If Douthat's Critics Rely on Censorship, Maybe There's a Problem With Their Ideas

I didn’t know who Ross Douthat was until a few days ago. I realize that reveals me for the rube I am to all the whole wide world, but so be it.

My life the past couple of weeks has been an exercise in maintaining an even strain. I don’t feel like describing the details. It makes me tired to think about it, much less write it down. I’ll just toss you a couple of hints. My days have been taken up with ugly encounters with the family drug addict, troubles with my 90-year-old Mama with dementia, and a brush with the existential realities concerning my own health.

I’m still standing, but I feel used up with the effort.

Given all that, Ross Douthat, whose name set off a ping of vague recognition when I heard it, but whose identity was otherwise unknown to me, barely tapped my consciousness when he wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times last week. I’ve since learned that Douthat writes opinion pieces about the Catholic Church for the New York Times on a regular basis.

I saw a link to this particular opinion piece on a discussion board I frequent. It kind of entered my awareness that there was a bit of flapping and squawking about whatever he’d said. But I was slogging through a tough patch of real life. I didn’t care about what Douthat had said, and I also didn’t care about the squawking and flapping his opinions elicited.

That’s pretty much what the internet is about: squawking and flapping, huffing and puffing, hissing and spitting. I assumed that Douthat’s opinion piece shared his opinion about something or other, and the subsequent carrying on was just a matter of other people giving counter opinions. That’s not exactly dialogue. But it is fair play.

Then, today, while I was reeling from more bizarre stuff in my personal life, I saw an article about a group of Big Names in the Catholic academic u-verse who had signed a letter which appears to be an attempt to get the New York Times to either instruct Douthat about his opinions or fire him. They tried to dress it up with fancy talk, but their reason was that they didn’t agree with what he had written.

I took the time to backtrack and read the letter. To call it a letter actually elevates it. The missive in question is four sentences.

These four sentences make the claims that Douthat’s article, as well as other unnamed “recent statements” misrepresent what “Catholicism really is,” and that accusing others of “heresy” is a “serious business” that can have “serious consequences” for those accused. The cherry on top the pile is the claim that Douthat does not posses the “professional qualifications for writing on this subject.”

 Frankly, I found the letter offensive. It struck me as bullying and cowardly. I certainly did not see it as fair play.

The letter-signers have the freedom to counter Douthat’s opinions by writing a response. They can dissect and debunk his arguments with arguments of their own. Presumably, they have the “professional credentials” to do this.

Instead, they went to the New York Times with an implicit demand that Douthat’s ability to express opinions they disagree with in that publication be truncated. They did not in any way counter Douthat’s views. They made accusations about those views. They did not substantiate those accusations or explain what they think is a better idea. The thrust of their letter was simply that the New York Times should not allow Douthat to publish these opinions in their newspaper.

I’m going to repeat myself here. The letter-signers did not do what they clearly have the ability to do. They did not answer Douthat’s opinions in an open forum. Instead they went to his employer to protest that he was allowed to publish those opinions, with what appears to be the goal of getting him fired for wrong-thinking.

The cherry on top was the claim that the merit of his ideas rests on whether or not he possesses the proper “credentials” to hold those opinions. Douthat’s opinions may be without merit. On the other hand, they may be the heart of brilliance. I don’t know and I don’t care. I do know that the value (or lack thereof) of his ideas rests in the ideas themselves, not in his credentials.

To make the claim that an idea is invalid because the thinker behind it doesn’t have the appropriate academic credentials is itself an idea without merit. Such a claim is intellectual mediocrity at its most mediocre. The idea is what should be considered. It should stand or fall on its own weight.

If the signatories of this letter disagree with Douthat, they should write their own opinion pieces saying what they think and why they think it. They have no business attempting to get someone fired— and it does sound as if that is what they are going for —  for saying things they disagree with. Disparaging this person’s ideas by attempting to gate-keep the expression of free thought with academic degrees is petty snobbishness combined with group think.

I glanced at Douthat’s opinion piece and, for what it’s worth, I disagree with at least part of what he said. I don’t have the interest to write about it. It is, after all, just his opinion.

In my little world out here in Okieland, the New York Times has about as much purchase as the gravitational pull of the planet Pluto. Academicians from big name Catholic universities have even less. That’s why I can be so uninvolved with this teapot tempest and say quite simply that this letter is foul play. It demeans the people who sign it.

The truth is, just about everyone has opinions, and those opinions always differ from the opinions of everyone else. That’s because each of us is a unique human being with a mind of his or her own. The letter-signers need to come to grips with that fact. If they want to disagree with Douthat, they should take advantage of the open marketplace of ideas and make their case. 

The letter claims that calling people “heretics” is not an action to be taken lightly. I don’t believe Douthat used that word in the piece I read. But even if he had, their point is not well taken. Douthat is not running the Inquisition. He is writing his opinion. As of now, it looks like the only person likely to be burned at the stake for what Douthat wrote is Douthat himself. 

If he truly slandered these folks, they need to be a bit more specific in how they express themselves. Simple declarative sentences such as “That is not true. Here is why.” are good starting points.

I don’t know the people involved in this back and forth. I don’t even really know of them. I honestly don’t care about the opinions each side of the tiff favors. I can see merit and fallacy in both viewpoints. What bothers me is the business of trying to silence people for having ideas and opinions that run counter to the ones held by a specific group.

These letter-signers need to get out there and talk about why they disagree with Douthat’s opinion piece. If they don’t want to take the time to mix it up in a public rebuttal, that’s their choice. But it doesn’t require him to be silent. On the other hand, if they can’t support their ideas in open discussion, then maybe those ideas aren’t valid.

This behavior of trying to silence someone rather than answering them certainly makes it seem as if that is the case.