Abusus Non Tollit Usum

There's a certain class of argument I find myself having over and over again, in multiple contexts, and it always seems to begin with the deprecation of an entire genre of tool because of the tailored abuse engendered in some of its species. Historical-critical work, literary-critical work, theologians doing exegetical work, exegetes doing theology—but all these are lesser species; the most valid claimants to abusus tollit usum are post-colonial critical scholars faced with genuinely abusive (and not merely guild-non-compliant) approaches by dominant and conformant members of a field that is traditionally dominated by colonialisms to the point that they are invisible or incompletely visible to insiders.

And in response I will inevitably find myself saying that abuse does not vitiate right use, however hard right use may be to find in a field dominated by abuse. Abuse vitiates itself. Abuse vitiates the user of the tool, even as such users tend to customize their versions of that tool in ways that make it more likely to abuse when used. It may be hard to separate "right" use of such a customized tool from intended use. And yet the existence of hammers is not the problem, even if I use one kind to hit you over the head, or another to build a wall to keep you out. "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house"—and yet tools may do anything; it is the master who will only do or allow certain uses of tools customized to support his existence. Nor are hammers absolutely necessary, even though versions of the basic implement have been found customized to many purposes in many societies across history.

The problem is not the tool, properly understood, but its user. And sometimes we have to dismantle the tools we find, customized to purposes we cannot share, in order to make tools like them that suit better purposes. But no tool is ultimately safe from abuse, and the manufacture of perfectly safe tools is an effort that only succeeds in making cumbersome versions of a useful thing. A useful tool in a free hand is a dangerous thing, and rightly so. It must remain so, because the dangerous possibility of a free tool-user is the hope of all projects to dismantle systems of oppression.

We may choose not to use a certain class of tools, ourselves, but this problem will follow us regardless. It is our responsibility to be sane users of tools, who seek not to abuse, and who listen to the abused in order to ensure we pursue a better course. It is our responsibility to be good human beings, in other words—for what is a tool, but an extension of ourselves? It does what we choose to do, and whatever tool we might choose for a purpose it is that purpose that must be kept sane.


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