What are we to make of cruelty in our culture? At one level, there is demonstrably less cruelty on a daily basis. Many hundreds of years ago, before the emergence of a common civil law, settled governments, and national boundaries, villages were often overrun by roving bands of plunderers or the armies of nearby towns. Feudal lords or landed families were either venting grievances or seeking to increase their territory. City-states had high walls, moats, and embattlements for a reason. Brutality, rape, torture, banishment, pillaging, and enslavement were common features of the ancient world and continued well into the 16th Century in Europe and even to this very day in some parts of the world.
With the emergence of civil law and more common standards of justice (thanks in part to the Church), along with more settled nation-states and boundaries, order in daily life, of the kind not experienced since the Pax Romana, began to develop.
Few of us today fear to venture outside our cities, which no longer have protective walls, or far from our homes. A drive out in the country is not something we undertake with trepidation, wondering if we will ever return.
And yet from the perspective of a “body count,” we have never lived in bloodier times. Even as we call ourselves “civilized” we kill in numbers unimaginable to the ancient world or feudal Europe. In the 20th century alone, tens of millions were killed in the two world wars. And the dead were not found only on the battlefields, but in fire-bombed and carpet-bombed cities as well. “Civilized” Germany ran death camps that killed millions more. The “Cold War” that followed World War II and atheistic communism killed millions more. Even by conservative estimates, some 200 million people died in the 20th century for ideological reasons: at the hands of Stalin, Mao, and Pohl Pot, and as a result of wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Korea. The 20th century was surely the bloodiest century this world has ever known.
Add to this the cruelest killing of all, in numbers almost unfathomable: abortion. Whatever euphemism we may wish to use (“reproductive choice,” “women’s healthcare,” etc.), the fact remains that abortion is a brutal thing. Infants are scalded to death by saline or dismembered by suction. And regardless of what women are told or what they think going in, no post-abortive woman I have ever spoken with would describe abortion as anything less than an act of terrible violence. They themselves are also the victims of the lies and euphemisms. Reality hits hard.
The recently released undercover Planned Parenthood videos show the brutality and the callous disregard for human life and dignity in some people. The actions of Planned Parenthood are reprehensible, but not surprising. When a person or an organization unrepentantly engages in any objectively sinful practice, the sin has a way of growing, and the darkness and rationalizations get ever deeper. And if this is the case with lesser sins, how much more so with the extremely grave sin of unrepentantly killing infants in the womb.
Planned Parenthood’s organizational response to the videos, while less glib than the “doctors” in the videos, demonstrates a lack of remorse and no desire to end the practice. But what remorse can we expect from Planned Parenthood when it supports and profits from the killing of over 300,000 infants a year?
Yes, in this country the darkness is growing ever deeper in many hearts. And thus we see the most abominable practices celebrated by those who have lost their moorings, who lack even simple human tenderness toward the most innocent among us: our infants. Many even justify selling aborted infants for the sake of “medical research.”
So here is the great paradox of cruelty in our times. At one level we experience less brutal and random violence. Law and order, national boundaries, etc. have reduced the daily violence that most (not all) of us experience. Indeed, we talk endlessly and to a fault about being kind and “nice” and of the obligation not to hurt anyone’s feelings. We lament the killing of whales, the baby seals, and Cecil the lion. And yet, by the numbers, we are more brutal and cruel than ever. While we call ourselves civilized, the numbers show that the modern world is a killing machine the likes of which the world has never known.
In pondering the enormous violence in a culture that talks “nice” and prizes tolerance and kindness, Dr. Peter Kreeft makes a valuable observation:
How [is our civilization] weak? Not technologically … not intellectually … Nor are we morally weaker. I do not think we are necessarily more wicked than our ancestors overall. True, we are less courageous, less honest with ourselves, less self-disciplined, and obviously less chaste than they were. But they were more cruel, intolerant, snobbish, and inhumane than we are. They were better at the hard virtues; we are better at the soft virtues. …
But though we are not weaker in morality, we are weaker in the knowledge of morality … We know more about what is less than ourselves, but less about what is more than ourselves. When we act morally, we are better than our philosophy … Our ancestors were worse than theirs. Their problem was not living up to their principles. Ours is not having any.
We talk a good game of ethics … but it has the effect of an inoculation. [Professing] a little ethics or pseudo ethics we build up an immunity to the real thing. Those who obviously have no ethics … are ripe for conversion. Those who seem to have ethics but actually do not [because they have merely inoculated themselves from true ethics by a little ethics] are comfortably ensconced in illusion (Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue, Ignatius Press, 1992, pp. 23-32).
Kreeft’s basic explanation for our paradoxical “kind, yet brutal” culture comes down to an analogy of immunization. In immunization we “inoculate” ourselves. That is, we take a little portion of a disease in order to avoid the whole disease. Taking this little portion immunizes us and helps us to resist the big portion.
And thus those who use a little ethics, i.e., selective ethics, take it as something relatively harmless and less demanding than the whole of ethics or morality, which they shun like a disease. So, they take a little ethics (and selective ethics at that) and then congratulate themselves for being tolerant, kind, and nice, ignoring the rest of ethics and morality with its more frightening, consistent, and sweeping demands.
Yes, have a little ethics, get congratulated, and ignore the rest. Tell folks that you love the whales and think the poor should be fed; be polite and kind to most people, and you’re inoculated. Now, never mind that you are unchaste, think abortion should be legal, think that the selling of body parts obtained by killing is OK or even virtuous. No, never mind any of that. You are inoculated and therefore immune from the “disease” of a full moral vision. Indeed, those who do have the full symptoms of the full “disease” of morality and ethics are referred to with the disease-like term, “fanatic.”
Yes, what are we to make of the cruelty in our culture? Why is there such an astonishing death toll in a culture in which kindness and politeness are so prized? What are we to make of a culture that eschews violence and yet finds it even debatably “OK” to crush infants in the womb “carefully” and then harvest their organs? What are we to make of a culture that thinks it’s OK to abort infants at all, while we still talk about justice and fairness out of the other side of our mouth?
I think Dr. Kreeft’s analogy with inoculation helps explain some of the paradox. Our kindness and politeness, our sense of “civil” discourse, and our rejection of localized violence, good in themselves, are taken by many like an inoculation to immunize them from the broader expectations of a fully biblical morality or natural law ethics. Some think and would say, “I’ve done a little. I hold to the minimally correct, publicly approved view. I’m inoculated. So now leave me alone and take your fanatical and diseased extremism out of here.”
Little things may mean a lot, but not if they are used to exclude and excuse one from the greater. In this case, the good is the enemy of the perfect. And hence our politely cruel culture.