Tuesday, May 17, 2011

De Mendacio Non Est Disputandum?

I promised myself (as well as several people dear to me to whom I was becoming a bore) that I was done with the whole Lying and Live Action controversy - you know, after this, that, and the other thing.

But, lo, from the American Chesterton Society come lately three rejoinders, in the form of contrary editorials in the hot-off-the-presses issue of Gilbert Magazine: from David Beresford, Sean Dailey, and Dale Ahlquist. Sean Dailey explains that the Gilbert editorial board arrived at an impasse on this particular issue. Unable to reach their customary unanimity in doling out the task of the editorial on the subject, they decided to present the competing views to the readership. It's provocation! A gauntlet cast! Just begging me to get back into it, even! (I rationalize to myself and the aforementioned bored loved ones, anyway.) So, it's back into the fog, go I.

I must add a couple more prefatory notes before jumping in: First, I want this to be a discussion, really and truly, so please don't be shy! Second, there'll be multiple posts on this, so be courteous in replies and give me the benefit of the doubt that I might not be completely overlooking something, but maybe only waiting. Third, the last having been said, if it seems obvious that I'm "through" a point and you note errors in my logic, I welcome - indeed I desire! - your correctives and counterpoints, because I intend to try to shape something of an official reply for the magazine out of this discussion. Or, you know, my scrapbook.

I want to begin with David Beresford's piece because his is the one which most obviously stands opposed to the position on the Live Action debate which I took the last go-'round.

And in beginning with Beresford's piece, I'm going to prescind momentarily from discussing the beginning half of his article, for reasons which I hope will become apparent further down. Instead, I'll begin in the middle of his article, where he proposes to "strip away the emotion" that often belabors this matter in debate, and offers an example which will make the issue "clear." Allow me to quote at length:
Suppose, for example a four-year-old girl comes to her father and shows him a crayon drawing of a cow. “Look at my cow, Daddy! Isn’t it a good picture?”

What is the right response?

For literalist, truth-at-all-costs-and damn-the-consequences types, the situation is stripped of the heroic sacrifices associated with telling the strict truth, and reveals this position as that of a heel. “No, it is not good,” they must answer. And shame on them.

The equivocators among us may want to craft a clever response with a mental reservation: “It is a wonderful picture and the colors are so bright!” Congratulations, this verbal dexterity will allow one to maintain self-respect and fool the small child in the process by dodging the question. But, this is no better than the previous answer.

There is only one morally right answer, one answer that does not sin against charity, against duty, and against innocence: “That is the best picture of a cow I have ever seen!”

This is the only answer that is not encumbered by “self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control.” We do not know if it is lying or not, by definition.
We do know that in this case equivocating is a disgusting pose almost as despicable as answering that the picture is no good. [SOURCE; emphasis mine]From this situation, Beresford argues, we can appreciate "the common sense of ordinary people: the natural law written on men's hearts."

Now, there's something very wonderful about this argument, and I mean that truly. It's a refreshing appeal, just as was Dr. Kreeft's appeal so many month's ago to the power of synderesis. And both these good men are right: there is a common sense element here. But as I argued back then, I will argue now: common sense leads in the opposite way than what is suggested here.

Let's look at Mr. Beresford's analogy more closely. What is it about the four-year old girl that informs this common sense judgment that she deserves to be affirmed in her cow drawing? I do not deny that she should be so affirmed! But I ask, again - isn't it that she should be affirmed that is the crucial thing here?

Suppose it's not a four-year old, but my fourteen year old daughter. She brings me a painting she made up in her room, whence she rarely comes because the world is so tragic, and only she and the wailing voices in her music really "get it." And she expresses this tragedy that she just gets so well, because she's suffered and lost love (even though she never actually talked to the boy one has in mind), she expresses all this pain and ennui in her edgy, stick-figure and glitter art.

Suppose that's the situation. She brings me this painting and says, "Daddy, isn't this just the best? Ohmahgawd, I'm totally dropping out of school and becoming an artist!"

Now, how would anyone with common sense respond? All good parents will tell my daughter that she should stay in school and make sure about her choice of career path. But what about commenting on the quality of her art? If it really is awful (which, let's presume it is), there's suddenly something different about saying it's not, because she's fourteen and not four.

Okay, now press pause. We're going to a third scenario.

Press play.

I'm with my thirty-four-year-old yuppie daughter and my four-year old granddaughter (by another child) in the local art museum. We come across a sculpture involving legs pointing upward from a urinal that has teeth painted around its rim. Both my daughter and granddaughter exclaim, "That's great! I love it!!!... Grandpa [Daddy] - what do you think?"


Now it's time to turn the disc over...

There seem to be different demands upon our common-sense notion of truth-telling in these situations, even though the questions and the quality of art are constant. What's changing is the person. And if you want to write that down as one of my central theses throughout this whole debate - that the other person matters fundamentally to the demands of truth-telling - you can go ahead and do that now.

Mr. Beresford, while suggesting that he is going to eschew all of the emotional attachments which belabor this argument, doesn't make a very good show of it by conjuring the heart-string-tugging image of a four-year old tyke holding up a crappy picture for doting dad to drool over! But why do we drool? Because four-year old art is all good, to all of us, because it's done by four-year olds. None of us has to lie to say it's great. Nor is this a lie to the other.

Truth-telling is about communication. What does a four-year old want to know when she asks, "Isn't this a good picture?" What does a four year old mean by "good"? Child psychology has shown that children of that age operate by a very pure inductive method of reasoning, and that they cannot apply abstract axiologies to form evaluative judgments. In the four-year old vocabulary (which is what we'll be responding in), "good" means "good for me" and also probably means something very much like "morally good." Contrariwise, to a four-year old, "that's a bad picture" means "you're a bad artist" and, in all likelihood, "you're a bad person." We know this by common sense reasoning - there, Mr. Beresford is right. And so we say what we say in order to communicate truth to the four-year old: to validate her worth, even with a hyperbolic statement like, "That's the best picture of a cow I've ever seen!" Because it's the "best"-loved by us, for the artist's sake.

Some might object though that we have also communicated falsehood about the objective nature of art. But that's precisely what we have not done because we cannot have done. A child of four couldn't intuit that because they can't understand those kinds of evaluative systems. They can't conceptualize "best amongst all cow pictures" in any way such that we could be accused of genuinely communicating it to them as a falsehood. How many times have we heard kids say, "Blue is my favorite color, and so is pink!" They don't understand the axiological weight of "favorite" and "best," so we can't really have communicated much falsehood to them by our use of the phrase in our line about the cow drawing. Instead, "best" here meant what it ought to mean for that child.

Similarly, in the museum with my granddaughter, my granddaughter is "right" when she says that the urinal sculpture is "great." Because, as far as my granddaughter as a four-year old is concerned (barring any gross and perverse anomalies or aberrations), it is "great" - if it makes her giggle, if it makes her happy, if it gives her imagination fuel.

What about my thirty-four-year-old daughter, though, who also said the sculpture is "great"? Well, no, she's wrong. Because really it's not great, it's a piece of shit. And a thirty-four year-old ought to know that; and I'll tell her when I get the chance. Why ought she to know? Because it bears consequences for her that it doesn't for my granddaughter. And so with my fourteen-year-old and her emo nonsense. She might cry if I tell her the truth; and in charity I'm bound to try to help her learn the truth gently. But I'm a bad parent and a perverse sycophant if I tell her it's good art. I have obligations towards these two that I didn't have formerly, and it's all conditioned by how the other is able to get the truth from what I say, and what the truth that benefits the other is considered to be.

To put it simply, one might say that for children under the age of reason alone does the adage really hold true: de gustibus non est disputandum.

So, we must wonder at this point, how does any of this relate to Live Action? Well, according to Mr. Beresford's logic:
If mothers and fathers cannot rear children without daily having to choose between crushing a child’s heart or telling what some call lies, then lying has become a meaningless term. In the same way, if men of good will cannot save the lives of children without being accused of lying, then again, lying has become a meaningless term.
But here is where we're talking about apples and oranges. As I have tried to demonstrate, these two sentences largely refer to separate moral universes; it is for that reason that I am leaving the earlier half of Beresford's piece to discuss in a future post. The first sentence is too sweeping in its scope, encompassing as the analogy of the four-year-old's drawing is not. Parents don't have to - and shouldn't have to - worry in such a way about the daily struggle to be honest and communicate truth. When the troubled teens come along, though, and the topics are pot and sex and God-knows-what, don't mom and dad choose their words a little more carefully? But I digress...

I will add one final comment on the analogy here.

If one were to apply the logic of this analogy to the Live Action stings, I think common sense derives a very different conclusion than what has been urged in Beresford's article. We have seen that common sense tells us to speak to our daughters - of whatever age - in love. And we have also seen how this always involves the hearer knowing a kind of truth from our statement. We want to love our daughters through what we tell them, and so we tell them the truth - as they are able to understand it. We speak the truth to those we love.

If the analogy has any connection, the only one I can see is this: If my daughter gets the truth because I love her, why not somebody else's daughter behind the desk at the abortion clinic? If I correct my daughter when she's in error and teach her right from wrong without lying and prevarication and "stings" - why do I deal any differently with God's beloved daughter working for the terrible organization? Doesn't she, after all, need the truth all the more? Maybe she's only there because she didn't have a Daddy who loved her enough to tell her so, in all the ways that that truth can be told.
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