Why I signed the letter
John Duffy | Monday, April 30, 2012
Since signing the letter denouncing Bishop Jenky’s comparison of the Obama administration to Hitler – one of 154 Notre Dame faculty to sign – I have received e-mails calling me “shameful,” “treacherous,” and “without honor.” I have been accused of trivializing abortion and betraying Catholic teachings. What follows is an edited version of a response I wrote to one of my critics, who wrote me after I was quoted in the South Bend Tribune.
“The South Bend Tribune quoted me accurately. I was disappointed by the bishop’s remarks. I thought they were divisive, ill-considered and historically absurd. You may believe President Obama deserves to be compared to Hitler. I do not, and I said so. Nor am I persuaded by those who argue that the bishop’s remarks were quoted “out of context.” These people state the bishop did not directly compare Obama to Hitler, but instead made a narrower argument about restrictions on religious freedom by citing relevant historical examples, including Hitler.
The problem with the “out of context” defense is that it wants to invoke Hitler without being accountable for it. Hitler, in our culture, is both a historical figure and a concept, one representing the embodiment of evil. You cannot compare someone to Hitler and then note afterwards that you weren’t referring to those parts of Hitler’s legacy. Analogies to Hitler do not permit such nice distinctions. We do not parse Hitler. To invoke Hitler is to invoke all of it – the death camps and all the rest. There is no such thing in our culture as a “Hitler-not Hitler” analogy. However, my comments were not meant as a defense of abortion, as you suggested. Indeed, nothing I have said on this issue has addressed the questions of abortion, contraception, religious freedom, or the proper relationship of the U.S. Government to the Catholic Church.
My comments in the South Bend Tribune concerned the language Bishop Jenky used to advance his arguments. I believe one can argue passionately about the most profound moral questions without demonizing others. “Hear the other side,” St. Augustine said. In this instance, I think Bishop Jenky ignored that good advice. In recent days, I have heard from people telling me that legalized abortion in the U.S. is a grave moral crisis. I feel the urgency in their messages, and I respect it. But I am also concerned about a crisis of another kind: the crisis in public argument. I am concerned that public discourse today has become so toxic and debased that not only are we incapable of securing agreement on moral questions, we are not even able to agree on such basic things as the nature of a fact, or what constitutes empirical evidence, or what language is appropriate for characterizing those with whom we disagree. We argue ethical questions in terms of assertions and counter-assertions, and we hike up the volume on our personal speakers to the max. We do not listen, and what we hear we are unwilling to understand.
You may think my concerns trivial compared to yours. After all, accepting your formulation for this discussion, what compares to 50 million murders? Nothing, really. But I would suggest to you that the crisis of public discourse is prior to almost all other moral crises, including yours. Because if we do not have a language that allows us to reason together, then all our moral crises, including the one about which you care so passionately, will simply continue without end.
If you don’t believe this, ask yourself what progress you have seen on the issue of abortion. Consider that since Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973, we have had five Republican presidents and three Democratic ones. In all the comings and goings of so-called “pro-life” and “pro-choice” presidents and other politicians, what fundamental changes have occurred? How satisfied are you with the sum of legislative accomplishment? How confident are you that the next election will bring about, at long last, the changes you so fervently desire?
Our politics, I am trying to say, are crippled by an impoverished public language. And this impoverishment of language makes us a tribal people, each side in its territory, firing rhetorical rocket shells at one another. The blasts are emotionally satisfying, but the wars go on. If you think the only solution is the total destruction of the other side, then we part ways here. I am looking for a different way, and that’s why I regard Bishop Jenky’s remarks as unproductive and indeed offensive. The Bishop’s language was a powerful blast but did nothing to end ongoing conflicts.
That is why I signed the letter.
John Duffy is an English professor at Notre Dame. He can be reached at
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.