So, Scott Alexander’s essay “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup” is one of the most fascinating essays that I’ve read (or in this case, re-read) in a long time. If you think about “tolerance,” the image that comes to mind is probably one of treating the alien compassionately: that is, acting generously and charitably towards someone quite unlike you. Alexander argues (convincingly, in my view) that this is a cheap sort of tolerance, and that the difficulty is getting along with those you’re closest to. That conclusion struck me as ironic, but he argues it persuasively:
Compare the Nazis to the German Jews and to the Japanese. The Nazis were very similar to the German Jews: they looked the same, spoke the same language, came from a similar culture. The Nazis were totally different from the Japanese: different race, different language, vast cultural gap. But the Nazis and Japanese mostly got along pretty well. Heck, the Nazis were actually moderately positively disposed to the Chinese, even when they were technically at war. Meanwhile, the conflict between the Nazis and the German Jews – some of whom didn’t even realize they were anything other than German until they checked their grandparents’ birth certificate – is the stuff of history and nightmares. Any theory of outgroupishness that naively assumes the Nazis’ natural outgroup is Japanese or Chinese people will be totally inadequate.
And this isn’t a weird exception. Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other”. Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.
So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.
And of course, this isn’t just about global geopolitics. Alexander uses this as a launching point to argue that one of the deepest divides we see right now in the U.S. is between political tribes. You’ll gladly welcome a person of another ethnicity or religion to dinner, but someone of opposing political views?
Now, “tolerance” isn’t a virtue, but love is. In fact, it’s the highest one (1 Corinthians 13:13). And “love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude” (1 Cor. 14:4-5a). And what Alexander is arguing – that it’s the people closest to us that are often the hardest to stand – is no less true of charity than it is of tolerance. We need to be wary of “telescopic philanthropy.” That’s the term Charles Dickens used in Bleak House to characterize Mrs. Jellyby, who is described as
a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public. She has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects, at various times, and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa; with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry — and the natives — and the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population.
The narrator is shocked when, upon arriving to her house, he finds her husband and children neglected and her house in disrepair. Mrs. Jellyby found it easy to “love” those far away with grandiose philanthropic programs, but failed to live out the actual nitty-gritty love of her own family.
Maybe at this point you’ve got a pretty specific person in mind, a neighbor or a friend or a spouse who is particularly guilty of this. If that’s the case, pay special attention to the Gospel at Mass tomorrow (Luke 6:39-42), and maybe look a little closer to home yet (I mean you). A few specific questions worth considering:
- How are we treating our own families?
Are we living out our domestic duties? Even more importantly, are we loving our families? St. Paul cautions that “if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5), shortly after he cryptically hints of the woman who will be “saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (1 Tim. 2:15).
- How are we treating fellow Catholics (and other Christians) both online and offline?
Paul encourages us to “not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:9-10). To modern ears, Paul sounds almost bigoted. We don’t love because the other person is Christians, we love because we’re Christians! But Paul knows the risk of telescopic charity. The logic that says to work on your domestic church, your family, before you try to set the parish straight is the very same logic that says that if you want to live our charity, start with your own coreligionists. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
But Paul knew something even more important. Christ is made present in the baptized Christian in a radical and unique way. Through Baptism, we become members of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). So in serving our fellow Christians, we are quite literally serving Christ – and even more directly than we serve other people, or cultivate Creation.
The question is, do we recognize these things? Look at how we Catholics speak of Pope Francis, our bishops and priests, prominent Catholic bloggers and personalities, and the rest. Do we speak and act as if we realize that they’re part of our own household of faith, and that it’s our calling to strive to serve them as we can? Or might we not say with St. Josemaria, “What great offence is given to God, and what great injury done to many souls — and what means of sanctification provided for others — by the injustice of the ‘just’!”
Go back to Scott Alexander’s description of ingroups and outgroups. If we’re accepting of atheists and agnostics, but are spiteful towards (say) the Traditionalist Catholics or the Presbyterians down the block, that’s cheap “tolerance.” And it’s certainly not charity.
- Are we living charity in the small things?
All too often, we think of charity as involving the grand spectacle: some amazing act of greatness exercised towards our fiercest enemy, or a total stranger, etc. But mostly, charity is loving people close to us even when they’re obnoxious, it’s doing what’s asked of us even when it’s frustrating, and it’s a thousand tiny sacrifices rather than an epic martyrdom. St. Francis de Sales puts it beautifully:
Be ready then, my child, to bear great afflictions for your Lord, even to martyrdom itself; resolve to give up to Him all that you hold most precious, if He should require it of you;—father, mother, husband, wife, or child; the light of your eyes; your very life; for all such offering your heart should be ready.
But so long as God’s Providence does not send you these great and heavy afflictions; so long as He does not ask your eyes, at least give Him your hair. I mean, take patiently the petty annoyances, the trifling discomforts, the unimportant losses which come upon all of us daily; for by means of these little matters, lovingly and freely accepted, you will give Him your whole heart, and win His. I mean the acts of daily forbearance, the headache, or toothache, or heavy cold; the tiresome peculiarities of husband or wife, the broken glass, the loss of a ring, a handkerchief, a glove; the sneer of a neighbour, the effort of going to bed early in order to rise early for prayer or Communion, the little shyness some people feel in openly performing religious duties; and be sure that all of these sufferings, small as they are, if accepted lovingly, are most pleasing to God’s Goodness, Which has promised a whole ocean of happiness to His children in return for one cup of cold water. And, moreover, inasmuch as these occasions are for ever arising, they give us a fertile field for gathering in spiritual riches, if only we will use them rightly.
If we’re already living this, great. It’s okay if nobody notices – the One Who Matters notices. And if we’re not living this already, today is a good day to start.