R.R. Reno on “otherizing” others

In North Carolina three young Muslims active in charity work were murdered, allegedly by a man who identified as atheist. In Alabama judges are refusing to marry anyone lest they have to approve same-sex marriages. For more on these stories, and their connection, read this.

Should we see these stories as in any way related? In his New York Times  piece Nicholas Kristof brought them together to make one resounding point:

[It is] useful for everyone to reflect on our capacity to “otherize” people of a different faith, race, nationality or sexuality – and to turn that other-ness into a threat.

We are seeing far too much of this ‘looking at people through glasses that make them ugly,’ making ordinary people seem bad people.

To which R.R. Reno (soon to be at AC) responds,

Which is exactly what [Kristof] does to conservative Christians. We’re “sanctimonious blowhards” who betray the words and spirit of Jesus. We’re arrogant, thoughtless, “I-am-holier-than-thou-chest-thumping” people “on the wrong side of history.”

There would be nothing wrong with complaining about being treated in this way, as Kristof would surely have to agree. But Reno’s response is not a complaint; he takes the trouble to explain just what defines this ‘otherization’,  whereas Kristof just called it a trap and then walked into it.

Why did Kristof not see that he was doing (in an article he wrote to warn people of a certain bad thing) the very thing he wrote an article to warn people of? Because he didn’t bother to think about the problem.

At Augustine College every student learns from Socrates that

the ability to point out examples of a thing  (call that thing x) does not count as knowledge of that thing. 

If you can’t go beyond pointing at this or that instance of  (an ugly thing that we should get rid of) … go beyond that and reach the point of stating or naming what distinguishes x,  then you really have no way to avoid walking into it. Your natural self-regard will make you think you are free of it.

We have here a perfect illustration of Socrates’ point. Since Kristof thought he was free of this tendency it did not cross his mind to look for symptoms in himself – but he had not in any case gone to the trouble of naming symptoms he could look for.

Reno just lays them out: the symptoms are these, and they are two sides of the same coin.

1 | Evasion of argument: you treat another person as an ‘other’ – a kind of moral/intellectual leper – when you refuse to engage with their reasons  for saying what they say and doing what they do: the reasons for which a person advocates same-sex marriage, or a judge stops marrying people altogether (which was done to make a point; what is the point? – you never learn from Kristof).

Says Reno,

Today’s liberalism almost always avoids any direct encounters with disagreement. Kristof mocks the notion that any reasonable person could have the slightest objection to same-sex marriage.

2 | Tarring people with the label of disease: you “otherize” a person when you speak of him in terms that have nothing to do with reasons – when you classify his behaviour as sub-rational (bizarre, hate-filled, Neanderthal, backward, Id-driven). It is axiomatic that ‘You can’t take these people seriously.’

As Reno puts it,

We’re to be addressed with meta-moral categories: bigotry, hate, fear, out of step with history.

What we are seeing today is a massive intellectual refusal of others, a cancelling-out of one’s opponent, a habit of non-engagement. Throwing stones at people rather than talking to them, condemning people rather than hearing their case, psychologizing them rather than engaging with their reasons.

This mode of non-engagement is part of the deepest failure of post-modern liberalism. It systematically “otherizes.” A traditional Christian (or Muslim) regards a proponent of same-sex marriage as mistaken about  sexual morality, the nature of marriage, and the will of God. For a liberal such as Kristof, those who disagree with him don’t even rise to the status of human beings trying to live in accord with their moral convictions.

“Convictions” being things of which people, quite commonly, are ‘convinced’ , intellectually, in their minds  (a connection often lost today on both sides of the debate).

Reno did not make this point, but were we to notice what those two moves amount to the answer is quite striking to anyone familiar with the Western tradition.

To do these things is to treat other human beings as, actually, less than human.

If you know what you are  – know what a human being is, as we used to do (as did Plato and Aristotle, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Calvin, Pascal, and all those who had the great benefit of an education understood as the transmission of knowledge too valuable to lose) – then you know that people do things for reasons.  This is just what makes them not animals.  To treat a person as a human being is to treat him as a person who does what he or she does not out of impulse but for a reason (possibly a bad one but a reason all the same).

If you said, ‘Then not to engage with people’s reasons is to dehumanize people,’  you would be exactly right. Only it is a bit of a moot point: a point impossible to make to a person who has no opinion on what a human being is, a person who says,

Human beings are far too complex to be defined!

You have here the perfect candidate for a dehumanizer. If you refuse to work out what human beings are  (‘How could we ever do people justice?!’ )  then what boundary have you drawn  that you now refuse to cross?

But hasn’t Reno just tarred Kristof with the same brush, ‘otherizing’ him right back? No, because non-engagement, the problem that Reno has named, is not a disease: it is a choice.

To label a person ‘homophobic’ is to say he has a disease, is to speak of him in terms that have nothing to do with reasons. A ‘homophobe’ is saddled with a phobia, which is a disorder; any ‘reasons’ he might give for his phobic behaviour are far from the issue – just pseudo-reasons to be ignored.

To call a person diseased is to say he lacks control, is in the grip of something. What really do people who use the label ‘homophobic’ think the homophobe can do about  his illness?

(This person who hates and fears should presumably stop hating and fearing, but hating and fearing are not things people just do, or can choose to stop doing.  Hate-filled acts  they indeed freely choose, but the hate that drives them is a passion,  something that wells up inside them. How does a well of such bad things just stop doing  what it does?)

I am making no apology for irrational hatred:  people who hate gays dehumanize themselves, which is the traditional consequence of giving in to passion. My point is that for a liberal to place in the category of disease  all opposition to the normalization of homosexuality, say, is to paint the opposition as in bondage to a sickness and impossible to talk to. To talk to  a Bible believer would be the wrong treatment.

Reno is not doing that. He is talking to Kristof about what any person is capable of. Non-engagement is not a disease: it is easy to stop doing: just engage with the reasons, first by paying attention to their existence. Reno said he didn’t think the Alabama judge’s argument was good – which is to notice that there was an argument.

Chief Justice Roy S. Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court insists upon resurrecting a doctrine of state’s rights buried fifty years ago. To my mind his reasoning is unpersuasive. But Kristof won’t even entertain the possibility that a serious legal mind might rebel against the federalization of … moral issue[s]….

When Reno said that “today’s liberalism” does this a lot he wasn’t saying that ‘a liberal has no other move’, or ‘liberals can’t think’, or ‘what can you expect from those people?’ That thinking displays the defect that Reno is warning against. Reno is saying that today’s liberalism is not very liberal.

Before leaving this topic it might be worth noting that, though Reno’s focus was Kristof’s instructive and bracing bit of irony, we could perhaps also say that it is today’s man who goes in for this moral nose-holding and intellectual aversion. Haven’t Christians gone in for non-engagement just as much as anyone?

Jesus showed no such reluctance.

Edward Tingley


  1. David Mck says:

    Isn’t there some overlap between your point that the modern liberal otherizes people by refusing to engage in ‘reasons’ and in Kristofs point that no person is immune to the problem of otherizing? The overlap being the failure to follow the moral maxim “do unto others”. We fail to uphold this principle in both situations: by trivializing the other’s reasons, and by killing and hating in the name of religion or atheism. Kristof may fall victim to his own criticism, but everyone falls victim to the central problem, and, if Kristof illogically reminds us that this problem is real, and that we ought to, at the very least, recognize it, then perhaps his article is not so bad after all. In may not be a treatise on human nature, but is that what people are looking for when they read his articles in the NY Times?

    • Edward Tingley says:

      Well, I did not dismiss Kristof’s point. I am as keen on it as you may be. And, frankly, I think everybody is with us.
      I don’t think we can find a person today who would dare to defend the demonization of others. So do we really need more reminders not to do this?
      I would say that the cry to stop ‘otherizing’ – without going further into what this is, as Reno did – is no longer a moral aid. It is about as needful as accolades for Mom and apple pie. And the thing we cannot afford to miss is the twisting of this good:
      – the kind of attack on ‘otherizing’ that enlists people in it while professing to hate it (my question is, does Kristof really hate it?);
      – the kind of ‘contribution’ that shows people how to do this to a certain group under the mantle of rejecting it;
      – the selling of dehumanization (which is what it is) cloaked in human decency.
      In this regard Kristof’s example matters as much as his message, and it, just as much as what he said, will serve to teach. So I don’t disagree with you, on that issue, but we cannot treat this kind of ‘defense’ as harmless.
      And it would be bad to miss the important thing, which it seems to me is Socrates’ point. There is no shortage of people believing in good. The right thing to say to me, if I say ‘I hate evil’ is, ‘Good for you. Do you know what evil is?’ This is what matters.
      (I am reminded of something I read just last night in St. Thomas: if the first order of practical business is that “good is to be done … and evil is to be avoided,” then knowing what is good and what is evil is pretty paramount.)

  2. David Mck says:

    I agree with you Edward, thank you for fleshing that out.

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