SlutWalkers, Occupiers, and Idiots

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The recent SlutWalk and Occupy Wall Street movements share a common feature: they provide people with an opportunity to emote publicly in non-productive and even counterproductive ways. They are well intentioned: they hope to call attention to the public effects of lust, violence, and greed. There is, to be sure, some good in calling a spade a spade in a highly public way. Yet the movements fail in two significant ways: first, they focus on symptoms and not cause; and second, they fail to offer viable alternatives.

In Thucydides' (5th c. BC) Greek, τὰ ἴδιος (ta idios) referred to one's private interests, as contrasted with those that emerged out of the careful process of reasoning that gave rise to an understanding of the common good. Etymologically speaking, then, an "idiot" is someone who is able to say what he or she wants, but is unable to enter into real political conversation in a pluralistic world. The idiot can emote "greed is evil!" but cannot offer meaningful solutions to how to mitigate the effects of greed. The idiot can similarly comment on the effects of lust or gluttony or any of the deadly sins, but is incapable of offering good ideas of how to change the human heart.

I find myself on one level having deep sympathy with the organizers of SlutWalks. Sexual assault and rape are horrific, and it is understandable that victims and those who love them respond with great passion. There is a power and a persuasiveness to righteous anger, and so on the level of simply getting attention to an important issue, the SlutWalks are effective. Yet on another level, these demonstrations are idiotic. Demonstrations require forethought and organization: creating publicity, making phone calls, designing websites, and so on. They are political acts. They require not only being rooted in pathos: they require forethought. And on that level I am less sanguine. I see righteous anger, but I do not see careful thinking. I see visceral hatred of sin, but I do not see analysis of the factors that give people the opportunity to do evil. I see the opportunity to call for social change, but the opportunity squandered on absurd ideas about reclaiming language rather than reclaiming hearts.

To use an analogy: imagine people taking to the streets in response to some idiot who casually blamed a car owner for being carjacked. The people would be justifiably outraged. But without concrete proposals for how to reduce the incidences of carjacking (public awareness campaigns, strict punishment of offenders, tax breaks for stores that install cameras and safety lights, and so on), it is difficult to imagine that such demonstrations would redound to any measurable public benefit. On the contrary, they might assuage otherwise lazy consciences with the false sense that they have done something meaningful.

Lust and violence are sins of the heart, and as such they are rooted in false desire. Much of human desire is constructed by patterns of imitation: people generally do what society tells them is right. Today, what society tells people about lust is that it's generally lots of fun. What is needed is a sustained social commitment to those virtues which, when practiced, act as counterweights to the tendencies toward sin. Only such a commitment can give rise to right social policies that cultivate the public virtues (including the least fashionable one, chastity) and punish sins against them.

Plato observed that the human will is like a charioteer with two horses, a tame horse of reason and a wild horse of the passions. Aristotle observed that a person's character is formed through practices of virtue. Both recognized that good reasons don't change hearts; virtuous practices cultivated by communities do, because these virtues leverage both the desires of the human heart and the power of imitating others.

What is necessary, in a word, are institutions built upon a right understanding of the human person. The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) idiots seem to be directing their ire at institutions in general: banks and other financial institutions; government; probably also churches, civic organizations, and others that promote or ignore greed. And to be sure, there is a long history of protesting, of lifting voices on behalf of the oppressed, dating back at least to the time of the Israelite prophets and carrying through (for example) to the Civil Rights movement. One can hardly fault anyone for speaking up on behalf of the disenfranchised, at least if you happen to a) have a heart and b) disagree with Ayn Rand. Yet like the SlutWalkers, their anger has not generated a viable alternative. They have not answered the question "how is a good society to keep greed in check?"