On Triggering and the Triggered, Part 3

Within this post I will continue my analysis of the debate surrounding the words of Pastor Douglas Wilson’s that Jared Wilson posted over a week ago. I have already blogged twice on the subject – here and here. Both of these posts have provoked extensive discussion, with over 230 comments between the two of them. Do take a look. I now intend to move on to the question of reading.

In one of his initial responses to the comments on the Gospel Coalition website, Pastor Wilson made the following remark:

Anyone who believes that my writing disrespects women either has not read enough of my writing on the subject to say anything whatever about it or, if they still have that view after reading enough pages, they really need to retake their ESL class.

At least since this comment, the question of the duties of the reader relative to the writer and the competence of Pastor Wilson’s critics in reading and interpretation has been a key theme in this discussion (both Matthew Lee Anderson and Steve Holmes raise some important concerns and questions here).

I can relate to Wilson’s frustration, having had my positions egregiously misrepresented by poor readers on several occasions. At such points we are faced with a choice: do we focus on fighting for the accurate interpretation of our original words, or do we prioritize being heard and winning our opponents over? While the latter is generally a more productive way of achieving our ends within a particular debate, there are times when I believe that it is thoroughly appropriate and wise to seek to discredit bad interpreters of your past or present statements. This discrediting is primarily for the sake of other people listening in, who are to my mind frequently the most important people in any debate.

While I will be touching directly upon the substance of the recent actual debate between Jared, Pastor Wilson, and their critics at various points, my principal concern in these posts is to initiate and engage in a ‘meta-debate’, rather than the debate that most others have been engaging in. For this reason, at this point I will deal quite directly with the issue of bad reading.

The forms of bad reading that I will be identifying here are hardly limited to one side of this or any other debate, although they do tend to be clustered together, and in this debate I believe that they are especially present among Pastor Wilson’s critics. However, while I believe that the points that I make below will be highly relevant and illuminating to anyone trying to understand the form that the recent debate took and why there was such a failure of communication, my primary goal is to alert us to what bad reading looks like, what causes and drives it, so that we will begin to recognize when it is occurring in a debate, but perhaps most especially in ourselves. Such faults should first be addressed in our own practice. I would encourage everyone reading the following to do so with an eye primarily to themselves.

Challenging the Reader

Not infrequently, I have seen the writer who protests that they have been misinterpreted being told that the full responsibility for being understood is theirs – they are the one trying to communicate their thoughts after all! This approach neglects to reckon with the existence of hostile and uncharitable, lazy, hasty and careless, unskilled or illiterate, and reactive interpreters. I believe that a few minutes spent reading the posts and the comments in this controversy will make apparent that this dust-up is sadly replete with such individuals.

In many cases, such bad interpreters need to be challenged and discredited as interpreters: merely challenging certain of their mistaken interpretations, as one might do with a regular interpreter, may not be sufficient. They give bad interpretations because they do not have the necessary virtues or skills of a good interpreter. Even a technically correct interpretative conclusion arrived at by such an individual can be a bad one, as the process whereby it was reached is frequently flawed. I believe that we should be more alert to and prepared for the activity of such persons.

At this point I want to introduce you all to a rogue’s gallery of bad readers. With a better knowledge of their appearance, contexts, and behaviour you will be equipped to notice them when you encounter them in the wild.

The Hostile or Uncharitable Reader

The hostile interpreter is the individual who is determined to present his opponents in the worst possible light, failing to hold this instinct in check with careful and rigorous interpretative engagement. While there is nothing amiss with engaging with someone’s position in order to find holes, or in arriving at a position that is staunchly antithetical and opposed to that of one’s interlocutor, such positions are only justified in the presence of fair, reasoned, and rigorous interpretative engagement with the position that you are opposing.

For instance, from my perspective on this recent debate, many of Pastor Wilson’s critics seemed to display a personal animus towards complementarian viewpoints, an animus frequently vented in the absence of reasoned engagement with their defenders or careful justification of the antagonistic posture taken. Complementarian viewpoints were typically represented by their opponents as positions in which men ‘rule over’, ‘seek power over’, or ‘dominate’ women and indiscriminately classed with all other forms of ‘patriarchy’. Anyone who knew complementarian positions better would realize that, for all of their faults, they generally explicitly declare ‘ruling over’ and ‘power’ and ‘domination’ oriented hierarchies to be completely antithetical to that for which they are standing, and present their position to be diametrically opposed to much that typically appears under the category of ‘patriarchy’.

As Christians, called to believe the best of each other, we should conclude that our opponents are driven by ill-will only with the greatest reluctance. In all probability, your opponent isn’t the God-hating feminist or the woman-oppressing, rape culture-supporting patriarchalist that you might presume them to be. Most of our opponents are neither evil nor stupid, but well-intentioned and intelligent. In our presumption of malice or gross ignorance we usually display our inability to adopt an imaginative receptivity to the other person’s perspective, and manifest a failure in one of the most basic tasks of true interpretation.

The Lazy Reader

The lazy reader is usually someone who lacks the patience to engage with a writer or interlocutor to whose thought or opinion they give little weight. Lazy readers are often people who give little weight to any opinion other than their own, so they are poor readers of other writers from their own camps too. Prejudices and preconceptions will largely suffice. Reading is hasty and largely concerned with trying to gather sufficient cues to place the writer in one of the pre-existing pigeonholes that one has established, independent of close engagement. For the lazy reader, a statement such as ‘oh, he’s a complementarian/Catholic/liberal/Republican!’ suffices as basis to dispense with the need for further thinking, and to justify the mobilization of all of the prejudices, preconceptions, and judgments already associated with whatever label is applied.

In such a manner, lazy readers generally inoculate themselves against surprise or new insight from all quarters, as their approach is fundamentally inimical to anything that might disrupt the tidiness of their ideological taxonomies. They read merely to reaffirm what they already know.

Lazy readers will still typically throw out strong statements, without bothering to back them up. As the laziness as often as not arises from an overvaluation of or overconfidence in their opinions or those of their own camp, we should not be surprised to find that they are often the most vocal of all. Their laziness is less a willingness to remain in an agnostic ignorance that admits the fact that it is unqualified to have an opinion than it is a conviction that they already know. Once a lazy reader has achieved their end of pigeonholing you, further engagement is virtually impossible.

The Hasty Reader

Hasty readers are closely related to lazy readers in their carelessness. Constantly feeling pressed to have an opinion, hasty readers rush to premature conclusions, failing adequately to process the facts and argumentation beforehand. In my previous post I spoke of the ‘speed of thought’ online. The problem, however, is that thought can only move so fast: the demand for speed comes at the expense of reflection, meditation, and careful and considered judgment.

The recent hue and cry about Pastor Wilson’s words illustrated the manner in which a prima facie case can be regarded by many in such situations as sufficient basis for judgment. Anyone protesting this was presumed to be supporting the indefensible. No time or process was provided for testing the prima facie case. Hardly anyone showed any indication of close interpretative engagement with the rest of Pastor Wilson’s book or his other writings before casting judgment on him. Even the time to engage carefully with Jared and Pastor Wilson’s rebuttals, with the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty, was not taken. Whatever the justice or not of the claims against Pastor Wilson, the whole matter was treated with the reckless abandon and impatient urgency of the lynch mob.

When you are expected to have an instant opinion on every surfacing issue, you will lack the necessary time to devote to the collection of facts and the processing of argumentation. The heat of the antagonisms do not afford us the time or space within which to approach matters with the sort of open minds that can engage with the differing viewpoints carefully and receptively, leading to a time when we are equipped to make up our minds. Rather our minds are already made up, almost at the outset.

Online conflicts can flare up in a matter of minutes, and often tend to die down within a week. Unless you get on the bandwagon more or less immediately, you will find yourself left far behind. This unhealthy time-pressure drives us to scamper through a minimal amount of data and argumentation as fast as we can, seeking to garner some basis upon which to make up our minds. Unsurprisingly, this tends to lead to a careless handling of the evidence, and an overreliance upon our prejudices. The need to make up our minds takes priority over the responsibility to discern, engage with, test, and weigh the relevant evidence and arguments: sometimes the evidence and the arguments do not provide us with sufficient evidence to arrive at a conclusion. Yet seldom are we granted the opportunity to delay judgment, or the right to be agnostic or undecided.

The initial reading will as often as not set the tone of the conversation that follows. For this reason, it is imperative that our initial readings be considered ones, rather than hasty and careless. Had the pace and pressure of this debate calmed down, it might have been easier for people to arrive at careful and reasoned readings. Imagine if all parties had a week to gather a case and respond, with a moratorium on any sort of public accusation or judgment until this time period had elapsed. I suspect that with cooler heads, a firmer and broader apprehension of the relevant facts and evidence, and more closely reasoned arguments, many of the instant judgments that characterized this debate would have been considerably moderated.

The Unskilled or Illiterate Reader

There are a large number of people who are lacking in basic skills of literacy and yet are nonetheless very well represented and vocally present online. Remarking on the recent brouhaha, Josh Strodtbeck (who very strongly disagrees with Pastor Wilson) comments upon the poor reading comprehension exhibited by a type of person well-represented among Pastor Wilson’s critics:

Then there’s this other type of person. As nearly as I can tell, they seem to create collages in their mind as they read. Turns of phrase here and individual metaphors there get thrown into different places in the collage until they have what appears to them to be a fairly complete picture, then they react to the picture in more of a qualitative way (this reaction is usually emotional since they don’t really do “critiquing logic” or “refuting ideas”). This sort of person really doesn’t do very well at all with complex writing, especially writing that goes in directions they’re not used to. In my experience, explaining what I wrote to a person like this is a lost cause. I inevitably find myself repeating ideas over and over, quoting my own text, and dissecting my own grammar to prove to this sort of person that I said what I actually said. If your audience is this sort of person, you need to be extremely careful in how you choose your individual words and phrases, or you will set off a negative emotional reaction that makes further communication impossible.

Over the years this same thing has struck me too, and I have pondered how best to account for it. This impressionistic approach to the determination of meaning seems to forestall any process of interpretation: the meaning is vaguely intuited rather than carefully interpreted from the text.

In a fascinating piece on the subject of literacy, Ventakesh Rao challenges the common identification of literacy with the skills of reading and writing. Reading and writing, he argues, are merely mechanical and instrumental skills, distinct from and no guarantee of genuine linguistic and hermeneutical proficiency (which can exist in the absence of the mechanical skills). True literacy is manifested in the ability to exposit and condense texts. Exposition is ‘a demonstration of contextualized understanding of the text, skill with both form and content, and an ability to separate both from meaning in the sense of reference to non-linguistic realities.’ Condensation is ‘the art of packing meaning into the fewest possible words.’

Rao argues that an excessive focus upon the mechanical skills has led to a neglect and decay of true literacy. While some might believe that the loss of literacy is most in evidence in the slang of some demotic patois, Rao argues that it is no less present at the highest levels of education, where people’s inability to think with language is often shockingly apparent. The language of such illiterate readers and writers is a ‘language of phrases borrowed and repeated but never quite understood.’

Words and phrases turn into mechanical incantations that evoke predictable responses from similarly educated minds. Yes there is meaning here, but it is not precise meaning in the sense of a true literary culture. Instead it is a vague fog of sentiment and intention that shrouds every spoken word. It is more expressive than the vocalizations of some of our animal cousins, but not by much.

Curiously, I find the language of illiterate (reading-writing sense) to usually be much clearer. When I listen to some educated people talk, I get the curious feeling that the words don’t actually matter. That it is all a behaviorist game of aversion and attraction and basic affect overlaid on the workings of a mechanical process. That mechanical process is enacted by instrumental meaning-machines manufactured in schools to generate, and respond appropriately to, a narrow class of linguistic stimuli without actually understanding anything.

Rao’s description of educated illiteracy was one of the first things that came to my mind when reading many of the comments in response to Pastor Wilson’s statements. Whatever the justice of the claims made against him, the engagement with Pastor Wilson’s text seldom rose beyond the most rudimentary level of linguistic engagement. Any demonstration of the skills of comprehension involved in discerning and articulating the central claims of a passage and the progression and weighting of an argument seemed to be largely absent, as was one of the ability to unpack the meaning of a condense text. The ‘interpretation’, such that it was, was very much along the lines of what Rao describes: a behaviouristic ‘game of aversion and attraction and basic affect’ involving a ‘vague fog of sentiment and intention that shrouds every … word.’

Perhaps this was particularly clear in the way that the interaction seldom seemed to move beyond the smallest decontextualized soundbites: isolated words or brief phrases. Words like ‘colonize’, ‘conquer’, and ‘egalitarian’ seemed to be fixated upon, but no truly literate engagement with the text seemed to occur. These words were processed impressionistically and behaviouristically, rather than by seeking to understand what they might convey within the context of the broader passage and book, or how they might function within the greater argument.

So, for instance, Rachel Held Evans writes:

Wilson contrasts this “God-ordained” relationship of authority and submission to that of an “egalitarian pleasure party,” which I can only assume refers to a sexual relationship characterized by mutual pleasure, mutual authority, mutual submission, and mutual respect—which sounds a lot more desirable to me than being conquered and colonized.

Rather than any attempt to discern what the word might mean in its broader context, there is an unsupported assumption that Pastor Wilson is taking especial aim at a Christian form of egalitarianism, which is actually far from clear in the passage itself, and rather unlikely when read in terms of the book as a whole. Having not read the book (as was obvious from various other comments that she made) Rachel could, as she puts it, ‘only assume’. The depressing thing is that such unsupported assumptions are given any weight at all.

In the same way, while ‘conquer’ and ‘colonize’ may have primarily violent meanings, is it really the case that there are no non-violent metaphorical senses in which they can be employed? I suggest that more literate forms of engagement with language in general, the symbolism of the biblical and literary canon, the offending passage in question, and with the book within which it is found would suggest that there are non-objectionable senses of those words that can make sense in the context.

In the past I have suggested a game of ‘theological taboo’ and of practicing the art of unpacking and repacking our terminological ‘suitcases’ as a means of overcoming the illiteracy that dogs many of our theological conversations. Deprived of the behaviouristic cues and partisan totems of our favourite terminology and shibboleths, and challenged to learn to unpack and repack our beliefs, we will be forced to think with language in a manner that ‘illiterate’ readers don’t and can’t.

The Reactive Reader

The illiterate reader approaches language as something used but never quite understood, as trained or conditioned response to linguistic stimuli: in particular areas, the reactive reader can take this to the next level. I discuss reactivity in my posts on Edwin Friedman’s book, A Failure of Nerve, and will be relying heavily upon his helpful analysis in that which follows.

The reactive reader is characterized by a particular sort of emotional posture relative to the discourse or their opponents. They are unable to self-differentiate from those with whom they are having the conversation, or from the subject matter, to act decisively from out of a clear sense of who they are and what they stand for, distinct from the people, ideas, and environment that surrounds them. When persons can’t regulate themselves, they are vulnerable to all of the events, ideas, persons, and emotions that surround them and will react on a hair-trigger. They are connected to these things within a sort of ‘feeling plasma’, in which they are constantly being bombarded by the emissions of everyone and everything else. They are triggered by external stimuli, rather than acting agentically and determinedly from a self-defined identity.

Reactive readers can have a number of characteristics. First, they are unable to differentiate themselves from other persons. They create polarized oppositions with other parties very easily, fixate upon such rivalries, and determine their identities relative to these opponents. They cannot easily abide the near presence of someone who strongly believes something different to them, or who holds that they are wrong on an important matter. Feeling threatened by such a person, they react with a violent opposition to them. They almost always seem to be either aggressive or flinching, or poised to be so. If such a person feels threatened by you, it really doesn’t matter what you say: it will be virtually impossible for anything that you say to get through to them.

Second, they are unable to differentiate themselves from the subject matter of the conversation. Idea and person are so tightly bound together for them that when an idea that they hold dear is attacked or challenged they will take it personally. This makes debate almost impossible, as they constantly feel assaulted by their opponents, reacting in a manner driven by emotional reactivity, rather than reason (often even on occasions when reason might initially appear to be present).

The triggered person is a particular case of this. The triggered person is, for some reason or other (often on account of prior abuse, for instance), unable to differentiate themselves from some particular person, subject matter, object, or place, continually reacting rather than responding to it. As soon as the trigger is introduced into their environment, they lose true rational and agentic control of their response. Their actions become determined by their surroundings, rather than by their selves.

Third, they are fixated on ‘symptoms’, failing to appreciate the more underlying problem of the reactive emotional processes that bind them to the issues in question. They are crisis-driven. Even though the matter in question may be important, they are psychologically incapable of getting it in perspective. Reactive persons who move away from a particular Christian tradition can, for instance, remain bound up with the tradition that they left. They devote a great deal of their effort and attention to attacking the tradition and its positions, unwittingly defining their identity over against their former background. On account of their reactivity, they will almost invariably caricature wildly and blow up issues out of all proportion.

Fourth, reactive persons raise the temperature of a debate very quickly. As they cannot establish a clear self-identity distinct from other persons and ideas, they continually feel threatened and attacked. As they develop fixations, they lose all perspective on situations. They have an exceedingly limited repertoire of responses, and almost all of these responses undermine debate. When faced with an ideological opponent or a threatening idea they tend either to run for cover, or react aggressively. When they react, they tend to make things very personal, throwing around ad hominem terms and branding their opponents as ‘misogynists’, ‘racists’, ‘homophobes’, ‘liberals’, etc., unable to distinguish between disagreement and personal attack.

Fifth, reactive persons in reactive situations take everything incredibly seriously. They are completely lacking in a sense of humour and the ability to take themselves, their opponents, the subject matter, or the situation lightly when appropriate. They don’t get jokes and can’t make them. The reactive person is paranoid. People who lack the ability to self-differentiate tend to suffer from a sort of anxiety and easily succumb to conspiracy theory mindsets. The slightest turn of phrase, alteration in tone of voice, or choice of word will be imbued with intense meaning. They read intention into everything, finding it incredibly difficult to entertain the possibility that others weren’t giving full weight to every word used, that they might have spoken carelessly, that they might not have meant what they said, that their words might have been misunderstood, or that they didn’t intend to convey anything by a particular action. Lacking playfulness and a sense of humour, the reactive person does not have the ability to see things differently: their minds grasp onto a particular construction of the situation with a fevered intensity, and they are psychologically unable to try on different framings or perspectives for size.

Sixth, reactive persons play to weakness, and encourage all to adapt to those with the lowest levels of maturity and self-differentiation. Reactive persons will frequently use sensitivity as a means to get their way and gain control over debates and over their communities. Everyone has to order themselves around those who are least willing or able to take responsibility for their actions and emotions. Friedman writes:

One of the most extraordinary examples of adaptation to immaturity in contemporary American society today is how the word abusive has replaced the words nasty and objectionable. The latter two words suggest that a person has done something distasteful, always a matter of judgment. But the use of the word abusive suggests, instead, that the person who heard or read the objectionable, nasty, or even offensive remark was somehow victimized by dint of the word entering their minds. This confusion of being “hurt” with being damaged makes it seem as though the feelings of the listener or reader were not their own responsibility, or as though they had been helplessly violated by another person’s opinion. If our bodies responded that way to “insults,” we would not make it very far past birth.

He goes on:

The use of abusive rather than objectionable has enabled those who do not want to take responsibility for their own efforts to tyrannize others, especially leaders, with their “sensitivity.” … It has been my impression that at any gathering, whether it be public or private, those who are quickest to inject words like sensitivity, empathy, consensus, trust, confidentiality, and togetherness into their arguments have perverted those humanitarian words into power tools to get others to adapt to them.

While healthy forms of adaptation encourage people to become more mature, more independent, to develop thicker skins and greater self-control, societies built around those who are reactive privilege weakness and sap persons of strength. The more that people get their way by claiming that they have been offended or that their feelings have been hurt, the less likely they are to develop control over their feelings and self-differentiation, and the more likely they are to become hyper-sensitive to the slightest shadow of possible offence.

None of this is to suggest that the feelings of very sensitive persons should be treated with little regard, especially those who have suffered abuse and mistreatment. It is rather to make clear that we should be helping and encouraging such persons to develop thicker skins and more control over their feelings. One doesn’t encourage the development of strength by privileging weakness – quite the opposite!

Seventh, reactive groups display a herding instinct. Such groups fuse into a sort of ‘homogenized togetherness’. They cannot tolerate the differentiation of other parties, and so everyone is pressured to adapt to those with the least self-differentiated identity. Independent and self-defined voices can’t be tolerated. As a result people lose their selfhood in the group, and tend to stampede with the herd. Friedman observes, ‘in order to be “inclusive,” the herding [group] will wind up adopting an appeasement strategy toward its most troublesome members while sabotaging those with the most strength to stand up to the troublemakers.’ Reactive groups love to characterize those who won’t give in to the immature members within them as ‘insensitive’, ‘lacking in empathy’, ‘uncooperative’, ‘cruel’, or ‘selfish’.

With the loss of differentiation, there is an incredibly fertile context for Girardian mimetic desire, rivalries, and scapegoating. The ideal scapegoat is someone who is similar, but not too similar to the rest of the group. Unsurprisingly, reactive communities can ensure their identities through scapegoating the individual in their midst who is self-differentiated and doesn’t just dissolve into the mass, so effective leaders will often find themselves crucified. It was the experience of the self-differentiated individual in the reactive group that Kipling described in the words ‘if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…’. Anyone who sees things differently or dissents from the group opinion is ripe for scapegoating. Alternatively, reactive communities find unity in reacting against and symbolically scapegoating a rival demonized community to whom they bear some sort of relation. Without such a shared opposition, the unity of the undifferentiated group would soon collapse into vicious internecine violence.

In sum, reactive and triggered persons are bad interpreters. They typically close down challenging conversations: public discourse atrophies in a context where reactive people hold sway. They think in polarizing fashions, caricaturing and demonizing their opposition. They cannot detach themselves sufficiently from the subject matter to withstand debate. They form stampeding herds that will crush those who seek to withstand them. The can only take things seriously and lack the imagination and playfulness to frame situations differently. They make things incredibly personal. They seek to employ their uncontrolled sensitivities to tyrannize the conversation.

Reactive and triggered persons cannot handle nuance, rhetorical hyperbole, irony, humour, linguistic playfulness, or vigorous debate. They respond to words behaviouristically, rather than approaching them interpretatively. The reactive or triggered person perceives everything in black and white terms and invests all of the statements of other parties with a level of meaning that admits no reserve or shading. You are either for them or against them.

A Few Observations

1. In my previous post, I commented on the democratization of discourse. As they have become less bounded and moderated, there has been a proliferation of bad readers within many of our conversations. While this may have made the conversations more inclusive, it has often rendered them considerably less effective. Despite the assurances of our education systems, most people lack the levels of literacy and self-differentiation necessary to engage in effective debate. For the health and survival of our public discourses, I believe that we need to limit or end the direct participation of bad readers as much as we possibly can, and provides means of advocacy for them instead, where their interests and perspectives can be represented by gifted and trained readers.

2. Triggered people are the very last people to go to if one wants to determine meaning. Triggered people are virtually incapable of engaging with a triggering text interpretatively, even if its author is completely innocent of bad intent. Nevertheless, the triggered reader will fairly frequently impute meaning to the text and intention to the author in keeping with the triggering effect that they experienced. For this reason, conversations surrounding triggered persons will often have a nasty and ad hominem character to them. When they claim too much in such a fashion, the core issue of triggering language is in danger of being dismissed along with the false and unreasonable accusations that typically accompany it. Those dialoguing with triggered persons need to recognize this. It is fruitless to debate meaning and intention unless you have dealt with the fundamental issue of the triggering. Those surrounding triggered persons should also recognize this tendency, hold their triggered friends back from the front line of debate, and represent their central concern in a manner that avoids the demonization, polarization, and hyperbolic accusations that typically result when triggered persons present and press their own case.

3. Dialoguing with reactive persons is incredibly difficult. They react viscerally rather than responding as rational and reflective agents. It is akin to trying to handle a cornered animal. In order to interact with them, one must first master one’s own reactivity and keep a cool head. One needs to avoid any sudden movements and ensure that they don’t feel at all threatened. They must be the ones to make all of the major moves. You coax them out with non-confrontational and inviting questions. You can’t press your advantage home, but must wait for them to come to you. Of course, while there are occasions when such forms of discourse are important, it is not healthy to have such persons in important discourse.

4. Few of the matters mentioned above have anything directly to do with intelligence or intentions. Well-meaning and highly intelligent individuals can be reactive or ‘illiterate’ readers. Most of us have been hasty, lazy, or overly hostile readers at some point in our lives.

A Concluding Thought

We often tend to regard the virtues appropriate to a practice such as reading as fairly particular to it. However, if what I have presented within this post is correct, the art of becoming a good reader is one that requires an extensive and intensive development of character and the cultivation of some of the core virtues of the Christian faith. The person who lacks this character and these virtues is a bad reader, no matter how many technical skills they may possess. The bad readers listed above are primarily marked by particular psychological traits and behaviours, rather than by an absence of technical ability. Perhaps the best way to become a good reader is to allow one’s character to be formed by the gospel. Conversely, when we display the characteristics of bad readers, it is often a revelation of the sin that remains in our lives, sin to be responded to with a penitent faith.

The loving reader strives to believe the best of others and is thereby equipped to perform the fundamental interpretative task of perspective-taking.

The humble reader is not exalted too highly in their own opinion and consequently listens far more carefully and attentively to other voices in the conversation. They are aware of the possibility that their readings and positions may be wrong, and are open to being challenged.

The self-controlled reader overcomes their reactivity, commanding their emotions and learning to respond with thoughtful and discerning judgment after careful interpretation. They thus avoid polarizations.

The patient reader is willing to delay judgment and wait for the right time to make up their mind. Their patience provides the time within which thoughtful consideration and interpretation can occur.

The unafraid reader escapes the fear and the paranoia of the reactive or triggered reader.

The hopeful reader has eyes open for happy surprises possibilities, and convergences beyond present polarizations.

The joyful reader has a freedom, playfulness, and imagination that enables them to frame things differently and not become locked within the driven ruts of the debate.

The kind reader puts the most generous construction on the words of others, preventing disputes from being blown out of proportion.

The gentle reader is forgiving of the human failings of writers, and recognizes that others sometimes make mistakes, express themselves poorly, or don’t fully mean what they say.

The peaceful reader reads others in a non-hostile and receptive manner, leaning in favour of those interpretations that foster unity.

The trusting reader takes others at their words, and seeks to avoid imputing intentions to them and meanings to their words that they deny.

The long-suffering reader is prepared to go to considerable effort to read a person thoroughly and well and won’t merely hastily skim.

These virtues are formed, not by mere human effort, but through faith in Christ. As we take our bearings from him, this character – the character of a good reader – is worked out in us. As I will argue in later posts, the gifted reader is also generally an able leader. It is important to seek such virtuous readers, to surround ourselves with them, and to be formed by their leadership. While bad reading is highly contagious, good reading is also something that can be formed in us by the company that we keep. In attending to the connection between our character and our reading much needless pain and difficulty that we cause to ourselves and each other could be avoided.

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.
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48 Responses to On Triggering and the Triggered, Part 3

  1. Pingback: On Triggering and the Triggered, Part 2 | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. mattcolvin says:

    And now, taking a page from C.S. Lewis’ _An Experiment in Criticism_, let me ask you, what sort of reading do you think Doug Wilson’s blog encourages?

    • It seems to me that the type of reading engaged in by those we allow to lead us rubs off on us, which is why we need to be exceedingly careful in choosing such persons. I think that you can probably already guess my answer to your question.

    • Are you a regular reader of Wilson’s blog, Mr. Colvin? I only ask because Wilson seems incapable of writing more than 3 consecutive paragraphs without quoting C.S. Lewis.

      • Sergius, I think that Matt has been well acquainted with Pastor Wilson’s work for many years now. I think that the question he asks is a good one, which should be asked of all writers, even (perhaps especially?) fans of C.S. Lewis.

      • mattcolvin says:

        I am not. These days, I see Doug Wilson’s bloggings only when they appear in my friends’ Facebook feeds.

      • mattcolvin says:

        Not a regular reader, that is.

    • Monte Harmon says:

      Are you suggesting that Wilson only encourages one kind of reading in his blog? That he is so one dimensional that he only blogs for one kind of reader? Why not step out on a limb and suggest an answer to the question? Would I be out of place to suggest that at the very least this “sounds” like an insinuation that Wilson intends to confuse some or all of his readers?

      • Thanks for the comment, Monte.

        So far Matt has only asked the question. Although I think that it is intended to be loaded, I suspect that Matt’s answer (like mine) wouldn’t be quite as simple as you might presume. You will get a better idea of where I stand as these posts continue.

        However, for the time being, I will simply say that, for all of the things that I gained from it (and I definitely did gain much along the way), my experience of reading Pastor Wilson in the past did not make me a humbler or more generous reader, or someone more inclined to confess my faults and weaknesses. I have stopped reading people before, not because I have come to disagree with any particular element of their content, but because of the effect that they have upon my character (while I do not pretend that this wasn’t also in large measure attributable to the way that I used Pastor Wilson’s works, I don’t believe that it can be reduced to that). While I still read and appreciate some of Pastor Wilson’s writings on occasions, I consciously and purposefully took a step back from his work several years ago. I continue to have a great respect and appreciation for much that Pastor Wilson does, but he is someone of whom I am considerably more selective and reserved or critical in my reading nowadays.

      • Matt J. says:

        A few years ago, I quit reading World magazine, not because I disagreed with the content so much as I found I was so often discouraged and troubled by the experience. There is only so much “America is going to hell” exposes I can take. I have my wife and kids and my small sphere or work and friends to think about. I just found I couldn’t give proper attention to what I really cared about when I had the latest (well argued) doom and gloom story in the back of my mind. As much as I love his work, I’ve also had to do the same with Wendell Berry, to some degree.

        My reading of Wilson has been much the same as what Alastair described. I used to read everything, but I found I would sometimes walk away with a stinky attitude for hours afterwards. Now I just scan and only look closely at posts occasionally.

        On the flip side, I’ve found it’s worth reading Thomas Merton even when he just tows the RC line on a topic. His writing is so well crafted and he somehow manages to nearly always leave me feeling uplifted, even when he’s complaining about something. Go figure.

      • Matthew N. Petersen says:

        Matt J.

        Did I go to college with you? You lived Wallace, and were going to LFF at the time? Or am I thinking of a different Matt?

      • Matt J. says:

        Matthew Petersen:

        Yes, indeed! We also used to cross paths at Bucer’s in recent years, though I think we were each engrossed in our own business at those times. I hope life is good since you got married and moved away. 🙂

    • Sergius Martin-George says:

      Actually, I was attempting to make a joke — perhaps a poor one, and perhaps ill-advised given my unfamiliarity with An Experiment in Criticism. I apologise. I simply found the opening too tempting, as I easily weary of Wilson’s incessant quoting of Ambrose Beirce, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and various other writers known chiefly by their initials. (And speaking of initials, let’s not forget his constant hawking of the works of ‘N.D.’ Wilson).

      But seriously, gentlemen, it might be helpful to fill in the unitiated on the point that was being made, thus connected by the ‘Criticism’ piece and the reading habits of Wilson’s regular readers.

      • Matthew N. Petersen says:

        C. S. Lewis’ thesis in An Experiment in Criticism is that perhaps we should judge a book, not by it’s content or style, per se, but about how it invites the reader to read it. Thus a bad book is a book which inspires its readers to read it superficially, or merely for entertainment; whereas a good book is one which inspires its readers to read it deeply.

  3. Josh T. says:

    Alastair, thanks for making the effort to explain these various thoughts for us.

  4. Sergius Martin-George says:

    Thank you, Mr. Petersen. I believe it’s starting to make sense now. I note that you are a frequent commenter on Blog and Mablog. What do you think of Mr. Colvin’s question?

    • Matthew N. Petersen says:


      I did, however, find your satire of Pr. Wilson rather funny.

      • Matthew N. Petersen says:

        Let me flesh out that “nope”.

        I’ve been frustrated with him several times, so I’m not sure I can give an impartial answer. He definitely has some good things to say, though I don’t agree with him all that often. I think I was too influenced by Doug Jones and Dr. Leithart.

      • Sergius Martin-George says:

        Thanks, Matthew. We were going to do another “story” on this WilsonGate thing, but that’s at least on hold for the moment, as even satire can go too far at times when temperatures are running exceedingly high.

        From what I’ve seen on B&M, you are one of the few commenters there who consistently challenges him, yet who is not “anti-Wilson,” per se. The rarity of that type of give-and-take discourse is the main reason I considering reading that blog more of a chore than other blogs I check out regularly.

        You mention your siding with Leithart more than Wilson. What are the chief areas of disagreement between the two? I always considered him and Wilson to be “much of a muchness,” but perhaps my limited exposure to Leithart and his ideas is showing.

      • Sergius,

        Speaking for myself – and as a Leithart ‘fan’ – the following are some of the differences that I have found between Leithart and Pastor Wilson.

        Leithart is obviously very widely read: I don’t know many Reformed writers who engage with extensively outside of the tradition. That said, Leithart could probably do with more engagement within the tradition. Leithart’s wide range of interlocutors introduces you into a far broader conversation than Pastor Wilson’s does. Pastor Wilson has his authorities, but there is a far smaller range and most of them are dead, so one doesn’t get the impression that he opens himself up to the same degree of challenge and correction from a group of his peers.

        Within his broader conversation, Leithart’s voice is nowhere near as dominant as Pastor Wilson’s is in his narrower conversation. There is a greater modesty of rhetoric and expression that comes when you are not playing the part of the big fish in the small pond. While Leithart has many extremely appreciative readers, I don’t think that there is a personality cult surrounding him. He just doesn’t project himself in the same manner.

        Leithart’s interlocutors are scholars and his rhetoric is more academic. He does not employ the dismissive rhetoric of Pastor Wilson in the same way. He conclusions are less categorical. Reading Leithart I don’t get the same impression that he wants to do my thinking for me.

        Leithart’s thinking, while not without its problems, is not subordinate to smart rhetoric to the degree that Pastor Wilson’s can often appear to be. It is more academically rigorous than Pastor Wilson’s, and far less driven by ‘political’ positioning (on a number of issues, one feels that Pastor Wilson is more concerned by the church or social politics of the matter than he is with its complex truth). Pastor Wilson’s thought also seems to have, not an emotional but, a sort of dispositional reactivity to it. I fear that his antithesis may be overdrawn. He is far too quick to dismiss challenging thought without serious engagement. There is no invitation of give and take. Leithart strikes me as far more open and welcoming to insights arising from unusual places, less naturally suspicious of everything that moves, and more receptive to challenge and change.

        For a while now, I have wondered whether the best way to understand Pastor Wilson is as an individual who plays the role of the ‘alpha’. The alpha’s thought dominates in his territory and he strongly dismisses others with tough rhetoric. The alpha never backs down, even when he really should. The alpha must project extreme confidence in his thought and not brook dissent, even when closer examination reveals that the thought is often fairly unsupported.

        This can easily produce a sort of personality cult. It also stifles the most gifted minds of those within the context, as the ‘alpha’ doesn’t want to be challenged or displaced. The ‘alpha’ thinker can have an all or nothing approach to the reception of his thought. This makes appreciative dissent, critical development, and partial reception very difficult. It provides no easy way for people to outgrow the alpha’s intellectual leadership, develop independent minds, and relate to him more as a peer with whom they can have appreciative but critical engagement. I suspect that I am not the only one who took a big step back from Pastor Wilson when I started to arrive at this assessment.

      • Matthew N. Petersen says:

        I did say that I’m more influenced by Dr. Leithart, though I also mentioned Doug Jones. Perhaps I should take a minute to explain that comment. (It may also help to explain the comment about Dr. Leithart too.)

        I’m not sure that much remains of Doug Jones on the Internet, except for back editions of Credenda (His “Knowledge is…” articles are good). His blog http://scribblativeagincourting.wordpress.com/ is, as you can see, no longer open.

        But at one time, he seemed to be the trend setter at Christ Church. While Reformed, he represented a much more wholistic approach to the faith. Thus he published a series of articles in Credenda arguing for a participatory theory of knowledge. He was deeply appreciative of both Neitzsche, and of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. His political approach was far more “nonviolent” or “anabaptist”. More recently, (about six years ago) he began to be very critical of the American Empire, and a little more politically liberal. This led to divisions within the Christ Church elders, and ultimately, he resigned his eldership. His blog was taken down because it was thought it would cause divisions.

        It seems to me that many of Doug Wilson’s older thoughts were highly influenced by Jones. Particularly, Wilson’s thoughts about how we should engage the culture were highly influenced by Jones, and now with Jones gone, Wilson seems to be reverting to to strong form of conservatism. (This post from Wilson explains some of that http://www.dougwils.com/Retractions/embracing-the-curse.html.) While I didn’t agree with Jones on everything–I think I got an award at NSA for quoting Lewis to disagree with him–I appreciated his thought, and found much of it stimulating. Whereas Doug Wilson’s more recent thought seems ideologically predetermined. He’ll give you good reasons, but I’m never quite sure if the reasons came before the decision, or if the reasons support the decision he reached for ideological reasons.

        As an example, Jones would be, I believe, deeply suspicious of our capitalist structures, our advertising culture, “free markets” (which just means the best ads wins) and the homogenization of American culture; whereas Wilson seems to apologize for those things, or at least, for the structures that support them. That said, Wilson told me in a Lewis class that pastors ought to preach for the birds–though one wouldn’t guess it from his sermons–so there may be hidden reasons behind some of his arguments. That is, he may argue for capitalist structures sincerely believing that he is fighting for the birds, rather than (contrary to what his rhetoric suggests) not really caring about them. In which case, it is Jones’ rhetoric and explicit calls for protection of the poor etc. that are missed.

        The reason for explaining that comes from the link I provided. Doug Wilson said that he basically agrees with Dr. Leithart, though there are personality differences. (And then proceeded to publish a series of articles arguing against Dr. Leithart.)

        Doug said (in the link)

        We were moving apart earlier than we fully recognized at the time. What this means is that it appears clear to me (now) that he was intending some of the phrases in our co-written article in a way that I was not intending them. Because Doug and I were working so closely together, it also seems to me that some outsiders saw some of the implications of those words themselves more clearly than I did. Hence a retraction, at least from me, now clearly appears necessary.

        I think something similar may be happening regarding Dr. Leithart. Wilson honestly thinks they are doing basically the same thing, but they are not.

        I would propose three or four locations of real disagreement, and not just personality differences. (Though as Alastair said, those are not insignificant. Talk with Dr. Leithart, and he’ll help you see what’s good in what you’re saying. Talk to Pr. Wilson, and he’ll help you see what’s good in what he’s saying.)

        1) Dr. Leithart does not parse regeneration in the same way Pr. Wilson does. This difference is deep enough that Pr. Wilson was willing to spend a month blogging on it, and even got James Jordan to put up some replies. Specifically, Leithart takes a much more Lutheran approach to the Sacraments than Pr. Wilson does. For Dr. Leithart, when Christ says “This is my blood shed for you” it is. For Pr. Wilson, it may be. In The Baptized Body Dr. Leithart asks where our assurance of salvation can be found, explicitly locating it in baptism, and rejecting all the evangelical answers–answers Pr. Wilson accepts, while rejecting Dr. Leithart’s answer.

        2) A deep appreciation for the liturgical year. Several years ago there was something of a battle between Christ Church and Trinity over Lent. Pr. Wilson believes Lent is a bad idea. Dr. Leithart (and Trinity) believes it’s a good idea. Pr. Wilson decided to preach a series of sermons during Lent about how bad Lent was. It went over well in Christ Church, but not so well at Trinity. Even this last year, on Mardi Gras, Pr. Wilson posted something exhorting us to flaunt our disregard for Lent: http://bit.ly/Q6oCCR.

        Lent has been something of the epicenter of the conflict, but it extends to other areas as well. Dr. Leithart wears a collar. Dr. Leithart wears a robe in Church. Pr. Wilson, a suit. Dr. Leithart wears a suit when he visits Christ Church (when in Rome); Pr. Wilson wears a suit when he visits Trinity (do as you do at home).

        I suppose those examples may seem trivial, but there seems Dr. Leithart has a much deeper appreciation for Church history, particularly for “branches” of the Church besides the Reformed.

        3) Postmodernism: Dr. Leithart critically and appreciatively engages post modernism, whereas Pr. Wilson seems to think of it as an unmitigated evil (even when it’s attacking modernism, he seems to side with the moderns). Leithart did his doctorate under Milbank; when someone publishes something critiquing Milbank, Pr. Wilson responds with this: http://www.dougwils.com/Sex-and-Culture/Our-Bedlamite-Riot.html

        4) Appreciation of other Christians. Dr. Leithart has said that Pope John Paul II was the greatest Christian leader of the twentieth century. Pr. Wilson could hardly be said to share this sentiment–indeed after his death, he damned him with faint praise something along the lines of “he brought down communism, but was a Catholic.” Dr. Leithart deeply appreciates the Orthodox, while offering critiques. Pr. Wilson seems to think they are about as Christian as Ahab was Jewish.

      • Very helpful remarks, Matthew. I entirely agree.

        As I remarked in my earlier comment, I wonder whether much of the time Wilson is more concerned with the political alignments within the debate over the substance. A few years back, when he needed to underline his credentials as a card-carrying Reformed Christian, for instance, he posted a series of ridiculously nit-picking (and rather uninformed) posts on N.T. Wright. This struck me as akin to casting pebbles at the scapegoat in order to keep in with the scapegoaters. I really can’t imagine Leithart doing this.

        Pastor Wilson often strikes me as far more concerned to be seen to come down on the appropriate side of the debate than he is to explore the complexities of the subject matter. And when he does come down on a side, he doesn’t make the same allowances for committed and intelligent Christians who arrive at different conclusions. If and when the time came, it would be incredibly easy for Pastor Wilson to amplify the differences between his thought and that of Leithart, in much the same way as he did with Wright. I really don’t think that Pastor Wilson agrees with Leithart as much as he wants people to believe: they are just currently aligned. Where sides are more important than ideas, this is what things can boil down to.

        I have discussed this in various private contexts before, but there seems to be, as you say, a rather significant divide between Leithart and Wilson theologically. Leithart bears the firm image of James Jordan’s thought at many points, but brings that thought into a broader and more receptive conversation. I see far less of this ecumenical spirit and ideological humility in Pastor Wilson’s thought.

        Leithart’s high view of the Church and the sacraments seems to be lacking in Pastor Wilson’s thought. These aren’t isolated themes in either man’s thought, but shape their entire theologies. There are also different hermeneutical postures to the biblical text, Pastor Wilson hasn’t been influenced by Jordan to the same extent. My impression is that some of the theological fault lines that once existed between Greg Bahnsen and James Jordan still exist between Wilson and Leithart.

        Leithart is also politically far more interesting, not falling cleanly on one side of the political spectrum on many issues, rubbing both left and right wing readers up the wrong way, and questioning many popular conceptions of economics and politics in right wing Christian circles. I am currently reading his recent book Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective, which strikes me as the sort of honest, nuanced, and non-partisan treatment of the issues that Pastor Wilson would not produce.

  5. Sergius Martin-George says:

    Matthew & Alastair:

    Very helpful; thanks very much for those explanations.


  6. Another possibility to consider is that I labor hard to maintain unity with friends and colleagues, despite the industrious attempts of various third parties to get us into a fight.

    • Matthew N. Petersen says:

      I don’t believe I said you are fighting with anyone, just that you disagree. I suppose he could speak for himself, but I don’t think Alastair said that either–only that if you wanted to, you could make your disagreements with Dr. Leithart into major issues. Given your month long series of articles disagreeing with Dr. Leithart and James Jordan, I find it hard to see how you could deny this. You have significant disagreements with your friends. Dr. Leithart is, for instance, far more catholic than you, both in the sense of listening to more people, and in the sense of holding onto more tradition.

      Also, I should point out, that if I had said in 2004 (when Credenda 16/2 was published) that you and Doug Jones differed, you would have similarly denied it. And I would have been right.

      One wonders, however, what “laboring hard to maintain unity” means when the ones who are continuously making allowance are not the folks at Christ Church, but the folks at Trinity. If, for instance, Dr. Leithart posted as feisty things in defense of Lent as you post attacking it, it would not take many third parties to get everyone into a fight. Likewise, I’m pretty sure that if the folks at Trinity who disagree with you regarding, say the Environment, etc. were to blog so vociferously as you do, they would (probably rightly) receive pastoral talks telling them to tone down their rhetoric a little. Perhaps they would even have to close the site down in order to maintain unity.

      (You should remember that you speak with a pastoral voice, and people do not listen to the parishioner Doug Wilson, but to Pastor Wilson; so you do not have exactly a level playing field. If, say A.S. or C.A. or D.J. were to blog in opposition to you, no one would even notice. Whereas you are listened to almost as if you speak with the voice of Scripture. And you do very little to curtail that tendency, and it seems, much to play it up–for instance, pronouncing in the name of Christ what I should think of Obamacare.)

      Indeed, it seems that if Lent or the Environment, or public policy were as important questions as say Baptism is, a series of blog posts which take advantage of your charisma and office to effectively end the conversation would have essentially the same effect as a series of sermons which took advantage of your charisma and pastoral office to effectively end the conversation–the unity with your friends would be broken. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

      (Which is not to say that you intended to drive people away, or that you intend to end the conversation.)

    • Pastor Wilson, thanks for commenting.

      I have no desire to encourage a fight between you and Dr. Leithart. I am very pleased that you work together.

      My perspective is one of an outsider, for whom both your work and that of Dr. Leithart has been valuable and formative over the years. From this perspective, my concern is far less with how you relate together than it is with how you relate to a wider conversation beyond yourselves. My comments above are an expression of my concern and frustration that, as I see things, one so often feels when reading your work and perhaps even more so when interacting with your ‘fans’, that one must pick and consistently maintain ‘sides’ on a number of matters where differences aren’t clear-cut, issues are complex or adiaphorous, or where sufficient argumentation has yet to be provided in support of a position. This makes it very difficult to have the sort of balanced, non-partisan, and intense engagement with issues that I so value, and polarizes debates unnecessarily, forcing people to align with one person or party or other.

      It is the manner in which differences seem to be handled very differently when someone – such as Dr. Leithart – is on the same ‘side’ that makes me wonder whether many of these ‘sides’ aren’t merely arbitrary, bearing little clear correlation to the weight of the substance of debates, and whether it would be possible to extend the same degree of receptive openness to challenging conversation far beyond the bounds of one’s ‘side’, toning down the rhetorical opposition.

      I don’t think that any of us are your ‘opponents’ here. I certainly am not. If you look in this post, and those that precede it, especially in the comments, I believe that you will find that I have tried to give your position fair and charitable advocacy throughout. I have received my fair share of opposition and kickback for defending your perspective over the last week or two, being banned from commenting on RHE’s site, blocked on Twitter, and having to respond to over a hundred comments here and elsewhere. I would describe myself as a concerned but friendly critic.

      I do have clear and decided differences with you on a number of fronts, but I have a great admiration for your work, and am thankful for what God has done and is continuing to do through your ministry. It has been of considerable blessing to me in the past and I recognize a debt that continues into the present. The problem is that occupying a position of qualified appreciation and partial reception of your work is exceedingly difficult, when everything, from the fervour of your supporters to the character of your rhetoric and your seeming reluctance to give or share ground on a host of issues, is pushing people to play one or the other side in an ‘I am of Pastor Wilson’ game.

      These are my concerns: not to provoke discord between you and your friends and colleagues, but to encourage the extension of a more receptive and charitable critical interaction with people of differing positions beyond the bounds of a closely, and often arbitrarily, defined party. If I have misjudged you on these matters, I sincerely apologize, and request your forgiveness.

      • Alastair, you have indeed sought to be a fair-minded critic, and I wasn’t referring to the fact of your criticisms at all. No request for forgiveness needed.

    • Matthew N. Petersen says:

      I should add that though I disagree with some of your tactics, you loyalty is one of your virtues, and you do a very good job of fighting for your friends.

  7. Pingback: Non-Complimentary | Mucky Declarations

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

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

  10. Paul D Baxter says:

    Hey Al,
    It would be interesting to see you work on a reading skills educational program. I have been doing a lot of thought about effective communication over the last few years. In my work with ETS I get to spend hours at a time evaluating how well people have understood short lectures or question prompts (which isn’t nearly as interesting as it might sound). Of course the difference in motivation between people taking the TOEFL and people leaving comments on blogs is enormous. The former group is specifically being tested on their reading and listening comprehension, and they know that their score may affect their ability to attend a university of their choice. People leave comments on blogs because their level of emotional engagement has risen above the inertia point. No one assumes there will be any serious consequences to leaving a poorly thought out or off topic comment.

    BTW, I love the “theological taboo” piece. I think I missed it at the time or forgot having read it. I actually have been in that kind of practice myself. I assume it came to me the same way it came to you, by observing how certain shorthand terms often make poor substitutes for more unpacked discussion.

    • Very interesting point, Paul. I don’t think enough consideration is given to the fact that the factors that hinder people’s comprehension will often not be present in the ‘lab setting’ of the quiet classroom test, but emerge in the heated atmosphere of the dispute or in the reading of the offensive or provocative text. It is the mastery of the emotional factors rather than of mere reading techniques that is the challenge.

      These are issues that I have given thought to in my own experience, knowing how important it is to learn how to keep a cool head in heated debates. I have a number of tricks that I use to help me to resist mere reaction, things such as mentally focusing upon an imagined calm eavesdropper, in a manner that mediates my relationship to an angry party and helps me to resist the potential for mimetic rivalry in such a situation. I will also run posts by a calm and thoughtful friend before posting them on occasions. Putting a reactionary posture purely down to personality is something that I find problematic. We all have a tendency to react (admittedly, some more than others). However, there are skills that anyone can develop to go some way to overcoming this.

      • Monte Harmon says:

        I have observed that the tendency to react, as opposed to honestly interact, is often a conscious, even intentional behavior. The observation has already been made by a number of participants in the context of the recent 50-Shades explosion that there is a lack of charity evident in many comments. It is very clear in some cases that the reader/commenter seeks a way to interpret the prior statement as negatively as possible, is glad to find fault, and even takes pride in holding a superior view.

        Or to say it more simply, they want to fight.

        While not lessening the importance of your concerns and ideas about communication, it will not be possible to improve the flow of discussion if a significant portion of the participants actually desire to dominate those holding different views and insist on demonizing them through intentional misunderstanding and other dishonest methods.

      • Thanks for the comment, Monte.

        There is a lot of truth to your point. I touch on purposeful offence-taking in the post that follows this one.

        I largely agree with your second point. However, it relies on the assumption that a significant proportion of the people in such contexts are intentionally seeking to misunderstand, react, or demonize. I am not sure that they are. Some definitely are, but my impression is that they are not as significant a proportion as many might presume. In such situations there are usually a very significant number of others who just follow the general mood or are led by the outrage-makers, and many others who are just listening in, without being completely persuaded of any side. I believe that we should focus on reaching such groups, and that they may not be as inaccessible to reason or unwilling to engage in charitable discourse as many presume. We just need to approach them carefully.

  11. pam says:

    The poster boy for lazy reading in all of this was Doug Wilson himself.
    You don’t at all contextualise his ESL quote, either, so you’ve fallen foul of your own sit of rules. Wilson’s ESL comment was written in response to a detailed two paragraph critique of not only the excerpt printed on Jared Wilson’s blog, but the entire chapter the excerpt came from. Wilson did not at all engage with the debate in response – neither Wilson did, actually.
    In your section on the ‘Illiterate or Unskilled Reader’ you also appear quite confused about why the words ‘conquer’ and ‘colonise’ were so focused on. I suggest you do some reading on the history of colonialism around the world, read some sociology, some cultural geography, some peace theory, some development theory, and then you hopefully will see why there was a focus on words that have incredibly negative meanings in almost every context they’re ever used in. Doug Wilson – and his defenders – want to argue that Wilson can redefine commonly understood terms, but he can’t. And he can’t get all sooky when people point out that the normally used meaning of those terms is very different to what he tries to claim they mean. That’s both disingenuous and intellectually dishonest.

    • Thanks for the comment, Pam.

      I quite disagree with your assessment of Pastor Wilson. While I do not agree with his approach in his response (about which I will comment more in a later post) and directly questioned the appropriateness of the original statements (see my first post), I read the original thread and several of the posts and comment threads that followed, and remarkably few made any attempt to read Pastor Wilson either carefully or charitably. People were jumping to conclusions, without taking the time to ask the necessary questions.

      Much as I would love to engage with the comment to which you refer, it isn’t available any longer, nor was it available at the time that I wrote this post. However, Pastor Wilson’s comment in response had been posted in several other contexts by itself, so merited engagement for that reason alone. If you read the post above, it should be clear that Pastor Wilson’s comment was merely a segue into the ‘meta-debate’ about reading, not the point of the whole thing. In actual fact, the full statement of Pastor Wilson made clearer that he was not accusing the people in the debate of lacking reading comprehension (although I would be prepared to make such an accusation of certain participants in the conversation, who let the heat of the situation get the better of their reading). Rather he was suggesting that they hadn’t read enough to judge and that they were shoehorning him into their negative image of a complementarian.

      While the commenter should be applauded for attempting to engage with more than just one brief statement of Pastor Wilson’s (practically no one else engaged with more than that brief section), if memory serves it was still neither charitable nor careful. I am hoping at some point in the not-too-distant future to post a full length engagement with and critique of the book from a female friend, who, while not sharing Pastor Wilson’s perspective, does read him carefully and charitably.

      I am quite aware of the connotations of the words ‘conquer’ and ‘colonize’, and remarked upon the unhelpful and inappropriate choice of words in my own comment to Pastor Wilson in that thread (reposted in my first blog post on the subject). The words ‘conquer’ and ‘colonize’, while generally used with a negative sense, are certainly not always used with such a sense. We talk about love ‘conquering all’. In her famous poem, ‘My Captain’, Dorothea Day spoke of ‘Christ – the Conqueror of my soul’. Only a fairly dull ear would miss the poetic meaning of such statements and settle on a literal and violent one instead.

      Likewise, many Christian writers – not a few vocal pacifists among them – have used the language of colonization to refer to the Church’s role in the world, for instance. The language of colonization simply does not demand violence and oppression. It can refer to a non-violent, loving, and life-giving occupation of a territory. It can refer to the populating of a realm that would otherwise be barren and empty. Pastor Wilson’s remarks were a clumsily-worded attempt to refer to the pattern of Song of Songs, where the Bridegroom lovingly enters into the realm of the Bride’s body, depicted as an enclosed garden, and takes possession of its fruits that are given to him. The entrance of the Bridegroom into the garden of the Bride brings the realm to the fullness of its life and fertility.

      The language of conquering, as it involves overcoming and overwhelming another party, will almost always involve violence. Likewise, the language of colonization, as it involves occupying, taking possession, or the populating of a realm not originally one’s own will usually involve extreme oppression and subjugation. Given the strength of these images, they can be very effective images for the character of love. Love can overcome and overwhelm others. The lover can colonize the body of the beloved in a loving manner, perhaps most powerfully in the case where the conceived child of the lover takes up residence in the beloved’s womb and she is inhabited by something that is formed in part from him. Colonization – the supplying of a realm with inhabitants – is more or less exactly what takes place in impregnation, when understood in terms of an imagination shaped by biblical symbolism.

      There is no redefinition going on here at all. Sometimes words have radically contrasting meanings. The same word that we use for one of the most devastating forms of modern warfare – ‘blitz’ – can be used to refer to tidying one’s bedroom. The same word that we use for the employment of the most terrifying weapon known to man upon a population – ‘nuke’ – can be used to refer to heating up one’s ready meal in the microwave. Context matters, and sometimes startling words are used for rhetorical effect.

      Taken together, and without clarifying explanations, Pastor Wilson’s expressions do give a very unhelpful impression, but they really give no ground on which to jump to the sorts of conclusions to which people were jumping. They are also, interpreted carefully and charitably, words that are far from inappropriate to the matters to which they speak, although they are inappropriate for a highly sensitized audience, or in contexts where greater clarity really is needed.

    • Monte Harmon says:

      “…words that have incredibly negative meanings in almost every context they’re ever used in.”

      There are a great number of contexts where these very words have a positive meaning. I read of men and women “conquering” mountains and forming artists “colonies” where they share skills and ideas. Ants build “colonies”, and my buddy “conquers” me on the basketball court and then “conquers” a pizza with me. Today I hope to “conquer” a problem at work that will have my head buzzing with numbers; If I fail then it has “conquered” me until tomorrow. After work I might have a few moments to read about people who dream of “colonizing” mars or the oceans.

      I see positive uses of these words in fiction, history, science, math, business, art, music, business, education, agriculture, and just about every sphere of life. There is no question about the negative meanings. But why assume the worst possible intent when hearing someone speak? What presupposition justifies understanding it the worst way possible when it is Wilson speaking? Would you have the same reaction if Tony Campolo were speaking? How about Celine Dion, Joel Osteen, Mark Zuckerberg, or Hillary Clinton? Barack Obama? Are these words really always negative? I suspect that many celebrated liberals have used these words, must they also be interpreted negatively?

      Not only are there positive ways to use these words, but this is an example of using language in an attempt to “conquer” someone with a different view. I interpreted your entire comment to be an “attack” on Wilson. Maybe even on Alastair, as he is making a case for effective conversations that don’t begin by assuming Wilson to be an abuser of women and oppressor of many. Did I misunderstand?

      If you are opposed to violence, and can see the word “conquer” only in a negative way, why use language in a combative fashion? Is it your intent to “conquer” Wilson and those who share his views? Is this compatible with your views on peace theory? Are not words capable of being violent also?

      It is certain that everything that has ever been spoken or written can be interpreted in a way that is offensive if the hearer, through misunderstanding, ignorance, or intention, chooses to take it offensively. No writer or speaker (even God, note Christ’s comment about being a stumbling block) is exempt, and any attempt to reach a zero-tolerance level for offense would necessitate no writing or speech of any kind. And even then I am sure we find a way to be offended.

      To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you should agree with Wilson, that is an entirely different discussion, but I would suggest that as much effort as Alastair is putting into these posts, it would be charitable to respond to him in kind and discuss the use of language and conversations between believers.

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  14. Some Dude says:

    “The slightest turn of phrase, alteration in tone of voice, or choice of word will be imbued with intense meaning.”

    leftards call these “microaggressions”

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