In my previous post, I dealt with the controversy that had developed around Jared Wilson’s post: ‘The Polluted Waters of 50 Shades of Grey, Etc.’ and the quoted comments from Pastor Douglas Wilson within it. Since writing that post, Jared has removed the offending posts, and posted an apology. I believe that issuing such an apology was definitely the right thing to do under the circumstances, and I thank Jared for the humility that he manifested in giving it. Pastor Wilson, by contrast, has stood very forcefully by his original remarks in subsequent posts on his blog.
I gave thought to removing my original post on this subject, published as it was before this conflict calmed down following Jared’s apology. I also questioned whether I should post follow-up posts, as I had originally intended: would I merely be risking reigniting a fire that was about to go out? I have decided that I ought to go ahead as originally planned. The following are some of the reasons why:
1. While Jared was right to apologize, the issues raised within the debate haven’t really been settled. Rather than accepting an airbrushed account of events and responsibilities that keeps agitators appeased, I want to press the narrative that most have adopted to defend itself. We shouldn’t be content to settle for a peace obtained by means of questionable tactics and sustained by suppressing truth and genuine challenging discourse.
2. The appropriate apology of one party does not put the other antagonizing party in the right. It might be helpful to point this out before anyone sets off on a victory lap.
3. Some of the participants in this debate would like to cast it as a heavily polarized conflict between two diametrically opposed parties, where no other ground or party exists. It isn’t. There are many of us who stand unconvinced by or opposed to both parties on different grounds and who have very strong opinions on the matter, opinions that aren’t being represented much in the debate. We have a stake in the conversation too. This post is a ‘hey, you guys, we’re here too!’ for anyone who is listening.
Many of our concerns have yet to be properly addressed by the antagonizing parties and we should not be silent until they are. The power-grabbing and polarizing moves that have been on display in this conflict affect us too. Our desire for a cessation of extreme conflicts and our distaste for the polarizations that they produce should not lead us to adopt an appeasing stance towards unreasonable agitators.
4. Some very dirty and dangerous tactics have been employed in the recent conflict, and I have yet to see apologies for these from the worst of the offenders, even though I suspect that few realized exactly what they were doing in using them. When such tactics have not been foresworn – and especially where they have succeeded in achieving their ends – we can be quite certain that they will be used again.
5. There are many lessons to learn from the recent incendiary conflict, if we are to prevent a recurrence of it. The different positions have not gone away and we can be assured that there will be continued flare-ups and skirmishes in these areas. Until some of the deeper problems with the way that we discuss these matters are diagnosed and dealt with, we won’t really make much progress. Yes, I am the sort of person who thinks that the post-match analysis is the often the most important part of the big game: the bare ‘result’ seldom tells the whole story.
6. There are more general lessons to be learnt here about the way that we engage with each other’s viewpoints and the problematic shape of Internet discourse. Even with people of good intentions on all sides, the common form of such discourses will tend to press us towards conflict. Within these posts I hope to present some thoughts about positive alternatives to the current forms of debate, forms within which both the strong concerns articulated by such as Rachel and others are represented, and the dismissive ridicule of Pastor Wilson’s responses can be avoided, forms within which substantive and challenging disagreements can be carried out in a manner that produces light rather than heat.
My hope in continuing this series is that we will all be prompted to think about appropriate and inappropriate forms of dialogue, and work towards creating conversations and communities that are more conducive both to constructive discourse and protecting the emotions and interests of the more vulnerable.
Since writing the original piece, I have also found myself blocked from commenting on Rachel Held Evans’s blog, after my challenge to her in these comments (she also seems to have blocked me on Twitter).
I have also engaged very extensively in responses to comments on my previous post.
Debate and Meta-Debate
The following are some clarifications on my stance relative to the debate. The recent brouhaha has been characterized by extreme polarization, by two sides heavily and often militantly invested in one side of an issue. I have some sympathies with the complaints raised by both sides, sympathies that should become clearer to anyone reading these posts attentively and in their entirety. I also have strong opinions on a number of the key issues within this discussion. Again many of these opinions will come to the surface within my treatment.
I do not align myself with either of the parties in this fight. When I defend one side against the false claims or unreasonable rhetoric of the other, I am not putting myself in a camp. While it would be mistaken to regard my sympathies as being equally poised between the two sides, it would be no less mistaken to believe that my participation is driven by such sympathies. I am participating because I believe that there are important issues at stake in these discussions, issues about which I have a genuine interest in fostering a productive and charitable discourse. I believe that this is being made practically impossible by the way that both parties are approaching the debate.
I do not view either side as a homogeneous and amorphous mass. I believe that some persons bear a considerable weight of responsibility for their unhelpful actions and reactions, while there are mitigating considerations in the case of others. Those who play a leading role are those who must be most accountable here. A leader is held to a higher level of responsibility: even though they may prove to be utterly insufficient for the role that they are playing, this is no excuse.
What I would like to encourage here is a ‘meta-debate’, a debate about the way that we debate. I believe that the recent strife over Pastor Wilson’s words and Jared Wilson’s post provides us with a perfect specimen of a debate that face-planted, with multiple injuries. We may have picked ourselves up afterwards, but perhaps now might be the right time to ask ourselves what went wrong.
How was it that this particular debate so quickly overheated? Why did it take such a polarized form? Why did people react to Pastor Wilson’s comments as they did? Why were the earlier responses given by Jared and Pastor Wilson so ineffective in calming the waters? Why was charitable judgment so noticeably absent from most responses to the remarks, especially in the early stages of the debate? Why was there so little evidence of careful interpretative engagement with Pastor Wilson’s words? Why did so much of the debate on both sides take the form of sciamachy, rather than genuine mutual engagement? What could have been done to avert the problems that arose within this debate? What structural changes in the form of Internet theological debate could address the failings that we witness here? How can we keep cool and level heads in such an antagonistic environment?
Much of what I am saying within these posts won’t actually engage with the substance of what was said, but rather with the way that the debate was handled. As I will be arguing that a significant number of the people participating in the debate manifested their incompetence or inability in interpretation, reason, and discourse, and that much that was said had no substance whatsoever and isn’t worthy of engagement, I don’t suspect that my comments will receive a favourable reaction from such corners. Pointing out that people are poor readers, for instance, seldom serves the purpose of persuasion. However, my chief concern is less that of persuading those antagonists, who have their heels deeply dug in, of the errors of their arguments, as it is one of persuading the majority of us who do not fall into this category of the intractability and ineffectiveness of debate on such terms, and the tendency of such engagements to produce great heat but no light. I wish to show why I believe that this is the case, and what we can do to improve the situation. The people that I am writing for here are primarily the bystanders and observers, people who do not feel able to associate themselves closely with the actions or words of either side.
In many respects, I have treated my forays into this debate as fieldwork, providing me with material and insight for the far more important meta-debate that I want to open up in these posts. This has long been an issue that has fascinated me, as I have reflected upon the shape that our conversations take, the emotional processes operative within them, framing metaphors and questions, the forms of argumentation that we employ, the effect of different forms of rhetoric, the directions in which different ecologies of discourse will evolve, the complicating influence of factors such as power differentials of class, gender, age, education, and race, the structural and institutional dimensions of disputation, how we are best equipped to participate effectively within them, etc. As so much of our lives involves discourse, I believe that devoting time to reflection upon the dynamics of conversation is a highly worthwhile and potentially greatly rewarding effort.
The Internet and the Changing Environment of Discourse
I want you to cast your mind back to 1999. Back before the Nyan Cat meme. Back before Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia. Back before 9/11. Back when Google was still a minnow, in a year of fevered prognostications about the effect of the Millennium Bug. Back when Britney Spears released her first single and the word ‘blog’ was coined. Back in the year when George Lucas destroyed your childhood.
In 1999, fewer than one person in four in the developing world was on the Internet. Internet usage was largely limited to a few first world countries. The Internet was a very different sort of beast. We connected using dial-up and it was as fast as swimming through syrup. Social networking as we know it today was practically non-existent. Webpages were garishly coloured and had few images. The web was navigated very differently. You had to navigate to the big stories and lively discussions: they were less likely to come to you. News and buzz still travelled fairly slowly and kept within fairly limited bounds. It wasn’t until a number of years later that it really became possible for something to ‘go viral’. The web was ordered around ideas and taxonomies of subjects, rather than around networked individuals.
When Pastor Wilson published Fidelity, back in 1999, it came into a world quite different from the one that we now live within. Within this world, a book such as Fidelity would not have been likely to venture far from its original context. The possibility of a decontextualized quotation flying around the Internet, being seen by a large population of people with absolutely no relationship to the original context from which the text hailed, and with limited knowledge of its theological provenance was very slight.
Back in 1999 you generally had to look for such things: you were unlikely to be passively exposed to them. Perhaps quotations from Fidelity would have been discussed within a moderated intramural Reformed theological forum. If it spread beyond a Reformed context, it would have been unlikely to have made that much of an online impact. The quotation, appearing as it did in a book explicitly addressed to men, would be read primarily by such an audience, and the ‘trigger warning’ with which the book begins would be far more effective at keeping unsuitable readers out. In such an environment, commenters were far more likely to be informed and qualified to comment and one was considerably less likely to be exposed to ideas originating from a context rather alien to one’s own. It was only through the most circuitous of routes that I first came across Pastor Wilson’s writings around that time, largely by word of mouth and connection with other writers with whom I was already acquainted.
It would have been hard to whip up a large firestorm around something supposedly outrageous. The discussion of ideas was more distinct from the emotional and relational connections between persons as social networking wasn’t really developed. Ideas were far more likely to pass from person to person through active engagement, rather than through a sort of passive contagion. Those who were outraged would have found it difficult to spread their outrage far.
I don’t think that we reflect enough on the manner in which the current form of the Internet affects the manner in which we discuss things and the manner in which ideas spread, and how significantly the Internet has changed over the last 10-15 years. Here are a few of the key changes:
1. A collapsing of contexts. As the Internet became more connected, contexts once fairly hermetically sealed started to collide with each other. The writings of someone like Pastor Wilson were exposed to a much wider audience, many of whom had little notion of the sort of unusual cultural and ideological world it originated from. With this collapsing of contexts comes the realization that there are people in close relational networks to us who hold radically different beliefs and exposure to those opinions.
2. A decontextualization of thought. With the loss of highly distinct cultural contexts, theological communication was increasingly likely to have to abandon peculiar contextual idioms and ideological dialects and accommodate itself to a less defined readership. The readership, in turn, came to presume the ready intelligibility of thoughts arising from different contexts to persons within their own. This leads to a forgetfulness of context, and the manner in which deeper shared cultural knowledge can permit less guarded formulations. One’s audiences became potentially much less defined or circumscribable. In such an environment it is harder to hold straight-talking conversations without more sensitive individuals being exposed to them. The possibility of having one’s position reduced to a decontextualized soundbite is also greatly increased.
3. A personalizing of ideas. As the Internet becomes more oriented around social networking, the way that we engage with ideas changes. Ideas become far less distinct from personal relations, as ideas follow the trajectories of social networking connections. Rather than having to go out of our immediate space and into a public conversation to encounter challenging and threatening ideas, they start to intrude upon our private spaces. It is far more likely for emotions to be prominent in such a debate. It also raises the possibility of Girardian mimetic patterns of emotional and ideological contagion and rivalry taking effect.
4. A collision of undifferentiated conversations. Following on from the previous point, there are different sorts of conversations. Some conversations are designed to be intimate, affirming, non-threatening, welcoming, and accepting. Other conversations are designed to be combative, disputational, confrontational, and challenging. Some people find the former type of conversation incredibly stifling and relish the latter. Other people find the latter form of conversation very threatening and unsettling and need the former. The former conversation affirms people in non-threatening difference: the latter conversation challenges people to defend their differences against strong criticism. The former welcomes the expression of emotion: the latter gives emotion no privilege or protection in the conversation (all emotion is not excluded). As contexts collapse, it is far more difficult to keep these radically different forms of conversations from colliding. When they do, lots of heat is created and virtually no light whatsoever.
Most people lack the training, reasoning ability, confidence, or self-mastery necessary to engage in challenging conversation. This wasn’t so much of a problem when such conversations were limited to closely defined contexts, generally engaged in by trained representatives of positions, rather than by more vulnerable people, who would feel threatened by the ideas raised, but lack the skills or temperament with which to attack them. In the past, it was much easier to leave the theological conflicts to one’s pastor, for instance: nowadays they turn up in your Facebook newsfeed.
5. Decreased moderation of and democratization of discourse. Almost all of us have many means of broadcasting and sharing our positions nowadays. In the past, these means were far more limited, and few people had them. Most conversations would be bounded and moderated, and people who didn’t belong or who didn’t play by the rules could be excluded for their own good, for the health of the conversation, and the focus of the group. When everyone has means of self-expression and participates in less bounded conversations, there is a lot more noise surrounding the signal and it is harder to keep discussions on target.
6. The spread and speed of thought. The breakdown of contextual boundaries and the rapidity of the spread of information makes emotional reactivism so much easier (about which more in a later post). There is less time within which to rally one’s wits and arguments when faced with something that offends you. The speed of communication and the pace at which conversations move and develop gives us little time for consideration, reflection, and patient processing. As the initial reaction all too often sets the terms for the conversation that follows, this encourages far more emotionally freighted conversations (also as we find ourselves trying to keep faith with our original emotional reactions, trying to maintain self-consistency and not wanting to appear to back down). Being encouraged to make up our minds in a matter of minutes, in the heat of the moment, we are far more at risk of reacting, rather than responding.
I believe that all of these factors can be seen to have shaped the evolution of the recent conflict to some extent. I do not believe that such an environment is generally conducive to productive and challenging discourse. Until we start to become conscious about the ways that it shapes things, I suspect that many of the problems that it produces will only continue.
Writers and Causing Offence
As I made clear in my first post, I believe that Pastor Wilson did express himself very unclearly and unhelpfully on this matter, in a manner that invited misunderstanding and mischaracterization, and which threw far too many hostages to fortune. I hope that he will express at least a measure of regret for the offence that his words have caused to some and for the role that they have played in a polarizing conflict. Jared’s transplanting of Pastor Wilson’s comments from a book written for men to a more general context is also significant here. In the original setting of the reading of the entire book by a male-only audience in a relatively well-defined Christian milieu, the offending statements are much less problematic, being tempered by clarifying contexts.
I have no reason to believe that Pastor Wilson’s statements in their original context were either technically or intentionally misogynist. However, their effect in their new context has been to provoke a sense of genuine hurt, offence, or alienation in some. Quibbling over the original contextual meaning and the meaning intended by the author, without acknowledging the very real effect that they have had in their new context risks a callous indifference to the genuine possibility that some emotionally and spiritually vulnerable individuals have been hurt by them. I submit that it is within this indifference, rather than within the original meaning of the statements themselves, that the risk of a form of misogyny most clearly lies. We are taught by Scripture to take especial concern for the needs and spiritual wellbeing of the weak and vulnerable, and I believe that setting up unnecessary causes of offence or scandal falls very clearly within this area. The judgment that Christ declares against the person who causes one of his little ones to stumble should provoke a godly trepidation in our speech in such areas. Of course, a different standard applies in the case of the less vulnerable.
Part of the problem in the reception of such statements is that Pastor Wilson has a track record of causing such offence, of tackling extremely sensitive issues with seemingly little sensitivity. I strongly believe that the true character of Southern slavery is a worthy subject for critical and close historical study, and that such study should be driven by the demands of truth and accuracy over the demands of either party or sensitivity. I take issue with Pastor Wilson’s historical reading of the institution of slavery in the South. However, I don’t believe that such unpopular and revisionist readings are automatically to be dismissed as driven by racist animus, although they will naturally (and I believe quite appropriately) raise troubling questions on this front. What does deeply trouble me is that a public figure and white minister of the gospel, working in a theological context troubled with a racist legacy, should tackle such a sensitive issue with such academic and rhetorical recklessness, and in a publicizing format, with a seeming disregard, indifference, or insensitivity to the effect that such a work would have. This strikes me as grossly racially insensitive and I really struggle to see how this advances the cause of Christ.
Pastor Wilson’s motives in writing such a shoddy, dangerous, and racially insensitive book are not entirely clear to me, but I find it considerably less likely that they have to do with racial hatred than that they arise from a temperamental intolerance for unchallenged consensus positions driven too powerfully by concerns of sensitivity and political correctness, a contrarian desire to advocate strongly for an alternative perspective in an area where critical assessment can feel stifled by fear of causing offence, and a wish to mitigate some measure of the opprobrium that has been heaped upon the South, by presenting another side of the picture. Such contrarian impulses can be very healthy in the context of stifling and stagnating discourses, but they are incredibly dangerous if used recklessly and without sufficient sensitivity, as clearly seems to be the case in this instance.
I don’t believe that Pastor Wilson speaks and writes in such a manner because he is cruel, callous, vicious, uncaring, racist, or misogynistic. I suspect that the subjectivity of more emotionally vulnerable persons is so far removed from his own that he struggles to relate to and sympathize with them in their experience and in their perception of his speech and actions. Pastor Wilson strikes me as a man with the hide of a rhinoceros, and I believe that he was well matched with the likes of Christopher Hitchens in debate. This is one of his greatest strengths, and one of the things that I most appreciate about him. However, as is often the case in such instances, the greatest weakness can be the flipside of the greatest strength. Not all persons have the gift and privilege of such a sense of personal invulnerability to criticism and challenge, and I am not sure that Pastor Wilson sufficiently recognizes this. This is especially the case for those who come from abusive, marginalized, or painful historical backgrounds.
I love the way that Pastor Wilson can wield his rhetorical hammer, but there is a time and a place. When you are a privileged male leader interacting with a group of concerned and often hurt women, many of whom have personally experienced physical and spiritual abuse or sexual assault, and a number of whom suffered such treatment at the hands of men who claimed the system that you are defending as justification, surely it is not the appropriate occasion.
As I will proceed to argue, the concept of the ‘trigger’ and the demand for sensitivity in discourse have been grossly misused, not least in the present debate. However, the misuse of such concepts does not negate their appropriate use.
Within my next post, I hope to move to the problems associated with poor reading and the sidelining of interpretation and literacy within such debates.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the issues above in the comments! Please try to keep as close as possible to the subject matter of this post, as there will be occasion to discuss other issues relating to this debate following later posts.
Read Part 3 here.