Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thought Crimes and Misdemeanors

In a recent piece in Vanity Fair magazine, the endearingly and eternally inebriated neoatheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens launched into a prequel of his new book project: dismantling and replacing the 10 Commandments. They are, as he would argue it, a rather quaint bunch of antiquated silliness. They are eminently replaceable. Any highly rational and enlightened individual would be capable of coming up with a vastly superior set of Commandments to govern the lives of humankind.

So that's what he sets about to do. First, of course, he has to explain why the existing Mosaic Decalogue is utterly unacceptable. He's got a bristling quiver of bon mots and whiskey-sharp snark at his disposal, and is as entertaining as always as he deconstructs the Big Ten.

It's not all negative, truth be told. He's OK with the not killing, not stealing, and not adulterificating. He even seems impressed to the point of doing homage when he talks about not bearing false witness. But Hitchens being Hitchens, there's a whole bunch of erudite smackdown going on. One of the more interesting arrows he lets fly comes at the end of his attack, as he goes after the tenth and final commandment. You know, the one about "not coveting."

The primary thrust of his attack is this: Unlike most of the other commandments, this doesn't proscribe a particular behavior. You know, like Don't Kill. Don't Steal. Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys. Instead, the Tenth Commandment asserts that you should not feel a certain way. Instead, a particular pattern of human thought and emotion is prohibited.

Hitchens sees this, points his finger, and in a voice not unlike that of Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, says, "THOOOUGHT CRIME!" As Chrisso sees it, mandating a particular pattern of thought is the nastiest tendency of totalitarian regimes. Your every thought must be of the Dear Leader! Those who do not think in this way will be re-educated!

It's an interesting charge, one that he then goes to further level against Jesus for his provocative statement that even thinking about adultery is as bad in God's eyes as adultery itself. How can you command people to not even think something? How can you say that a person needs to feel a certain way? It's outrageous! Oppressive! Inhuman!

Or so the argument goes.

Here, though, Hitchens seems to have made a rather significant conceptual blunder. He has forgotten the difference between laws and ethics. A legal framework stipulates a particular pattern of behavior, and provides for ways to take folks to the woodshed if they don't comply with that mandate. Laws have to do with specific material actions, with concomitant rewards and punishments. But legal frameworks are not the highest form of governing human behavior. A human being who does not engage in a particular pattern of behavior out of fear of punishment...and would happily do all sorts of unpleasantness if they knew they could get away with it...that human being is not truly moral. They are not "good," not in any meaningful sense.

Morality and ethics, on the other hand, have to do with a deeply internalized set of values. They might involve certain proscribed behaviors, true. But they are ultimately about not just the actions of an individual, but go deeply to that individual's motivations and desires.

When Jesus challenged his legalistic listeners to consider their own desire to schtupp the deliciously zaftig wife of the village rabbi as functionally adulterous, he was getting at the heart of what it means to be a moral being. If the only reason you don't do the humpty hump with another man's wife is because you're afraid of social approbation and/or being stoned to death, then you haven't internalized your own set of values. When you condemn others for doing what you'd do if given half a chance, you are being hypocritically self-righteous.

Further, the inward transformation of human beings is the core purpose of every great human ethical tradition. In the Buddhist Eightfold path, for example, fully half of the paths speak to the nature of our internal lives. Human beings are, according to that tradition, to have right views, to have right intentions, right mindfulness, and right concentration. All of the material manifestations of that system of belief are to flow forth from an inwardly transformed self.

In condensing the 10 Commandments into the Great Commandment, Jesus did essentially the same thing. That Commandment is all about our orientation as beings, as we approach our Creator and on our neighbor. It doesn't command a particular action or set of actions, but rather asserts a particular attitude of our whole being: we are to love God. We are to love neighbor.

While the 10 Commandments do tell us to avoid particular actions that are universal to human brokenness, they are also not an exhaustive legal code. They are a higher level set of guidelines, ones that overarch, encompass, and guide the nattering specificity of legalism. As such, they're closer to a defining ethos than they are to being a legal code.

So when Hitchens confuses a call for personal and ethical integrity with "prosecuting thought crimes," he's critically overreached.

Ah well. At least he's entertaining.