Chesterton and the Mistake in Contemporary Debate


Just last week it was G.K. Chesterton’s 141st birthday! While he didn’t get himself a Google Doodle (that was reserved for Nepal Republic Day – a fair call at this time), he remains incredibly quote-able on a range of contemporary topics. I give him a solid 10 on the Wilde-Churchill Quote-O-Meter, myself. Nonetheless, here’s a quote from his What’s Wrong with the World that I think has century-long staying power:

“This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes out.” (What’s Wrong with the World, p. 17.)

At first glance, this quote seems about as far away from contemporary debates as one can get. Microaggressions, cultural Marxism, radical feminism, knuckle-dragging chauvinism, white-male privilege, welfare-state entitlement, big government, small government or any old government – all of these things seem to be problems that we argue over, not agree on.

Yet these are not problems, rather they are diagnoses which are coloured by solutions. Social disparity is the problem for which “microaggressions” and “privilege” are proposed to explain. Poverty is the problem, with differing sides blaming the almost-mutually-exclusive “big government” and “small government” political structures. And so on. What we think are “problems” seem to be ideological solution-based interpretations of problems.

Instead, I think that in our society most people would agree on basic problems: unjust inequality, destitute poverty, a lack of human dignity. It is what a good solution and outcome looks like – Chesterton points out – which is what ought to set Twitter abuzz.

...And figurative table flipped. I don't like to think tables are actually flipped.

…And figurative table flipped. I don’t like to think tables are actually flipped.

Yet in my very meagre experience, many a keyboard is attacked and vocal cord strained because we often make a fundamental mistake. Thus far I have said that we can mix up problems and solutions. What is worse is that we conflate them.

When the Facebook warrior sallies out of their ideological fortress, they can all too often assume that their opponent’s disagreement with a proposed solution is a denial of the problem itself. Such problems are, as is understandable, hugely emotive – especially when said warriors are personally affected by them.

An example would suffice here. A central issue in abortion is the situation of a woman experiencing a crisis pregnancy due to her social situation. This may be due to poverty, an unsupportive partner or family, or the prospect of great difficulty in education and employment. Now, from a pro-life (anti-abortion) perspective, the solution to this problem is not the abortion of the child, but alleviation of the problems themselves. The pro-abortion perspective however may see this opposition to abortion as opposition to resolving the above problems – and thus may accuse their interlocutor of a lack of compassion. Yet this accusation stems from a misunderstanding: a conflation of problem and proposed solution.

Thus, I think Chesterton’s observation can really help us in our contemporary discussions. Remember to distinguish problem and solution. Agree – if possible – on the problem. Interpret the opposition charitably. Explain why a particular solution is better in addressing said problem. And read more Chesterton.

Did I say read more Chesterton? Yes, yes I did.

Did I mention that we should read more Chesterton?

But, maybe I’m completely off. What are your thoughts?


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