When Common Sense Kills

Pope2Pope Francis arrives at the Tacloban Airport in the Philippines on January 17, 2015. Image: Wikimedia Commons

I like Pope Francis. It’s hard not to like him. He’s folksy. He goes crowd wading while his security staffers piss themselves. He’s got a smile that’s both kind and a little devilish. I’d like to have a beer with him, to cite the ultimate good-human test.

The breathtakingly stupid mom-slur analogy he made on January 15, during the press session on a plane heading to the Philippines, even underscores why I like him. (Translations vary mildly, but he took a shadow jab at some hapless papal stooge and said something close to, “If my good friend Dr. Gasbarri says a curse word against my mother, a punch awaits him. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”)

Francis is real dude-ish. He talks about kicking ass. He throws fake punches. What pope does that? He’s exactly what the Catholic Church needs to mend fences with the throngs that grew weary of its dusty, pedophile-protecting obtuseness.

Deservedly, Francis was slammed for giving his not-so-tacit blessing to religious fanatics to physically attack people who insult them. Realizing that his remarks were catastrophically imbecilic in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, he clumsily backtracked, but the damage was done. Lunatics who behead people with carving knives heard him say it’s normal to hurt someone who ridicules their faith. Joe Biden couldn’t have screwed the pooch better.

Colloquially, Francis is right, of course. If you mock someone’s religion, you’ll probably make the person mad, and anger often leads to punching. Which often leads to beating and stabbing and shooting and beheading, even though God will stop condoning the response at some murky point therein, Francis seems to say. But because you knocked over the first domino by insulting the person’s faith, barging into taboo territory, you “started it” and deserve your come-uppance.

This makes sense. And it’s barbarically idiotic.

The asterisk on brutality

That disconnect comes courtesy of a conflict humans have only been dealing with for a blip of evolutionary time, perhaps a few percentage points of our entire existence. It’s the conflict between animalistic common sense and half-civilized notions of society. We all have trouble sifting them apart, since we’re so painfully green at parsing one from the other as a species.

Animalistic common sense is as old as biological life. It operates on rock-and-tree reality and follows one fundamental directive: fight, kill, cooperate, survive. It’s the prehistoric law of might makes right that still rules earth.

In throwing a pantomimed punch over a hypothetical mother insult, Francis was firmly citing his respect for animalistic common sense. Under its Stone Age logic, when someone calls your mother a whore—an insult that many cultures have christened as mortally offensive—animalistic common sense demands one response. Violence. You beat them up or kill them, if you possibly can. This serves four important evolutionary purposes. First, it reduces or eliminates a clear threat to your survival from an enemy. Second, it signals to others that you’re not a weak nellie who can be easily robbed of his dwelling, mate and acorn stash. Third, the ensuing fight should eject the weaker nellie from the gene pool so he won’t produce any more weak nellies. And fourth, the blood, shattered bones and humiliation of the whole mess will discourage group members from going around insulting people’s mothers, which will promote harmony and reduce infighting.

As a steering impulse, animalistic common sense has worked quite well for most of the last 2.4 million years. Or at least since homo habilis invented a grunt for “fuck your mother.”

Francis got his face pressed in poo for his “a punch awaits him” comment, however, because it violated our embryonic half-civilized notions of society.* Which some people take almost as seriously as others take religion. Worse, it came from a man many tend to regard as the ultimate angel of our better nature, rather than, say, Chris Christie.

Half-civilized notions of society are in their diapered infancy. At some embarrassingly recent point in the last 10,000 years—or about two milliseconds ago in evolutionary time—the ceaseless snail creep of hominid brainpower finally forced us to introduce frustrating complications to our blueprints for societal conduct. They were counter-intuitive ideas suggesting that might doesn’t always make right, a nuance that has given humanity Excedrin headaches ever since.


Free-ish speech

We don’t know which troublemaker to blame for conceiving the particular notion that ridiculers ought to occasionally escape with their lives, but there’s no harm in pinning it on the ancient Athenians, as usual. Around 7,000 years ago, they started generally deciding that rules made by naked berry-pickers weren’t good enough for them. They began kicking around the thought that maybe you shouldn’t always kill some asshole for saying something you really dislike just because you can, at least if the asshole owned some soil and paid taxes.

That spark was enough. The concept of free-ish speech metastasized uncontrollably in a remarkably brief period, aided by bloodshed and celestial navigation. It poked an annoying hole in animalistic common sense that despots, lawyers and popes still struggle to plug. (Fortunately for them, it never fully spread to schoolyards, bars, many religious houses, plenty of urban street corners and some incredibly wide stretches of creation where the early Pleistocene remains in full bloom.)

The audacity to question killing-for-name-calling wasn’t the only revolt against primordial law, of course; other might-righteous classics like raping, enslaving, swindling, etc. were simultaneously getting complicated in city-states across the crudely mapped world. A motley assemblage of half-civilized notions have been germinating for 70 centuries, and in 2015, exactly 800 years after the Magna Carta, most are still fighting their way out of the societal birth canal. But we’re moving in the right direction.

Evolution is slipping us a Mickey

Why has evolution allowed humans to sprout wisps of effete civility that seem to conflict with the simple “bash your enemy’s face in” programming Pope Francis cited?

Because evolution is slipping us a helpful Mickey. Animalistic common sense was about strength; half-civilized notions value ideas. If I kill you because you say something that infuriates me, I might silence an idea that could have helped us all—or at least the select few able to run with it. The slowly emerging homo sapiens 2.0 will only value ideas. That’s because strength, which will always determine survival, is quickly being relegated to a temporal byproduct of ideas. We’re not yet one lifespan removed from discovering that splitting the atom beats splitting skulls, and confronting the asinine truth that one weird, picayune idea can overwhelm everything we’ve ever achieved, everywhere, combined.

For worse or better, the evolutionary compulsion to nose out ideas is irrepressible in humans. We will follow it anywhere it leads.

Unfortunately for religious zealots, of which the pope is one, humans also have a historically short tolerance for cordoning off ideas as untouchable or too sanctified to question. This will continue to bring great discomfort to people who believe religious ideologies should be granted respectful clemency from the scrutiny of advancing human logic and evolving perspectives, whether they’re in Knoxville or Damascus or Rome. Or, maybe without irony, laughing at a road performance of The Book of Mormon in Madison, Milwaukee or Kansas City right now. While we can try to declare them divine or supercilious from the get-go, religions are born and made of ideas—and they will inevitably, increasingly be forced to compete in the human marketplace of ideas as the earth continues to shed its provincialism. During this long, wrenching suss-out, we should consider it a miracle if most people show compassion and restraint as old ideas are sent to the bone yard.

In short, we’re struggling our way to half-civilized common sense. All of us, including Pope Francis, can be forgiven if such a belief defies faith.



*Upon leaving the Philippines on January 19, Pope Francis was questioned about the uproar his analogy caused. He backtracked clumsily, saying he simply meant people who say provocative things must be aware that offended humans will often react in violent, morally indefensible ways, so they’d better be “prudent” and take that reality into consideration. Here’s exactly what he said during the January 19 in-flight interview:

“In theory, we can say that a violent reaction in the face of an offense or a provocation is not a good thing; one shouldn’t do it. In theory, we can say what the Gospel says: that we should turn the other cheek. In theory, we can say that we have freedom of expression, and that’s important. But, in theory, we all agree. But we are human, and there’s prudence, which is a virtue of human coexistence. I cannot constantly insult, provoke a person continuously, because I risk making him angry, and I risk receiving an unjust reaction, one that is not just. But that’s human. For this reason, I say that freedom of expression must take into account the human reality; and, for this reason, it must be prudent. It’s a way of saying that one must be educated, prudent. Prudence is the human virtue that regulates our relations. I can go up to here, I can go up to there and there; beyond that, no. What I wanted to say is that, in theory, we all agree: There is freedom of expression. A violent aggression is not good; it’s always bad. We all agree, but in practice, let us stop a little, because we are human, and we risk provoking the other. For this reason, freedom must be accompanied by prudence. That’s what I wanted to say.”

With this equivocation, Francis tried to shift most of the blame and ignorance onto the violent responders, and frame free speech limits as merely practical boundaries one would be wise to heed in a world of flawed, anger-prone people. Thus the head of the Catholic Church went from championing animalistic common sense to rhetorically bemoaning the need to respect its continued grip on the world. Radicals who support murdering blasphemers will naturally disregard this weak clarification.


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