Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Examination of Conscience on Todd Akin and Calumny

In recent discussions on Todd Akin's infamous response to the question of abortion in the case of rape, I stand accused of serial calumny against Rep. Akin, to the point where the host considered blocking me in order to protect me from further damaging my soul.  What follows is an unavoidably biased examination of my own conscience with regards to that charge.

Putting My Cards on the Table

On the immediate matter of abortion in the case of rape, I am in agreement that the right of the unborn to be killed should not be dependent on the circumstances of conception. I understand that carrying a child to term under these circumstances is a heroic act, and am troubled by the notion of the criminal law requiring such heroism even if the moral law does. So I am honestly torn about the most prudent way to proceed on securing the right to life for all of the unborn. I also agree that the amount of attention this question receives is disproportionate to the frequency with which it comes up in real life.

I did not support Rep. Akin's candidacy for the Senate. I voted for another candidate in the primary, and third party candidate in the general election. He has been my representative for the past ten years. I think I have voted for him in most or all of these elections, and I don't recall him being seriously challenged.

My recollections of his time in the House is that I was aware of his uncompromising positions on behalf of the unborn, but not much other leadership as that stands. (This does not mean that it didn't exist, but whatever there was did not make it to me, a rather well-informed constituent.)  The positions I remember him on was his opposition to TARP, on which I disagreed with him but it now appears he may be vindicated on, and his introduction of a bill to require recipients of government benefits (children included) to prove their legal immigration status, with which I vehemently disagreed, and continue to.  I am not aware of any positions he has or had that are a significant break from the conventional Republican positions.

This is better than being pro-choice, but I did not and do not see him as about to usher in a new pro-life era. I found his statements to be manifestations of the same flaws (a bit of cold-heartedness, general lack of savvy and awareness of things outside the conservative bubble).  I think that promoting someone like Rep. Akin as a leader would ultimately do more harm than good to the cause for the unborn.

The Discussions In Question

Probably the best thing to do is go to this post and follow the links.  An earlier discussion is here.

In general, the behavior that is highlighted as problematic is my contention that Akin's "legitimate rape" comment implied one of two things:
  1. Pregnancies from rape are impossible.
  2. Pregnancies from rape are too rare to be worth considering.

The Charge 

The host of theses discussions has said such statements are calumny because they do not reflect what Rep. Akin actually said, nor do they 100% deductively flow from the text of his statements, and fail to account for Rep. Akin's next statement, wherein he does address the question, nullifying the claim that he was saying he didn't address it.


By my reading of the definition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, two factors must be in place for the sin of calumny:

  1. The person must be uttering something he knows to be untrue; there is an attempt to deceive others about a matter of fact.
  2. The intent must be to injure another person's good name.

In my judgement, neither of these factors apply in this case.

The discussion surrounds comments that are a matter of public record, indeed among the few most publicized and discussed comments that have been made this year.  Some of the discussions included verbatim transcripts and / or embedded video of the comments in question. Even if I wanted to deceive others about the contents of Rep. Akin's answer, I could quickly be debunked by a variety of means.

As for my intent, it is more about Rep. Akin's fitness for leadership in general and a Senate seat in specific than his name as a person.  I have no reason to believe that Rep. Akin is anything other than a wonderful human being, good father, etc.  I have no reason to want others to think otherwise, either.

I also suspect most people's opinions of Rep. Akin are pretty fixed at this point, and are not going to change based on my commentary.  I'm not positive it is literally impossible to commit the sin of calumny against Rep. Akin by discussing these comments with relatively informed people, but I think it's pretty darn close.  

Now, I do believe that Rep. Akin's flaws that this statement highlighted make him a poor choice as a pro-life leader, and I would like others to share this judgement.  In my view, this is a discussion more about the parameters of what is prudent to expect from our leaders than it is about the person of Todd Akin.  I understand there is a temptation to slip into a more personal discussion, but I think I avoided that in my comments.

More directly, the disagreement is about what inferences we might from the comments rather than the comments themselves.  These are inferences that I sincerely hold, even if some may think they are incorrect.  In my opinion, this is what discussion at its best, both online and otherwise is all about -- we check our assumptions, remaining open to correction from others, and hopefully get closer to the truth.  This doesn't mean we always agree, but hopefully come to some clarity about the source of our disagreements.  If expressing what inferences we draw from statements is a mortal sin, then we need to shut down our blogs and comment sections.

Fine, you might say.  But the result wouldn't be that we would all have hour minds more closely aligned with the truth.  It's that we would continue to hold our inferences without checking them against those who draw different inferences.

So, I would argue with granting a little slack on some of the verbal sins when discussing widely circulated statements made by public figures.  This doesn't mean we have the right to make things up and trash their reputations, or to think of them as abstractions rather than actual human persons, but I don't think it's sinful to talk about it if we draw an inference from them that's not altogether flattering to the speaker.

The Verdict

In some of my comments, I failed to account for the second sentence of Rep. Akin's statement, in which he says the rapist should be punished rather than the child.  I would say this puts me perilously close to rash judgment, though even that is probably something less than an open an shut case, since what I imputed to Rep, Akin had more to do with his skill as a politician than his moral character.  Still, probably close enough that it's a valid subject at my next opportunity for confession.

On the other hand, I do find myself not guilty of calumny, in that I expressed things I believe to be true, did not intend to harm the reputation of Rep. Akin, and find it very unlikely that I did indeed harm his reputation.
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