False dichotomies! I just love using that phrase. You’ve seen the memes: “Why are we paying for illegal immigrants when there are veterans without homes?” “Why are we all talking about genders and bathrooms when the real scandal is those fat cats in congress?” “Why do we care so much about saving animals when babies are dying every day?” It’s the same mindset that says “why are you complaining? People in the third world have it way worse than you do.” There are two problems with this:
- If you follow this line of reasoning out to its logical conclusion, there is only one thing in the world worth caring about. You want to work for social justice? How about first making sure everyone has a right to life? You care about human life so much? Isn’t salvation more important? For me, this is a seductive line of reasoning. But if everyone in the world only cared about The One Most Important Thing (whatever that is!), where does that leave everything else? God gave people different interests, gifts, and callings for a reason.
- It’s possible to care about two worthwhile things at once! Just because someone cares about animals (or breast cancer research, or political reform, or domestic violence…) doesn’t mean they care less about people; they’re just budgeting their limited time and energy to one cause at a time. I believe this is why Pope Francis often talks about an integrated world view: a Catholic can, and should, care about social justice, the environment, just government, care for the poor, and discrimination as well as abortion and gay marriage. They’re all connected and they’re all important. And when it comes to your own suffering, that’s important too. Just because you don’t suffer as much as someone in a prison camp or a homeless shelter doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about what you’re going through.
This mindset is also handy for getting yourself off the hook. Who cares if that football player cheated? A lot of other football players raped people! Who cares if that criminal got beaten in jail? Our brave soldiers face worse every day! Again, this forces everything into a hierarchy, until you only have one crime worth caring about, and everything else can be ignored.
This way of viewing the world does have some truth in it, of course. Rape is worse than cheating, and we should focus more energy on preventing and punishing it. But that doesn’t mean you should be able to get away with cheating scot-free, and it doesn’t mean that people who investigate alleged cheating are petty or don’t care about real justice. I struggle with the amount of money, time, and energy that people devote to things like cancer research, when I consider grave issues like abortion much more important; but when I stop and think about it, I realize that we are both concerned with the same thing: the welfare of our brothers and sisters.
We should be able to talk about what’s neutral, what’s important, and what’s non-negotiable without forcing everything except the worst crimes and sufferings out of sight. It’s an easy way to look at the world, but it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of our individual vocations. Instead, it’s a perpetual excuse to skim the surface of important questions just deep enough to glean a satisfying dose of outrage.