Uncle Screwtape on Balance and Cowardice

In a recent thread about the East Turkestan (Xinjiang) dissident Rebiya Kadeer, Catherine mentioned with approbation some earlier words by her interviewer,  Australian journalist George Negus, on the widely supposed need for a journalist to be “fair and balanced.”  Negus dismissed that popular supposition as twaddle.  Good on him!

C.S. Lewis, one of Tolkien’s inner circle, wrote about the critical role of moral cowardice – often masquerading as “balance” – in the effectuation of actual evil.  It is explained by the demon, “Uncle Screwtape” in “The Screwtape Letters” (1942), a fictional, often satirical series of letters by a Master Demon advising his apprentice nephew on the techniques of leading Human souls to damnation – techniques more subtle and less dramatic than are popularly imagined.  In letter 29, Screwtape writes: 

Now this is a ticklish business.  We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice … If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing into the Enemy’s (God’s) hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor.


(Screwtape continues):  This, indeed, is probably one of (God’s) motives for creating a dangerous world – a world in which moral issues really come to the point.  He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply ONE of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality.  A chastity, or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger wil be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions.  Pilate was merciful til it became risky.

This observation of how easily pretended virtues – including pretended virtues of “fairness and balance” – yield to perceived threats to personal interests, explains much, or perhaps most, of the behaviours of Western journalists, academics and other Western agents of information or disinformation in China.  Like Pontius Pilate, the most they have to lose is not their lives, but merely their perceived personal privileges and prestige.  And unlike Pilate, their own governments are immeasurably more just and merciful than the Roman government of Pilate’s time, not to mention that the Chinese government tends to treat Westerners with kid gloves except in cases of the most extreme offenses against China’s Party Line, for which the worst conceivable penalty is usually mere deportation back to their own free countries.  Pilate probably would have suffered worse sanctions from his own government for acquitting Jesus of his alleged crimes, than any Westerner in China today would suffer from any government, including China’s.  Personally I have more sympathy for Pilate than for the Western hacks who are overly “fair and balanced” toward China.

The following scene from the 1973 movie version of “Jesus Christ Superstar”, featuring the arrest, Peter’s denial, and the trial before Pilate, is a fine illustration of what Lewis was talking about:


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