Javert: No Quarter Asked or Given

I first saw Les Miserables when I was in middle school, I think, and I was on the edge of my seat from the opening number.  But the moment that transfixed me was Javert’s joyous “Stars.”  I was in love.

There was nothing I wanted so much as to be like that man, ramrod-straight, inviolate, and wholly consecrated to duty.  In fact, when informed of my conversion, one friend, initially puzzled, said, “Well, I guess you’ve always been a bit of an absolutist.”  But my Javertian tendencies are as incompatible with Christianity as Javert is with the world of Jean Valjean, so I thought the release of the film might be a nice time for some meditations on the Inspector.

Valjean and Javert are opposed, not only in their relationship to each other, but in their relationship to the grace and forgiveness that each is offered.  Valjean, newly released from prison, robs a bishop who extravagantly forgives him.  Javert is discovered as a spy among the revolutionaries, and Valjean volunteers to carry out his execution, but secretly spares his life and sets him free.

Each man is thrown into confusion by the mercy they have been shown, and their two epiphanies musically compliment each other.  The repetition of the melody draws attention to the divergence of the lyrics uttered and conclusions reached by these two men.  Valjean recognizes that the bishop has set a new way before him, and wonders if he has the strength to remain vulnerable and open to the world, after enduring so much.  He asks, “Yet why did I allow that man to touch my soul and teach me love?”  (By the way, the Valjean below is playing the bishop in the new movie).

Unlike Valjean, Javert does not believe he has committed any crime that Valjean has the authority to forgive him for.  Valjean’s mercy is an act of presumption, overturning the antipathy that Javert feels is natural and proper to the relationship between criminal and lawman.  Unable to accept Valjean as his equal, Javert can only conceive of a new, intolerable hierarchy (“How can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me?”)


Valjean and Javert are both offered unexpected grace, and Javert chokes on it.  When the two men meet for the last time after Valjean’s act of kindness, Javert greets him scornfully by saying “The man of mercy comes again and talks of justice.”  For Javert, the two ideals are incompatible.  A man can make sense of justice and live within the law, but mercy is unfair and unpredictable.  And the fact that this grace is unfair in his favor only makes it more dishonorable to accept it.

In the book (and in the film version), Javert suspects Valjean and turns him in while serving under him as mayor.  When the discovery of the false Valjean proves him wrong, Javert asks to be dismissed from his post.  He says:

“In my life, I have often been severe toward others.  It was just.  I was right.  Now if I were not severe toward myself, all I have justly done would become injustice.  Should I spare myself more than others?  No.  You see!  If I had been eager only to punish others and not myself, that would have been despicable.  Those who say, ‘That scoundrel Javert’ would have been right.  Monsieur Mayor, I do not wish you to treat me with kindness.   Your kindness, when it was for others, enraged me quite enough; I do not wish it for myself… Such kindness disorganizes society.  Good God, it is easy to be kind, the difficulty is being just.”

Some of the movie reviewers have called Javert the villain of the piece and implied that he’s motivated by vengeance or cruelty, but Javert is scrupulously fair.  He is like a peculiar ascetic; denying any mercy or forgiveness to himself leaves him free to be indifferent to others.  But to yield even once would damn all his previous actions.  If he admits that mercy is to be longed for, then his idolatrous God of Law is dead, and he must look back over all the works of his strength and joy and righteousness in shame.

Javert doesn’t want enough.  He would prefer a mean sort of fairness to grace, because it lies in his power to achieve one and not the other.  By only accepting standards he can achieve, he betrays those who would have benefited from even his fumbling attempts at kindness.  He refuses to become visibly imperfect in the service of a higher perfection.

I can finally cry to Javert, in the words of G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large… There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity…

[I]s it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!

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  • Beautifully said! And about one of my very most favorite musicals, too! Awesome 😀

  • Joe

    I love the wisdom of Chesterton!! He makes reasoning fun and liberating. He was no cramped academic.

  • wloch3

    Brava, Leah! 
    (Trivia for today: Hugo’s bestseller was shared among officers of the Army of Northern Virginia who knew themselves henceforward as Lee’s Miserables.)  

    • leahlibresco

      That is hilarious

  • Tim

    “Some of the movie reviewers have called Javert the villain of the piece and implied that he’s motivated by vengeance or cruelty”: Wait… what? How? I don’t see how this kind of construction could even be remotely possible in the movie :/

  • deiseach

    Oh, boy, yes. I understand Javert’s reasoning, because I have the horrible tendency towards the same state of mind myself (I call it “channelling my inner Saruman”) – the rules are perfectly clear, the law is understandable, and if I can keep them, why can’t you?

    Same with the Elder Brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son – all my life I did what I was told, never cheated or slacked off, never even got a kid from the flocks to have a party with my friends, and now this loser who blew all your money breezes back in expecting to be forgiven and you throw him a party? How is that fair?

    We cope very badly with mercy. Rules we can understand; punishment we can understand; but gratuitous forgiveness? Such softness will be the downfall of society! We can appreciate and even love the beauty of order and of law, but we need to be taught to rejoice in mercy. Quoting Chesterton in my turn, it’s the temptation scene for MacIan in “The Ball and the Cross”:

    The vessel took one long and sweeping curve across the sky and came nearer and nearer to MacIan, like a steam-engine coming round a bend. It was of pure white steel, and in the moon it gleamed like the armour of Sir Galahad. The simile of such virginity is not inappropriate; for, as it grew larger and larger and lower and lower, Evan saw that the only figure in it was robed in white from head to foot and crowned with snow-white hair, on which the moonshine lay like a benediction. The figure stood so still that he could easily have supposed it to be a statue. Indeed, he thought it was until it spoke.

    “Evan,” said the voice, and it spoke with the simple authority of some forgotten father revisiting his children, “you have remained here long enough, and your sword is wanted elsewhere.”

    “Wanted for what?” asked the young man, accepting the monstrous event with a queer and clumsy naturalness; “what is my sword wanted for?”

    “For all that you hold dear,” said the man standing in the moonlight; “for the thrones of authority and for all ancient loyalty to law.”

    Evan looked up at the lunar orb again as if in irrational appeal—a moon calf bleating to his mother the moon. But the face of Luna seemed as witless as his own; there is no help in nature against the supernatural; and he looked again at the tall marble figure that might have been made out of solid moonlight.

    Then he said in a loud voice: “Who are you?” and the next moment was seized by a sort of choking terror lest his question should be answered. But the unknown preserved an impenetrable silence for a long space and then only answered: “I must not say who I am until the end of the world; but I may say what I am. I am the law.”

    And he lifted his head so that the moon smote full upon his beautiful and ancient face.

    The face was the face of a Greek god grown old, but not grown either weak or ugly; there was nothing to break its regularity except a rather long chin with a cleft in it, and this rather added distinction than lessened beauty. His strong, well-opened eyes were very brilliant but quite colourless like steel.

    MacIan was one of those to whom a reverence and self-submission in ritual come quite easy, and are ordinary things. It was not artificial in him to bend slightly to this solemn apparition or to lower his voice when he said: “Do you bring me some message?”

    “I do bring you a message,” answered the man of moon and marble. “The king has returned.”

    And we have to learn what MacIan already knows:

    “As they went sailing down Ludgate Hill, Evan saw that the state of the streets fully answered his companion’s claim about the reintroduction of order. All the old blackcoated bustle with its cockney vivacity and vulgarity had disappeared. Groups of labourers, quietly but picturesquely clad, were passing up and down in sufficiently large numbers; but it required but a few mounted men to keep the streets in order. The mounted men were not common policemen, but knights with spurs and plume whose smooth and splendid armour glittered like diamond rather than steel. Only in one place—at the corner of Bouverie Street—did there appear to be a moment’s confusion, and that was due to hurry rather than resistance. But one old grumbling man did not get out of the way quick enough, and the man on horseback struck him, not severely, across the shoulders with the flat of his sword.

    “The soldier had no business to do that,” said MacIan, sharply. “The old man was moving as quickly as he could.”

    “We attach great importance to discipline in the streets,” said the man in white, with a slight smile.

    “Discipline is not so important as justice,” said MacIan.

    …”Just as the sight of sin offends God,” said the unknown, “so does the sight of ugliness offend Apollo. The beautiful and princely must, of necessity, be impatient with the squalid and——”

    “Why, you great fool!” cried MacIan, rising to the top of his tremendous stature, “did you think I would have doubted only for that rap with a sword? I know that noble orders have bad knights, that good knights have bad tempers, that the Church has rough priests and coarse cardinals; I have known it ever since I was born. You fool! you had only to say, ‘Yes, it is rather a shame,’ and I should have forgotten the affair. But I saw on your mouth the twitch of your infernal sophistry; I knew that something was wrong with you and your cathedrals. Something is wrong; everything is wrong. You are not an angel. That is not a church. It is not the rightful king who has come home.”

  • Michael Vassar

    Wow. I couldn’t disagree more with deiseach. Les Mis is like District 9 as a Tragedy rather than as a farce. Javert and Valjean are both exaggerations of heroic archetypes and in this particular context, Javert is presented more poorly, but both are sincerely in their stupidity.

    • deiseach

      But do you not see that as Javert’s fatal flaw? If he simply was a hound sniffing out wrongdoers for the powers-that-be, or (as he says himself) a hypocrite who didn’t judge himself by the same standards, then that would be one thing.

      But he loves law and order more than he should; he makes himself inhuman by sacrificing everything to his integrity. He cannot account for mercy in his scheme of the world because it throws everything off, and his notion of justice does not realise that mercy is the balancing of justice and charity.

  • Leah,

    One of the ironies of the times we live in is that those who are the most Javertian are often those who are most certain of their own tolerance, empathy, and generosity.

    I have in mind, for example, the ongoing debate over gay marriage: I myself do not have strong feelings on that subject and therefore have viewed the debate very much as an outsider. I’ve noticed that, among the people I know personally, even the most fervent opponents of gay marriage do not seem to feel a need to demonize people they interact with who disagree with them. On the other hand, I have seen many “empathetic,” “tolerant” proponents of gay marriage willing to treat those who disagree with them as subhuman scum.

    I noticed a bit of this when you announced your conversion: more than one blogger denounced you bitterly for your supposed betrayal of the “LGBT community” merely because you were willing to think about the Church’s teachings on homosexuality.

    Just for the record, I myself also disagreed with your decision to convert to Catholicism. But, somehow, even when the thought crosses my mind that I should write a bitter and detailed denunciation of you for your “betrayal,” well, I end up thinking that perhaps somehow something good might come out of it, even though I think it was the wrong decision.

    Happy New Year.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • Val

      Spare me the pearl-clutching. Pungent expression is a legitimate rhetorical means of communicating attitude, which is all that reason defends.

      And this kind of tone argument is a tired, meaningless trope, often used against minorities with a justifiable anger.

      This should have nothing to do with empathy or tolerance. My right to live as a non-stigmatized member of a functioning society has no more to do with how much you like me than with a Catholic’s assessment of my moral condition.

      • Hmmm…. pearl clutching????

        You said, “My right to live as a non-stigmatized member of a functioning society has no more to do with how much you like me than with a Catholic’s assessment of my moral condition.” In all honesty, I do not care how you live your life nor do I care what the Church’s view of homosexuality is.

        I am an atheist.

        As to your fear of being “stigmatized,” now that is truly “pearl clutching.” Freedom of speech means that some people will choose to stigmatize you and some won’t.

        Someday, when you get older, you may learn that you just have to live with that.

        Personally, I don’t give a damn what your sexual orientation is. But, I do find it odd that more than one blogger stigmatized Leah merely for suggesting that she would think about the Church’s view on homosexuality. (Yes, Leah, I know that you did not care about their comments, but I found those comments revealing, coming from people who claim to be models of tolerance and openness. Hypocrisy is always interesting.)


        • Val

          Dishonest much? Or just projecting?

          I do not ‘fear’ stigmatizing (though I may legitimately fear the violence that it supports), I detest it. And when you grow up you may understand that people who live with stigma are quite well aware of the very wide boundaries of free speech.

          And while you may not care what the Church’s teachings are on queers – after all, while you ‘have gay friends’ (what a quaint defense) you evidently are not yourself, so why should you? – I do, since those teachings have a direct consequence in social policy.

          You persist in pretending that anyone claims to be a model of anything. It’s a lie, and serves only as a strawman to avoid addressing legitimate grievance.

          Finally, we really have no idea whether or not Leah does or does not care about the comments regarding her conversion and how it relates to her prior positions on these issues (unless you are privy to certain information). She has maintained a public silence on the topic… whether out of aloof unconcern or for some other reason, we cannot say.

          Of course, in that vacuum we are free to speculate, and if she really does not care, then her moral failing is as complete as has been suggested.

          • Val wrote:
            >I do not ‘fear’ stigmatizing (though I may legitimately fear the violence that it supports)…

            You were the person who brought up the word “stigmatized,” not me. I was simply responding to what you had said. You are unfairly stigmatizing many who disagree with you, just as some of them unfairly stigmatize you. Moral equivalency, I think.

            As to violence, I am, of course, with you 100 % on that. But, in truth, so are most people who are harsh bigots in their attitude towards homosexuality. Those who excuse violence towards gays are a tiny, sick fringe minority.

            Val also wrote:
            >if she [Leah] really does not care, then her moral failing is as complete as has been suggested.

            I do not think it is much of a reach for anyone who has followed Leah’s blog to conclude that she obviously does care about bigotry, much less violence, directed towards gays. That does not preclude considering the Church’s position on homosexuality to see if it has any validity; such consideration may, after all, lead to the conclusion that it has no validity. That was my initial point to which you reacted so vehemently.

            Val also wrote:
            >after all, while you ‘have gay friends’ (what a quaint defense)…

            I did not say that, Val. You are fantasizing — and putting your fantasies in direct quotes, which is very, very dishonest.

            Look, I’m trying to cut you some slack because I actually do have some understanding of your feelings. I am old enough to remember how gays were treated back before Stonewall, and I found it utterly bizarre – why on earth were gays hated so?

            But, times really have changed, and to suggest that Leah or anyone else who is merely interested in considering the Church’s position on homosexuality thereby proves herself to be a vicious bigot is also bizarre.

            Sometimes, people just need to stop clutching their pearls quite so tightly.

            And, may you have a Happy New Year, Val!


          • Val

            “…to suggest that Leah or anyone else who is merely interested in considering the Church’s position on homosexuality thereby proves herself to be a vicious bigot is also bizarre.”

            If I had said any such thing then when we might have something to discuss. But as you prove yourself dishonest about both your own words and mine… we just don’t.

          • Val,

            I did not attribute those words to you, and I certainly did not put them in direct quotes.

            You, on the other hand, did attribute words in direct quotes to me which I did not say.

            You are a pathological liar, Val.

          • Val

            “You are a pathological liar, Val.”

            Ad hominem is more effective if it’s not so easily refuted:

            “Actually, Rebecca, I have a close family member who is gay, another member of the extended family who is gay, and an in-law who is gay…”

            My ‘quotation’ was a paraphrase. I assert that anyone arguing in good faith would have understood that, but you chose to make an issue of it, while simultaneously implying that I or anyone else had condemned Leah as a “vicious bigot.”

            I’m not sure why you chose to escalate this exchange to the point of calling me a pathological liar, but I don’t really care, nor will I clutch my own pearls since I’ve made it clear that rhetorical gestures really are just that… a strategy meant to convey attitude and assert posture. Your own posture strikes me as bizarre, but I’m more than happy to concede the dominance game.

            Cheers, kitten.

    • Rebecca

      Oh yes, opponents of marriage *never* dehumanize LGBT people. Don’t make me laugh.

      • Actually, Rebecca, I have a close family member who is gay, another member of the extended family who is gay, and an in-law who is gay; many of the other family members are pious evangelicals or practicing Catholics (and, of course, a handful of us are atheists, like me). So, I have had a chance to observe the fundies interacting up-close and personal with the gay family members.

        And, they have been decent and polite, even though they disapprove in principle of homosexuality.

        There are some very nasty stereotypes floating around here. Yes, there are some nasty stereotypes about atheists (believe me, I know!) and gays. But, there are also some false stereotypes about how traditionalist Catholics and hard-core evangelicals act towards gays. I know there are some who are indeed real jerks. But many are not.

        As hard as it may be for you to admit it, there are many people who honestly disagree with gay marriage but who manage to be civil and decent in dealing with gays.


        • Val

          The smug and entitled can always afford to be ‘civil and decent.’

          • ACN

            Well spoken.

          • jenesaispas

            You must both be even now ad hominem wise.

    • Mr. X

      “On the other hand, I have seen many “empathetic,” “tolerant” proponents of gay marriage willing to treat those who disagree with them as subhuman scum.”

      It’s also constructive to compare the gay marriage debate to the civil rights movement which lots of people like to invoke. Martin Luther King and his supporters were generally dignified, civil, and well-mannered, despite facing far greater discrimination than gay people today. I’m not sure what might cause the difference.

      • Alan

        Wow, yeah there are no gay rights activists who have been dignified, civil and well-mannered and there was no component of the civil right movement that was aggressive.

        I have no idea how someones view of the landscape can become so narrow and deluded but I’m impressed.

        • It’s actually an interesting historical question as to which was more effective. I remember King, as well as Stokely Carmichael and all the rest, and my strong impression was that abusive and violent blacks hurt their own cause – their behavior fit in all too well to the racist stereotypes. Reasonable, articulate, educated blacks, on the other hand, posed a real challenge to racist whites: how could such people exist if racist beliefs were correct?

          I’m not sure how analogous the African-American case is to the gay case, though. I have a feeling that perhaps some degree of “acting out” was necessary to get people’s attention on the gay issue – the degree of irrationality on the issue of homosexuality before 1970 is really hard to describe to those too young to remember it personally. On the other hand, times really have changed: gays do now have people’s attention, and I suspect that sweet reasonableness is more effective today.


        • Mr. X

          “Wow, yeah there are no gay rights activists who have been dignified, civil and well-mannered and there was no component of the civil right movement that was aggressive.”

          I never said that.

          • Alan

            No, you just implied it.

          • Mr. X

            No I didn’t. Go back and note the qualification “generally” and the fact that I specifically referred to Martin Luther King’s followers, not the civil rights movement as a whole.

          • Val

            What made the civil rights movement successful was at least as much the shame and horror of normal people and seeing how others were treated, as it was the ‘niceness’ of any particular advocate.

            Queer rights have proceeded in a similar fashion.

    • Iota


      Personally, I think the whole idea of being “tolerant” is absurd. I’m not too surprised to read about LGBTQ activists e.g. being disgusted with Catholics (by extension Leah and me). I am surprised anyone who cares about anything besides an external impression of agreement and social comfort ever bought the “tolerance” thing. Here’s why:

      When we asses actions, we can either assume they are bad or good (neutral is still a very small good). The level of goodness or badness may differ. But if two people meet, one of them believing that A is essentially a bad idea and the other believing it in equal measure to be good, they cannot be tolerant of each other’s views. They can be civil, perhaps, but even that not always.

      A personal example: I am physically disabled. This means I care greatly for some things, such as equal access, access and quality of costly, intensive healthcare, and doing my best to limit or banish eugenics off the planet (because the logical end result of an eugenic mindset is my death). If I meet someone who believes that disabled people are essentially useless, a drain on limited resources, that they should be left to die (or at best to be carted fr by their families and friends, as they see fit, without burdening other people) and that we are better off not funding any of that equal access and healthcare stuff and keeping the money in our pockets, I literally cannot be tolerant of his views. They are directly antagonistic to mine. If he has his way, I lose. If I have my way, he loses. We can dance around this, we can have a tacit agreement not to spoil dinner parties and avoid the subject, but that IS the logical conclusion of our ideas.

      Even being civil is a choice, in some sense. For example, I can very well imagine a person, having seen the hunger and destitution of the really poor, come up to me and shout at me: “You stupid, wasteful, hedonist! People are literally dying of hunger and you want to buy yourself a set of expensive, imported books?! Maybe you’ll eat the paper and give your groceries budget to the poor, huh?!” The person would be decidedly impolite, but I do think they would be right. There IS something not-right about me enjoying luxuries while people die of hunger.

      Most people doing charitable work don’t do that kind of thing, I assume at least partly because it seems to make more economic sense to sugar coat the bitter truth to get people to give 5 spare bucks. That is why you send thank you cards to donors, instead of statements reminding them they do not need to be thanked because they just paid the “lucky to live in a developed country, without inherited poverty” justice tax.

      I happen to believe that my Catholicism makes it imperative I should not resort to certain methods when resolving conflicts (most forms of aggression). I also think it teaches that we must be patient with our imperfections, so people are to be expected to change gradually – a person accustomed to flying on exotic vacation twice a year will not, probably, become an ascetic for the poor overnight.
      But I do think “tolerance” as it is often understood is merely a nicer word for indifference and being always civil might be the result of not caring that much. Neither of those is possible if an issue happens to be important for you personally and either really close to home or dramatically urgent. If it isn’t very urgent, you might remain civil., But it still makes no sense to be “tolerant”.

      • Mr. X

        OTOH, I doubt you go on about how tolerant and open-minded you are, and how bigoted and closed-minded your opponents are.

        • Iota

          I probably don’t go around saying I’m tolerant. But, I do praise myself sometimes for my open-mindedness, (as long as one defines it as the ability to hold a different perspective, not so much agree with it). And, given I’m Catholic/Christian, I obviously have the gigantic temptation to see myself as an embodiment of the Eight Beatitudes, part of the Chosen People and whatnot. I probably am prone to come off as a prick in a different way, if you will.

          There is of course the other problem – that “tolerance” is basically the best a staunch relativist can hope for, and identity politics insofar as it is/was/will be relativist (“what is good for you is not necessarily good for me, there is no good we can agree on here”) HAD to fly the flag of tolerance. Eventually getting then into the paradox of tolerance: I am tolerant of all people except the intolerant. Catholics clearly being intolerant, in that sense.

          OTOH, people who aren’t relativists on the issue (so, e.g. queer folks who don’t care about being “tolerant” because they honestly think there is a Right Way and it’s theirs), don’t fall into that hole. They get the problem of justifying absolutism instead, just like me.

          To each his own traps and pitfalls.

      • Iota wrote to me:
        > Personally, I think the whole idea of being “tolerant” is absurd.

        Oh, I think you have a point. In fact, there are times when I think intolerance is morally mandatory.

        What I find annoying is the incredible hypocrisy: a lot of people on the Left will go on and on about the importance of tolerance, and then exhibit a level of intolerance that is hard to find anywhere else in our society.

        I feel a need to be intolerant of that level of dishonesty.

        If they would just say that some things are evil enough to deserve intolerance and some things, such as homosexuality, are not deserving of intolerance, then there could be an honest and open discussion.

        I do think there is an ethics of tolerance/intolerance, but that ethics is more complex than just tolerance=good, intolerance=bad.

        The other point is that it is really stretching the meaning of “tolerance” to assume that Leah’s willingness to merely consider the Church’s position on homosexuality proves that she is not tolerant. That is pretty bizarre. (Again, I am not trying to defend Leah, but merely using this as an example of the general point.)

        You’ll note, by the way, that I did not claim that I myself am tolerant or intolerant. It is merely the hypocrisy from the fake apostles of tolerance that annoys me.

        By the way, I have a sneaking suspicion that just maybe a minor factor in Leah’s conversion was the nauseating and cloyingly hypocritical self-righteousness that has come to characterize the atheist blogosphere where she had been hanging. I do not know what has led to this – it seems to be a development over just the last few years.

        My pet theory is that religion is basically a badge of group identity, and if I were wearing a badge that identified me as a member of that group, I would most assuredly be looking for some alternative identity!


        • Iota

          > That is pretty bizarre.

          That kind of depends on whether you believe (i.e. hold as a element of your ethics) that some things ought to be “unthinkable”…

          > By the way, I have a sneaking suspicion that just maybe a minor factor in Leah’s conversion was the nauseating and cloyingly hypocritical self-righteousness that has come to characterize the atheist blogosphere where she had been hanging.

          as a Catholic, I honestly hope no one’s conversion is ever produced mainly by such a factor. Because if you want to run away from “nauseating and cloyingly hypocritical self-righteousness” then what you have to do is turn off the Internet. If you switch creeds, you can very quickly discover that the people “On this side” can be just as awful (as a not-very-good-but-kinda-aspiring Catholic, the most embarrassing reading for me are sometimes Catholic discussion boards…). In fact anyone who claims to have a superior moral system, because it automatically produces better people is highly suspect in my book.

          > I do not know what has led to this – it seems to be a development over just the last few years.

          Private unsolicited opinion: Internet + human nature. Humans generally have a tribal instinct to believe themselves better than the other side and it is not limited to religious people or religious conflict. George Orwell, writing about the Spanish Civil War (Communists versus Franco) in which he took part, wrote basically, AFAIK, that the willingness to believe in a given massacre during the war was inversely proportional to one’s allegiance – if you were a Communist, you were likely to believe in ever massacre of Franco, and disbelieve or mitigate your own, and vice versa.

          The Internet, more than real life, brings out this tribal dynamic to play, since we often interact with each other not as fully individual people but as members of groups. And since stupidity is usually more readily apparent both sides are likely to hone in on the stupid, bad and crazy of the other people. Which makes them look stupid, bad and crazy to the other camp. Et voila.

          • Iota wrote:
            > Private unsolicited opinion: Internet + human nature. Humans generally have a tribal instinct to believe themselves better than the other side and it is not limited to religious people or religious conflict.

            Yeah, no doubt.

            One of my favorite points is that religion is primarily a badge of group identity. Logically, that point need not apply to atheists as a religious grouping: most atheists take “atheist” to merely mean “a person who lacks a belief in a god.” That is a purely negative definition, and it need not imply any sort of group membership at all, just as “non-Muslims” around the world do not feel themselves to be part of a common community of non-Muslims.

            But, some atheists do seem to feel a need to insist on a community of atheists, and, yes, the Internet seems to be their main means to realize this. (In which case, “Include me out!”)

            I guess what I find especially annoying, and what I saw in spades in Leah’s erstwhile atheist comrades, is an insistence that “atheist” must mean “leftist” if you are a true atheist, you must vote for Obama, favor gun control, support higher inheritance taxes, favor gay marriage, etc.

            That’s just weird: none of that has anything to do with whether or not God exists.

            Of course, I know that the answer lies in the Old Testament fable about “shibboleth”: the point is not the right or the wrong way to pronounce “shibboleth,” but rather that how you pronounce it shows what group you are a member of. Symbols of group identity work best when they are truly arbitrary, so that no one would likely settle on them except to prove his membership in the group.

            I know lots of atheists in the real world, and most of those I know are not leftists at all: they range from moderate to conservative or libertarian.

            But, of course, that is irrelevant to the online coterie of “real atheists”: they are not trying to represent atheists in general; they are trying to create shibboleths to determine who is in the in-group and who is in the out-group.

            Have you read C. S. Lewis’ essay “The Inner Ring”? Personally, I rather dislike belonging to the in-group. (I recently admitted to being a C. S. Lewis fan in the comments on one of the “real atheist” blogs: now that should keep me out of the in-group!)


      • Val

        Correct. Tolerance is a strawman, brought up by people who don’t want to address the actual problems. One doesn’t want tolerance so much as a relief from discrimination, stigma and interference.

    • Mr. X

      “One of the ironies of the times we live in is that those who are the most Javertian are often those who are most certain of their own tolerance, empathy, and generosity.”

      To a degree, I suspect it was ever thus: if you define yourself to a large degree as somebody who possesses characteristic X (in this case tolerance, empathy, and generosity), then suggesting that you don’t actually have this characteristic strikes at the very heart of your self-image, so it’s quite hard to honestly evaluate your behaviour because you’re so emotionally bound up in getting a certain answer.

      That said, I suspect the problem is worse now than it was in the past. Modern society places a very large emphasis on feelings and feeling happy and good about yourself, so a lot of people make their moral judgements based upon whatever makes them feel good, and interpret criticisms of their behaviour as some kind of personal attack. Hence the extremely defensive and over-emotional attitudes of a lot of gay marriage campaigners.

      I’m not sure, though, why one side of the gay marriage in particular should be so much more vitriolic than the other. Maybe it’s because opponents are disproportionately likely to be religious, and believing that you ought to dedicate your life to God is a good inoculation against sentimentalism. (Perhaps that also explains why liberal Christians whose ethical system is in practice little different to secular humanism also tend to be more self-righteous than conservative [but non-fundamentalist] ones.) Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that opponents’ arguments are more nuanced: talking about natural law and human nature doesn’t have the immediate emotional appeal of “ZOMG how come you want to stop people expressing their LOVE for one another!?!?1?”, so the sort of people who make their moral judgements based upon their emotions are more likely to be attracted to the pro- side.

      • Alan

        Or maybe the two sides are fairly equal in their vitriol and fairly equal in their reasonableness but your biases blind you to that and see one sides vitriol more clearly than the others.

        Honestly your ‘description’ of the two sides smack of self delusion. You don’t think it is hyper-emotional to blame school shootings on the acceptance of gay marriage?

        • Mr. X

          “Or maybe the two sides are fairly equal in their vitriol and fairly equal in their reasonableness”

          Not in my experience.

          “You don’t think it is hyper-emotional to blame school shootings on the acceptance of gay marriage?”

          That is indeed hyper-emotional. Nevertheless, one vague, unsourced and unsupported anecdote doesn’t change the fact that advocates of same-sex marriage tend to get more emotional than opponents. (Ironically, presenting lurid and extreme anecdotes in lieu of actual argument is often a sign that the speaker is getting quite emotional…)

          • Alan

            Ha, cute. Yes, if you aren’t aware of any religious leaders opposed to same-sex marriage who linked the Newtown shooting to them than I think it clearly demonstrates your blinders on one side of the issue.

            But I’m sure it helps with your self-righteousness.

          • Mr. X

            Well, not being an American and all, I haven’t really followed the ins and outs of what every prominent American thinks of (a) gay marriage and (b) school shootings. My observation is based more on internet conversations like this one, where it’s consistently been the case that SSM advocates have been closed-minded and smug, usually whilst accusing their opponents of exactly these failings.

          • Iota

            Mr. X,

            I’m not American either, but in the aftermath of the shootings in Sandy Hook there does seem to be a narrative among some people to the effect that “The massacre is God’s punishment for: support of gay marriage/”leaving” God out of public schools/abortion.” You can easily find sources for this. Even among Catholics (as sad as that makes me personally).

            It is rather stomach-turning, when you unpack the statements and realize what they are saying is: “God decided to let little Emily die because someone else somewhere is in favour of gay marriage/people Emily had no control over had abortions”. And kind of explains why people want to growl at us.

          • Alan

            Mr. X – well any opinion of advocates is based mostly on internet conversations is hard to take seriously. It would seem that someone would want a perspective more grounded in the actual world before insinuating one side demonstrates more vitriol than the other.

            I do find it ironic that you are being smug and close minded while accusing the other side of it all while insisting they are smug and close minded and accusing their opponents of it.

            Its been my observation that anyone, on any side of virtually any disagreement, that is so certain that the other side has some sort of dominance in smugness is blinded by their biases.

          • Mr. X

            @ Iota:

            I am aware that some people blamed the shootings on these things, and I do think that’s silly. As I said, though, I’m basing my opinions on interactions with supporters and opponents in general, not on a few high-profile nutcases.

            @ Alan:

            “It would seem that someone would want a perspective more grounded in the actual world”

            Erm, the internet is part of the actual world. And often a very revealing part, too, since people generally pay less attention to social conventions and say what they really think. Certainly internet messageboards often attract people with stronger opinions, so people posting on them would be more likely to be self-righteous and vitriolic, but such a bias would surely apply to both sides, so I’d say it’s still significant when one side in particular shows these qualities more than the other.

            “Its been my observation that anyone, on any side of virtually any disagreement, that is so certain that the other side has some sort of dominance in smugness is blinded by their biases.”

            I used to be a supporter of gay marriage, and I thought the same then, as well. In fact, the attitudes of SSM supporters were one of the factors which led me to re-evaluate my position.

          • Val

            “In fact, the attitudes of SSM supporters were one of the factors which led me to re-evaluate my position.”

            Ah. Because other people’s rights are dependent on how much you like them, not on any real sense of right and wrong.

            And of course the angrier someone gets at this blatant hypocrisy, the more validated your attitude is, and the more entrenched your opinion.

            That is textbook bigotry.

  • Matthew

    As long as we’re quoting Chesterton, here’s a selection from “The Chief Mourner of Marne”. Father Brown is addressing a group that is confronted with a crime where human ideas of justice run counter to Christian forgiveness.

    “I wouldn’t touch him with a barge-pole myself,” said Mallow.
    “There is a limit to human charity,” said Lady Outram, trembling all over.
    “There is,” said Father Brown dryly; “and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness to-day; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. So you tolerate a conventional duel, just as you tolerate a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.”
    “But, hang it all,” cried Mallow, “you don’t expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?”
    “No,” said the priest; “but we have to be able to pardon it.”
    He stood up abruptly and looked round at them.
    “We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction,” he said. “We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favourite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon. Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St. Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came.”
    “The dawn,” repeated Mallow doubtfully. “You mean hope — for him?”
    “Yes,” replied the other. “Let me ask you one question. You are great ladies and men of honour and secure of yourselves; you would never, you can tell yourselves, stoop to such squalid reason as that. But tell me this. If any of you had so stooped, which of you, years afterwards, when you were old and rich and safe, would have been driven by conscience or confessor to tell such a story of yourself? You say you could not commit so base a crime. Could you confess so base a crime?”

  • Subsistent

    Why doesn’t mercy exercised in forgiveness contradict justice? Well, part of the answer (seems to me) is that to forgive is to give, pardonner c’est donner. Thus, the bishop forgave Valjean his theft by giving Valjean (after the fact, of course), by an act of will, the stuff Valjean had taken from him; and by a second act of will, giving him even some candlesticks that he (Valjean) had overlooked. And it’s typically no injustice for you to take or keep what someone else has given you, right?

  • Rachel K

    Wait…did your post title just combine Les Miz and Rob Roy? That’s it. All my Catholic objections to SSA have disintegrated. Let’s get married. 😉

    • deiseach

      Josephite marriage, naturally!


  • MarcH

    Wonderful post. Thank you.

    I saw an interview w/Crowe where he discussed his research for the role of Javert. It turns out the Victor Hugo modeled both Valjean and Javert on different aspects of the life of the 19th century criminal turned police investigator Eugene Vidocq (http://vidocq.org/vidocq.html).

    Crowe also focused on Javert’s viewing of the dead in aftermath of the skirmish at the barricades as an aspect in Javert’s suicide.

    • leahlibresco

      That bit totally pissed me off in the theatre. If Javert can unbend enough to pity Gavroche, he doesn’t break in response to Valjean’s mercy.

  • lorena abellana

    It’s interesting and enlightening – such aspects as fairness and kindness – I consider it unnecessary to define and put lines between fairness and kindness –however I’d read it again -thanks for posting .

  • mickey

    ello evrybody peeps, enjoyed this blogg with Chesterton quotes etc. thanks to Iota and Dave for good conversation. I have only seen the Liam Neeson film version of Les Mi and there is one aspect i seem to remember: Javert was taking out some personal hate on the prostitute because he himself was born of a prostitute, I may be remembering wrong, but in which case I don’t think he is being so ‘right’ Another thing, I think Valjean escaped prison? It was a crazy sentence but he was on the run so maybe Javert wasn’t so bad in this case. please correct me.

  • Thanks so much for your insights. I believe that this film represents a major opportunity for us to start conversations with outsiders, and I’ve tried to draw together some helpful resources on the Digital Evangelism Issues blog: http://ieday.net/blog/archives/9802