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The Tyranny of Tenderness

A warning from Walker Percy: well-intentioned but ill-considered solutions will do more harm than good.

Last month in the Washington Post, Georgetown professor Christy E. Lopez explained what “defunding the police” actually means. Apparently it does not mean the abolition of police forces, but a redirection of their existing funding to more compassionate and concerned social welfare providers.

Lopez, the co-director of Georgetown’s Innovative Policing Program, writes:

For most proponents, defunding the police” does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety… defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.

In other words, let’s stop using force and start using more compassionate methods to address the gang violence, drug abuse, homelessness, human trafficking, prostitution and crime that pollutes our cities and brings misery to so many.

No doubt better housing, health care, community mediation and “violence interruption programs” would help. but the help social welfare programs offer is a band-aid on cancer. The problems in our society are far deeper, and materialistic solutions are not only inefficient, they are often ineffective in the long term. While they can be part of the solution, if social programs are driven by a naive and tenderhearted ideology they can actually be dangerous.

The novelist Walker Percy snatched a quote from his fellow Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor to provide the theme for his novel The Thanatos Syndrome. In Mystery and Manners O’Connor wrote, “In the absence of… faith, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

Percy picks up the ball from O’Connor and runs with it. Rather than the typical horrific dystopia, Percy’s nightmare world is easygoing. In dozy Feliciana parish, old-fashioned Southern gentility saunters in seersucker and sips bourbon while planning a congenial genocide.  A psychiatrist, Tom More, observes that something strange is going on. His wife and former patients are behaving in a bizarre fashion. They seem emotionally dead, answer questions with simplistic speech patterns and engage in simian sexual behaviors. They seem strangely happy and have lost their old anxieties, phobias, neuroses and unique personality traits. They have become cheerful zombies.

Dr. More figures out that the syndrome is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and he tracks its genesis to the local water supply. The artificial happiness is caused by a high dosage of heavy sodium in the water, and the conspirators are the leading figures of the town, including two of Toms colleagues. They try to get him on board with the conspiracy saying they have government funding and secret backing. Their plan is social engineering. 

By secretly suppressing certain behaviors they claim to have reduced crime, cured AIDS and gotten rid of anxiety, suicides and repeat offending by criminals.

By controlling the libido they have eliminated sex crimes and homosexuality, and by modulating the female reproductive cycle they have a built in population control mechanism. Suddenly there are no more teen pregnancies, no need for sex education or contraceptives, and abortion is a thing of the past. 

The tenderhearted utilitarians argue that a dose of heavy sodium in the drinking water is no worse than putting fluoride in the water supply. 

Father Smith—an eccentric priest who lives in a fire watcher’s tower—opens Dr More’s eyes by recounting his experiences as a young student visiting Germany in the 1930s. Smith mingled with a set of charming, sophisticated Germans. Well educated and cultured, the German doctors quote Rilke, play Brahms and discuss the rise of Hitler and the Jewish problem. When Smith returns as a G.I. he finds that his sophisticated friends were the very ones involved in eugenics, euthanasia and genocide.

It is an unfortunate shorthand in our Twitter age that we dismiss our opponents by calling them Nazis, so not knowing Professor Lopez, I would not wish to label her, nor would I wish to write off her proposals for mental health facilities, community mediation and violence interruption programs as the nefarious schemes of the Gestapo de nos jours. However, if the only thing the tenderhearted have to offer is utilitarian and materialistic solutions, one has to ask how those solutions will be implemented.

Will the homeless and drug addicted be removed from the streets by “community care workers” instead of the police? What if the care workers meet resistance? Will the homeless be removed to “mental health facilities” and be held there against their will? Will the “mental health facilities” have security systems? Locks on the doors? Bars at the windows? Guards? Fences?

Who exactly will determine whether a person is mentally ill and needs to be retained? What will be the criteria for determining mental illness? Might citizens who need “re-education” be sent to such facilities? Who would need re-education? Anyone who opposes the tender new world?

When dealing with murderous gang members, human traffickers, pimps and drug pushers how exactly does “community mediation” work? Who are the community mediators? Do they have any authority? Do they have the backup of sanctions of any kind? What kind of sanctions are they? Financial? Physical? Incarceration? Are there any checks and balances to keep an eye on the community mediators?

One wants to ask, “What precisely is a “violence interruption program” and how does it work? Will those who are interrupting a violent event simply give the gun or knife wielding citizen a good talking to? What if the violent person is high on drugs or surging with irrational rage? If the violence is collective will the people interrupting the violence have the use of body armor? Shields? Tear gas? Tasers? Firearms? 

The problem with replacing the police with social workers is that there would be even less control over those assigned to maintain public safety. Why should we assume that when social workers, community mediators and violence interrupters are under stress that they would be any less prone to brutality and oppression than a man in a blue uniform? For that matter, the roots of racism are part of human nature. Why should we assume that social workers would be any less racist or bigoted against members of some other ethnic, religious or political group?

It is this naivety of the tenderhearted reformers that history teaches us to beware. In Percy’s novel, the fire watcher” Fr. Smith is the one who reveals what is really going on. There are no death camps or gas chambers in sleepy Louisiana. There are no mass graves, ovens, or corpses stacked like cordwood on the bayou.

Instead, the humanity of the town folk is being chemically dissolved, and in the climactic comic-horror scene we see the final result: in a kind of retro-evolution, the main villains of the piece—child abusers who run a seemingly wholesome school—revert to apelike behavior. Their plan to eliminate human unhappiness has eliminated humanity. Without their phobias and foibles, without their neuroses and nastiness, the residents of the town have not become best. They have become beasts. 

Fr. Smith sums it up in his warning:Tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer … Never in the history of the world have there been so many civilized tenderhearted souls as have lived in this century … More people have been killed in this century by tenderhearted souls than by cruel barbarians in all other centuries put together … Do you know where tenderness always leads …  To the gas chambers.”

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest working in Greenville, South Carolina. His book Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness examines the problem of collective violence and its solutions. dwightlongenecker.com

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