Acton’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, recently wrote about ‘Our Sentimental Humanitarian Age’ at the American Spectator. He argues that “soft liberalism is incapable of confronting the evil in man.”
Sometimes, however, an event occurs that highlights the more fundamental crises that bedevil a civilization. The rise of a movement as diabolical as ISIS, for instance, has surely underscored the bankruptcy of what might be called the sentimental humanitarian outlook that dominates so many contemporary shapers of the West’s cultural consensus.
Sentimental humanitarianism has several features. One is the mind-set that reduces evil to structural causes. “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains,” proclaimed Rousseau in his Du contrat social. From this, many concluded that evil would disappear if the right people were put in charge to change the structures.
Sentimental humanitarianism also assumes that all religions are more-or-less the same and, given the right conditions, will vacillate their way towards something as innocuous as today’s Church of England. But as a wise recently retired pope once wrote, a major failure of imagination since the 1960s has been the disinclination to concede that there are “sick and distorted forms of religion.”
He goes on to say that sentimental humanism is unwilling to address situations “with any substantive understanding of reason,” but rather through an “exchange of feelings.” Gregg warns that not all groups will accept this way of seeing things:
Outfits like ISIS — and Boko Haram, Nazism, and Communism — don’t, however, fit the sentimental humanitarian narrative. For such groups illustrate that not all of evil emanates from poor education, unjust structures, or the current fashionable explanation for all the world’s ills: inequality. In the end, the sick choice to behead someone — or kidnap people’s daughters, or incarcerate enemies-of-the-revolution in a Gulag, or herd Jews into gas chambers — is a free choice to do evil that can’t be explained away by the fact that others are wealthier than you.
The same groups also underline another truth that makes sentimental humanitarians uneasy: that some people and movements aren’t in fact amenable to “dialogue.” ISIS’s creed is submission: nothing more, nothing less. There’s nothing to discuss with ISIS except the terms of your surrender or degree of dhimmitude.
A third and even more controversial truth that upsets the sentimental humanitarian account of the world’s ills is that not all cultures are equally amenable to the values and institutions that promote freedom, dignity, and other goods intrinsic to human nature. At many universities these days, making such a claim is likely to mean you’ll be shipped off for diversity-sensitivity training. That, however, doesn’t make it any less true.
Consider, for example, the words of the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul whose flock has been murdered, robbed, raped, and scattered by ISIS. Speaking about the perpetrators to a Western audience, Archbishop Amel Shimoun Nona said, “Your values are not their values.” “Your liberal and democratic principles,” he added, “are worth nothing here.” In the face of such blunt remarks, your average sentimental humanitarian has little to say.
Sentimental humanitarians often deal with difficult situations by simply pretending that they do not exist, which is what happened in Rotherham. Gregg speculates on the origins of the movement, suggesting that this way of thinking may have come out of the Enlightenment’s “faith in progress,” but has gained popularity because of our Christian heritage:
Orthodox (small “o”) Christianity has always taken evil deadly seriously. The Polish philosopher the late Leszek Kołakowski once wrote that original sin is one part of the Christian faith that you don’t need to be a believer to accept. Why? Because, he said, the evidence for its truth lies all around us. While Christianity’s core message is that evil and death have been conquered, it also affirms that people can still choose evil, even to the point of their own damnation.
By contrast, what might be called “liberal Christianity” involves the steady distortion of such beliefs. Sin, for instance, is exteriorized away from man’s free choices and actions (i.e., things that make us different from every other species). Instead wickedness is almost exclusively reduced to unjust structures, while goodness is narrowed to abolishing inequality, stopping global warming, and establishing eternal universal peace through the United Nations. Thus salvation is steadily reduced to a this-worldly focus on perfecting social structures, which, being human, can never be perfect.
Historically, whenever there has been a period of “Western decay,” leaders have come forward who speak truths and reject dangerous rhetoric. Unfortunately, Gregg argues that no one seems to be emerging in this present decay.
Leaders, of course, aren’t everything. The bad news today, however, is surely the near-absence of any Western leader (Australia’s Tony Abbott being a possible exception) in the public eye who’s prepared to depart from the sentimental humanitarian script to speak directly about the deeper reasons underlying, for instance, soft-despotism’s relentless creep throughout our economies, or even more seriously, radical jihadism’s growth outside and within our own borders.
The sad irony is that the longer we stay in a sentimental humanitarian-induced sleep about such things, the greater the possibility that the nightmares we dread will become real.