, drink, seize each other for your pleasure; tomorrow the children die.” Sacramental marriage creates a space of self-gift in which children become an extension of the gift itself so that in marriage the self is not only limited (in the way that all perfection demands limitation) but extended and multiplied. Here, at last, is the flesh of my flesh and, from this union, flesh in yet greater abundance.
These are antiquated notions. The world ran on through the smoke of the Shoah and left them behind, assuming they perished with the rest but possessed of a lingering fear that they might appear again, writhing like Lazarus in his death clothes after four days in the grave. Have the new ways freed us? Do men adhere to their vows? Are women secure?
It is likely that our situation would improve most through the harmonization of family structures and governmental securities. But our governmental system has established a culture of contradiction in which, they assure us, we cannot have both. We can only have one party or the other. Life or women’s rights. Us or them. You or me.
Abortion is the key weapon in their arsenal because it is by its nature a ground of contradiction. Either children may be killed as needed or not. And, so the logic seems to go, if Americans cannot sufficiently heave themselves off their selfish behinds to demand policies that eradicate all sin and suffering, the mill must turn.
But perhaps the big government itself benefits most from abortion. The social changes demanded by the democratic platform may be kept in abeyance as long as abortion lets the government off the hook. Why bother providing health services, childcare, and education when it’s so much cheaper to subsidize Planned Parenthood? Why award eighteen years of child tax credits when we can simply erase the child? Why cede control of women’s bodies?
As long as we live on the contradiction of life and death, the contrariety whereby we may advance toward happiness is inaccessible. A united stand for truth, for goodness, for the inalienable dignity of women and children, would be the greatest means at America’s disposal to put a government that has ridden through the blood of sixty-seven million of its people back in its place as servant to our well-being.
In the ensuing political atmosphere, we could again discuss the best means of securing ourselves, our families, and our happiness against an enemy who has so far won the day to the point that we are convinced he never existed. From the beginning he has chosen contradiction; he has said to the face of all beatitude, “either you or me.” The days of his rebellion are numbered, and woe to those who see his dying rage.