I have tried this summer to be very true to the spirit of G.K. Chesterton and have attempted, perhaps highly imperfectly, to look at his work in context. Today, I’m going to be writing about Eugenics and Other Evils, and the passage I’m going to talk about really should be considered in the framework of a discussion on eugenics. I have written about these types of issues before on this website, so I hope you will forgive me if I take a little bit of a deviation today. I think the philosophical point he is making about eugenics obviously applies to his greater arguments in opposition to eugenics, but they also have a broader application in other areas that I want to take a look at today.
Chesterton had strong views on the issue of preventative medicine. In our modern day, we obviously vaccinate ourselves against everything, and I don’t think that vaccines were what Chesterton was necessarily talking about when he began to talk about this issue. He would have contended that it is good to avoid pain whenever we can. However, there are times when the only way to prevent something is actually more problematic than the prevention itself.
“This is the fundamental fallacy in the whole business of preventive medicine. Prevention is not better than cure. Cutting off a man's head is not better than curing his headache; it is not even better than failing to cure it.”
Of course, one would never have a headache in the first place without a head, but obviously things would not work out so well without a head. In this case, the prevention would stop a bad thing, that headache, from happening, but when viewed from a higher perspective, the net effect would actually be negative. It is indeed better to have life with the potential to have a headache at some point than it is to never have life at all in the first place.
Chesterton is even so bold as to suggest that life with a headache, an unpleasant experience to be sure, is substantially better than having no life at all on account of preventing the headache through decapitation. You can see his argument against eugenics shining through here, and I think it is rather self-evident, but that is not where I am going to go today.
He goes on to conclude that there are many situations where prevention causes greater problems. “Prevention means being an invalid for life, with the extra exasperation of being quite well.” When something has been prevented, these steps are being taken to purportedly make life better in the future. You can imagine a fictional encounter where you walk up to a person who is missing his or her head. You feel bad for this person because they appear to be missing something that is really important, and you can imagine how frustrating it would be to hear them justify their own condition by saying, “I am better off than you because I do not get headaches anymore.”
Besides the anatomical concern as to how this person would be saying anything to you without a head, this is clearly a case where the prevention would be worse than even doing nothing at all. It is better to live with a headache than it is to live without a head. This is common sense, but sadly, it is not.
This may seem to be a little bit abstract, so I want to bring this into a much more real-life example. If we think about the United States of America right now, there are a lot of people who are not happy with the way things are going. They are not happy with our political climate, and they are not happy with our current social situation. They raise a variety of concerns, and I am not going to make it the purpose of this specific piece to evaluate the relative merits of policies pursued by our government right now or advocated for by other people. Rather, the situation itself is more of what I am interested in right now where you have a great degree of polarization and a great degree of tension as a result of our partisan moment.
To use the terms of Chesterton above, this is indeed our disease. Polarization and the utter lack of civility plaguing both political parties is one great illness that we have contracted. There are others that invade our bodies simultaneously, but to understand the illustration of Chesterton, we need to establish the fact that there is a disease that we have.
Since the beginning of our great country, people have had divergent opinions. Almost immediately, you had the Federalists and Democratic Republicans going at it. It is really no surprise that when you get a bunch of people together and allow them to express their opinions, you get opinions that are occasionally polarized. That is not necessarily a problem in and of itself.
The disease comes when you combine that polarization with a lack of civility. We find ourselves in a situation where disagreement implies hatred. If you think that hatred is too strong of a word to use in this situation, I quite frankly don’t think you are paying attention to some factions of the left and the right. Surely there are plenty of fair-minded people in the middle, and I would like to hope that you and I are each in that group, but I cannot believe the vitriol we hear on a daily basis. There is a vocal portion of our country that does not understand how to disagree without hating the other person. I will not say that they are a majority, but they are very loud, and they are the voices that commentators like to hold up as illustrative of the irrationality of the other side. This type of toxic climate is the disease that is polluting the body of the United States of America.
Let’s take a moment to consider how we end up with this type of disease in our society. Largely, polarization comes about because we have the ability to disagree. Fundamentally, the reason that we can have such strong disagreements is a symptom of a society that is allowed to come to different conclusions. If we want to prevent polarization, then there is a very simple way to do that. We can simply take away the voice of the people. After all, if no one is allowed to have an opinion or express that opinion, we have indeed solved the problem. You can’t have uncivil discourse if you don’t have discourse in the first place.
All of that being said, is this prevention a good thing? I don’t know that it is. I think that if we follow this path too closely, you end up with the Soviet Union or North Korea. There was not much polarization in these societies because people would either get in line with the vision of the government or they were forcibly silenced. Perhaps you could say that polarization exists because of these divergent opinions, and there is some degree of truth to that, but you do not see the manifestations of this polarization because it was crushed.
The Soviet Union obviously fell, and North Korea is certainly not a picture of a thriving society in any sense of the term. Therefore, at least in my mind, it makes me wonder if the prevention of the problem of polarization is actually worth it. They may not have had to deal with all of the problems that we see in our country today. It is a lot easier to crush the dissidents with a brutal force of the government than it is to try to address the disease itself which is the combination of polarization and incivility. However, if we have to choose one or the other, I don’t know that this type of prevention is what we want. We don’t want to impose a forced acceptance of the government on people, but if we give people the freedom, we have to figure out the cure. After all, we cannot prevent polarization itself without coercion.
Maybe then the cure lies in civility itself. After all, polarization is going to happen in a society where people are free to have their own opinions. Polar opposites are going to develop. Some people are going to be on the left while others are going to be on the right. Some people are going to be somewhere in the middle, and some may not even want to be a part of the system at all. As they are allowed to express their opinions and are not pushed to conform to the preference of the government, people are going to have different beliefs.
What we do not need to do in that process is devolve into hatred. It does not have to accompany disagreement. People can have civil dialogue and learn from each other. Even more than that, people can be persuaded to change their minds based on an intelligent case put forward by a reasonable interlocutor. These types of things can happen, and they have happened through the centuries. There is no reason to believe that this cannot be the cure, and it seems to me that it would be a great deal better than the prevention of polarization.
I know that this may not seem to be rocket science, and it probably should not seem that way to me either. It is pretty basic. Freedom of opinion is a good thing, and the ability to express that opinion is something that I think we should all be able to agree on. We do not want to live under threat of being sent to Siberia because of our political persuasions. As Americans, I think we agree with that by and large. Therefore, when we complain about the terrible political climate we find ourselves in, I think we have to accept that we cannot change human diversity. People are going to have different opinions, and some of those opinions are quite frankly going to seem abhorrent. There are plenty of things that some people believe that I could never subscribe to myself. We’re going to be polarized on certain issues.
Polarization is not always a horrendous thing though. We can still hold together a society despite disagreement if we can do so in such a way that we avoid the root of the problem which is the incivility. Rather than fall into name-calling, we need to cure the disease.
I know that some of you are going to disagree with this. I have heard plenty of people argue that civility is not actually a good thing and only serves as a tool to further the oppression of those who are disenfranchised. However, I would like to disagree with that in extraordinarily strong terms. Diversity of opinion and polarization are going to exist if we want our freedom, so the best way to deal with that problem is to be civil. We only exacerbate the problem through incivility. The only other alternative I see is to strip away freedom of opinion altogether and descend into a totalitarian regime. If you feel that way, I encourage you to evaluate history. You will not be better off. Freedom is a wonderful thing, and many people have fought for it. Let’s not lose it through faulty prevention when we should rather be working for the cure of civility.
As Christians, we are in a very unique position to help in this process. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have an example of one who disagreed vehemently with the religious leaders of His day, but He did not fall into hatred. With that example in our minds continually, we can push into the world and use our freedom for good. We can use our freedom to make a difference and be part of the solution.
 G. K. Chesterton. Eugenics and Other Evils (New York: Cassell & Company, 1922), Kindle Locations 631-632, Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., Kindle Location 634.