There are dozens of issues obviously related to my account of sin and guilt that I am reluctant to pass over. My opinions on these issues are not particularly important, but I don’t want the reader to interpret silence on certain questions (obvious and important questions with a natural relation to the theme of the essay) as support for some particular stance. Being misunderstood is fine (salutary, builds character!) but if a reader misread my stance on A as my answer to looming question B, he might misinterpret everything else as a result. I must deny what I do not affirm! But I also do not have time to discuss these issues in an organized or coherent way. I’m rattling of a list of positions.
Trust and suspicion
When I say that guilt, as an assessment of how likely a perpetrator is to re-offend and thus to need deterrence, should begin and end at punishment for his latest crime, I do not mean that you should give an ex-con the keys to your house. Even in the cases of people who have never committed any crime, it is perfectly fine to trust friends more than strangers. A fortiori, it’s reasonable to trust friends more than criminal strangers (and to trust misdemeanor offenders more than hardened felons, and so on). A crime committed by a friend should also shake your faith in him, particularly if you did not believe him capable of such a thing. His guilt only extends to the punishment of his crime, but conversely your duty to give him a second chance only extends to letting go of any claim to vengeance for his past. If you are concerned he might commit a crime in the future, you need not forgive him for that, and indeed cannot and should not.
Take whatever steps you need to take for your security, just as you would against any perfectly innocent stranger.
Rule of law
Much of what I say assumes, as an abstraction, a healthy society where criminals are caught and sentences are severe. In the complete absence of rule of law, deterrence is impossible, evil men openly parade their guilt as a testimony to their strength, and hatred, feuds, and vendettas are inevitable. Wherever the rule of law has weakened to the point that criminals brag and ex-cons habitually re-offend, there is sufficient reason to be permanently angry at the criminal class.
To say that we punish the sin, only, is not to say that we cannot shame sinners for their sins. We admire and despise people for strengths and weaknesses that are not morally blameworthy at all, so it is no surprise that we shame people for their sins. Shame might even be considered part of the punishment or a natural consequence of the punishment, but it is a complicated issue; and how to combine scorn for sins with love for the sinner’s many other traits is not just complicated to discuss, but extremely difficult to get right in practice.
Yes, we need to shame people at a social level (in order to discourage shameful behavior). No, we can’t make exceptions for our friends and political allies; their behavior is shameful too. But we don’t need to make that the alpha & omega either. Shaming someone for his failings can be one part of political camaraderie, along with admiration for his strengths and loyalty to one another.
Try to use fatties as your template. Fatties (gluttons) are funny. Sometimes you shame fatties for being fat because you’re not as nice as you should be. Sometimes you tease them because they’re your friends. You don’t stop thinking someone is fat just because he has done good things for your movement; in fact, you may neg him harder, because in some cases he may act as a representative of everyone in the entire movement, and you want him to make a good impression.
Even if you won’t neg the fatty yourself, you should be (quietly) grateful that whenever there’s infighting, people mock his obesity — it might help him get his act together (especially if you supplement with positive reinforcement), but at the very least it will discourage others who are tempted by gluttony. A tiny bit of mutual nastiness helps keep everyone in line. It’s better that people hear that they have a problem from a friend than from a rival, and better from a friendly rival than from a political opponent.
If his obesity were particularly shameful, no one would respect him, and that might unfit him for leadership roles. But he would have to be a pretty disgusting glutton before you decided you would prefer to kick him out of the movement entirely.
There is a continuum from being contrite about a past sin to being heartless; a continuum from occasional lapses into the same sin and a lifestyle built around that sin; a continuum from defensiveness about one’s sins to militant advocacy for the sin. Just as punishment no longer extinguishes guilt when the rule of law collapses and the penal system ceases to function, we cannot move from hating the sin to loving the sinner when the sinner openly glories in his intention to sin again.
But (as I mentioned in part 4), people don’t always agree about which sins are sins, how far the borders of a particular sin extend, what the appropriate punishment for a given sin is, or even why it is sinful. And then we have the duty to avoid temptations and occasions of sin — how to judge these drags us
Remember, what is repellent about a sinner’s lack of contrition is not the sin (that can be punished) and not the sinner (picture Trump: We love our sinners, we have the best sinners, don’t we?) but the fact that he is perversely and openly glorying in his sin. What renders a sinner who shows no contrition unacceptable is his perversity, his casual malice — not the specific sin or the harm he did by it. From a theological point of view, erroneous principles, guilty self-deception, and perverse malice all lead to the same conclusion: the sinner does not turn away from sin. But a political party isn’t the Church. From a social point of view it is only the pervert who needs to be purged from a healthy community before he can infect it.
Secrecy and hypocrisy
On the whole, when sins are not public knowledge and are not severe enough to require public punishment, it is better not to have people unburdening their conscience in public, confessing sins to crowds, weeping and whining on camera about all the terrible things they’ve done — because this normalizes sin, for one thing. One reason people keep their sins secret is to evade punishment and shame, but if they have been honest with anyone who needs to know, discretion is appropriate. Shame is, after all, mostly a desire to hide what is ugly; moral exhibitionism seems to start out as vigilant self-denunciation, but it culminates in shamelessness.
But this too is a complex issue, because discretion can create misunderstandings, the exceptionally discreet and judicious can be mistaken for angels, and sinners with a lively sense of their own failings can taken as hypocrites for their fiery denunciations of the very sins they are most guilty of. These challenges become particularly contentious when the sins of men in positions of authority are revealed; suspicions of hypocrisy give way to fears of subversion.
I have no answers here. Typically rank-and-file members are discreet about their sins, as is proper to their obscurity, and then steadily gain reputation and seniority and one day realize they are no longer rank-and-file. By that time, they have followers they care about who would be disappointed if any of their hidden weaknesses or abnormalities were revealed, and crushed by their hidden sins. They redouble their secrecy to protect their followers, only to then find that their followers find the secrecy as prima facie evidence of conspiracy and deception.
I can’t blame the suspicious followers for this! At that point, they know they’ve been deceived, and they don’t know why. They have to treat the hypocritical leader as a potential subversive (as a warning to others, if nothing else) until the opposite can be proven. The only solution I can see is to make it clear, from the beginning:
- …that just as mankind sins greatly, our political party is fully of sinners;
- … that sinners should show proper shame and keep their sins private;
- … that sin, which has been part of the human estate since the Fall of Man, is not by itself grounds for expulsion from one’s party;
- … that as partisans find themselves in positions of greater responsibility where their good character (and in particular, their honor) starts to matter more, they will become privately more open about their flaws with peers and superiors;
- … who can take then react appropriately.
Of course, another solution would be to stop sinning entirely. Barring that, let’s remember to love the sinner, and leave punishment to someone else.
Trade-offs between severity and charity
People may object that “loving the sinner” simply will not work if it sends the wrong message to the public. In other words, you have to take a properly intolerant and outrageously unhinged attitudes towards degenerates you catch in your own ranks, in order to appear serious and consistent.
That’s possible. But the main thing is to remember is that by moving on to the political consequences of other people noticing how we treat certain types of sinners, you’ve conceded that this is a tactical decision, not a moral one. How the rest of the world reacts to our comrade’s sin is a separate question from how well he performs his role (and balancing the utility of a spectacular banishment against the utility of keeping him on is a separate question, yet again, from how sever the sin really was).
Conceivably, there could be cases where the preservation of a movement’s political ecology doesn’t matter that much, and there are huge gains you can realize from a messy, dramatic purge. In fact, in some cases the trade-off might mean you should pretend to be angry at a sin which, in reality, you have forgiven completely. Maybe (depending on your attitudes towards political subterfuge, which is an entirely different topic) it would even make sense to have someone pretend to sin, to provide you with the appropriate occasion for a suitably photogenic purge.
Maybe. I want to underline that I consider a situation where you need to purge someone you would otherwise like to forgive to send the right message to the general public highly unlikely. I granted the premise to point out that the premise already accepts the foundation of my argument. But the reality is that when people see a purge in a political movement, it makes the movement look weak, divided, and amateurish. Look at the situation with Mike E. this week (which was, by the way, certainly not a sin): look at how our enemies are crowing about it. So far as I know, Mike wasn’t forced to do anything. I assume he voluntarily is taking a break while he has to deal with the personal fall-out from the doxxing and everything gets straightened out at TRS, but still they are using it as an opportunity to paint us as weak.
The reality is very nearly the reverse of the premise. Purges humiliate organizations in the eyes of the public, and usually organizations delay purging people who are actually bad at what they do, or cannot be trusted with the position for longer than they should, in order to avoid that outcome.
Clarity and Enthusiasm
I mentioned Mike E. because situations where someone’s (a) interests, (b) principles, (c) personal quirks and abnormalities are at odds with a movement’s goals are much like situations where his sins are a problem. In fact, the argument in Parts 3 and 4 is perfectly general, and perhaps should have been presented separately. Sin is only the most difficult case for political cooperation, and having shown that you should love sinners who can play a valuable role in your political ecology, the same goes a fortiori for people who are non-uniform in less important ways.
So I will take another detail from Mike E.’s case. Be clear about what standards people are being held to, whether you are talking about standards for morality, standards for traditionalism, or standards for anything else. The AltRight is a powerful movement and as such produces a steady stream of banter, manifestos, demands, jokes, parodies, and other enthusiastic rhetoric. People are constantly exchange ideas, observations, and judgments. Some of these are entirely sincere, some are intentionally absurdist, while some forms of hyperbole ride a line between the two.
I bring this up because some variation of “I still love Mike E., but if any of us were in his position, everyone else would tell him to get a divorce” kept coming up over and over again in comments yesterday. Well, I can only speak for myself. I’ve never told anyone to get a divorce, for any reason. I would be very reluctant to advise anyone to get a divorce for any reason. Frivolous divorce is a terrible sin. So far as I know, no one I respect would demand such a thing.
Maybe this is a topic that has come up explicitly over at TRS and this really is the consensus over there; I don’t know. But the broader issue this points to, I think, is that every political movement includes people who make judgments carefully, and those who make judgments boldly; those who have a fairly nuanced sense of what their friends have said to them, and those who sort of distill the general gist of it.
The latter group is going to read much more into the hyperbole and absurdism than their friends intended. This is not necessarily a weakness. They have a much easier time hearing the spirit of the rhetoric. They probably hear the clarion call sounding forth from an uncompromising phrase where I, by myself, might hear nothing, and see only words. But this spirit then draws along a whole train of implications that are unnecessary baggage. People like me benefit from their keen attunement to emotional resonance, but we then need to do our part by occasionally retracing the line between principle and hyperbole.
Series: Loving the Sinner
- Part I (Introduction)
- Part II (Sin)
- Part III (Ecology)
- Part IV (Parties)
- Part V (Postscript) < You are here