On Triggering and the Triggered, Part 2

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.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Culture, Ethics, On the web, The Blogosphere, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

97 Responses to On Triggering and the Triggered, Part 2

  1. Dave says:

    Alastair, I’ve spent (i’m sorry to say) a good bit of my workday clicking through the various closing arguments in this whole sordid mess. And here at the end of my reading, I must confess that the only benefit I have received from it is the chance to stumble upon your writing. I appreciate the thoughtful critique you’re seeking to provide, and I look forward to reading your work on ANY OTHER SUBJECT THAN THIS in the future. ;- )

    • Haha! Thanks, Dave. 🙂

      If you don’t mind looking the other way for the next week or so, I assure you that a wide range of other subjects will be tackled in the not too distant future. 🙂

  2. ali1 says:

    I’ve gotta say, if you can move people toward a better way to engage on the internet, it would be a worthwhile exercise. I doubt you will get the same amount of traffic at this stage of the “game”, but the points you’ve made so far are important, especially regarding the changing nature of discourse over the last 15 years. I’ve noticed the inability to speak rationally, to make strong comments without receiving vitriol in return and the accusation of passive-aggressiveness is tossed around as a blanket on measured responses!

    If you can continue to work through this, I, for one, would be grateful.

    • Thank you, ali1.

      I do hope that it does produce some success on that front, that we don’t get too hung up on replaying the details of the past conflict that we fail to attend to the broader lessons of it all.

  3. Flora Poste says:

    You said in your previous post that RHE had disqualified herself from being able to participate in the debate because she was too emotional. Why would you seek to engage with someone you feel is incapable of debate and is only being emotionally reactive?
    In all of the verbiage you have thrown at this, I have yet to really seen a satisfactory explanation of why you singled out Rachel as the only participant in the discussion who is being “too emotional” and “shrill” to participate.
    I don’t understand why someone who calmly states “that language is harmful and hurtful” should be shamed and silenced for being too emotional to debate, yet those who talk about putting on their stilettos and heavy rings to fight their critic in a dark alley are the emotionally mature ones.
    Aggression is also an emotion.

    • Flora,

      Thanks for the comment and the continued engagement.

      I engaged with Rachel because emotions can calm over time. Her later posts, for instance, involved a moderated tone. I was hoping that with the cooling of her initial excessively emotional driven reaction, she might be able to apologize for some of the unfair claims that she made in the heat of that moment and especially for the way that that initial reaction created an overheated context in which angry reaction took the place of careful thought, close engagement, hopefully questioning, and believing the best.

      Aggression isn’t necessarily an emotion. It can be a behaviour or disposition that doesn’t have an emotional basis. In the cases of Bekah, Pastor Wilson’s daughter, it was definitely this sort of ‘aggression’ that was in play.

      • Flora Poste says:

        “In the cases of Bekah, Pastor Wilson’s daughter, it was definitely this sort of ‘aggression’ that was in play.”
        How can you *possibly* know this?
        If I admit your point though, then it means that Wilson and his daughters frequently enjoy inflicting pain on others from cool calculation, for their own amusement.
        Since you have such insight into D. Wilson’s motivations, maybe you can answer my question: what is the motivation for spicing up the vanilla language of the Song of Songs and other biblical passages about the marital relationship, with words like “conquer” and “colonize”? Yes, I read your long comment about the physiology of sex. I don’t think it justifies the sexing up of biblical language.

      • Thanks for the comment, Flora.

        I can know because it isn’t hard to read the tone when you are used to it. And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It isn’t about inflicting pain. Bekah presumed that RHE would have a thick enough skin to be able to handle it.

        The motivation is his love of strong statement for rhetorical force and effect. The same language, as Pastor Wilson observes, should be familiar from knowledge of the English literary canon. The Song of Songs employs martial metaphors for both men and women in their relationship to each other. There is no reason why we need to give such language full literal force, and I venture that practically any original reader of Pastor Wilson’s book in its entirety would be pretty clear on what these expressions do not mean. The problem is that nuance and strong poetic metaphor is lost on the triggered.

      • Andrew says:

        How do you know what the motives of either woman was? Why do you think the worst of RHE while think the best of Bekah? This is so disappointing and confusing. Further, why is emotion a bad thing? Why can’t people be emotional while still able to communicate an opinion? If a holocaust survivor were to call out a political leader for denying the holocaust, would you say that they are not able to comment on the situation because they were being “too emotional”?

      • Andrew,

        I don’t know what the motives of either woman were. One can read tone without needing to read motive. I can assume that the motive of RHE was to stand up against a position/expression that she perceived as oppressive and misogynistic. I also see no reason whatsoever to disagree with Bekah’s later description of what she was trying to do, something that confirmed my original suspicions on the subject. The important thing is what RHE did, not her motives, which I am pretty sure were not evil ones.

        There is nothing wrong with emotion, and you will look in vain for evidence that I hold such an opinion. Nor is there anything wrong with passionate arguments, or arguments informed by our emotional perspectives. What is wrong is when emotion drives one to overreact in a manner that short circuits interpretation, charity, etc.

      • Andrew says:

        Here’s the issue: you keep asserting that RHE’s ability to criticize Doug Wilson’s arguments was clouded by her (rightful, understandable, etc) emotional reaction to his words. I disagree – I think her assessments were spot on – her emotion didn’t cloud her. I think she would still stand by her assessments, and I agree with her. The ONLY context where Doug Wilson’s comments regarding sexuality and male/female relationships would be if he said, “This is NOT what the Bible says.” Is that the context? If not, then you’re just continuing to skirt the real issue here. And RHE was not charitable? If you can construe anything that has come out of the Doug Wilson camp as charitable, well I can’t help you with your delusion.

    • To clarify, there were many emotionally reactive responses to the statements, and I never said that RHE was the only one who reacted in such an unhelpful manner. I did, however, direct my comments directly to her on her blog, because the blogger is the one who sets the tone in their post and in the ensuing comments. As the primary voice in such contexts and the moderator of ongoing discussions, we are responsible for ensuring that we encourage, facilitate, and lead a balanced, careful, and thoughtful response to issues, rather than just a kneejerk reaction. This is why I held RHE especially responsible.

      • Flora Poste says:

        “I engaged with Rachel because emotions can calm over time. ”

        Pro tip: emotions don’t typically calm when one person tells the other “Shut up, you’re being too emotional. I can’t deal with you, you should get a representative to speak for you.” if you think someone has overreacted emotional and made an unfair accusation, it’s better just to point out where they were being unfair, calmly and factually, without making a sweeping value judgement as to their fitness to participate in a discussion with you. If you accuse someone of being to emotional to debate, it’s hardly surprising that they don’t want to engage, isn’t it?

      • Flora,

        You are putting words in my mouth: please don’t do that. If you look at my original comment to RHE, I did put things quite calmly and factually.

  4. Harris says:

    The 24/7 tempo of today’s digital communication certainly affects communication, but even in 1999 topics were more than capable of going viral. The most likely reasons as to why Wilson’s original writing received little notice would be three:
    First, at the time he was obscure, something of an unknown;
    Second, his work was in the shadow of other notable works of this male revival (e.g. Iron John, the rise of Promise Keepers), so these themes relating to men are discussed elsewhere; and
    Third, there is a sort of crudeness about the thinking itself in its argument from design, a kind of sexual phrenology.

    I read his turn to the baldly stated as part of a general rhetorical preference for the contrarian stance; it’s a testosterone posture, again understandable in the context of the era’s focus on political correctness. As rhetorical stance, contrarianism poses some dangers, inviting a kind of reactionary and reactive thinking, where one is always responding to some some one else, or some other issue. It thinks of itself as being conservative, perhaps even taking some famous curmudgeon as a model, but even more so, it is the stance of the victim.

    The reactive (victim) stance limits options: one cannot back down; as defense, it seems to sanction the use of the loaded phrases, so much the better to clear a rhetorical space. For the Christian such a stance can be seen as betraying a certain lack of confidence in the Sovereignty of God (surely an odd position for any in the Reformed heritage). Wilson, I think, senses this and so works to adopt the jocular attitude we discussed earlier.

    And as I have migrated to a more sacramental orientation, I would at least wonder whether there isn’t something of a sacramental chemistry at work in such rhetoric in which our voicing of the ridicule and the engagement, our sense of being under attack (i.e. a victim) is in some sense a participation in the rhetorical life of God, seen in Scripture. “They hate you, because they hate Me,” to paraphrase Jesus.

    • Some helpful points here, Harris. Thanks.

      I believe that the higher profile that Pastor Wilson enjoys today owes a very great deal to the changes in the shape of communication since then.

      I think that Psalm 2 really sets the sort of tone that Pastor Wilson tries to run with. There is a sense of forces arrayed against you and a stark statement of an antithesis, but those opposing are ridiculed for the futility of their endeavour. There is definitely a ‘participation in the rhetorical life of God’ involved, as you put it. I would question whether this is best characterized as one of being the ‘victim’, though. There isn’t the sense of weakness or absence of agency that one usually associates with that concept.

      The greatest danger of this sort of approach is that it doesn’t really leave itself open to correction. How does one back down when you have adopted such a position?

      I think that the extreme statement is again understandable in terms of Pastor Wilson’s greater rhetorical framework, about which I will be writing more later. It is not necessarily about an eschewing of nuance, but is the preference of someone with a disputational style. The nuance is provided, not within a monologue, but through voices in tension and rough interaction in conversation. Such strong statements will often have strong counterbalancing statements, rather than seeking to achieve balance in a single statement that lacks colour and force.

  5. Flora Poste says:

    I also think you are wrong to attribute the extreme responses to J. Wilson’s original post to RHE. It was originally posted on Wartburg Watch.

    • There were several responses before RHE came along. However, it was RHE who brought the whole conflict into an extremely public setting.

      • Flora Poste says:

        I may have missed your first post, but the one I saw called on her for being intemperate, and called her shrill and emotional – without any specific examples.

        “Rachel, have you considered publicly apologizing for the intemperate nature of your original response? You started a polarizing firestorm by your response that could have been avoided by a less emotional reaction, and a more careful and generous attempt to give Jared the time, goodwill, charity, and space in which to withdraw the remarks. As you are someone who has a powerful influence on the emotional life of a community of readers, I believe that you have a particular duty here, a duty which you failed to fulfil.”

        A classic example of “do as I say, not as I do”, to my mind.

      • Flora Poste says:

        Oops, I didn’t put my previous reply in the right place. It was responding to you saying I was putting words in your mouth.

      • Flora, I went on to give specific examples when asked. I called her out on her original response. I didn’t dismiss her as an interlocutor. I definitely didn’t tell her anything like: “Shut up, you’re being too emotional. I can’t deal with you, you should get a representative to speak for you.”

  6. Klasie Kraalogies says:

    For Wilson, the whole world is a nail, and he is THE MAN with THE HAMMER. And I followed him way back in the 90’s till a number of years ago.

    The funny thing, though, is that every time he has ventured to speak about a subject I am really knowledgeable about, I found him incredibly ill-informed, with arguments that would barely do a school boy justice. He has a sharp aim, but he doesn’t have the knowledge or wisdom to realize what the quality of his ammunition is. And all too often it has the weight of powder-puff.

    • Klasie,

      If you look at the comments of the previous post, you may observe that my assessment isn’t that much different. I wrote:

      “Sadly, I fear that Pastor Wilson may have too great of an attraction to a clever turn of phrase, and the associated incessant projection of smartness, for the good of his thinking or his hearers. This is one of the reasons why I generally avoid reading his material nowadays. I will be discussing this in more depth in forthcoming posts, but being accountable for one’s words, and being prepared to retract or apologize for them on occasions (without, of course, merely allowing all of the objections of your critics), is necessary if you are to retain credibility. We all sin or slip in our words on occasions: if we never apologize or retract a statement we may gain a sense of rhetorical self-righteousness, but we stand to lose much of the respect and hearing of others in the process.”

      And, yes, I have been disappointed by his shallow arguments on a number of subjects that I know. Sometimes I wonder whether he is so gifted at rhetorical condensing and encapsulating that his entire thought has a bent towards over-simplification.

      If you read my opening comments, it should be clear that I have no intention of aligning with Pastor Wilson here. I defend him against the unfair charges of his opponents, and argue in favour of some of his approaches, but I have no intention of just identifying with his camp or letting him off the hook.

  7. Flora Poste says:

    In general, I don’t disagree with you about the nature of Internet discussion. Are you familiar with the new disease, SIWOTI? It’s highly contagious, I hear.

    • Haha! Yes, I have seen that several times. XKCD is great. 🙂

      If you examine my description of my approach in my post, you may see that I have little interest in setting right wrong people on the Internet. Only 1 in every 100 of the Wrong People on the Internet will ever change their mind, but I am frequently contacted by former fence-sitters and impartial observers saying that I have changed their minds. My aim is to expose the truth to those listening in and to sharpen my own thinking. A compulsive need to correct stubborn and unreasonable people would be a rather nasty strain of masochism!

  8. Thanks for this, Alistair. As helpful and insightful as this is, I am concerned over how well received it will be by those who would most benefit from it. I am reminded of Scottish rocker Gerry Rafferty’s 1970s hit “Stuck in the Middle with You.”

  9. Matthew N. Petersen says:

    It may not be entirely relevant to your larger post, but I think I may be able to shed light on one of Pr. Wilson’s reasons for defending the South that you have missed.

    Namely, radical abolitionism was largely a Unitarian movement, whereas the South, was far more Trinitarian. Now it’s the Bible-belt, but at the time, it was much more seriously Christian. Yes, it had serious problems, as Pr. Wilson notes–indeed, he has said that the war was God’s judgment on the South for the sin of slavery. But it was the South, not the North, that was the more Christian culture. And many of the Southern leaders, like Jackson and Lee were stalwart Christians.

    As such, he sees the attacks on the South as part of a Secularist attack on Christianity. Rather than admitting the mistakes of godly men, while still recognizing the godly men as godly men; the attacks on the South seem to demonize the Christians, and exonerate the heretics.

    I believe he sees his arguments about the South as part of an attempt to recover our Christian history, and as something of a duty in standing beside the Christians, rather than with the heretics in condemning the Christians. Recognize their faults, yes. But recognize that their faults are, like all our faults, covered in Christ, and these men remain our men.

    Does he go to far in that? Is it racially insensitive? Perhaps, and perhaps.

    Second, there is an attempt to recover all the Bible. Though Scripture is not in favor of slavery, it is not nearly so opposed to slavery as our modern sensibilities would like it to be. It is not uncommon that in debates about Scripture, slavery is brought up as a trump. Pr. Wilson’s concern is to defend the Bible against its detractors.

    Does he do so in a problematic way? Could he have done so more sensitively? Again, perhaps, and perhaps.

    But I think his aims in writing in defense of the South are admirable.

    (It’s also worth noting that he agrees with the South regarding States-Rights, though not slavery; and believes the war was one of the tipping points in destroying good and proper politics in this country.)

    • Thanks, Matthew. You make some good points.

      I very much agree with you that Scripture’s approach to slavery is not as straightforward as many would like it to be. Certain forms of slavery, while not celebrated, are mandated in a way that other problematic practices such as polygamy are not.

      While I stand by my assessment that Pastor Wilson’s treatment was racially insensitive and academically reckless, I want to underline once again that I do not believe that he is a racist. I would suggest that anyone wanting to speak to Pastor Wilson’s position on these matters should read Black & Tan (free to download from Canon Press for the next few days) or Southern Slavery As It Was before they do so.

    • Harris says:

      I should say, that even when framed as positively as Matthew does, it nonetheless makes the question of slavery something to be decided between whites, be they Unitarian or Trinitarian. Again, to speak to the recklessness at work here, the abolitionists were a religiously mixed bag, as James McPherson capably presents it in his first two books, The Struggle for Equality (1967) and The Abolitionist Legacy (1976) Many (McPherson estimates approx one third) were entirely orthodox, particularly in the missions to the freed slaves. But reaction or not to the Unitarians, there is plenty of clear evidence from the blacks themselves about the conditions they endured; Frederick Douglas’ Autobiography perhaps being one of the leading ones. As may be expected, Black Reformed Christians have found Wilson’s views especially noxious.

      Here it should be noted that at least one church family — the Presbyterian Church in America — has wrestled with its role in slavery and the Jim Crow period, and issued denominational statements of repentance. Politely, Wilson’s views are sufficiently idiosyncratic even heterodox so as to give caution when considering his other positions.

      • Yes, unsurprisingly even over the last few days Pastor Wilson has been dealing with some of the fallout that his positions on this matter entailed, in his conversations with Dr Anthony Bradley. Pastor Wilson’s view are certainly idionsyncratic. Heterodox? It suppose that this depends what measure of orthodoxy you are using. I think that the maverick tendency in Pastor Wilson’s thought should definitely lead people to handle his positions with greater caution, but I think that a number of discerning readers might gain from reading him. Sadly, within the context of this particular debate, I fear that Pastor Wilson’s thought is probably far more directly and institutionally subject to the Christian tradition and historical standards of orthodoxy than most of his leading critics.

      • Harris says:

        Addendum: “heterodox” was not meant in a theological sense, but more in the scholastic/academic sense where one’s position contravenes accepted academic (and in this case presumed liberal) positions. The validity of such contrarian understandings necessarily rests on a consideration of evidence, e.g. that ill treatment of slaves was not wide spread, as well as on reasoning from that evidence.

        In this light, I find such statements as the one below completely astonishing:
        “The fact that there were very few slave uprisings in the South further confirms the fact that slaves were well-treated and often had a deep loyalty to, and affection for, their masters.”

      • Ah, I misunderstood your sense: I presumed that you were referring to his theological stance. I am 100% agreed with your representation of his historical position in such a manner. To be taken with a ladleful of salt…

    • Andrew says:

      Here is one question that I have…

      Which is worse:
      – a Christian community committing vast atrocities against fellow men, women, and children but having sound theological belief on one issue (the trinity) or
      – a Christian community fighting for the God-given rights of fellow men, women, and children but being off-the-mark on one theological issue (the trinity).

      Further, this characterization of North=Unitarian, South=Trinitarian completely disregards Northern church movements, such as the Free Methodist Church movement, which was staunchly against slavery and racism (and played a role in the underground railroad), while being thoroughly trinitarian. I’m sure you didn’t mean this characterization as a critique on the North, because obviously the abolition movement was right on the issue of slavery (we don’t need to argue that, do we?), but lets be mindful of those stories as well.

      • Matthew N. Petersen says:

        I’m not sure how a “Christian” community that is Unitarian can be called Christian. That’s like talking about a Christian community that believes in no God but Allah, and that Muhammad is his prophet. (I’m not sure that that answers your question, but it may make a little direction toward answering it.)

        But yes, you are right, there are lots of streams, I think Pr. Wilson would say he’s talking about the main stream.

        What do we mean by the North was right on the issue of slavery? Do we mean that slavery is an offense to the gospel, the gospel makes men free, and breaks free all slaves? Or do we mean that the north was right that a war that cost more American lives than all the other wars combined needed to be fought to end slavery? With the first, I’m definitely in agreement. But the second seems more possibly open to dispute. I think Wilberforce’s abolition movement was better than the Northern one.

        Which is an entirely different question from racism. Racism was a problem in both the north and the south, and many of the real horrors of southern racism were a result of bitterness toward reconstruction. (Which doesn’t justify it at all, but does historically place it later than the war.)

      • Andrew says:

        To clarify, this wasn’t a defense of Unitarianism. Also, I meant to say the North was right on slavery in that slavery was an offense to the gospel (which I’m not sure Doug Wilson would agree with) and not so much about the means by which slavery was abolished.

      • Andrew,

        As I read him, Pastor Wilson argues that Southern slavery was an offence to the gospel. He also draws attention to the slave trade in the North, providing for the market in the South. The foreword of Black and Tan includes statements such as ‘The slave trade was nothing but wickedness.’ He describes the larger system of slavery in the South as ‘unscriptural and evil’.

        I do not share Pastor Wilson’s more general position on slavery, but I want to represent him fairly here.

  10. Flora Poste says:

    “How so, Flora?”

    Accusing RHE of “starting a polarizing firestorm” when the Doug Wilson quote on its own was enough to start a firestorm* is not really giving her “the time, goodwill, charity, and space” to withdraw her remarks, is it?
    I think you would have made a stronger and more accessible case by leading off with particular, specific examples of language you found unfair and polarizing, rather than start out with a sweeping accusation.

    * it’s not like D. Wilson is incapable of setting off a firestorm all on his own.

    • Flora,

      RHE was the one who suggested that our first response should be to get angry. The vehemence and heated character of the conflict owes a lot to her words. It is this heated anger that I refer to as a ‘firestorm’. I made an accusation, an accusation that I was quite prepared to back up with arguments (and which I did back up with arguments, and will back up with more in time). A lot of people, even in RHE’s comment thread, seemingly agreed with my assessment.

      The primary responsibility for our emotional reactions lies with us, not with those who supposedly provoke us.

      • Josh T. says:

        I’ve seen the quote thrown around saying that RHE said people “should get angry” several times now in various places, but that’s not the words used, and that’s not how I interpret them. Now I suppose it could be interpreted that way, but… she starts off with “What do we do about this?” and leads off with “Well, we can get angry.” In the larger context I thought it sounded more akin to “What are legitimate ways of being proactive in this situation?” I absolutely didn’t see it as “You, my readership, need to do these things to work against this: you need to get angry, etc.” I saw it more as a reassurance that anger is a justified response–especially with the included note about tempering anger with hope. I did not see it as saying anger is a mandated response.

      • You make a fair point, Josh T. My key concern is that anger was most clearly RHE’s initial response, and what she encouraged from her readers in her tone and suggestions, whether or not she was saying that people must respond in anger. When such a response is our initial one, it is extremely difficult to ask the sorts of questions that we ought to be asking, delaying judgment and response until we have heard both sides of the case, believing the best of others, and tempering our responses accordingly. The whole task of careful and charitable interpretation of fellow Christians was short circuited, with inflammatory effects.

      • Josh T. says:

        Thanks, Alastair. And I appreciate you putting so much effort into this difficult topic of how to discuss things in the midst of this online world.

      • Monte Harmon says:

        Alastair, This is the first time I have seen “delayed judgment” mentioned in all the hours of reading I have done these last few days. Arrogance has been the primary characteristic of most things I have read, and there are examples on both sides. It seems to me that on the web, just as on TV news, immediacy and intensity are deemed a much greater good than truthfulness, clarity, and particularly, understanding. While the use of satire and tone of voice on the Wilson side is worth discussion, the willful misunderstanding, manipulation, and posturing on the RHE side contributed more to the resulting firestorm. I’m sure the firestorm is good for the advertisers, just like on TV.

      • Thanks for the comment, Monte! I am hoping to address a wide range of different issues arising from the responses in forthcoming posts on the subject. The use of satire and the tone of Pastor Wilson’s response will definitely be among them. My hope is that, by reflecting upon and understanding the peculiar impulses, dynamics, and dangers of the sorts of problematic approaches taken by all parties within the recent debate, we will all be able to work towards pursuing a ‘better way’.

    • And, if you look at my previous post, you may see that I began with the sentence ‘A few days Jared Wilson unwittingly started a firestorm.’ This isn’t solely RHE’s responsibility, but she does bear considerable responsibility.

      • Andrew says:

        If RHE “bear[s] considerable responsibility” regarding this “firestorm”, I say, good on her. Doug Wilson’s deeply hurtful words, from someone who claims to be a Christian, are worthy of starting a “firestorm” over.

  11. Flora Poste says:

    “The problem is that nuance and strong poetic metaphor is lost on the triggered.”

    You’re missing my point. I think Wilson sexes up the biblical language to titillate his readers in a certain way, and that this deliberate, extra-biblical titillation creates collateral damage. You just repeat that it’s a metaphor and the bible uses metaphors. My point is that I don’t see the justification for those particular metaphors. I don’t see equivalent of the conquered/colonizing metaphor in the biblical texts Wilson cites. Can you give specific examples that would support the conquer/colonize metaphor?

    “It was but a little that I passed from them, but I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me. “

    Who is “conquering” whom?

    You mention “martial metaphors” but read closely and compare.

    7 Behold his bed, which is Solomon’s; threescore valiant men are about it, of the valiant of Israel.

    8 They all hold swords, being expert in war: every man hath his sword upon his thigh because of fear in the night.

    Compare the metaphor of the bed protected against fear in the night, versus “conquer her, colonize her.” See the difference?

    I have a good friend whose husband is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. I don’t really pry into their sex life, but pretty sure it doesn’t fit in with the way Doug Wilson thinks sex has to be in order to be godly. Yet they are two of the staunchest Christians I know and have a loving, stable relationship Way to marginalize them, Doug Wilson!

    • Flora,

      First, I took issue with Pastor Wilson’s use of these particular metaphors myself in my previous post, so I am surprised that you are asking me to defend their use. I quote myself:

      “My secondary concern is to see Pastor Wilson publicly, personally, and strongly dissociate himself from the impression that a prima facie reading of his statements might give: that the man’s part in marital relations is oppressively forceful and dominating and the woman’s essentially passive. Why did he choose the words ‘conquer’ and ‘colonize’ over words such as ‘win over’ or ‘build up’?”

      This said, I am really not sure that you are getting how these metaphors are working for Pastor Wilson. ‘Conquest’ as a metaphor for sexual relations is quite an established one in the literary canon, and despite the strong language that surrounds it, is often seen as passionate and loving. As Pastor Wilson himself openly acknowledges, the language of military conquest is also used of the woman towards the man in Scripture, without people reacting in shock and horror. It is a conquest of love, much as we are conquered by Christ in the gospel. The language is militaristic, but the reality being referred to is quite otherwise. ‘Colonize’ for Pastor Wilson functions in terms of the image of the walled garden of the wife that is given over to the use of the husband in Song of Solomon.

      Flora, I would ask you whether you have read the book in question to determine Pastor Wilson’s understanding of sexual relations, or whether two ambiguous metaphors were enough to settle your mind concerning his true meaning? The fact that you jump to a conclusion about Pastor Wilson’s supposed judgment on your friends’ marriage, purely on the basis of one isolated sentence of uncertain and highly disputed import is hardly a testimony to high standards of interpretation on your part.

      • Matthew N. Petersen says:

        Regarding “conquest”:

        It seems that it is at times an apt metaphor for courtship. Donne can pray that God would conquer him, and Petruchio really does conquer Katerina. That said, conquest is definitely not the ordinary metaphor for courtship–Does Dante conquer Beatrice? Or Mr. Knightly, Emma?

        And “conquest” is far more often used as a metaphor for seduction. Vronsky conquers Karenina. Don Giovanni’s “conquests include 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but in Spain, 1,003.” (http://youtu.be/Bd56A8HH0HE)

        So yes, conquest can be a metaphor for wooing, though it is more often a metaphor for seduction than for “making love”.

        But Pr. Wilson seems to be using it as a metaphor for the sexual act, and as a description of the difference between the male and the female role.

        The metaphor is much more stretched when applied to the sexual act itself. Rather than conversion (as in Donne’s Sonnet), which corresponds to wooing; it would be communion, or even more accurately, the final consummation after the resurrection, which corresponds to the sexual act. And conquest is a very forced metaphor for the Eucharist, and an even more forced metaphor for the final consummation. “And now that the wedding of the Lamb has come, Christ will conquer the Church for all eternity.” No. Then, Christ has conquered, and no longer does.

        Moreover, it does not make sense to list conquest as a difference, if it is in fact a commonality, or only sometimes a feature of sex. Though he has since said that the woman also conquers the man (in wooing, not in bed) the words themselves, in the context, suggests that conquest is one of the proper differences between male sexuality and female sexuality–that is, that conquest is something the man only and always does.

        In short, the passage takes a metaphor that is a possible metaphor for wooing, and makes it a defining difference between the male and female sexual acts.

        Though, as I have said before, the point of the book is definitely not to attack women, but to talk straight to men about how they oppress women. Though I disagree with some of the themes, and, obviously, disagree with some of the language, it’s by and large, a good book.

      • Matthew,

        I agree, it is a poorly chosen metaphor. However, I don’t believe that it is a metaphor that far removed from appropriate use. I am also not convinced that we need to separate wooing from the sexual act. As ‘conquest’, it is the sexual act that is the consummation of the wooing process. Without the sexual consummation, the conquest has yet to be truly realized. It is the non-violent consummation that renders itself, in union with the preceding struggle of wooing, a ‘conquest’. While the conquest is realized and consummated in the sexual act, it is not circumscribed by it, or too closely drawn around it, as it comprehends much beside.

        The question of how the woman’s ‘conquest’ relates to the sexual relation in Pastor Wilson’s thought is worth reflecting upon. I suspect that he sees the two conquests as asymmetrical yet counterbalancing, the woman’s conquest being expressed primarily in her command of her beloved’s heart and desire. If this were the case, it would be appropriate to speak primarily of the conquest of the man in the consummation of the wooing process in sexual intercourse, maintaining the asymmetrical focus of this passage, while relating the conquest of the woman to her control of the seat of her beloved’s affections and motivations, a conquest less immediately or closely focused on the sexual act. I would also submit that, if we are speaking in generalities, this may not be that crazily inaccurate a picture of how these things often seem to be.

      • Matthew N. Petersen says:

        I didn’t mean to suggest that we could separate the sexual act from the wooing, but that we could distinguish them. You say: “As ‘conquest’, it is the sexual act that is the consummation of the wooing process.” But I’m it seems you’re affirming the consequent here. The sexual act is the consummation of the wooing process–particularly of “conquests”. But though the wooing always has the sexual act as its goal, the sexual act is not always (or even usually) the consummation of the wooing. For Don Giovanni, it is. And on the wedding night, it is. (And maybe on the honeymoon too.) And throughout the marriage there are times when he woos her (or she woos him!). But as the sexual act becomes more and more a part of the life of the couple, it is not so closely connected to wooing. “You were exhausted and hurt by work today. Come, let me comfort you.” There’s no conquest there.

        But even there, by the time of the wedding, who woos whom? Sometimes, years ago, he may have started wooing her. And sometimes, years ago, she may have started wooing him. And probably more often than anything, it starts with mutual attraction that he (or sometimes she) makes explicit. But that was years ago. By the time of the wedding, they are both wooing. Does Beatrice conquer Benedick, or does Benedick conquer Beatrice? And it is Hero, with her death and resurrection who conquers Claudio. And it is definitely Helena who conquers Bertram.

        Perhaps, as you suggest Pr. Wilson intends, we could say that he woos toward sex, and she woos by conquering his thoughts and heart. But Lauren Winners (in Real Sex) says that in real life, the man wants it more about a third of the time, the woman, about a third of the time, and both want it equally about a third of the time. So that answer doesn’t seem to work. Sometimes he initiates. Sometimes she does.

        And finally, you said “I would also submit that, if we are speaking in generalities, this may not be that crazily inaccurate a picture of how these things often seem to be.” But as I’ve argued, I’m not so sure. Often? Perhaps. But as an illustration of the defining difference between men and women? That seems considerably less likely to me. Perhaps hospitality would be more accurate. He receives hospitality, she gives hospitality. He has been suing to eat her meat, and she allows him to enter her house, where she treats him hospitably.

      • Thanks for the comment, Matthew.

        In speaking of this, I have not been thinking in terms of particular sexual acts, whether the first or subsequent ones within a marital relationship, but of a sort of paradigmatic sexual ‘act’ that exceeds any particular act. Much as we might speak of two people ‘becoming one flesh’ with particular reference to the wedding, or to the sexual consummation that follows, without believing that this ‘becoming one flesh’ is something that can be exhausted in a particular event, so I suspect the ‘sexual act’ is functioning here. Along these lines we can rightly speak of the woman’s conception answering the man’s planting, while recognizing that most sexual acts do not involve this at all.

        We talk about the Eucharist in much the same way sometimes, not from the aspect of its continuing performance, but from its paradigmatic and constitutive role. However, much as what is appropriate to the Eucharist from one aspect may not easily translate to the other aspect, so with the sexual act.

        My reading of Pastor Wilson is that, in terms of the sexual act as it symbolically stands within the relationship, as that which consummates it as sexual – not the first (or any subsequent) performance of sexual intercourse – it is especially associated with the conquest of the man. The ‘conquering’ and ‘colonizing’ are never fully present or fully actualized, but they are the underlying ‘myth’ of the relationship that is constantly participated in. Any attempt to collapse this myth into some either fully descriptive or normative account of what particular sexual acts must look like misses the point and leaves us with a bizarre, troubling, and unrealistic caricature.

      • Matthew N. Petersen says:

        Hmm…I suppose that may be possible. Though for several reasons, it doesn’t quite seem to work.

        First, “penetrate” makes sense only with respect to the act itself, and has been defended by appeal to the act itself. If what is under consideration is the mythical import of sex, then it isn’t nearly so obvious that “penetrate” is correct, and it needs actually defended.

        Second, as I read it, the passage is attempting to state starkly, that egalitarianism is wrong. It’s arguing against the “egalitarian” in “egalitarian pleasure party” by satirizing “egalitarian”. But if we pull back to a mythical significance, the satire doesn’t work, because the facts that satirize need to be indisputable.

        Third, as I said, even then, it doesn’t seem obvious that the man conquers. Petruchio conquers Kate. Vronsky conquers Karenina. Don Giovanni conquers 2,065 different women. And God conquers Donne (and you and I).

        But Mr. Tilney does not conquer Catherine; nor does Edmund Bertram conquer Fanny Price; nor does Dante conquer Beatrice.

        Finally, (and perhaps a bit of an aside), I’m not sure I agree with planting. An oak seed is a potential seed. But human seed is not a potential human. So the metaphor is inaccurate in that respect, but also, the child is not only the seed of the man, but also the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15). The man plants a seed, but so does the woman. I’m not sure that we should say that a conception follows a man’s planting, but follows their planting.

        This is especially true since it is more externally obvious that the man plants, and because historically, they thought only the man plants. Stating that the man plants without stating that the woman plants–particularly in a situation which is supposed to show the difference between male and female sexuality–seems to state that the woman does not plant.

        (I’m not exactly sure you disagree with the last few paragraphs there, but I think the woman’s planting is an important point.)

      • Matthew,

        Thanks for the comment. I get the impression that we are still not speaking on quite the same wavelength here.

        In my previous comment I wasn’t referring to the ‘mythical import’, so much as to the myth itself. Such a ‘myth’ is akin to a type: although many historical events are expressions of the type, no single historical event perfectly realizes or actualizes the type. It is always only partially present. However, the type isn’t just some meaning, but a sequence of events, or myth. The man still penetrates the woman in the type, just as we still eat bread and drink wine in the paradigmatic performance of the Eucharist (a ‘theological type’ more than an empirical description).

        It seems to me that you are focusing far too much on the question of who woos whom. The ‘conquest’ isn’t reducible to the question of who is the primary pursuer. Both parties conquer each other, irrespective of who the primary pursuer in the situation is. However, the conquests are primarily realized in different contexts.

        As I read him, Pastor Wilson is working with the fairly prominent biblical imagery of the woman as the city here. The great cities in Scripture are all female: Babylon, Zion, the Harlot City, the New Jerusalem, etc. The city is surrounded by ‘impenetrable’ and ‘impregnable’ walls and strongly barred gates. The ‘penetrating’ of these walls is closely bound up with sexual symbolism throughout Scripture. The temple in Jerusalem was always a site of nuptial meaning.

        Not only are these cities symbolically female, females are symbolically cities. The loveliness of the bride in the Song of Songs is likened to that of Jerusalem (6:4). The woman is like a wall with battlements and strengthened doors (8:9). The chastity/virginity of the woman is represented by this well-guarded wall and gate. Women and birth are also especially symbolically and thematically associated with doorways in Scripture. Women’s legs and their private parts are symbolized as gates and doorposts.

        Within this biblical imagery, there is a clear asymmetry between male and female. The man is not the city, but is the one who enters into and marries the city. For instance, in Isaiah 62:1-5, Zion is ‘married’ to YHWH and she is no longer left desolate. As YHWH enters once again to the nuptial chamber of the temple, the city is rendered fruitful (Isaiah 66:6-9). Likewise, in Revelation, the Lamb’s bride is a great city, into which the bridegroom shall enter (Revelation 21). The harlot bride, by contrast, is overthrown, unless tokens of virginity can be provided. So, for instance, the walls of Jericho were overthrown, the symbolic blood of the scarlet thread saves Rahab and her family from the destruction.

        In terms of this imagery, the meaning of sexual relations is more clearly focused on the man’s entering into the woman, as a conquering king enters into a city. The particular form that the conquest takes here means that we cannot treat the conquest of male and female as if they were commensurable. Only the man enters into the city as conqueror: the woman’s conquest is of a different kind. Although the conquest is usually presented as the consummation of prior wooing, this also means that the symbolism holds true, even in cases where it might be the woman who is primarily the one doing the pursuing.

        As regards the planting, seed has a number of different senses in Scripture. It can refer to a child, descendants, line of inheritance, or to semen. In Scripture the womb and the earth are closely connected. The curse mediated by the woman’s womb is paralleled with the curse mediated by the earth (Genesis 3:16-19). The woman brings forth fruit with pain, and the earth brings forth thorns and thistles to the man. The woman is here paralleled with the earth relative to man: the woman will experience pain as she brings forth fruit, the man will experience pain as he toils to bring forth and raise fruit from the earth and his wife. Much as he experiences the difficulty of an earth that doesn’t respond to his labours and rewards him with thorns and thistles, so he will experience difficulty in marriage, a wife who doesn’t respond readily to him as a result of his sin and its curse, and who will often bear thorns and thistles – evil children. In Job 1:21 and Psalm 139:15 we see womb and earth spoken of interchangeably. The resurrection is a giving birth of the earth, which is in birth pangs.

        The seed sown in the symbolic picture is the seed of the man (see my description of how this works out in the story of Ruth and Boaz in this post). The woman is part of the planting process of this picture, of course, but as the earth welcoming the seed and responding to the sower.

        In the light of all of the above, the asymmetry of the biblical portrait of the sexual relation, drawn in terms of the themes of ‘penetration’, ‘conquering’, ‘colonization’, and ‘planting’ is really fairly straightforward, and not an ‘egalitarian pleasure party’ at all. It isn’t a mere ‘mythical significance’, which doesn’t connect with the actual act, but represents the typical sexual Act that both transcends, exceeds, and is participated in within every actual sexual act.

        I think that, while Pastor Wilson’s language remains poorly chosen, his biblical point stands.

      • Matthew N. Petersen says:

        Thanks for the response. I think you’re right we’re miscommunicating.

        I’m with Pr. Wilson in being against egalitarian. (Incidentally, I think the Theology of the Body suggests pleasure party is inaccurate also.) My difference is that I think different metaphors ought to be used to express the asymmetry.

        The woman is a city and the man enters? Yes. But does that imply the man conquers? I’m not convinced it does. Sometimes the man has to batter her heart, conquering her. The woman is a garden enclosed, a spring of living waters. But the man does not force his way in, conquering her, the man is invited in. “Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.” It seems that peacefully entering a city, at the invitation of the ruler, bringing gifts, and receiving hospitality is more sensitive to the biblical imagery. Rather than “penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants” I would suggest “enters, receives hospitality, brings gifts, fertilizes.” Rather than “receives, surrenders, accepts”, I suggest “invites, opens, feasts (him).” That still preserves the asymmetry, but it removes the violent aspect, and rather than making the woman seem passive, emphasizes the woman’s agency. Thus the two aspects which I think most people find objectionable are overcome, while his central point remains.

        Yes, Christ enters his city as a glorious conqueror. But I don’t think he enters as a glorious conqueror over Jerusalem, but as a glorious conqueror over Jerusalem’s enemies, sin and death. It isn’t the bride that the husband conquers, but her enemies. He enters the bride as the glorious conqueror, returning home in peace, not in conquest. At the end of time, Christ enters Jerusalem like Aragorn entering Minas Tirith, after the destruction of the ring. He enters the city in peace, the acclaimed and prophesied ruler who has vanquished her enemies. The man enters the city as a glorious conqueror, but he enters as a glorious conqueror over the enemies of the city, not as the glorious conqueror of the city.

        Regarding seed: I’m not as sure as you are about the parallels between earth and woman. You are right about the parallelism, but several points should be added to yours, that I think mitigate your conclusions. First, unlike in the case of a farmer and the earth, the man doesn’t merely plant a seed that the woman nourishes. Rather, the man and the woman together create the child, whom the woman nourishes. This creation of a child is asymmetric through and through, but he doesn’t just plant a seed that she nourishes. that’s just bad science. A grain of wheat is wheat. A sperm is not a man, nor even a potential man.

        Now that alone doesn’t overturn the biblical symbolism, it could be that the symbolical picture is correct, and the scientific picture clouds it. It may still be that the symbolic picture is, as you say, the seed of the man. But it seems that even the Scriptural picture is not quite so clear. Specifically, the most important prophesy in the Old Testemant does not refer to the seed of the man, but to the seed (zera, spermatos, semen) of the woman. The great hope and longing throughout the Old Testament is for the seed of the woman. Boaz provides Ruth seed, but Ruth also provides seed, and the fruit of her womb is not only his seed, but also her seed. Centrally, the New Adam (and hence all man) is not only the fruit of the woman, but the seed of the woman.

        My contention is that (particularly in the violent context of penetration conquest and colonization) referring to the male planting without referring to the woman planting denies by its silence the woman’s active role. She is not merely the ground receiving the seed, but actively contributes a seed herself.

      • Matthew, thanks for another thoughtful comment.

        Just to make clear again, my aim in responding to you is to give Pastor Wilson’s position fair advocacy. Pastor Wilson’s position is not my position (as should be clear from my first post), and my objections are generally along the same lines as yours. While I oppose egalitarianism, I am not a fan of Pastor Wilson’s brand of complementarianism (or most of the other brands, for that matter).

        Since Fidelity is a book dealing with the role of men, written by a man to men, it is only natural to expect a particular focus upon the agency of the man over that of the woman. I completely agree that the entrance into the city is peaceful. As you say, the man does not force his way in. However, whatever the form that the initial wooing takes, over the course of the marriage, the man has to conquer the heart of his wife. This isn’t a violent process at all, nor need it presume resistance. However, the theme of conquest does suggest an overwhelming of the other party. This ‘overwhelming’ need not be one of force at all, but can be one of love or captivation, much as the wife captivates her husband with her love (it is also the husband’s duty to be captivated by his wife – Proverbs 5:19). ‘Enters’ and ‘invites’ is fairly anaemic in comparison to ‘lovingly conquers’ and ‘joyfully surrenders’. The marital act is a participation in and enacting of this underlying reality at the heart of marriage – the mutual but asymmetrical conquest of the two parties. I still don’t see a compelling reason to resist such language. When spoken of the woman, we don’t have qualms about it. However, as soon as it is applied to the man’s act, we seem to lose the notion of conquering one’s spouse with overwhelming love and start to think in terms of force and violence.

        I don’t think that the purpose of Pastor Wilson was to give a scientifically accurate account. Rather, he is working with the biblical symbolism, within which the seed planted is the male’s seed. The ‘seed’ that is produced is the seed of man and woman, but more particularly of the woman. However, the sexual act remains particularly associated with the man’s act of planting his seed: the seed of the woman comes later in the picture (even if we introduce the scientific picture).The woman is not inactive in receiving the seed. However, her active role with respect to the seed is primarily associated with later stages of the process.

      • Matthew N. Petersen says:

        Thanks for the reply. Aside from one short comment, I think I’ll leave it there.

        I agree the language I used is a little anemic, but I don’t think the imagery is. A glorious conqueror of a city’s enemies bringing gifts, the city in rejoicing opens to him, and feasts him. Etc. That isn’t anemic imagery, though it is harder to find individual words to express that.

      • Thanks for the stimulating interaction, Matthew!

      • Matthew N. Petersen says:

        You too! I’m looking forward to your future posts.

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  13. Flora Poste says:

    I have read enough of Wilson to know that he’s not a deep thinker and that he has a barely concealed sadistic streak.
    You have pretty much admitted that the name of his game is épater les liberaloisie – which he thinks means anyone to the left of Robert E. Lee. Then after he’s stirred up everyone’s emotions, he laughs “LOL, bro, y u mad?” like any trolling troll who trolls.
    I’d rather read Wendell Berry, who I think is a true conservative Christian and someone who actually repays the effort of reading and disagreeing.
    Anyway, thanks for reading and engaging with my posts, good luck. Fences can be uncomfortable places to sit.

    • I think that it is quite possible to have engagement with Pastor Wilson. I have seen Pastor Wilson engage with critics on several occasions and in various contexts. I have had such critical conversations with him on a few occasions. However, those who cannot control their emotional reactions are treated dismissively.

      Pastor Wilson’s original remarks that started all of this were never intended to ‘stir up everyone’s emotions’. People proved capable of stirring up their emotions all by themselves in a reaction that struck me and many other observers, both male and female, as rather thin-skinned and unreflective. Pastor Wilson’s penchant for a forceful presentation of things can definitely be unhelpful on occasions, but I don’t believe that he is the one trying to bring emotions into the debate.

      Pastor Wilson probably isn’t for you. He isn’t for me either. However, I don’t like seeing unfair accusations levelled at people and conversations closed down or derailed. I have no doubt that you will gain much more from reading Wendell Berry.

      For the record, I am definitely not a fence-sitter. I have very committed and determined positions on these matters. They just don’t happen to correspond with either of the two sides that would fancy themselves the only valid voices on these matters.

      Thanks for the comments and engagement, Flora. God bless you.

  14. Matt J. says:

    “The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that. The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or right the readers will most certainly go into it.” – C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, “Cross-Examination” (1963)

    Wilson, being well-read in Lewis is, I am certain, aware of this passage. He knows what he’s doing. Wilson has written much and has clearly developed his own style. It appears to be thus: (a) to know exactly what he wants to say and (b) to drive the sheep quickly down the road such that many run into open gates on the left and right. Oh well. They were probably just goats anyway. Perhaps some softie can try to round ’em up later, God willing. But haven’t we had enough of that already? Yee-haw!

    Sometimes this works really well, but in my opinion, becomes increasingly unhelpful as the audience broadens.

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  16. Andrew says:

    Here’s the big problem I have: I do not see ANY situation or context where Doug Wilson’s words and arguments could be construed as Biblical. So to say that “well, you have to read it in its context” really skirts the issue.

    Further, if Doug Wilson means “egalitarian” to mean a secular culture movement, and not a Christian culture movement, why would he use THAT word to describe something to a readership that is most likely SOLELY a Christian community? That just doesn’t make sense. Here is where I have arrived: Either A) Doug Wilson has no understanding of what words mean, and just uses what ever word he feels like using regardless of what that word conveys, and therefore is a terrible communicator and writer (and thus why do people say he is such a logical, great writer?) or B) He really is a man with patriarchal/misogynist perspectives, and the words that he uses really do convey that he believes what we are all taking him to mean. I’m thinking its B) because that just makes more logical sense, and every opportunity he has been given to clarify that he doesn’t mean B, he has chosen not to go back on that way of thinking (so far as I have seen – if someone wants to post direct quotes from him otherwise where he takes back his “conquering”, “colonizing”, “no egalitarian pleasure party”, etc language, please do).

    • Andrew, have you read the whole book?

      The meaning of the word ‘egalitarian’ is fairly clear within the larger context of the book’s argument. The problem is that people seem to have latched onto a few words, without carefully engaging with that larger context. This is a lazy way to critique a book.

      It is one thing to have questions arising from a particular formulation in a particular passage. It is another to jump to conclusions and judgment without querying meaning first, or engaging with the wider context.

      • Andrew says:

        But why would I bother reading the whole book? I’ve heard from enough people that it is more of the same. And Doug Wilson, it seems, has chosen to group Christian egalitarians along with his critique of secular egalitarians. He should either use a different word or make that clear to the Christian audience to which he is speaking. Lastly, his critique of secular egalitarianism is completely baseless. Where does he get the data or wherewithal to say that secular egalitarianism is to blame for rape in our culture? Or that God is judging our culture by allowing women to be raped because of egalitarianism? Do you not see how baseless these comments are, and why people would be angry about this said by someone claiming to be Christian or say “this is what the Bible says”?

      • You would bother reading the whole book if you wanted people to believe that you had earned the right to express the opinions that you are expressing about what you suppose to be its contents.

        Sometimes words have different senses, senses that depend upon context. I think that if people gave more weight to context in determining the meaning of words, we probably wouldn’t be having this debate.

        Pastor Wilson would have to answer that question himself. However, I think that a very strong case can be made that egalitarian assumptions have actually unwittingly enabled a dominance of male sexuality, with the burdens largely being born by women in a casual sex culture with falling levels of long term commitment, easier divorce, the expectation of being on the Pill long term, abortion, a rising use of porn, a common reduction of women to the criteria of ‘sexiness’ in wider society, etc.

      • Andrew says:


        So if you think egalitarian assumptions, even those that are Christian (is that what you’re suggesting?) is that cause of all the sexual issues of our culture (of which there are many!), well then I guess we’re done here – I don’t see how any rational thought can come from this conversation.

      • Andrew,

        No, that is not what I am saying. I would clearly distinguish between Christian egalitarianism and secular egalitarianism and between different forms within each, even though they definitely not unrelated.

      • Andrew says:

        How would you say that Christian egalitarianism and secular egalitarianism are related? I would argue that Christian egalitarianism rises SOLELY out of close, careful study of Christian scriptures. Any relation to secular egalitarianism is merely tangential – or, perhaps secular culture has taken threads from Christian egalitarianism. Christian egalitarianism traces is roots back prior to the more recent movement of secular egalitarianism.

      • Secular egalitarianism is a huge catalyst for the rise of Christian egalitarianism. Wherever Christian egalitarianism’s theoretical foundations may lie, many of its historical foundations as a movement relate closely to those of secular egalitarianism.

      • Andrew says:

        “Secular egalitarianism is a huge catalyst for the rise of Christian egalitarianism.”

        When do you think the secular egalitarian movement started? Most critics often point to the 1960s. But if you look more closely at the Holiness Movement, you can trace back the roots of Christian egalitarianism to the 18th century. Are arguing that secular egalitarianism goes before that? My own alma mater had women faculty training seminary students before women could vote in the US. Perhaps Christian egalitarianism has had its voice heard more broadly and been more “acceptable” because of the rise of secular egalitarianism, but I don’t think its correct to say that “its historical foundations as a movement relate closely to those of secular egalitarianism.” I would argue that its historically older than the more modern, secular egalitarian movement.

        Further, why do you so quickly dismiss its theological foundation? If Christians have been misinterpreting parts of scripture for centuries, when we realize we have been wrong, should we continue misinterpreting for tradition’s sake? Or because we like the power structure from our misinterpretation? (Example: Junia as a NT APOSTLE)

      • Thanks for the comment, Andrew. There are many roots for the secular egalitarian movement. The liberal tradition and its anthropology is the first place that I would look: Locke, Mill, etc. While some of the sensibilities that gave rise to this tradition may have been Christian, a case that secular egalitarianism was primarily a development out of a pre-existent Christian egalitarian movement is one I find rather unconvincing. The liberal roots from which secular egalitarianism arose were often rather heterodox or explicitly anti-Christian.

        While there are strains of Christian egalitarianism that pre-exist many modern strains of secular egalitarianism (but probably not all), I submit that when probed it becomes clear that most modern egalitarians find the origins of their position as Christian conjugations of the liberal tradition, within which Scripture was appealed to as support, rather than as developments out of a pre-existing Christian movement.

        None of this is to deny that egalitarians appeal to a Scriptural foundation. Sometimes cultural developments bring aspects of Scripture to light: identifying historical origins is important, but it does not answer theological arguments.

        The egalitarian argument is not one that I want to have here, as it would distract us from the aims of this particular post. However, the case of Junia and others are easily answered. This is an issue that I have addressed in considerable depth elsewhere.

      • Have you addressed the case of Junia here on your blog, Alastair? If not, where, then?

      • Sorry about that, Sergius, I should have provided links. I addressed her in this post and the ones that followed. I would want to revisit and rework these at various points, but they will give you an idea of where I am coming from on the question.

      • Andrew says:


        Are you familiar with the Holiness Movement? It did not arise out of the secular/liberal movement. Some people may “arrive” at Christian egalitarianism by way of secular egalitarianism, but to argue that the Christian egalitarian movement arose out of the secular egalitarian movement and slapped on some scripture (paraphrased) is not fair at all in my opinion.

      • Andrew,

        Yes, I have some knowledge of the Holiness tradition.

        I am not sure that you are following my argument here. My claim is that there are various ‘strains’ of egalitarianism, both Christian and secular. Most Christian egalitarians find the origins of their egalitarianism less in the Holiness strain of egalitarianism than in hybrid strains of egalitarianism, drawing heavily upon the convictions of the philosophical tradition of liberalism (developing from the work of such as Locke and Mill), treating the sensibilities developing out of that tradition as bringing to light certain dimensions of truth hitherto ignored.

        I also disagree with your claim that ‘Christian egalitarianism rises SOLELY out of close, careful study of Christian scriptures’ and many Christian egalitarians would too. There are strains of Christian egalitarianism that explicitly reject biblical authority on this matter, believing that Scripture is anti-egalitarian but that, on account of cultural progression, we can see that Paul and others were mistaken.

        I would also question whether, even in the Holiness tradition, this adequately describes the rise of Christian egalitarianism. I would suggest that, in the Holiness tradition, Christian egalitarianism owed much of its rise to a particular set of religious experiences and events intrinsic to the movement. It wasn’t just a matter of studying Scripture, but a sense of the Spirit’s leading on the manner as the gifting of certain women came to light, with arguments deduced from Scripture giving a sort of green light to a move that was already in effect.

      • Andrew says:

        Thanks for clarifying.

  17. Beth says:

    I think you are really on to something with the idea of a meta-debate/discourse that might prove helpful in the discussion of this topic. I wonder how much thought you have given to the fact that we are now living in a world that is much more postmodern than the world was even in 1999. An important aspect of postmodernism has been the breaking down of categories — of taxonomies, if you will — and encouraging the non-linear in thought, words, behavior, art, and every other aspect of life. In this sense, the internet and the peculiar form of discourse that it fosters is the epitome of postmodern discourse. I was particularly struck by your argument that this sort of conversational climate is relational — organized more according to relationships than to easily identified topics or even discrete communities of like-minded people. In regard to the meta-debate you are seeking to encourage, I wonder about the extent to which the conditions of internet discourse more closely resemble patterns of conversation and thinking generally associated with female interaction rather than male (linear) interaction. Note: I am NOT saying that all women behave or think in a certain way or that all men do. Rather, I am pondering whether the oft-quoted saying, “It’s a man’s world” can be related to cultural discourse, and whether the questionable veracity of that statement in today’s postmodern world in general can also be applied to today’s forms of discourse. If that is case, those who attempt to interact in a pre-postmodern, linear fashion are as much out of place (or perhaps out of sync?) in today’s form of discourse as women were in the much more linear, man-centered modern world that is being left increasingly behind. If so, perhaps a meta-debate such as the one you are introducing can take into account the fact that both the modern and the postmodern worlds have, to date, been greatly lacking in balance and that we have a responsibility to get above the misunderstandings that such imbalance creates and try to find an equilibrium that will take into account both sides without falling into the trap of discourse myopia.

    To relate this to the current topic, perhaps the lack of interpretive nuance demonstrated by both Rachel Held Evans and Doug Wilson comes in part from there being too little effort by those in both camps to understand themselves and their own method of reasoning/debating and how that might be perceived by those who take an opposing view or method. I would have to agree with you that what is needed is a little bit of serious introspection by all involved!

    I also have to say that I somewhat disagree with your assessment of Doug Wilson’s daughters’ responses to Rachel Held Evans. I do not see strength, etc. in what they (and their father) wrote. Instead, I see an extreme lack of grace and Christian charity that does their position no favors. There is a certain time or circumstance in which the tactics you ascribe to them may be called for, but discussion of topics of serious theological concern — perhaps one of the most important of our time — is not the place. The Wilsons did not take the high road here, and in my opinion, they should have. Humility goes a long, long way toward defusing extreme emotion. The Wilsons did exactly the opposite. I am not saying Rachel Held Evans showed humility, but with as much emphasis as Doug Wilson puts on being true to the Scriptures, etc. I have to take him at his word and hold him to a higher standard than I do someone who has publicly doubted the inerrancy of Scripture. I have met Doug Wilson and know some of his family members and can honestly say that I have been very disappointed in the way that he has represented Christ in this situation. I already disagree with him on several points, but I find that after this exchange — especially his response in which he degenerates to the point of using crude expressions to make a point — I have much less respect for him than I did before this debate started.

    At any rate, I very much appreciate the thoughtfulness of your treatment of these issues and am looking forward to more interaction. (BTW – This is why I don’t often comment on blogs. I get carried away and spend way too much time on it!)

    • Beth,

      Thank you for such a long and thoughtful comment! Lots worth discussing here.

      What you are saying about the relationship between the Internet and postmodernity is definitely important. I think that we should probably distinguish at this point between different senses of postmodernity/postmodernism: Joel Garver makes some helpful distinctions along those lines here. The present form of the Internet in many respects represents an intensification of postmodern and hyper-modern movements that were already underway previously. The form of our media and modes of connection and communication cannot be tidily distilled from the content of our thought, and so developments in the shape of Internet discourse can shape both the way that we relate to our thinking and the content of our thoughts as individuals, but also the very things that we do or don’t believe.

      I think that your point about the distinctions between modes of discourse weighted towards male or female preferences are an issue here. I will actually be returning to this matter in some depth in future posts. I think that developments in this area have been happening for quite some time. For instance, I suspect that the modern education system has changed its traditional weighting, which once favoured boys, towards one that is more oriented towards typical girls’ preferences. This is seen in the valuing of traits of cooperation, collaboration, quietness, sedentariness, empathy, equality, non-competitiveness, conformity, communal-focus, inclusivity, affirmation, inoffensiveness, sensitivity, non-confrontation, a downplaying of physicality, and an orientation to grades and tests. This also involves the downplaying of many traits typical of male-oriented education in the past: internalized confidence that does not depend upon external affirmation, originality, agonism, bloody-mindedness, independence of thought and spirit, creativity, inner drive, assertiveness, the mastery of one’s own feelings, a thick skin, disputational ability, competitiveness, nerve, a high tolerance for pain and discomfort, both your own and of others, a willingness to offend, initiative, imagination, and force of will.

      One of the things that I believe that we are seeing in this debate – and something that I am going to return to at a later point – is a collision between two models of thought and discourse. One form is heavily shaped by the more modern and girl-focused form of education; the second is heavily shaped by the more traditional boy-focused form (Logos School is a perfect example of this traditional form). The traditional boy-focused form is highly committed to disputation and rhetorical confrontation and Pastor Wilson is the epitome of these traits. The typical form of the traditional education system is the oral disputation. The typical form of the conventional modern education system is the written essay or standard test.

      However, neither education system is good at training those within it to deal with products of the other education system. Those who value the boy-focused form are focused on disputation and strong oppositional or hyperbolic rhetorical statement as their customary form. They are highly combative, and those who won’t stand up for their positions in combative rhetorical sparring with them are subjective to biting dismissive barbs.

      Those who are formed by more conventional modern education systems do not appreciate the playfulness, exaggeration, and counterbalancing dialectical oppositions inherent in this rhetorical combat and perceive it as a direct assault of an extreme position. When people from such a position engage in combat they tend to take it incredibly seriously, fight to kill, and take the exaggerated rhetoric and dismissive ridicule as if it were meant at face value. As the form of discourse into which such persons were trained has no internal means of dealing with strong difference or opposition, they feel far more threatened and try to expel opposition forcibly and close down such voices. While the traditional form celebrates a distinction between person and idea and doesn’t allow sensitivity to shut down discourse, the more conventional modern form tends to take things far more personally, and gives a lot of weight to sensitivities.

      A deeper appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of these two approaches is important here, along with an understanding of how to establish communication between the two. Both sides in this conflict seem to operate using entirely incompatible modes of discourse. What we need is means of communication and translation between the two, and an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of each. As I said, this is something that I plan to deal with in a later post.

      As for my more detailed thoughts on the modes of discourse employed by Pastor Wilson and his daughters, and where I agree and disagree with them, I will be addressing those in a later post. Without wanting to steal too much of my thunder here, I think that Pastor Wilson and his daughters responded to RHE too much as if she was a product of the sort of education system that they were used to. They presumed too much that RHE was intentionally using a dirty ploy to avoid the discussion, when she was largely acting in the way that persons formed by a conventional modern system of education often tend to act in such situations. In the process they showed both strengths and weaknesses. They showed their strengths in terms of traditional system of discourse and the values that that represents. However, they seemingly unwittingly used those strengths against someone not used to dealing with them, to whom such treatment feels like cruel bullying of the more vulnerable.

      I suspect that Pastor Wilson and his daughters wrongly assumed this weakness to be merely feigned and calculated: it may be manufactured to some degree, but it isn’t just feigned. Anyone more used to conventional modern discourse would tend to view Pastor Wilson and his daughters as bullies, while those who only really know the traditional form would see them as strong reasoners and debaters against someone who exemplifies many of the traits that that form of discourse most identifies as weaknesses or dirty tactics.

      At this point we need to ask which form of discourse should take priority, how we communicate with people from other forms of discourse, etc. I think that Pastor Wilson’s response was unwise and ill-judged, and have discussed this with him on his blog. However, a fuller treatment must once again wait until a later post.

      Thanks once again for the great comment!

      • Chris E says:

        There is significantly fewer difference between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ educational methods than your reply supposes. Even in ‘traditional’ settings of the most paleo sort insults still had weight to them – (see the outlying phenomena of things like duelling).

        This also ignores the extent to which the ‘traditional education’ Doug Wilson promotes is in itself a product of modernity – with its own marketing strategy around reading lists steeped in nostalgia and pseudo-academic attempts to recreate ‘classical rhetoric’

        The fact that one throws around words like ‘Trivium’ doesn’t remove the requirement for basic civility – a thoroughly traditional virtue.

      • Thanks for the comment, Chris.

        First of all, in speaking of ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ education systems, I was referring less to some exact historical distinction, than to some very broad typology, which loosely but inexactly maps onto history. So, for instance, as you say, Pastor Wilson’s form of education has a decidedly modern nostalgic cast in many respects. However, it remains a perfect example of the ‘traditional’ type as I outlined it.

        Insults have indeed always had weight to them. However, insulting and abrasive forms of rhetorical seem to have been far more consistently used in the past. One can’t read the Reformers’ writings for long, for instance, before being struck by how hostile and biting their rhetoric frequently is. One finds the same thing reading the Bible itself: the prophets, Jesus, and Paul could all be fairly acerbic in their style on occasions. Insults were used purposively, and not ruled out of appropriate speech. Discourse was far more naturally combative in style.

        You need a fairly thick skin to function well in this sort of context, something that most products of modern education systems seem to lack. Insults really don’t function in the same way in modern discourse to the way that they function in more traditional combative discourse. One doesn’t fight a duel because someone has hurt your sensitivities, but rather because they have impugned your honour. It is not a matter of sobbing children running to some authority figure complaining that someone called them names, but a person whose character has been wrongly defamed standing up for themselves to restore their reputation. Traditional rhetoric and its ritually combative style is not really about sensitivities, but about such things as truth and honour. Insults can be incredibly harsh and fall well within the bounds of play of regular speech. It only becomes something more when you take aim at your opponent’s honour.

        The difference between this and contemporary ‘insults’ should be noted. Contemporary insults are defined, not in terms of public honour, but in terms of private sensitivities. While you responded to attacks upon one’s honour by standing and defending it (if you just let it slide, you might risk losing honour), people typically respond to being offended by trying to close down the conversation.

        Civility is important as a requirement for regular speech. However, the debating chamber is like a playing field. It can be rough and combative, but it is not personal, and strong attacks on it can be quite consistent with civility (just watch some debates in the House of Commons, where there are strict rules of civility, but a highly agonistic form). Rivalries are supposed to be left on the field.

        Civility is also not an absolute rule. There are occasions when the right thing to do is to use fairly merciless language on opponents, comparing them to broods of vipers, or suggesting that they cut their tackle off. Exposing ridiculous ideas and behaviours to ridicule is also an important form of speech. Without such ridicule or satire we are at risk of taking certain ideas and persons more seriously than they ought to be. The difficulty when sensitivity drives debate is that people cannot separate themselves from the issues and take things personally. Discourse designed to protect feelings, rather than guard honour, has a far less healthy shape to it.

        It is also worth paying attention to the sorts of things that both parties said here. Pastor Wilson did ridicule RHE and others fairly harshly (and I will have more to say about this in a later post: I don’t advocate his approach in many respects). However, those responding to Pastor Wilson made some fairly serious accusations against him. He was spoken of as a misogynist or woman-hater and a racist. It was suggested that he was supporting rape culture and that he was all about power. These are some fairly serious claims to make, especially as those making them provided little evidence to back them up and didn’t really engage with the counter-arguments. These sorts of wild and unsupported claims, springing as they do from hurt sensitivities, are given a sort of free pass in much contemporary discourse, and those making them are seldom called out as they ought to be.

        Pastor Wilson called RHE and others like her ‘bedwetters’. The fascinating thing to notice is that far more of an outrage is whipped up over petty ridicule like this, than there is about the fact that serious accusations were made about Pastor Wilson’s character and intentions, with little attempt to back them up. Also, while Pastor Wilson’s ridicule was detached and dismissive, some quite vicious language was thrown at him, e.g. ‘a horrible trainwreck of a human being’. The problem here is that the sensitivities of the thin-skinned are given a sort of sacred status, a sacred status that permits people to make extremely serious but supported accusations against and vicious attacks upon a minister’s character in their defence. Idolatries are generally best exposed through ridicule, and I don’t believe that the idolatry of sensitivities is an exception here.

      • Chris E says:

        Alastair –

        I’ll reply to your other comments later, as I don’t have the time to compose a complete reply, However in reference to this:

        “However, those responding to Pastor Wilson made some fairly serious accusations against him. He was spoken of as a misogynist or woman-hater and a racist. It was suggested that he was supporting rape culture and that he was all about power.”

        Those responding to Pastor Wilson were not all of equivalent prominence – there’s a difference between a post on a well trafficed blog versus an anonymous comment, I think you’d agree that the more extreme statements tended to be expressed in the latter rather than former venue. I’m equally sure I could dig up extreme statements from Wilson ‘supporters’ if I trawled the comment sections of RHE linked blogs.

        I’ll reply on the traditional vs contemporary education later. But just to pick up on one more thing:

        “Insults really don’t function in the same way in modern discourse to the way that they function in more traditional combative discourse. One doesn’t fight a duel because someone has hurt your sensitivities, but rather because they have impugned your honour.”

        I think you are underestimating the ease with which sensitivities become a matter of honour. Consider the insult of ‘liar’ or ‘coward’ to see what I mean – I simply don’t think the two are as disjoint as you are trying to make them, and growing up in an honour based culture (not that makes me much of an expert in itself) I’ve seen the former rapidly become the latter.

      • Thanks for the response, Chris.

        In fact, all of the claims that I referenced came from very well-trafficked blogs, not just from anonymous comments. The posts in question were widely shared. See this or this for example. RHE also suggested that it was all about power, ‘overtly misogynistic’, and spoke of it as a ‘throwing pearls to swine’ situation.

        There is certainly an overlap between matters of sensitivity and matters of honour. However, sensitivities and honour are handled differently in their respective cultures. One has to stand up for one’s honour. One has to respond to hurt honour by demonstration of it. Merely shouting ‘I’m offended!’ isn’t an argument at all, but is more likely an admission that one doesn’t have an argument, little more than a capitulation. You prove your honour by showing that you have the goods with which to defend it: proof of character, arguments in your defence, and the backbone and strength with which to fight for it. If someone calls you a liar, you challenge the person to prove that charge, and you argue against him, bring forward witnesses, fight to disprove his case, or press him to withdraw his malicious slander. If you can’t do this, then the charge rightly sticks.

        However, the culture of offence functions differently. If someone calls you a liar, you protest that your sensitivities have been hurt, complain that your opponent is a nasty bully, or throw unsupported allegations back. Within the culture of offence, you don’t need to disprove the charge and demonstrate its falsity. It is not the falsity of the charge that is being protested, but the insensitivity of it, which is a different thing entirely. The concern of the offence culture is not really that false and dishonouring witness not be borne against one’s neighbour, but that his feelings not be hurt. Feelings per se are not protected in an honour culture, just truth and sound reputation. If you cannot demonstrate that you have the truth and virtuous character on your side, your feelings are not protected.

  18. Chris E says:

    In reality within a “culture of honour” it’s not the truth claims of the insults that are necessarily being contested, it’s the very fact that those insults were made, it’s almost the existence of the insults that have to be somehow expunged.

    Secondly, the “culture of honour” simply rests on a “culture of offence”, keep being ‘insensitive’ with someone and they will eventually start to escalate via insults, after all, there is a pecking order implied in those merely ‘insensitive’ remarks. It’s this escalation that may sometimes be lacking (in this case arguably from Wilson himself). One isn’t free to continuously insult, whether in the service of rhetoric or anything else.

    • Thanks for the comment, Chris.

      I think that a number of threads have become entangled here – largely my fault – and they need to be separated.

      I introduced the idea of the ‘culture of honour’ to distinguish the way that duels operate from the way that modern sensitivities operate within a ‘culture of offence’. However, a ‘culture of honour’ is not really the same thing as the traditional form of discourse. Although the traditional form of discourse often occurred within cultures of honour, the two things should not be confused.

      The most important feature of the form of discourse that I am describing (loosely referred to as ‘traditional’) is that it separates persons from ideas. It does this in two key ways. First, it creates bounded spaces of ritual rhetorical combat. These places of bounded combat ensure that the conflict of debate is carried out in a heterotopic realm of playfulness and histrionics. The rhetoric of this realm is very strong, but never deadly serious: the rivalries of the field of debate do not generally spill over into regular interaction. Second, it cultivates thick-skinned individuals, who have secure identities, don’t take things personally, and have the strength, wits, and reason to stand up for their ideas.

      Occasionally conflict overflows these common places of ritual rhetorical combat and a more fundamental rhetoric of opposition takes its place. When this occurs the opposition is far sharper and more serious. I think that the way that Jesus speaks with the Pharisees is a good example of this more serious and less playful opposition taking the place of more playful opposition.

      Within the culture of offence and sensitivity, people cannot separate person from idea in the same manner. Discourse lacks the same playfulness and detachment from personal opposition. Rhetorical combat is taken personally, tackles on the playing field of debate are perceived as attacks on one’s fundamental identity and indications of one’s opponents’ animus towards you.

      This histrionic, playful, and heterotopic character of discourse is clearly present in Pastor Wilson’s treatment of RHE et al. Pastor Wilson approaches the discourse more as a game played on a field, less as a serious personal conflict. His ridicule of RHE has the character of humorous and hyperbolic trash-talking. When your opponents on the playing field of debate are advancing ridiculous opinions, lack the facts, arguments, or skill with which to defend them, and are indulging in debating gamesmanship (e.g. crumpling over in feigned agonizing pain at every ideological tackle) to avoid engaging with your arguments, ridicule is an appropriate response. It also serves the important purpose of exposing the opposing side for the unreasonable cowards or weaklings that they are, making bold or dangerous statements, but unprepared or unable to defend those claims against challenge.

      While the rhetoric in such cases is dismissive, there are other cases where worthy challengers who hold dangerous positions face more aggressive and less playful forms of rhetoric. However, the primary cast of discourse at all levels is agonistic, even when differences are friendly.

      In the case of RHE and others like her, however, the rhetoric and the opposition are taken seriously and the playfulness is absent. If they are tackled they feel attacked and personally affronted. This is the key difference. The heterotopic, ludic, and histrionic character of discourse that one finds in Pastor Wilson is quite absent in their approach, as they take things personally and make things personal.

  19. Pingback: On Triggering and the Triggered, Part 3 | Alastair's Adversaria

  20. I have just posted a follow-up post on patterns of bad reading.

  21. Pingback: Of Triggering and the Triggered, Part 4 | Alastair's Adversaria

  22. Just posted part 4 – on the culture of offence – here. It’s a (very, very) long one!

  23. Lucient says:


    I have read your first post in this series and just read this one and all the comments (I skimmed the last two) and I must say that I like where this is going and would like to continue to discuss, not only the way to debate, but also the different views that are clearly non-existent in the discourse and blogs. I, for one, am not a scholar, and I don’t believe you have to be one either, but I could see both sides points of views. However, I didn’t necessarily agree with one particular side and when you go to express that, you are seen as the enemy to which ever side you point out particular points you don’t agree with. I’m looking forward to reading and interacting in the future because I, for one, WILL say things the wrong way or could be taken the wrong way and instead of being insulted and called this and that without pointing out what I’ve said or done wrong, I’m set loose to do it again unless I’m scared into not doing anything at all. Makes sense?

    • Thanks for the comment, Lucient!

      I think that you raise another important issue here: holding back on judgment, being patient and non-reactive, gives people the time and space to learn and to sharpen their thinking, without feeling that they are walking through a minefield.

  24. Pingback: Triggering and the Triggered in the American Conservative and some further thoughts | Alastair's Adversaria

  25. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2011-2012 | Alastair's Adversaria

  26. Pingback: The New Inquisitors | Panther Red

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