September 28, 2010

How Many Bigots Do You Know?

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *
Someone wrote me a letter taking issue with something I’d written about health care. The letter complained that it’s not “moral” for people to profit from health care.

My correspondent runs a farm, so I couldn’t help wondering how he would answer anyone who accused him of “profiting” from food – an even more fundamental commodity than health care.

“You have to understand,” I imagine him saying, “I’m not gauging you. I have to feed my family, and the price for my wheat includes more than seed and water. It’s also based on the cost of farming equipment, pest control, fertilizer, pay for seasonal workers during the harvest…” and he could list many other things.

The cost of a doctor visit, no less than a bushel of wheat, includes hidden costs such as medical school, malpractice insurance, equipment, nursing and office staff salaries and so forth.

Why did it not occur to my farmer friend to presume the same good faith of another he expects for himself?

How routine it has become to assume the bad faith of our fellow citizens!  

Support an entitlement program, you must be lazy or a panderer. Oppose the same program, you must be callous towards the poor.

Think it’s unwise to tamper with the definition of marriage, no one engages your reasons – you’re simply a bigot.

Catholics, alas, are not innocent.  It is very rare to see an argument against capital punishment or the Iraq war in the Catholic press that doesn’t rest on maligning supporters’ motives.

Whatever happened to persuasive arguments? I fear this incivility betokens a loss of faith in self-government.

The premise of the Declaration’s creed that all persons are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights has led to two great American strengths.

The first is the ability to see persons as individuals rather than as members of categories; the second is confidence that in spite of competing interests, when we meet together as equals through our political and civic institutions, we can examine facts, learn from each other and often come to agreement or just accommodation.

The rhetorical tendency to dehumanize our fellow citizens when they disagree with us – to cast aspersions on their honesty and integrity – is a totalitarian impulse, out of step with both the Declaration and Catholic social teaching.

We see our fellow citizens increasingly not as friends to be persuaded, but as inferior beings to be compelled.

“Shut up!” we explain.

To “dialogue” with a person, you have to begin by assuming his good will and good intentions.

And why not? Do we not remember the extraordinary outpouring of volunteers trying desperately to find survivors in the rubble of 9/11? The 1,000,000 citizens who left their own lives behind to volunteer in rebuilding New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina? Americans routinely give close to $300 billion in private charity annually – over and above the foreign aid and entitlement programs we fund with our taxes.

We have a nation filled with people who are hard-working, decent, generous, and not trying to make life difficult for others.

It’s also a huge country, with a wide range not only of beliefs, but of circumstances, and often when we understand people’s circumstances, we come to sympathize with their views, even if we don’t share them.

So when people in Arizona pass a law that cracks down on illegal immigration, it might or might not be a wise law – I have my doubts. But can we truly not see the fact of that legislation as a cry for help rather than a sudden outburst of hatred for Hispanics – who settled Arizona for heaven’s sake?

Have we really nothing to say to the family whose father – known for being a Good Samaritan to illegal immigrants – was murdered on his own property by members of a Mexican drug cartel but “Let’s see how many people against bigotry we can find on Facebook?”

Why is our default assumption that the same people who rush to help anyone anywhere in the world must be bigots?

Obviously, having a legitimate problem is not proof that your proposed solution is credible, and that’s why open debate is crucial. It’s how we weed out stupid or overly parochial ideas and allow great ones to come to the fore.

Self-government of this sort takes time and can be messy. It also requires confidence that most people are decent, worth listening to, and worth trying to engage and persuade.
Rebecca Ryskind Teti is Operations Coordinator for the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Busch School of Business & Economics at CUA, though the opinions are her own. This column is modified from an earlier version that first appeared in Faith & Family  magazine.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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