Flannery O’ Connor told a friend, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say,” and it is the same for me. Last week saw me bed-bound, dealing with a bug that left me more addle-brained than usual, and in perusing my phone and tablet, I kept coming across the most interesting stories to ponder on my bed. Unable to sit up and write, though, I could not know what I thought.
I recalled G. K. Chesterton’s fantasy of lying in bed with a colored pencil suitable for ceiling-writing, and wished for a low ceiling and one of those big, soft-leaded pencils we were given in kindergarten—the kind that helped us learn to control our letters and, perhaps, our subsequent thoughts and words—so that I might corral my reason around one theme that kept popping up in my surveys. Each time I encountered the statement, or a variation upon it, its glare seemed so obvious to me: “yes, this is the next approach, the next challenge . . .” And yet–like a dream one cannot quite catch upon waking–the fully-developed idea would evaporate before I could get a hand on its misty tail.
The repeated thesis was simply this: “so what?”
Such a disarming question; the sort of question society has long-regarded as adolescent, arrogant, disdainful, and yes, more than a little snotty. It is a question that conveys a dare in its follow-up, whether spoken or not: “Just what are you going to do about it?”
In a three day period, I encountered three variations of this oddly innovative argument. Testifying on the deadly attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deployed it against a U.S. Senate Committee in order to divert attention from the single hardball thrown her way. Asked why the administration spent a week blaming American deaths on a little-seen video and reports of a “spontaneous protest”, when the true circumstances could have been known “within hours.” Clinton blared, “What difference at this point does it make?”
So, what? So what if, during an election season, we told the nation an untruth for an entire week, when we could have just queried thirty consulate evacuees and gotten our facts straight in a day? So what if we have been touting our defanging of Al Qaeda while blurring over the fact that Al Qaeda was connected to the attack? So what?
Just what are you going to do about it? The next day, Salon.com featured a piece by Mary Elizabeth Williams–in which she makes a pro-abortion argument while emphatically affirming her belief that a fetus is a living human being—with a stunning trumpet of a headline: “So What if Abortion Ends Life?”
I know women who have been relieved at their abortions and grieved over their miscarriages. Why can’t we agree that how they felt about their pregnancies was vastly different, but that it’s pretty silly to pretend that what was growing inside of them wasn’t the same?
So, fetuses are human beings. But, so what? “All life is not equal,” Williams chillingly asserts, and a baby-in-utero, fully human and alive is, in her words, “a life worth sacrificing.”
Time’s recent concession that the pro-abortion movement has lost ground since its heady victory of 1973, has forced its adherents to finally admit that they’ve been lying to themselves, and to the world, for forty years: that the “thing” they’re so keen on killing is a real, whole, and living person, whether wanted or not. All it can fall back on is “so what?”
A day after William’s piece, Derek Penwell hauled out the same question for the Huffington Post, with the headline: “‘So What?’ The Nightmare Christians Should Be Having.” Penwell begins by relating a recurrent nightmare in which he presents a paper, which is received by another with a shrugging, “so what?”
Panicked, I would stammer, “What do you mean, ‘So what?’”
His story illustrates that “so what” is a superb tactic for throwing one off one’s own game. It differs from “convince me”, which at least invites discussion, in that it is openly dismissive and contemptuous. In our society “so what” is so unexpected (and until now has been perceived as so unthinkably rude) that one is rarely prepared to answer it. On my bleary bed, I pondered why it might be that suddenly, “so what” kept showing up. Identical attitudes thrown about on two successive days might be a coincidence, but thrust-thrice, and from the same ideological corner, it seemed like a theme, to me; a detour sign, laying out new track for our already disoriented national discourse.
The 2012 presidential campaign saw some muted discussion of Barack Obama’s “progressive” Christianity, and in social media 2012 campaign a few progressive Christians could be seen talking to each other about “taking Christianity back” from the “moronic” Christians on the right; a few billboards displayed apologies by progressive Christians for the thinking of those other, hateful, Christians. Penwell’s piece is, I think, a friendly shot across the bow to “conservative” Christians; a warning to get with a more progressive program—stop the socio-politically incorrect moralizing about abortion, divorce, gay marriage, and the rest of it, and start serving the hungry, the naked, and the displaced—or be ready to hear “so what,” from the religious “nones” they hope to evangelize:
What if part of the reason the “Nones” are so underwhelmed by organized religion isn’t because they don’t find Jesus interesting, but because it appears to them that Christians don’t find him sufficiently interesting enough to take seriously?
In truth, we know that Christianity rightly lived is not an “either/or” proposition, but a “both/and”; a fullness that demands a constant balance between justice and mercy; a “judge ye not,” joined to “go and sin no more.”
Still, ponder “so what” on your bed; and write the truth on your heart. Be ready to make your response with your very life, and how you live it.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
So What if Abortion Ends Life?
Why Abortion Activists Have Been Losing
So What, the Nightmare Christians Should be Having
To Some, Obama is the Wrong Kind of Christian
Progressive Christian: How Do I Not Hate Most Christians?
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