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“Culture Warrior” and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

December 29, 2020


One of the least illuminating descriptors that makes its way around the Catholic commentariat is “culture warrior.” The term is invariably used by someone on the left in order to excoriate a right-wing Catholic for his opposition to abortion-on-demand, gay marriage, restrictions on religious liberty, etc. This resistance, we are told, amounts to “negativity,” “divisiveness,” and of course, “an unwillingness to dialogue.” I can only smile when I hear this from representatives of the left, for they seem blithely to overlook their own rather fierce resistance to the culture in regard to a wide range of issues. When people on the port side of the Catholic commentariat hold forth against racism, xenophobia, homophobia, militarism, capital punishment, environmental pollution, the current immigration policy of our country, etc., how are they not engaging in culture warfare? How are they not being, in their own way, negative, divisive, and reluctant to dialogue?

Two champions of the Catholic left—and particular heroes of mine—are Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King. Both of these worthies stood boldly athwart what they took to be dysfunctional features of the culture of their time and both were willing to endure mockery, marginalization, and imprisonment. One would be hard pressed to characterize Ms. Day as willing to dialogue with representatives of the military establishment or to describe Dr. King as open to friendly conversation with the keepers of the Jim Crow structure. Both chose forms of confrontation, nonviolent to be sure, but certainly designed to get in the face of their opponents. Both were extremely “divisive,” and I would not hesitate for a moment to call them culture warriors. And while we’re at it, might I suggest that the current Bishop of Rome is not one to pull any punches when he notices something negative in our society. If you don’t think there is a fair amount of culture warfare going on in Laudato Si’, Evangelii Gaudium, Amoris Laetitia, and Fratelli Tutti, I would suggest you haven’t read them very carefully.

In point of fact, the left isn’t any less confrontational than the right; it’s just confrontational about different matters. And it’s not any more dialogical than the right; it’s just willing to dialogue in regard to different subjects. Truth to tell, both left and right are, in their distinctive ways, following the suggestion of St. John Henry Newman that the Church moves through any given culture the same way a foraging animal moves through its environment—which is to say, assimilating what it can and resisting what it must. They just differ in regard to precisely what should be resisted and what can be assimilated. And this brings me to the point of this article—namely, what Alfred North Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” By this term, the great philosopher meant the tendency to treat pure abstractions as something real, as identical to things, objects, and events. Abstractions can, of course, be useful, but when one mistakes them for the concretely real, one obfuscates rather than clarifies whatever is under discussion.

So consider the abstraction “culture warrior” as used by a left-wing commentator as a negative characterization of his opponent. As we have shown, it can’t possibly name anything real, since the accuser is every bit as much a culture warrior as the accused. It therefore functions as a smokescreen for what the accuser really wants to say, and I can think of at least two possibilities: either he doesn’t think that the issues his opponent is criticizing should in fact be criticized, or perhaps he feels that the way his opponent is characterizing the issue is unfair. In either case, the real matter is obscured, and the use of the term doesn’t move anyone even a bit closer to the truth. Infinitely preferable to trading in insulting abstractions that apply as much to oneself as to one’s opponent is to engage in the tough work of authentic argument. The Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan urged all thinkers to follow the four epistemic imperatives: be attentive (see what is really there to be seen); be intelligent (form plausible hypotheses to explain a given phenomenon); be reasonable (make judgments so as determine which of a variety of bright ideas is in fact the right idea); and finally, be responsible (accept the full implications of the judgment made). To do so is to argue about concrete matters, or in the language of Aristotle, to stay on the “rough ground” of what is real.

There are many reasons why the Catholic conversation has become dysfunctional, especially in the social media space: tribalism, ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, Girardian Twitter mobs, etc. Might I suggest that the fallacy of misplaced concreteness is another key reason? And might I further suggest that whenever you see the term “culture warrior,” you might, at least in your imagination, throw a penalty flag, realizing that constructive argument about the real has just been derailed?