Within this series of posts I am commenting on the dynamics of many heated online and offline debates and arguments. These thoughts were occasioned by the recent brouhaha surrounding a quotation from Pastor Douglas Wilson on Jared Wilson’s blog, which was condemned by many, most notably Rachel Held Evans. While I will be making remarks at several points about that particular dispute, my primary intention is to bring into clearer focus forces that are at work, to some extent or other, in the vast majority of debates that I encounter both offline and online nowadays.
In my previous post, I discussed different kinds of bad readers, sought to identify some of the causes of bad reading, and the relationship between the virtues of the good reader and Christian character. Within this post I will be proceeding to look at the matter of offence.
Offence, Vulnerability, and Trust
At the outset, before we discuss the way that offence shapes our debates, it is important to recognize that in the majority of cases the problem of offence arises from the fact that the participants in a given debate do not have the same degree of personal investment within it, or power relative to each other. A discussion that may be largely academic for many participants can be of great personal import and impact for others. It is considerably more difficult for such individuals to establish the distance between person and issue that is demanded for conventional disputation. Establishing this distance becomes all the harder when they feel that their personal stake in the issue is threatened by the other voices in the conversation.
The fact that some people are incapable of establishing such distance is worth reflecting upon. While this alone proves nothing about the legitimacy of either side’s case, problems in this area are generally a symptom of the absence or decay of trust between the parties in the debate. When trust is lacking, even the smallest sense of vulnerability can develop into full blown paranoia, encouraging highly reactive forms of discourse.
In many of our cultural and political debates today, the absence of mutual trust produces paranoia on both sides. When all parties feel vulnerable to other parties that they don’t trust, a paranoid victim mind-set takes hold on all sides, as do reactive modes of interaction. This is quite evident in the ‘culture wars’, for instance, where most parties seem to act as if their existence and identity were on the line, and the discourse plays out like the interactions between two animals that have simultaneously cornered each other. While I will argue that the distrust that prevails in many of our cultural debates is actually a carefully manufactured distrust, this manufactured distrust is seldom a sufficient explanation for the actual distrust that exists between most parties.
In the absence of such trust, discourse between two parties, one or both of whom feel vulnerable to each other, will always tend to revert to reactive forms. If we are to improve the quality of our public discourse, one of the most pressing questions that we must ask ourselves is why and how other parties feel threatened by us, and what can be done to restore or create a sense of trust, especially in situations where persons in the conversation are intentionally manufacturing distrust to serve their own extremist ends. In certain cases the absence of such trust is an indictment on the way that the parties have behaved relative to each other in the past. Reactive persons are poor readers and even poorer at debating and reasoning. Yet the existence of reactivity can in certain case, though definitely not all be its own evidence of mistreatment, mistreatment that has made it difficult to differentiate oneself from the subject matter and/or one’s opponents (as I will proceed to argue, this is definitely not true in every case: often people have little justification for their thin skins and these thin skins can often be cultivated). Consequently, the reactivity of our opponents in debate should raise troubling questions for us too.
The issue of reactivity in debate becomes an increasingly pressing problem as discourse is widened to include parties formerly marginalized from it. As public discourse is no longer limited to the privileged and the less personally vulnerable, it becomes a place where power differentials are more operative, visible, and exploitable. Discourse has to adapt itself to or negotiate these power differentials in some manner or other.
The Transformation of Public Discourse
As Western society has become progressively more sensitized to victims, the unempowered, and the disenfranchised, and has desired to give a voice to them, we have tended to truncate or limit public discourse in various ways to ensure that such groups don’t feel threatened. While well-meaning, this reformation of public discourse has come at considerable cost. It has rendered the taking of offence or the playing of the victim or underdog card incredibly powerful ploys within debate. In many cases these ploys overwhelm the debate, making challenging debate next to impossible. These ploys, as they are often open to only one party in the debate, establish their own secondary power differential, a differential that can frequently provide more influence on the course of a conversation for those willing and able to leverage it than the primary differential would provide to those advantaged by it. I will discuss this in more depth later in this post.
The retailoring of public discourse around these power differentials and the negotiation of the limited amount of trust between parties has resulted in a significant transformation of that discourse in a manner that jeopardizes certain values that are integral to a free society. Within this transformed public discourse, values such as ‘tolerance’, ‘nonjudgmentalism’, and ‘reasonableness’ are paramount – all values that result in the restriction of reason and the claims of challenging discourse from realms in which they formerly operated. ‘Tolerance’ is perceived to deny any right to subject individuals and their core beliefs and identities to the claims of any greater truth or the challenge of a broader conversation. ‘Nonjudgmentalism’ denies the right to be rigorous in forming and applying considered judgments, particularly moral ones. ‘Reasonableness’ denies us the right to introduce our deepest convictions into public discourse. To be ‘reasonable’ is to expect much less from rational discourse and the power of persuasion, reining in the socially unsettling force of challenging debate, seeking rather to settle matters using the decidedly limited resources of consensus principles.
However, each of these commitments entails the closing down of the sort of challenging and searching public discourse that can secure a free and open society. Discourse is increasingly truncated, to the point that it is no longer able to say much that is meaningful, and is unlikely to be able to settle many of our differences without our deeper convictions being smuggled into the debate under vague terms such as ‘equality’, ‘freedom’, and ‘reciprocity’. With the loss of trust in the power of rational discourse, the unifying power of a shared pursuit of truth, and the effectiveness of persuasion, public discourse provides a slender basis for intellectual community, and core convictions tend to become ghettoized. As this truncated discourse is unable either to resolve or clearly to expose the source of our differences, parties end up talking past each other and the temperature of debates swiftly rise.
There is a form of unity and community that can be protected by and within social forms and institutions that give us a defined context and the means by which to articulate and relate our differences and oppositions (parliaments, legal systems, sports, etc.). Without such bounded and rule-governed contexts of interaction, there is a constant danger that rivalries and differences will produce polarization, alienation, ghettoization, or outright and total conflict. It is by no means clear to me that the form that public discourse is moving towards is sufficient to provide us with such contexts. In place of a conversation enabling us to relate our differences and oppositions in a mutually challenging and sharpening manner, controlled by a shared commitment to rational discourse, rules of debate, and belief in the power of persuasion, we have settled for fragile truces between coexisting errors, truces that can be unsettled if anyone is allowed to speak too much. As substantial rational engagement with others’ positions is abandoned, the dominant modes of interaction between opposing viewpoints become offence-taking, reactive dismissal or attack, or ridicule, provocation, and offence-causing.
In contrast to a society bound together by a shared agonistic public conversation in search of truth through engagement with substantive issues, it is by no means clear to me that freedom will thrive in the new context of ‘tolerance’ and ‘reasonableness’, where the public quest for truth has been abandoned and many of the most significant matters in our society’s life are being gradually withdrawn from the realm of public debate. While freedom and emancipation could be advanced in the past by means of the claims of truth, in the context of the new ‘tolerant’ society, the claims of truth hold less weight. Politically inconvenient or inexpedient truths can no longer easily be advanced by recourse to the uncompromising force of reason, as ‘tolerance’ and ‘reasonableness’ start to exclude them from discussion altogether. Society is left ever more vulnerable to political caprice and is progressively dispossessed of the emancipatory discourse that has served it so well in the past.
Contrasting Forms of Discourse
In observing the interaction between Pastor Wilson and his critics in the recent debate, I believe that we were witnessing a collision of two radically contrasting modes of discourse. The first mode of discourse, represented by Pastor Wilson’s critics, was one in which sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness are key values, and in which persons and positions are ordinarily closely related. The second mode of discourse, displayed by Pastor Wilson and his daughters, is one characterized and enabled by personal detachment from the issues under discussion, involving highly disputational and oppositional forms of rhetoric, scathing satire, and ideological combativeness.
When these two forms of discourse collide they are frequently unable to understand each other and tend to bring out the worst in each other. The first form of discourse seems lacking in rationality and ideological challenge to the second; the second can appear cruel and devoid of sensitivity to the first. To those accustomed to the second mode of discourse, the cries of protest at supposedly offensive statements may appear to be little more than a dirty and underhand ploy intentionally adopted to derail the discussion by those whose ideological position can’t sustain critical challenge. However, these protests are probably less a ploy than the normal functioning of the particular mode of discourse characteristic of that community, often the only mode of discourse that those involved are proficient in.
To those accustomed to the first mode of discourse, the scathing satire and sharp criticism of the second appears to be a vicious and personal attack, driven by a hateful animus, when those who adopt such modes of discourse are typically neither personally hurt nor aiming to cause such hurt. Rather, as this second form of discourse demands personal detachment from issues under discussion, ridicule does not aim to cause hurt, but to up the ante of the debate, exposing the weakness of the response to challenge, pushing opponents to come back with more substantial arguments or betray their lack of convincing support for their position. Within the first form of discourse, if you take offence, you can close down the discourse in your favour; in the second form of discourse, if all you can do is to take offence, you have conceded the argument to your opponent, as offence is not meaningful currency within such discourse.
I also don’t think that sufficient attention is given to the manner in which differing forms of education prepare persons for participation in these different modes of discourse. There is a form of education – increasingly popular over the last few decades – which most values cooperation, collaboration, quietness, sedentariness, empathy, equality, non-competitiveness, conformity, a communal focus, inclusivity, affirmation, inoffensiveness, sensitivity, non-confrontation, a downplaying of physicality, and an orientation to the standard measures of grades, tests, and a closely defined curriculum (one could, with the appropriate qualifications, speak of this as a ‘feminization’ of education). Such a form of education encourages a form of public discourse within which there is a shared commitment and conformity to the social and ideological dogmas and values of liberal society, where everyone feels secure and accepted and conflict is avoided, but at the expense of independence of thought, exposure to challenge, the airing of deep differences, and truth-driven discourse.
Faced with an opposing position that will not compromise in the face of its calls for sensitivity and its cries of offence, such a mode of discourse lacks the strength of argument to parry challenges. Nor does it have any means by which to negotiate or accommodate such intractable differences within its mode of conversation. Consequently, it will typically resort to the most fiercely antagonistic, demonizing, and personal attacks upon the opposition. While firm differences can be comfortably negotiated within the contrasting form of discourse, a mode of discourse governed by sensitivities and ‘tolerance’ cannot tolerate uncompromising difference. Without a bounded and rule-governed realm for negotiating differences, antagonism becomes absolute and opposition total. Supporters of this ‘sensitive’ mode of discourse will typically try, not to answer opponents with better arguments, but to silence them completely as ‘hateful’, ‘intolerant’, ‘bigoted’, ‘misogynistic’, ‘homophobic’, etc.
A completely contrasting mode of education, one more typical of traditional – and male-oriented – educational systems, values internalized confidence, originality, agonism, independence of thought, creativity, assertiveness, the mastery of one’s feelings, a thick skin and high tolerance for your own and others’ discomfort, disputational ability, competitiveness, nerve, initiative, imagination, and force of will, values that come to the fore in confrontational oral debate. Such an education will produce a mode of discourse that is naturally highly oppositional and challenging, while generally denying participants the right to take things personally. Deep divergences of opinion can be far more comfortably accommodated within the same conversation by those accustomed to such discourse. While the first form of education risks viewing persons as passive receptacles of knowledge to be rewarded for their conformity to set expectations, which are frequently measured, this form of education prioritizes the formation of independent thinking agents.
This form of discourse typically involves a degree of ‘heterotopy’, occurring in a ‘space’ distinct from that of personal interactions. This heterotopic space is characterized by a sort of playfulness, ritual combativeness, and histrionics. This ‘space’ is akin to that of the playing field, upon which opposing teams give their rivals no quarter, but which is held distinct to some degree from relations between the parties that exist off the field. The handshake between competitors as they leave the field is a typical sign of this demarcation. It is this separation of the space of rhetorical ritual combat from regular space that enables debaters, politicians, or lawyers to have fiery disagreements in the debating chamber, the parliamentary meeting, or the courtroom and then happily enjoy a drink together afterwards.
This ‘heterotopic discourse’ makes possible far more spirited challenges to opposing positions, hyperbolic and histrionic rhetoric designed to provoke response and test the mettle of one’s own and the opposing position, assertive presentations of one’s beliefs that are less concerned to present a full-orbed picture than to advocate firmly for a particular perspective and to invite and spark discussion from other perspectives.
The truth is not located in the single voice, but emerges from the conversation as a whole. Within this form of heterotopic discourse, one can play devil’s advocate, have one’s tongue in one’s cheek, purposefully overstate one’s case, or attack positions that one agrees with. The point of the discourse is to expose the strengths and weaknesses of various positions through rigorous challenge, not to provide a balanced position in a single monologue. Those familiar with such discourse will be accustomed to hyperbolic and unbalanced expressions. They will appreciate that such expressions are seldom intended as the sole and final word on the matter by those who utter them, but as a forceful presentation of one particular dimension of or perspective upon the truth, always presuming the existence of counterbalancing perspectives that have no less merit and veracity.
In contrast, a sensitivity-driven discourse lacks the playfulness of heterotopic discourse, taking every expression of difference very seriously. Rhetorical assertiveness and impishness, the calculated provocations of ritual verbal combat, linguistic playfulness, and calculated exaggeration are inexplicable to it as it lacks the detachment, levity, and humour within which these things make sense. On the other hand, those accustomed to combative discourse may fail to appreciate when they are hurting those incapable of responding to it.
Lacking a high tolerance for difference and disagreement, sensitivity-driven discourses will typically manifest a herding effect. Dissenting voices can be scapegoated or excluded and opponents will be sharply attacked. Unable to sustain true conversation, stale monologues will take its place. Constantly pressed towards conformity, indoctrination can take the place of open intellectual inquiry. Fracturing into hostile dogmatic cliques takes the place of vigorous and illuminating dialogue between contrasting perspectives. Lacking the capacity for open dialogue, such groups will exert their influence on wider society primarily by means of political agitation.
The fear of conflict and the inability to deal with disagreement lies at the heart of sensitivity-driven discourses. However, ideological conflict is the crucible of the sharpest thought. Ideological conflict forces our arguments to undergo a rigorous and ruthless process through which bad arguments are broken down, good arguments are honed and developed, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of different positions emerge. The best thinking emerges from contexts where interlocutors mercilessly probe and attack our arguments’ weaknesses and our own weaknesses as their defenders. They expose the blindspots in our vision, the cracks in our theories, the inconsistencies in our logic, the inaptness of our framing, the problems in our rhetoric. We are constantly forced to return to the drawing board, to produce better arguments.
Granted immunity from this process, sensitivity-driven and conflict-averse contexts seldom produce strong thought, but rather tend to become echo chambers. Even the good ideas that they produce tend to be blunt and very weak in places. Even with highly intelligent people within them, conflict-averse groups are poor at thinking. Bad arguments go unchecked and good insights go unhoned and underdeveloped. This would not be such a problem were it not for the fact that these groups frequently expect us to fly in a society formed according to their ideas, ideas that never received any rigorous stress testing. Margaret Heffernan has some very insightful thoughts on this subject:
As I will argue in more detail as I proceed, the problem does not lie with sensitivity-driven discourses per se – there is a genuine need for such discourses – but rather with their immodest demands upon public life and interaction and academic discussion. The expectation that all public and intellectual life must be ordered in terms of the sensitivities of the members of such groups or reformed in terms of the ideas of such groups cripples society, preventing it from engaging adequately in the searching and difficult task of intellectual inquiry. Both confrontational and sensitive discourses are essential in their own place, but both can endanger the other and, by extension, the healthy functioning of society when they have ambitions beyond that place.
I believe that, within the recent debate, such a distinction between modes of discourse and the training appropriate to each could be seen. A deeper appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of these two approaches is important here. When the sides in a debate are operating using entirely incompatible modes of discourse communication between the two is quite unlikely. What we need are means of communication and translation between the two, and an appreciation of the strengths, weaknesses, and place of each. The common expectation that challenging conversations must yield to the demand of ‘sensitivity’ is unreasonable, but we should seek to provide some degree of protection for those emotionally incapable of participating in such challenging discourse from its combat.
The Culture of Offence
One of the most striking things about the response to Pastor Wilson’s statements was the visceral character of the reactions. The language of the responses is peppered with words and expressions such as ‘upsetting’, ‘I’m shaking’, ‘reduced to tears and trembling’, ‘weeping’, ‘hurtful’, ‘nauseating’, ‘outrage’, ‘makes me want to punch things’, ‘sick’, ‘so mad I’m shaking’, ‘disgusted and hurt’, ‘irate, my stomach has sunk’, etc. The prevailing response to Pastor Wilson’s statements was not focused on a carefully argued case that they were incorrect and unsupported by Scripture or the bounds of the metaphors (some presented a few arguments on this front, but weren’t really prepared to admit a response), but on the assertion that they were hurtful and hateful, a claim that neither invited nor permitted much challenge.
The power of offence and outrage was very much on display in that which followed. Those who protested that they have been offended were able to close down Jared Wilson’s voice and get him to apologize, something that was regarded as a victory for those prepared to attack ‘misogyny’. While I believe that Jared was right to apologize, the empowering of offence-takers is far from a salutary development in Christian discourse.
While we should be aware of the dangers of insensitive language, the empowering of offence-taking is a means by which our conversations become more reactive, by which unwelcome positions are closed out, and illuminating intellectual conflict is prevented. While a call for greater sensitivity may seek to tone down the language and heat of discourse in sensitive environments, without stopping the conversation itself, offence-taking typically functions as a means by which voices and positions can be removed from the conversation simply because they offend our sensibilities, challenge us, or make us feel uncomfortable. Thus discourse becomes tyrannized by the thin-skinned, all parties having to conform to the sensitivities of those who claim to be most ‘vulnerable’. Any position that might upset these sensitivities is immediately dismissed from or muted within the debate.
Such offence-taking has become a standard feature of theological and social discourse. Offence-taking is routinely used to close down voices arguing for the Church’s traditional stance on the vocations of women or voices arguing against same sex marriage. In light of the feelings of gay persons, some argue that arguments against same sex marriage are hateful and homophobic at worst, or insensitive at best, and so must be shut out of or downplayed within public discourse. To protest this limitation of discourse is itself insensitive and offensive. Offence-takers then present capitulation to their demands as the only sensitive route to take. Lacking the nerve to resist, society quickly gives in to their demands. By excluding challenging voices from the debate in such a manner, and expecting acceptance of their demands as proof of sensitivity, offence-takers win by default.
Offence-taking is a tried and tested tactic by which certain movements can dismiss critics without need for engagement, and bend society to their wishes. It is enabled by society’s lack of nerve, and by a persistence and willingness to take advantage of society’s weakness on the part of those employing it. Over the last few decades it has been used extensively by the feminist and gay rights movements. While many of the positions held by these movements may be perfectly justified, they have advanced in many quarters by silencing opponents and inoculating themselves against criticism, characterizing opponents or critics and their positions as hateful or insensitive and petitioning powerful allies to close down their voices.
On account of offence-taking and outrage-making tactics, such movements have rendered society incredibly pliable to their wishes. Given the social value of appearing enlightened and sensitized to the concerns of such groups, other parties can fall over themselves to take offence on their behalf, or to pander to their professed concerns. Those opposing certain of the claims of such movements will not infrequently find themselves marginalized within respectable society, suffering great damage to their reputation, being sidelined within the academy, or removed from public office. Offence-taking and outrage-making parties do not have to win any arguments, just to claim that other parties are being ‘intolerant’, ‘prejudiced’, ‘misogynist’, ‘homophobic’, etc. Little evidence is required to support such claims. Where opposing views are still voiced, they are exposed to an extreme double standard, having to meet standards of argument and evidence considerably greater than other positions. In such a manner, public discourse becomes a closed shop.
Culture War and Hate Speech
One routine tactic employed by offence-takers is to accuse anyone who opposes their (typically radical) positions of waging a ‘culture war’. Offence-takers win by society’s choice of appeasement as its response to their unreasonable demands and incessant agitation. The agitators will generally present themselves as people of peace. They have no desire to start a culture war. All that society has to do is to accede to their – perfectly reasonable! – demands and peace will prevail. Whenever people choose to resist the demands of the agitators they will be presented as beastly bullies and belligerent culture warriors. While they are pressing to achieve their goals, and even more so when they have achieved and wish to consolidate their gains, offence-takers will present themselves as proactive about peace. Any attempt to regain lost ground will be presented as unprovoked aggression. Offence-takers consistently lament the belligerence and intractability of their opponents.
Of course, appeasement never really works as a strategy in such situations: the more ground that you give the more emboldened the appeased party will be in demanding further concessions. In such cases it is imperative that people find the nerve to stand their ground when necessary, learn to resist the agitation, develop a higher level of tolerance for others’ discomfort and offence, and care a lot less about the accusations thrown in their direction.
A further tactic is the use of the language of ‘hate’ with reference to opponents. Offence-takers fixate on the extreme and intemperate voices of opposing camps, and use those –frequently hateful – voices as a means to characterize all opponents and critics. Some might try to present more nuanced arguments for the appropriateness of the use of the language of ‘hate’ with reference to opponents beyond the extremists. However, such arguments typically argue that the language of ‘hate’ is justified by: a) the way that the arguments of opponents will be heard by or impact upon those they are opposing, or b) that the ‘hatred’ in question is a systemic hatred, which supporters are complicit in. There are some immediate problems with these approaches.
First, the way that opponents’ arguments are heard are heavily influenced by the way that they are framed by the offence-takers, as is the impact that such words will have. As I will proceed to argue, communities of offence prime their members to take opposition personally, and to perceive strong disapproval of their actions or disagreement with their beliefs on the part of opponents as a personal attack. The very terminology of ‘hate speech’ will function as a self-authenticating designation in this regard. When all opposition to same sex marriage, for instance, has been labelled as ‘homophobic’, any debate is entirely loaded from the beginning, and it will be merely presumed rather than demonstrated that such opposition springs from an irrational systemic animosity towards homosexuals. Once this has been accepted anyone voicing such opinions will be perceived as being complicit in and expressing this systemic hatred, which merely reinforces persons’ sense of being victims of hatred, and opponents as being perpetrators of it. Likewise, the alienation and polarization that supposedly results from such speech is generally merely reinforced by the community that claims to deplore it.
Second, without clear public criteria of demonstration, this approach can merely underwrite the typically highly unreliable perceptions of thin-skinned, paranoid, and reactive people, and serve as a ploy to displace the measure of responsibility for polarization resulting from a lack of charity in the interpretation of and reactivity in response to opponents and critics onto their supposed hostility.
Third, ‘hate’ is an emotion and a motivation. While some of those referring to the positions of others as ‘hate speech’ or ‘hate-driven’ may claim that they such a description is justified by the systemic injustice that they are, by virtue of their words and actions – often unwittingly – complicit in, it is important to recognize that it is persons who have emotions and motivations, not systems per se. Consequently, in practice the language of ‘hate speech’ typically stigmatizes persons by imputing motivations and emotions to them, in a manner that goes some way beyond a mere statement of their unwitting complicity in sinful structures. The language of hatred in such contexts is also routinely used to demonize opponents. While some might deny that in using such language they are making a personal judgment about the one advocating particular arguments, this is the way that the language will function in popular discourse. And given the ‘hate the haters’ rhetoric that gets thrown around, there isn’t even the fragile nuance of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ to protect you from such persons’ wrath.
Fourth, certain expressions, words, and arguments have legacies of hateful societal use and must be approached with due recognition of this fact. However, the prior hateful use of a word or an argument may not necessarily render it inapt or incorrect. Arguments do not always arise from or serve the same emotion, motivation, or societal impulse. The notion of ‘hate speech’ generally seeks to discredit arguments by the usually unargued assumption that opposing arguments must always spring from the same fundamental impulse.
Fifth, the language of ‘hate’ turns up the temperature of the rhetoric in a debate. It is one thing to say that one’s opponents are unwittingly complicit in injustice, quite another to call their position ‘hate-driven’, imputing motives and emotions to their stance (even if you believe that these motives and emotions belong more generally to the community of thought that they participate within, rather than to them as individuals). I believe, for instance, that the same sex marriage position compromises the rights of children and impacts upon them in very harmful ways. However, it would be quite a serious step were I to move from this to accuse proponents of same sex marriage of being participants in ‘child-hating speech’ or of being ‘paedophobes’. I believe that the use of the language of ‘hate’ needs far more substantial justification than commonly provided.
The language of hate suggests that any opponent or critic is (generally wittingly) serving a societal impulse of irrational fear, hatred, or antagonism. The designation of such viewpoints as ‘hate speech’ immediately discredits them, treating them as unworthy of careful engagement. It stigmatizes opponents, and heightens the sensitivities, fears, and suspicions of one’s group with regard to them. It inoculates your group against hearing its strongest critics. The language of ‘hate speech’, as it stigmatizes opponents and makes judgments concerning the bad motives and vicious impulses of the communities of thought and action that they participate within will generally function as a sort of ‘hate speech’ itself. I cannot count the times that I have been told that I am hateful merely for strongly disagreeing with a popular politically correct position, whose proponents I hold no personal animosity towards, by persons who quite obviously despise me for doing so. The designation of one’s opponents as ‘haters’ provides a justification for exhibiting an animosity towards them merely on account of the animosity that they supposedly hold towards you.
The rhetoric of ‘hate speech’ also justifies the harshest and most intolerant treatment of one’s opponents. If one’s opponents are ultimately driven, even unwittingly, by an irrational and hateful social impulse, they can often be treated as being beyond reason and dialogue. No attempt should be made at engagement. Their views should not be tolerated in a tolerant society, as the argument usually goes. Their freedom of expression can be compromised with impunity, they can be hounded out of public or academic office, and official muscle can be used to clamp down on or suppress them.
The language of ‘hate speech’ is most effective in marginalizing moderate opponents and critics – exactly the sort of people best qualified to unsettle a position that lacks sufficient foundation. By presenting opposition and criticism as fundamentally motivated by a vicious societal impulse, moderates are ignored or frozen out.
Moderates are also discouraged from speaking out as persons heavily sensitized by the language of ‘hate speech’ will perceive themselves as being personally attacked by them. When a direct connection between opposition to a particular position and hate-driven attacks upon other persons is drawn, any moderate who speaks up will be accused of engaging in such attacks and people will denounce their heartlessness and cruelty. Apart from being a sort of gaslighting ploy, this also serves to make moderates lose their nerve. Once the direct equation between opposition to same-sex marriage and homophobia is established in people’s minds, for instance, those speaking out against it know that they will be perceived as directly attacking vulnerable gay teens or expressing a hateful animosity towards the loving lesbian couple next door. Most people lose nerve in the face of this and shut up, concerned that they aren’t falsely understood in such a manner.
If the concern were merely to protect sensitive persons from discourse that might potentially hurt them, a number of options would be open to us. Debates could occur in contexts removed from the presence of the extremely sensitive, be accompanied by ‘trigger warnings’, or have toned down rhetoric. However, in a culture of offence, sensitivities are empowered to such a degree that there is a perverse incentive both to maximize and to manufacture offence and outrage. When those who can successfully leverage offence can close down debates in their favour and protect their positions from hostile criticism, the routine employment of offence-taking and outrage-making should take no one by surprise.
One of the immediate effects of the culture of offence is to encourage the thinning of skins, and the raising of sensitivities. Persons are trained to be suspicious to the point of paranoia of all differing viewpoints, a suspicion that enables them to put the worst possible construction on the words and actions of their opponents and critics. Far from representing a triumph of critical thinking, these hermeneutics of suspicion tend to reproduce the same threadbare analyses that have been applied on a myriad previous occasions and create a sterile groupthink (a significant number of analyses that make reference to such concepts as ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘heterosexism’ fall into such a camp – what merit such notions may have is heavily compromised by the way that they function within communities of thought). They do not promote ‘questioning’ in order to start a mutually challenging and open conversation or even to invite a response, but in order to dismiss some existing narrative and replace it with an alternative of their own, a narrative which is often difficult to differentiate from a mere conspiracy theory, frequently framed in a way that discredits all of its critics at the outset, is impervious to rational debate, and which predetermines all discussions. Typically being inculcated in a context closed to criticism, people are indoctrinated with a narrative which is more asserted than argued.
As such narratives usually operate primarily by means of indoctrination and the discrediting of critics, they commonly lack the ability to sustain close critical analysis and engage in challenging discourse. Consequently, those who seek to establish dialogue with the supporters of such positions will not uncommonly find themselves exposed to a barrage of ad hominem attacks, discredited from the outset on the basis of who they are or the supposition of a false consciousness, subjected to constant accusations of insensitivity or hate speech, or shouted out of the conversation. Once one realizes that the dominance of these positions owes as much if not much more to the leveraging of offence and outrage and the silencing of critics than they do to rational persuasion, one is less surprised to find them unreceptive to questioning.
Without constant exposure to critical opposition, the arguments for such positions – and they generally do possess arguments that, well expressed, would be quite worthy of engagement – tend to be fairly blunt, and seldom have their mettle tested. Having cultivated a sense of being under unrelenting siege and a complete distrust of outside voices, the reactivity of such movements can be off the scale: attempts at reasonable engagement can be met with a form of hysteria (though heaven help you if you point this out!). However, a hysterical reaction to challenge can generally be far more successful at closing down criticism than rational and open interaction would be.
The Heightening of Sensitivities
As such discourses gain their dominance through the leveraging of offence, they have a vested interest in making people increasingly sensitive to offence. This end is achieved in several ways. One of the most immediate ways is through the development of paranoia and the sense of being besieged, presenting critics and opponents as evil oppressors and persecutors, defenders of such things as rape culture or the systemic mistreatment of women. Those who feel besieged are highly reactive, will put the most negative construction possible on all actions of opponents and will be hyper-vigilant for any cue to react to their critics.
When attempting to interact with such persons, one will typically find that little attempt is made to engage with the substance of what you argue. Rather, isolated phrases or statements that you make, wrenched from any explanatory context, and presented in the worst possible light are fixated upon. Little attempt will be made to interpret these: rather, they are presented as straightforward evidence of your bad intentions. People who are made to feel besieged in such a manner will seldom seek to interpret their critics: they are looking for cues to react, not for sympathetic understanding of opposing viewpoints. When a single ill-chosen or uncharitably heard word can be sufficient cause for reaction, there is no need for further engagement.
This besieged mind-set, constantly reinforced, primes people to react and take offence or be outraged. Some time before the recent brouhaha developed around Pastor Wilson’s comments, I had commented on this effect on Rachel Held Evans’s blog. Complementarian viewpoints were routinely presented in terms explicitly rejected by their supporters. There was a fixation on decontextualized quotations from complementarian writers calculated to produce outrage, rather than on close and careful interpretative engagement. Motives were imputed to advocates of complementarianism. Complementarianism was consistently – subtly and often not so subtly – connected with matters such as power dominance, patriarchal oppression, and rape, without much seeming recognition or acknowledgment of the manner in which complementarianism, for all of its faults, speaks out against all of these things. When critics are characterized in such a manner, is it any surprise that every one of their statements will be subject to the worst imaginable construction? No one trusts the bogeyman.
The Subject Supposed to be Offended
A further way in which sensitivities are heightened is through the notion of the ‘subject supposed to be offended’. When a person cannot claim to be offended himself, he can always claim to be offended on another’s behalf. There is someone, somewhere, for whom the hurt is immediate, sincere, and completely natural. This displaced offence is particularly effective. No one may know the person who actually is deeply, genuinely, naturally, personally, and justifiably hurt by the statements in question, but by positing the existence of such an individual – who need not be discovered – they are empowered to exercise offence on their behalf. When practically everyone takes offence on others’ behalf, offence can become an immensely powerful social force, even though the actual ‘subject supposed to be offended’ is never truly present in person (admittedly, the subject supposed to be offended is probably curled up in a foetal ball in a darkened room somewhere, whimpering at the cruelty of the world).
The ‘subject supposed to be offended’ is especially powerful as a construction as it can include more empowered and privileged people in the offence game. In fact, the power of the culture of offence arguably owes more to this ‘subject supposed to be offended’ than to anything else. There are few people more zealous in offence-taking and outrage-making than persons doing so on behalf of the ‘subject supposed to be offended’. Few people who actually stand in a position to be personally hurt display anything approaching the degree of offence or passion for political correctness that the person taking offence on behalf of this posited individual can. Such persons regard themselves as sensitive and caring protectors of the weak and oppressed. Offence-taking and outrage-making is not a mere prerogative for them, but is a noble duty and calling. The more of an outrage they create on others’ behalf, the more virtuous they feel.
One of the effects of the ‘subject supposed to be offended’ is a sort of competitive offence-taking on the part of certain persons in positions of power or influence. The most virtuous person is the person who is most successful in kicking up a fuss on behalf of the subject supposed to be offended. The accumulation of such virtue is generally fairly painless, but can win people great adulation, and a sense of moral superiority (which can conveniently serve as absolution for other faults). It is also a perfect way for officials to deflect attention away from other issues and to feel good about themselves. The temptations of this easily-won virtue are considerable, especially when the espousal of politically correct views can be sufficient to outweigh the personal vices of a life that demonstrates little evidence of a commitment to self-binding virtue. The sort of selective and excessive empathy that our culture can celebrate is a virtue that costs one little in comparison with the personal demands of other virtues, but which is nonetheless ideal for public display of one’s moral ‘character’.
This notion of the ‘subject supposed to be offended’ also provides people in power or with influence with a means by which to scapegoat their political and social enemies. The ‘subject supposed to be offended’ is typically employed in order to stigmatize some other party for their insensitivity and cruelty, to hound them out of office, marginalize them from respectable discourse, and silence their voices. By positing the ‘subject supposed to be offended’, opposing viewpoints cease to be treated as arguments demanding critical engagement and become the nasty words of evil bullies and oppressors. The ‘subject supposed to be offended’ is one of the most powerful pieces on the board of society’s power games.
Playing to Weakness
As a culture of offence plays to weaknesses, those weaknesses will tend to become more pronounced. Some might believe that the shocked and hurt reactions of those shaped by the culture of offence are entirely feigned: I am not convinced that they are. Rather, these reactions are cultivated, nurtured, and conditioned through the extensive character formation of particular communities, which systematically drives the offence thresholds and tolerance of their members down and saps their nerve. Initially affected reactions can become second nature through frequent repetition. The members of such communities routinely become weaker, more dependent, more reactive, and more sensitive than they were before they joined them.
The lowering of these offence thresholds and tolerance levels occurs as the members of these communities are incessantly sensitized to their vulnerability and victim status. It occurs as they are taught to think of themselves as besieged, oppressed, and persecuted by malicious and evil opposition. It occurs as the actions and words of opponents and critics are presented as personal attacks. It occurs as reacting with outrage at offence is consistently rewarded with affirmation and encouragement by the group and with the concessions of wider society. It occurs as reactions characteristic of very high sensitivity levels are validated, rather than regarded as signs of excessive weakness. It occurs as sensitivities are privileged with attention and grant the holder protected and empowered status over others. It occurs as ever increasing recourse to protection, comfort, support, validation, and aid is provided by society to those claiming offence.
Strengths are developed as people refuse to pander to our weaknesses, viewing these weaknesses as obstacles that we both need and are sufficient to overcome. While we may not yet be prepared to face certain challenges, and need support and protection in such cases, we need to be pushed beyond our existing limits, to attain to new levels of independent strength.
The community of offence, through its continual accommodation and validation of supposed weakness, stifles this development of strength. Rather than seeking to strengthen its members to the point where they can hold their own in combative debate on level terms, it encourages the notion that they are so vulnerable that, unless one tiptoes around their sensitivities and emotions, they will be deeply hurt. The members of such groups internalize this expectation and are consequently less likely to overcome their overly sensitized condition.
Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, two feminists, comment on the effect of this within the context of Women’s Studies, one area where such playing to weakness is frequently in evidence:
No doubt there were students who gained confidence and a sense of belonging from the sharing, caring, and calls to empowerment that pervaded feminist pedagogy. But we found that others felt excluded by the strict enforcement of whatever the prevailing feminist norms happened to be. And those who did fit in were taking on a worldview that militated against anything but a life as a feminist activist – and this by design. It is right for women to be alerted to the possibility of rape and violent assault and apprised of methods of prevention and legal recourse. But if such topics are to be discussed in a classroom setting, they must be dealt with carefully and analyzed as a complex social issue using the tools of social science. All too often the definitions and doctrines espoused within Women’s Studies seemed calculated merely to make women feel besieged. Their sensitivities were being sharpened to such an edge that some were turned into relentless grievance collectors or rendered too suspicious to function in the workaday world outside of Women’s Studies and were left with few possible roles in life beyond that of angry feminists.
These communities of offence also insist that the whole of society adapt itself to their members. As these psychological invalids are stretchered or wheeled out, and the walking emotionally wounded hobble out, onto society’s field of play, all play must be brought down to their level. Anyone who seeks to use their strength to get an advantage is shamed and penalized. Any result that doesn’t flatter the invalids will be presented as bullying, cruelty, and oppression. Injuries will be exaggerated in order to gain penalties against opponents. While supporting and protecting those with genuine weaknesses that they cannot overcome is laudable, it is quite another thing to use these weaknesses as a means to bend society to one’s will and prevent the expression of strengths. Unfortunately, when the strengths in question are those necessary for open, challenging, and lively public conversation, all of society suffers as a result. Society needs affirmative and supporting contexts for its more vulnerable members, but these contexts must be kept away from the combative contexts that it requires for its critical discourse.
A ‘troll’ is a person who exposes others to offensive or inflammatory material in order to produce an emotional response generally in order to sabotage or prevent conversation. While trolling is typically thought of as a hostile action, explicitly calculated to offend the trolled party, there is a commonly ignored but exceedingly widely practiced form of trolling which functions quite differently. This sort of trolling – which I term ‘offence-trolling’ – involves the trolling of one’s own community. Like other forms of trolls, offence trolls use material calculated to be offensive and inflammatory in order to provoke an emotional reaction and to derail debate. However, the offence-troll does not seek personally to offend their community, but rather purposefully seeks to offend and provoke an emotional reaction in their community by means of the sharing or reporting of the words or actions of another party.
The offence-troll will typically take an extreme or ill-worded statement of their opponents, wrench it from context, put the worst possible construction on it, and present it to an audience carefully primed to take extreme offence to it. The emotional reaction, offence, and outrage can then be leveraged against the opposition, helping to push them out of the debate, and relative to the wider society, capitalizing on the offence to gain greater support and concessions. While the offence-troll may claim to desire to protect the weak and sensitive from offence, their real goal is to use the offence that results when the weak and sensitive are exposed to sharp, muscular, and combative discourse to get their way. The goal of the offence-troll is to ‘trigger’ others and thereby to accumulate the social capital of offence.
The offence-troll is the person on Twitter or in your Facebook newsfeed who is constantly posting links to articles or stories calculated to confirm your worst possible impressions of your opponents, yet who never devotes much effort to engaging with those opponents at their best. The offence-troll is typically the person who paints a picture of their opponents as being driven largely by bad motives, by hatred, cruelty, greed, selfishness, or animosity, will generally take a highly selective approach to the evidence in order to prove their case, and then broadcast that ‘evidence’ as loudly as they can to all and sundry.
Such offence-trolling is calculated to heighten polarities and sabotage the sort of receptive discourse that might lead to moderation of positions, convergence, and a bilateral rapprochement. The offence-troll is the extremist who will countenance no compromise and seeks to ensure that all perceive the opposing side to be unreasonable and intractable aggressors. The offence-troll is usually a reactive individual, who wishes to encourage reactivity in others. Consequently, while they could engage critically with their opponents’ most careful and representative statements in contexts where the sensitive are not present, they choose to broadcast distorted and decontextualized extreme statements of their opponents – statements which their opponents will generally have given in more bounded contexts – as widely as they can.
The offence-troll derails conversation, presenting the most extreme voices within a movement as representative of the whole, the isolated ill-worded and uncharitably interpreted statement as the hermeneutical key to the entire ideological system they are arguing against, or the case of abuse through rejection of the practice of the belief system as its paradigm case. By framing the opposition in such a manner and breaking down the conversation on other fronts, the offence-troll loads all of the questions that will be asked of the opponents, making it incredibly difficult to recover meaningful discourse.
The offence-troll also empowers the extreme voices of the opposing camp (who are often trolls themselves). Moderate or balanced opposition views will not be engaged with or reported, as they threaten the desired polarization, a polarization that is in the best interests of the offence-troll.
Offence-trolls and their ilk tend to use the sensitivities and offence of persons within their communities in a fairly predictable manner. Their tactics are incredibly dirty, although I suspect that these tactics are usually employed without a great deal of calculation or consideration. I doubt that most have given much thought to what they are doing.
As Pastor Wilson and others have argued, there are strategic offence-takers. Such individuals may pretend that they have been genuinely and personally hurt or offended, or feign greater feelings of offence than they actually have. The offence-troll is not usually the most vulnerable person. They go out of their way to find offensive material. However, they frequently try to surround themselves with people who genuinely are vulnerable and highly sensitive.
Offence-trolls do not show much regard for the sensitivity and vulnerability of those within their communities, as they routinely expose such persons to the most extreme and potentially offensive statements from opponents. Those opponents are then denounced by the offence-troll as cruel and evil bullies. The offence-troll, morally outraged by the statements of the opponents, will rush forward to attack them, treating any attempt to respond as grossly insensitive and cruel.
This is a tactic that should be familiar to all of us. It is called the ‘human shield’. While terrorists using a human shield will express deep sorrow over the harm caused to those who get hurt, they don’t genuinely care: if they genuinely cared about the lives of vulnerable non-combatants they wouldn’t be using them as a human shield in the first place.
The value of the human shield is twofold: 1) it protects your position from attack, while allowing you to be as offensive as you wish; 2) it gives incredible propaganda value when vulnerable non-combatants are hurt or injured. In some instances, terrorists will even show such callousness towards their human shields that they will seek to draw their enemy’s fire in the direction of the human shield, merely to make the most of the propaganda value (this is where much of the value of offence-trolling comes from). Of course, the terrorists using the human shield approach always present their enemies as the great aggressors and threats to the vulnerable non-combatants, and themselves as the noble defenders and protectors of the weak.
The vulnerable non-combatants in this scenario seldom perceive that they are in a human shield situation. They regard the offence-trolls as their heroic defenders. Onlookers will also frequently fail to grasp the true dynamics of the situation: to them the opponents of the offence-takers will often appear to be the unreasonable aggressors.
The use of a ‘human shield’ to close down challenging conversations and to protect cultural movements from criticism or resistance is a tried and tested tactic. Those using it will seek to prime vulnerable persons for offence as much as possible and then bring them into contact with the strong language of the opponents of the offence-troll’s viewpoint. The tears and hurt that result – the tears of the bullied gay teen who has been taught to think that opponents of same sex marriage believe that God hates him, or the deep fear of the abused woman who believes that the complementarian pastor is seeking to support the male dominance over women involved in rape culture – are then presented as evidence of the cruelty of opponents’ viewpoints, and used to close their voices down. While the offence-troll expresses deep sorrow at the aggression of their opponents and the hurt caused to the vulnerable, there is a hypocrisy and disingenuousness to such declarations of sentiment.
Such situations present us with difficult choices. If we come into such a situation with all truths blazing, we will be perceived as the aggressors, and vulnerable individuals will run from truths that could liberate them, will support those who are employing them as a human shield, and become even more persuaded of their claims. Such a result is especially likely where fair-minded fence-sitters start to become persuaded by the claims of those using the human shield.
To resolve the situation we need first to expose its true character. Unless it becomes very clear to the vulnerable individuals and the many onlookers that they are being used as a human shield by those who claim to be their protectors and that their supposed enemies are actually deeply and genuinely concerned for and committed to securing their good, the situation is lost.
If we respond without regard for the human shield that is being employed, merely blaming the wounded innocents on the offence-troll, we become little better than the debate terrorists themselves. We must go to whatever lengths we can to protect the vulnerable and the weak from genuine spiritual or psychological harm, while seeking to present those employing the human shield to tyrannize their opponents and get their way in the debate for what they are. This demands far more careful, measured, and guarded rhetorical approaches.
The way that we treat the vulnerable and the abused is frequently a central issue in these ‘discussion’. For this reason our language and approach will come under especial scrutiny: our concern for the vulnerable really must be transparently genuine in such a context. Actions outweigh words in such situations, and it will be in the demonstration of a greater true concern for the protection of the weak and the representation and hearing of their voices than other’s partially feigned concern that debates will be won. No matter what truth there may be to our words, if our concern for the vulnerable is not transparent in action, we have lost (and I would be inclined to add that if our concern for the vulnerable is not transparent, we deserve to lose). We can only refute the falsehoods by our actions in the debate: our words are not enough.
The role of fair-minded onlookers in such debates is crucial, and they should be the people that we seek to win over. They often play a deciding role in determining the result of debates. Unless we act very carefully, such persons will buy into the claims of those using the human shield.
The Loss of Truth
One of the most troubling consequences of the culture of offence and the reorientation of discourse around sensitivities is a loss of regard for truth. In challenging discourse, the ultimate goal is to expose the strengths and weaknesses of different arguments and interpretations, revealing truth through this process. In discourse focused on sensitivities, personal validation and the affirmation of people’s feelings and perspectives takes priority over truth.
As I have already stated, not all conversations need to be driven by an uncompromising quest for truth. Some conversations are appropriately focused upon ensuring that people feel loved, accepted, and included, whoever they are, whatever they believe, and however they live their lives. The problem arises when all discourses must adopt this character. When this occurs, the criteria of truth can be neglected or even abandoned in favour of palliative falsehoods.
One of the striking things to witness in the recent debate was how ‘you can’t say that – how utterly beastly!’ style responses to the statements of Pastor Wilson and others took such priority over responses that critically challenged and engaged with his statements as truth claims. The offence-value of Pastor Wilson’s statements seemingly overwhelmed any need carefully to ascertain and probe their truth-value. In the same way, any attempt to argue that Rachel Held Evans’s response involved the overwhelming of reason, argument, and evidence by emotion produced a predictably appalled reaction that one should employ such a sexist stereotype to dismiss a woman’s claims. The supposed offence value of the claim nullified any need to ascertain its truth value.
A further striking thing was the sort of statements that were made in response to Pastor Wilson. All sorts of wild claims and accusations were thrown around. For instance, Pastor Wilson and Jared were accused of being ‘rape apologists’ and ‘praising marital rape’. The offending post was described as ‘overtly misogynistic’ and their position as being ‘about power’ rather than about such things as Scripture. Complementarianism was repeatedly described as being about ‘man’s rule over woman’. Several other highly tendentious and questionable claims were also made about Pastor Wilson’s personal position. Making unfounded accusations (or what the ninth commandment refers to as ‘bearing false witness’) of such a serious nature against another person is not a matter to be taken lightly. However, little attempt was made to make a case in support of such claims – they were merely asserted.
In a society oriented around sensitivities over truth, hurting someone’s feelings can come to be treated as a far more egregious offence than bearing false witness against one’s neighbour. Love is defined relative to feelings, rather than the objective character of actions. The truth value of words and the factual accuracy of statements cease to be matters of primary concern: the validity of words arises not from their accurate communication of the objective character of affairs, but from their emotive, affective, and expressive value, that is, from the feelings of the one who utters them or the one who hears them. I have come to suspect that referring to one’s opponent as a ‘rape apologist’, for instance, is less a truth statement about the objective state of affairs, a statement that one is prepared to defend against criticism with careful arguments, and more an expressive communication of the emotive reaction of the speaker, a statement relatively indifferent to the truth value of the words being employed. This impression is reinforced as one seeks to challenge and question such claims as truth claims. They seldom offer or show much interest in offering a defence for themselves as their justification arises from the person’s own feelings, not from the objective meaning of the words, or the relation that they bear to reality.
This encourages an attitude that treats offensive words as commensurable with lying words. If someone says something that offends you, there is no need to challenge it as a truth claim: the mere fact of the offence justifies your responding with an unfounded accusation for which you have little basis. The speed with which people were prepared to brand Pastor Wilson a misogynist, advocating male violence over women, was breathtaking, suggesting a failure to engage closely with the evidence and to produce careful support of a position that would justify such incredibly serious accusations. Complete ignorance of Pastor Wilson’s more developed position was much in evidence. It is hard to believe that such a rush to judgment is characteristic of persons with a high regard for truth and the importance of the ninth commandment.
Let me stress, I do not believe that people are generally purposefully lying about positions such as Pastor Wilson’s. Rather, I suspect that the culture of offence produces an indifference to truth, as emotions and offence take priority. The truth or falsity of people’s words takes a backseat to the immediacy and strength of the feelings and emotions expressed or produced by them. The liar seeks to deceive, but the reactive speaker merely uses words to play a sort of emotional or expressive ping-pong, without giving thought to the truth value of their utterances (we should rightly recognize this as a form of ‘bullshit’). This sort of speech is demonstrated by the person who says things that they don’t truly mean when extremely angry with another person: the words that such persons speak are chosen merely because they will sting, not because, after careful consideration, they genuinely believe that what they are saying is true, or that they have grounds for arguing it.
As Christians, truth should be the central concern of our speech. A form of discourse that reveals truth and falsehood and which exposes us to realities that unsettle, threaten, and discomfort us must be integral to our life as the Church. At the heart of the culture of offence is the idol of feelings, an idol for which the God we worship shows little regard. God praises persons who overcome the dangerous sense of pity for those who wilfully reject him. God condemns those who are overly concerned about the regard of men, or who pander to the feelings of others in a manner that compromises their witness to the truth. God presents our own feelings as common obstacles to the reception of the gospel message and the life of discipleship.
We need to be attentive to the needs of the weak and vulnerable, and to provide support and protection for those who could be hurt by exposure to overly strong discourse. This involves maintaining clear boundaries for certain forms of discourse for their sake, addressing sensitive issues carefully when in their presence, and trying to keep straight-talking treatments of such issues to contexts where people are equipped to deal with them. As I pointed out in a previous post, the Internet presents us with particular challenges on these fronts. We should also seek to strengthen the weak, so that they can participate more widely in our communities’ conversations.
In maintaining these boundaries we need to ensure that the weak and vulnerable are kept out of our strongest forms of challenging discourse, while ensuring that their concerns are represented within them. We need to ensure that those in these conversations always prioritize truth over sensitivity, and that they can show a high pain tolerance for the discomfort and feelings of others, when that discomfort or those feelings would prevent them from upholding or pursuing the truth, or would cow them into submission to unjustifiable demands.
Towards the end of my next post I hope to move onto the question of appropriate leadership and alternative forms of community – an issue that is especially important in this context. If we are to overcome the culture of offence, it will only be through such firm leadership, a mastery over and wisdom in our words and speech, and healthier forms of community.
Nearly 11,000 words! Seriously, that is a tenth of a PhD thesis. I have read parts 1, 2 and 3 and enjoyed them. I am keen to look at this, perhaps when I am next on holiday!
For what it is worth (and probably irrelevant to the post), I have found Wilson helpful in modifying my position and making me take more responsibility for those activities I should be responsible for (ie. more concerned with responsibility that authority). I am very likely a better person for his works. This is despite the fact that I disagree with several aspects of his theology.
Like you, I have very mixed feelings about Pastor Wilson (as you might be able to tell from the comments in my previous post). I have gained much from his work in the past, but have some areas of strong disagreement with him, not just in the content of his theology, but more importantly with regard to the sort of movement that his approach has formed around him. My interest in this particular debate is less with defending Pastor Wilson (although I want to expose the falsity of some of the claims that have been made about him along the way) than with exploring the manner in which we debate, and speaking out against what I regard as an especially dangerous form that discourse often takes within Christian circles online nowadays.
If only writing a PhD thesis was as easy as churning out words like those above! I could comfortably be done in – an admittedly rather crazy – two weeks. 🙂
“As Pastor Wilson and others have argued, there are strategic offence-takers”
There has never been a culture in which there was a completely detached heterotopic space. The history of cultures that stressed ‘classic rhetoric’ throws up plenty of examples in which the heterotopic space was either influenced by or influenced standard discourse. Additionally, the degree of latitude that was acceptable in such a space was heavily influenced by relative real world social status.
There are also strategic offence-givers. When someone has a history of coming up with off-the-piste conclusions on virtually every topic they pronounce on, they either operate according to a completely disjoint set of presuppositions to everyone else, or they are reverse engineering their presuppositions to fit their arguments.
Thanks for the comment, Chris.
First of all, my point here is not to argue for the return to some supposed golden age. The different forms of discourse that I identify are types and tendencies, never perfectly and fully instantiated.
Second, of course heterotopic space is never ‘completely detached’. The very purpose of heterotopic space is to provide a space within which real world differences can be negotiated. If there were a complete disconnect this purpose could not be served. Heterotopic space (the space of the game, the liturgy, the debate, the ritual combat, etc.) is about distance and differentiation in relation. It is never utterly cut off from standard discourse and relations: if it were, it would be at risk of being pointless. Rather the heterotopy is like a membrane, providing limits on what passes between the two levels of discourse. Lacking such a membrane for their discourse, reactive persons cannot adequately handle the conflict appropriate to challenging discourse.
Yes, there are also strategic offence-givers. A culture of offence can also empower such persons by giving them lots of attention. Offence-takers always feed these sorts of trolls, and offence-trolls and these more conventional trolls have a sort of symbiotic relationship.
Offence-giving really isn’t about the conclusions that people reach, though. Unconventional, contrarian, and shocking conclusions are not necessarily matters of offence-giving. Holding lots of ‘off-the-piste conclusions’ does not make you an offence-giver. Even in the case of those who are offence-givers, a conclusion, if it is supported by an argument, even if intentionally shocking, provocative, or a case of devil’s advocacy should seldom be treated as a matter of offence. People may try to give offence in such a manner, but offence must be taken, and we should know better than to take offence at people who try to troll in such a manner.
Offence-giving is when you purposefully set out to offend and when your rhetoric and arguments are purposefully calculated to serve this end. There are occasions when it is perfectly legitimate to offend and to do so purposefully. However, I think that some people, such as Pastor Wilson, use offence-giving to a degree that is unjustifiable. While Pastor Wilson isn’t a troll who seeks to give offence above all else, he does take the legitimate ridicule of feeble, unsportsmanlike, or wilful offence-taking opponents too far, to a point where genuinely vulnerable people are hurt.
“Rather the heterotopy is like a membrane, providing limits on what passes between the two levels of discourse.”
More than that. ‘heterotopic space’ operates best between two other-acknowledged equals, rhetoric in ‘heterotopic space’ can serve to undermine this outside context.
“Holding lots of ‘off-the-piste conclusions’ does not make you an offence-giver.”
No, those were separate clauses, and I should have been more clear about that. However, I do think that there is a certain type of person who judges the correctness of a conclusion by its ability to offend the wrong (right) sorts of people.
I am not certain of what your first point is: I think that I have an idea, but would prefer to be sure. Could you clarify your meaning?
And, yes, I completely agree with your second point.
Two senators could spar in ‘heterotopic space’ so long as they were convinced that the other saw them as an equal – thus rendering anything that might be said a mere rhetorical flourish rather than something to be taken personally. The suspicion that there was genuine condescension or superiority behind any of the remarks would collapse the space. ‘Heterotopy’ was highly stylised and worked so long as everyone abided by the its unwritten rules.
Furthermore there were certain people with whom you could never enter the space – father/son, man/woman etc – because they were never likely to be social equals.
So, if one is about to use this kind of rhetoric on the internet, it helps if one doesn’t have a history of looking down on all ones opponents, otherwise claims of indulging in mere rhetoric ring hollow, no matter by what standards one claims to want to be judged.
Thanks for the clarification, Chris.
I can agree to an extent with this. It relates to the point that I made near the beginning of my post: the widening of our discourse to include parties formerly marginalized, vulnerable, or less privileged is one of the underlying problems here. Heterotopic space does have a vulnerability and can be much harder to maintain in a discourse with deep power differentials.
Women always had a problematic relationship to classical rhetoric for various reasons, and were often largely excluded from it. The movement away from classical rhetoric and disputation in our education system is likely related to the fact of women’s greater inclusion. The problems of women’s participation is related to the combative nature of the discourse, and the fact that women are typically given a degree of sympathy and protection from society that men are denied (this is similar to one of the major problems with having women on the front line in war). Men are socially sensitized to women and tend to protect them, which can derail combative conversations in mixed environments and can also make it hard for men to challenge women without looking like bullies. Some have argued that the restriction of the judgment of prophecies to men in 1 Corinthians 14 might be related to this issue.
That said, I am not sure that this is a sufficient explanation, nor that the rest of what you remark upon necessarily follows. Social equality is not the real issue. The real issue is the ability of the other party to sustain the ritual combat of disputation, and the possibility and appropriateness of conflictual discourse between the two parties. Generational and gender differences are associated with differentiated forms of speech (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:1-2) that can make such conversation difficult. However, if you are speaking with someone of the same gender and generation level, who has the capacity for combative discourse, other forms of social equality need not be such a factor.
In fact, where both parties have the thick skin and rhetorical ability to sustain such combat, it is often the social superior that is the more vulnerable. When faced with a party of lower status, but well trained in logic and rhetoric, the social superiority of the other party doesn’t count for much and they have to fight on an equal playing field. This is why, throughout history, many social inferior parties have eagerly sought the conflict of debate, rightly believing that it was at such a point that their opponents were most vulnerable. Both those who like pushing their weight around and those who like using underhand tactics will often try to avoid open debate.
This continues to be pretty accurate and helpful analysis. Thanks! This all rang even more true as I happened to read it while sitting in a lounge where Al Sharpton was on the tube droning on a very long political rant on MSNBC. Fortunately it was muted.
I know you didn’t mean to (from your earlier comment), but I also got the feeling you were advocating (or at least wishing) for a return to some sort of golden age where debates could take place in troll-free sealed forums where the riff raff is kept in proper ignorance of the frenzied discourse. I look forward to hearing what sort of constructive alternatives you have in mind in the next installment. It seems that it must start with community and healthy relationships rather than by reforming education. Better instruction can give us more accurate BS detectors, but they are no good if we only use them half the time.
Yes, I don’t believe that there was some golden age on this front. That said, when it comes to quality of discourse, ours can often feel like a ‘leaden age’, where many of the strengths of the past have been lost or compromised.
One of the underlying problems, as I see it (something I gestured towards at the beginning of my post), is that discourse has become incredibly complicated by genuine social gains. A more inclusive, less marginalizing, and more connected society leads to profound difficulties in the area of discourse. Traditional forms of education and discourse, which focused on privileged men, could accommodate far more conflictual forms of discourse than more inclusive forms of education and discourse can easily accommodate. Amidst the undeniable gains, there have been genuine losses here.
I think that any movement towards solutions must address the problem on several fronts. All of the parts are interconnected. For instance, community and healthy relationships cannot be detached from the ways that education teaches us to relate our differences, or the forms of connection that our media create between us.
Alastair. I want to encourage you to keep going on this series. I’m finding it very helpful.
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I believe there are two things going on here – the first is the ‘feminization’ of discourse which you describe; the second is a decline in the cognitive ability (general intelligence) of participants at any level of discourse:
The outcome is that there is zero substantive discourse and 100 percent emoting in most public discourse.
The recent debate and response to the Synod vote on priestess-bishops was an obvious example. (As a traditional Christian, with conservative evangelical and Orthodox sympathies, my own perspective is obvious.)
What was notable is that those advocating change to introduce priestess-bishops were unwilling to state their opponents perspective but moved straight to inferences about their motivations – and beyond this, so complete was the absence of any such: I believe that the majority of ‘yes’ vote advocates were *unable* to state their opponents perspective. I mean that they could not understand it, in any abstract sense – which was why they were unable to state it and were reduced to name calling and vilification.
While I believe this applies to the majority – what of the minority of clever scholars who advocated ‘yes’, yet never stated any grounds for their opinion other than obviously unChristian slogans such as ‘get with the programme’/ ‘the church must move with the times’?
I suspect that these clever chaps (like Rowan Williams and Tom Wright) are afraid to admit the grounds for their belief, because these grounds are so complex/ imprecise as to sound arbitrary (as indeed they might be). For example, Wright could scarcely come out and state what he seems to believe: that 2000 years of Theologians got important things fundamentally wrong until NT Wright came along to set everybody right!
Anyway – my point is that I agree with your diagnosis, but would add a second: incompetence. Most participants in public debate are incapable of abstract thought. Yet public discourse is predicated on this competence. So we (necessarily) get dishonesty, crude and distorted misrepresentation, and a pseudo-rationality which is actually mere sloganeering.
PS: I live up the road from you, in Newcastle.
Thanks for the comment, Bruce! It is always good to hear from a reader in the locality: the vast majority of my readers are on the other side of the Atlantic.
I wonder whether the issue really is intelligence per se, or whether it is the loss of a particular form of intelligence (and, more importantly, as I shall go on to argue, a particular form of commitment to biblical authority). It seems to me that we too easily class all intelligence as commensurable and qualitatively alike. However, I would argue that there are different forms of intelligence. There is a sort of conformist intelligence, an intelligence that is trained to think in terms of a particular vision or system and is the slave to that system or vision. Such intelligence can be very sharp, but thinking solely and ever more consistently in terms of the logic of a single system tends to drive deep ruts into people’s brains, stifling imagination and making it nigh on impossible for them to think differently about things. This can produce a situation where the very sharpest conformist thinkers (one meets them at the highest level of education, not just lower down) are the least able to break out of mental habit and see things differently.
The form of intelligence that we are losing is agentic intelligence, the sort of intelligence that is characterized by imagination, originality, creativity, agonism, system-questioning, dialecticism, disputation, confident holding of one’s own corner, risk-taking, etc., a form of intelligence that its very highest level takes the form of ‘genius’ (people too quickly presume that all forms of intelligence when pursued lead to genius). People with agentic intelligence, as they are used to thinking about things through challenge, the interaction of multiple perspectives, imaginative engagement, and through a deep, probing, and questioning understanding of a system’s rules, rather than mere unquestioning assumption of them, are far more able to understand other points of view from the inside. Those who only know how to think in terms of a single system lack this capacity and so will always caricature their opponents.
The examples that you suggest in relation to the recent Synod vote are perfect cases in point. As you say, a significant number of those in favour of women bishops were seemingly incapable of understanding or articulating the logic of the other perspective. As a result, they were incapable of genuine persuasive dialogue with it and just fell into accusations and name-calling. I rather like the style of debate that demands that you must state your opponents’ viewpoint to their satisfaction before you can proceed to criticize it. Had such rules been applied to the recent Synod, one wonders how many supporters of women bishops would have been able to move on to making their own case.
In fairness to Rowan Williams and N.T. Wright, reading them on the subject, I get the impression that their arguments are not advancing their position on the ‘get with the programme’ or ‘church must move with the times’ line. Wright makes his opposition to this line clear here. Williams’ statements on the subject have also been widely misinterpreted, it seems to me. Rather than saying that we must move with the times, he is lamenting a situation where the Church has become utterly unintelligible to the society, not just the herald of the radical upside logic of a heavenly kingdom, but something alien, bewildering, and bizarre, as no one in the wider society seemed to have the slightest idea of how people in the Church of England could arrive at such a conclusion, even as a theological one. I think that both Wright and Williams are seriously mistaken in their support of women bishops: the strained and tenuous exegetical argumentation of Wright on such passages as 1 Timothy 2 is enough to indicate that something is amiss here.
I don’t think that Wright and Williams are incapable of abstract thought. In fact, I don’t know many people in the UK today who are more capable abstract thinkers than Williams (also, unlike many of the other parties in the discussion, I believe that Williams is exceedingly capable when it comes to agentic thought).
However, abstract – or even agentic – thought isn’t what we ultimately need in this debate. We need thought powerfully normed by Scripture and imaginations steeped in Scripture. It is this that I believe that the recent Synod vote displayed the lack of. The abstraction of Williams’ thought is part of the problem: it tends to lack firm roots in the substance of scriptural teaching and so can arrive at highly subtle and refined conclusions that run contrary to the clear word of divine revelation. Williams thinks in terms of abstract theological systems, more so than in the humbler terms of Scripture. Wright has a far deeper grasp of biblical logic, but on this subject (as on some others) succumbs to sophistic arguments in support of conclusions seemingly arrived at on other grounds.
Thanks again for the thoughtful comment!
Dr. Charlton is an absolutely brilliant, if extremely mercurial, scientist and thinker who does indeed live just up the road from you. He is a fairly recent convert (past few years) to Christianity. He has written a whole book on political correctness:
He tends to go off on some wild tangents, but with that caveat, he is well worth engaging with.
Interesting! Frankly, I far prefer thinkers who are prepared to go off piste from time to time than those who stick to well-trodden but entirely predictable lines. Whether or not one agrees with them, one is almost invariably stimulated to think for oneself. Hopefully our paths will cross in person at some point.
Liberals tend to score high in one of the big five personality traits: openness to experience, but ironically tend to have a low tolerance for conflict.
Yes, I have heard that. The low tolerance for conflict can be stifling at times. As these posts should make clear, I am firmly in favour of a dialogue characterized by both civility and agonism, but such discourse demands that we all develop thicker skins and don’t allow truth to be held hostage by empathy.
Jonathan Haidt’s work on differences between liberals and conservatives also seems appropriate. Left liberals tend to reduce all morality to harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, basically utilitarianism with a bit of Rawls on top, so every moral issue seems to come down to the question of whether someone is hurting. Transcendental goods such as truth or beauty don’t seem to matter.
(I should note that I’m using these terms in the N. American sense, where liberal is the equivalent of leftist in Europe. Liberal in the UK and European sense would be the equivalent of libertarian here.)
I have read a number of Haidt’s articles and seen his TED talk. I think that he stops short of identifying the core underlying issues at various points. The principle of harm/care, for instance, gains much of its ‘cash value’ from the anthropology that it presupposes. Utilitarianism’s definition of ‘harm’ is incredibly slippery because, ultimately, it is fairly arbitrary, covering for deeper metaphysical convictions.
Perhaps you could explain. I do think that utilitarianism’s definition of harm is pretty thin, reducible to subjective experience of pain or pleasure, but it does seem to be the sincere belief of large portions of the population.
Looking at the way that the harm principle functions within liberal discourse, for instance, it seems to me that it is frequently characterized by profoundly circular thinking. The harm principle is used to justify favoured positions on personal liberties, but favoured positions on personal liberties are also used to justify favoured formulations of the harm principle.
Liberal thinkers are those who employ the harm principle the most, but on the face of it their applications of the harm principle seem to be riddled with indeterminacies, inconsistencies, and paradoxes. I suggest that this is because the harm principle is not really the deepest source of the liberal moral sense, but is often a casuistic façade for convictions whose true rationale lies elsewhere. The harm principle resonates with all of us in its most immediate forms, and liberal ethics can traffic on the basis of this instinctive appeal. However, we need to recognize that the harm principle, by itself, is fairly empty. Much of the key content of the harm principle is imported from elsewhere, from an underlying set of anthropological convictions, which help us to determine what does and what does not constitute harm. By this means liberal convictions can merely be postulated, without actually being demonstrated. It provides the illusion that liberal moral convictions rest upon something more rational and certain than a tendentious and disputable moral aesthetic.
I suggest that an examination of the way that many liberals apply the harm principle will help to reveal the contours of the underlying anthropology that is at play. For instance, why would many liberals condemn the practice of consensual gladiatorial-style sports before purely consensual audiences as harmful to the character of society, while firmly opposing obscenity regulations? What accounts for the differences in the ways that cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs are spoken about? Why is the harm principle applied so rigorously in areas of health and safety, but fairly loosely in the area of pornography? How about the comparisons and contrasts between the ways that blasphemy and ‘hate speech’ are treated and defined? What are the underlying convictions that drive our understanding of the ‘harm’ caused by something such as divorce and the obstacles that should be presented to those seeking one? Why is the risk entailed to the individual by smoking such a cause for stigmatization, while the frequently higher risks associated with libertine lifestyles are completely justified and even celebrated? Etc.
I suggest that the answer to many of these questions lies in an understanding of the liberal conception of the self. Certain dominant strains of liberal anthropology emphasize the physical and sexual dimensions of the person, but have little regard for the moral and the spiritual self. Actually, there might be a better way to express this: these anthropologies moralize the physical self and have sexuality as its spirituality. For this reason, they will tend to be hostile to any approach that postulates a morality that exceeds the merely physical, or a spirituality that might place constraints upon the sexual.
There are many other commitments within underlying liberal anthropologies. The most important of these is that the individual is the fundamental unit of explanation. Consequently, social entities and institutions such as marriage, the family, the Church, the community, the society, or the state will always be secondary, and the individual can always be abstracted from them. The fact that these entities are external to the self, and the self is external to these entities is crucial for the liberal application of the harm principle. If we are connected at a deeper level, the harm principle becomes much more complicated, as my actions, even in private, will always have implications for the wider social organism, and the wider social organism will always have claims upon me and my actions. Harm to the dignity of an institution will be taken much more seriously. Within such liberal anthropologies children will generally be problematic. Related to this is the principle of the autonomy of bodies, which treats all of our bodies as if they were entirely our own, and detached from others, downplaying the significance of the bonds of blood, conjugality, biological parenthood, and common human nature (one reason why liberals can struggle to articulate the rationale for their instinctive opposition to consensual incest). There is the assumption of the fundamental privacy of ends, which questions the naturalness of common goods, which we all have a duty to maintain.
Several other dimensions could be mentioned, but the important thing to recognize here, it seems to me, is that the harm principle is far from a univocally received principle, and that the differences in its application reveal that the source of differences between different forms of liberals and conservatives (and others, for that matter) reside at a deeper level. I suggest that we would be better off openly articulating our fundamental anthropological convictions, rather than allowing them to masquerade under other principles, which will only obfuscate the moral reasoning that is really determinative for us.
I would sum it up in a more basic way: liberalism is the political and moral expression of the idea that all that is really real is the material world (“atoms and the void”) and subjective experience and desire. It refuses, for example, to recognize something like beauty or God as having any independent existence, as being anything other as “something you and I happen to like” or “something that is real to me.”
The materialism and the emphasis on experience don’t always go so well together though; hence the wild swings between extreme scientism and extreme subjectivism, and why, broadly considered, it can accomodate such disparate characters as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham, Victor Hugo, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Jacques Derrida, Elizabeth Gilbert, Richard Dawkins, Eckhart Tolle and who knows all else. Of course, New Age religion and postmodernism are incapable of making decisions about anything, so scientism tends to win when it comes to day to day politics.
In which case you’d have to subsume much of any real modern conservatism under the banner of liberalism also. As it has a similar focus on the physical world.
I would argue that much modern ‘conservatism’ has deeply imbibed many liberal assumptions along the way.
So would I – but on that basis the original comment is more of an ad-hominem statement attacking ‘liberals’ than anything else.
I think that we have to be careful not to treat ‘liberalism’ as a catch-all term for the things that we oppose. There may actually be much in liberalism that we could stand to learn from. Rather than letting it become a word designed to evoke a pantomime-style ‘boo, hiss’ reaction, greater accuracy in designation of liberalism can help us to respond to it in a more careful and thoughtful manner, to recognize and grant the valid points that the movement makes, while clearly identifying the problems at its heart.
In which case you’d have to subsume much of any real modern conservatism under the banner of liberalism also. As it has a similar focus on the physical world.</i.
Absolutely. You're catching on fast.
While this may definitely be a common way of thinking in a contemporary context, is ‘liberalism’ really the right word for it?
Scientism and subjectivism aren’t liberalism in themselves. Rather, liberalism is the application of scientism and subjectivism to the world of politics.
My concern is that we don’t lose sight of the fact that ‘liberalism’ is a concrete historical and ideological movement, with complex forms and developments, not just a floppy term for a vague sensibility. This is why I start to feel a little nervous when such bold claims are made about its character, without enough of a genealogical account or close contemporary analysis to back them up.
I don’t think liberalism can be reduced to a historical movement in our own culture. It seems to be more of a universal human tendency (or related tendencies) that comes (or come) out in certain historical circumstances. If you look at ancient China or even ancient Greece, you see the exact same ideas at work. The Mohists (followers of Mo Tzu), for example, developed a scientistic, utopian, technocratic, and utilitarian ideology virtually identical to what we have now. (The Legalists were almost identical to our own Western fascists, and the Confucians are very, very close to our own traditionalist conservatives.)
The main problem that I see with all of this, Thursday, is that you are using familiar words in loose and unfamiliar ways. I don’t believe that such usage actually sheds light on the subject. I am very wary of appeals to universal human ideological tendencies that merely assert themselves, rather than justifying themselves through the nitty-gritty of very close historical and ideological analysis of the particular movements in question. Some of us, among whom I count myself, won’t be so ready to grant you your claims that, give or take a little, particular movements vastly separated in time, culture, and space approximate to much the same thing. You will really have to persuade us of this first, proving that, in the process of making such a case, you do not do violence to the historical particularity of the movements that you are seeking to explain.
A good place to start would be these essays:
I’d also suggest the original texts. The translations of the Chinese philosophers by David Hinton and Burton Watson make excellent reading.
Skimming both articles, I think that my concern with both of them is their tendency to sweeping generalization, flattening out of differences, stereotyping, etc. While I am very happy to draw attention to common patterns, I believe that we understand movements by close attention to the way that they work in their context. What words such as family, state, centralization, individuality, tradition, institution, etc. mean varies wildly from context to context, even between cultures as closely related as those of the US and the UK. I believe that we need considerably more careful spadework before we can even contemplate comparing such distant cultures, let alone claiming that they are driven by essentially the same impetus.
This is largely a difference of core methodological convictions. I believe that generalizing ideological analyses that are willing to sacrifice the clarity of the particular for a sense of universal movements of thought are not to be trusted, that illumination must involve much closer attention to history and its peculiarities, and that the sacrifice of these for tidy patterns can easily lead to confusion and a form of thought that is so generalized that it lacks the capacity to speak clearly into the unique particularities of a contemporary context. Historical analogies do exist, but we must exercise great caution and care in drawing them.
I hasten to add that I think there could be a genuine religious left. One could easily imagine a group advocating for the material interests of the lower and middle classes as against the interests of the elite, within the context of a traditional society. We are after all material beings, though we aren’t just that.
But I don’t think this holds for much of the contemporary “religious” left, like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo. They may be fine fellows to have a drink with, but when push comes to shove they radically subordinate all other political goods to a concern for the material well-being of the poor. In short, it is hardly surprising that they have been totally co-opted into the worst sort of vulgar utilitarianism.
Does one really have to be on the left in order to take seriously the biblical injunctions to serve the poor? Or, to the extent that one does, should it not be the right that is accused of co-option and vulgar caricature of the gospel?
While I do not share the positions of key figures of the ‘religious left’ on a number of important issues, this strikes me as a very uncharitable and unjustified representation of them. Surely we can disagree sharply with them without demonizing them?
Well, Jim Wallis, for example, has said that Christians shouldn’t be so concerned about “below the belt” issues, not realizing of course that issues of sexual morality are intimately bound up with the causes of poverty. Giving someone some money to get off their feet in the context of a society with strong social norms and moral taboos is a radically different act than giving someone a cheque in a society where there are no such obligations. Wallis seems to think these things are separable from each other. So, at least in the political realm, I do not think it unfair at all to say he has subordinated everything to the material.
First, is a concern for justice and provision for the poor really just about the ‘material’? That is a fairly bold suggestion that needs to be defended, rather than just presumed. Surely such concern for the poor is absolutely essential to true religion and spirituality.
Second, I think that Wallis probably recognizes this connection, but also recognizes that the causality runs in both directions. An individualistic society driven by the inclinations of unchecked capitalism will tend to dislocate people’s lives from substantial communities, undermine social webs of support (ironically making many people more dependant on government), and lead to the weakening of institutions such as marriage and family, which challenge the celebration of free and autonomous choice that is at the heart of our capitalist system (I am frequently baffled by how widespread and unquestioned the assumption that championing free capitalism is the conservative position actually is). The symptoms of a broken system will reveal themselves primarily among the poor and the marginalized. Pushing individual sexual morality isn’t enough if we are not seeking to tackle the wider systemic and social forces in this area, which Wallis is attempting to do.
Third, reducing this to an issue of supporting handouts strikes me as simplistic. The greater concern of the left is establishing systemic and social justice, not just subsidizing the supposed immorality of the poor (‘supposed’ because the immorality of the poor really isn’t the sufficient explanation of their poverty that the right often treats it as; this immorality is all too often in large measure a result of the immorality of the system and the rich, a sort of immorality that the right is far too quiet about).
Pushing individual sexual morality isn’t enough if we are not seeking to tackle the wider systemic and social forces in this area, which Wallis is attempting to do.
Through an entirely materialist politics. (Note that I’m not saying that Wallis is a materialist, just that his politics are.)
Why must it be an entirely ‘materialistic’ politics? What makes it such? Is it an entirely materialistic politics in Wallis’s own terms, or just in terms of your framing? Would he recognize his position in your critique? Isn’t Wallis calling for a form of politics deeply informed by Christian faith and commitment? Is that ‘materialistic’? Is Wallis reducing everything to politics? Is he denying the existence of values and a realm that transcend political values? Is he suggesting that politics is sufficient to secure morality? Is he saying that moral issues can be completely reduced to problems of unjust economics and politics and lack of material provision? Is he not challenging the subordination of everything to the material on some levels, but calling us to take moral and spiritual responsibility for the soul of our culture, rather than just surrendering it to the material forces of the market?
While I disagree with Wallis sharply on certain of these issues, I think that it is crucial that we represent him fairly and charitably. If our own positions are really worth holding, they will be more than sufficient to respond to a position presented in the most generous and fair manner we can.
Wallis apparently thinks it is imperative to support a political party which has made it clear that transcendent truths and values has no place in public life. He does not recognize that a politics which does not incorporate such truths and values is likely to be futile. He has not just called for Christians to focus more on the poor, but to actually deemphasize sexual and cultural issues. Why doesn’t he, for example, champion stricter divorce laws, not necessarily on their own, but as a part of a comprehensive strategy? Why doesn’t he come out and say that without some socially conservative policies to go along with them, leftist economic policies are doomed to fail. The answer is clear: because he thinks that measures intended to affect poor on a purely material basis will actually have a significant effect on the poor.
Now, he would doubtless say that the church can take care of the transcendent values and the state will take care of purely material concerns. But that again is a radical bifurcating of the political from the spiritual, which I would again have to classify as a material politics.
People’s self definitions matter, but are never determinative. Wallis pragmatically supports, without much qualification, a party that is promoting a _very_ secular political order, and it is hard to discern how his Christian faith has led him to support policies that differ in any way from those that the most purely secular person would. Again, I don’t think it unfair to characterize his politics as materialist. That others on the right are not much less materialist, is not to the issue.
I am wary of judging people too much on the basis of their political tactics and also of assuming that we can read their motives and beliefs from such things. Maybe Wallis doesn’t champion stricter divorce laws because he doesn’t believe that now is an appropriate time to introduce them, or because he believes that there are better ways to support the institution of marriage, or because he believes that such laws put the pressure in the wrong place, or because he doesn’t believe that they are politically viable in the current context. Just because someone doesn’t support stricter divorce laws or place overturning Roe vs. Wade high on their agenda isn’t sufficient basis from which to read their motives. We need to ask more searching questions to discern motives and values and to distinguish these from prudential tactics. This is a good piece explaining why some committed Christians might in good conscience vote for a party that supports abortion.
The Democratic Party is hardly a monolithic entity and I see many good reasons why godly Christians might vote for Democratic candidates, while still strongly rejecting the ideologies of many others within the party and encouraging an intramural debate that would move the party in a direction that is more hospitable to certain Christian values.
Once again, I think that we need to be incredibly careful about sweeping generalizations or rapid conclusions that don’t pay enough attention to the details of different positions. There are many people who share my values who strongly disagree with my preferred political tactics and vice versa.
Again, sometimes specific examples are helpful. Here is a quote from Campolo:
“Here’s a woman, let’s say, who works at a super market with no way to pay for a hospital if she gets pregnant. Whether she should or shouldn’t be pregnant is not our place to say. [my emphasis] What we want for her, if she doesn’t want to have an abortion, is for the law to guarantee two weeks off to deliver the baby. Secondly we need to be able to say that woman will have complete medical coverage. Also, we’re going to have to raise the minimum wage. Not a great deal, but a little more than what they’re getting now. And we need to be able to provide some degree of daycare for the child born to the single mother.”
Even if he is right about these particular policies, these are _not_ the words of a man who recognizes the symbolic importance of what aid to single mothers does and the intangible effect it has on social relationships. All he is thinking about is getting that material aid to that single mother and her child. My guess is that he probably does think that the church should have something to say about whether the girl should or should not be pregnant, but, if so, it seems pretty clear that the government shouldn’t be taking that into account. And I don’t think he’s being tactical or machiavellian here. I really don’t think he’s that kind of guy.
(Incidently, the Catholic church had to stop being so helpful and supportive of those single teen mothers in their publicly funded schools who didn’t get abortions, because they found that it created an huge epidemic of teen pregnancy.)
In fact, I’ve never read or heard _anything_ from Wallis or Campolo that even hints at anything problematic with leftist economic policies divorced from socially conservative mores. And neither of them seems like particularly reticent men.
I think you’re mistaking me for a defender of capitalism.
I’m not. But if we are to understand the Christian left, it is helpful to have a clearer idea of what they perceive themselves to be pushing back against.
I almost nothing in your last comment to disagree with except the suggestion that the current incarnation of the religious left recognizes any of this. As far as I can see, they are suckered in by the communalist rhetoric of left liberalism, which as Alasdair MacIntyre has noted, masks a deep individualism. Yes, hypercapitalism has obliterated traditional culture and that’s the main problem. But my point was never to defend the religious right who are mostly, I have no problem saying, absolutely without shame in their defense of the free market. Still, I have seen nothing proposed by the religious left though except materialist band aids to go on top of that, some of which actually exacerbate the problem, and none of which solve it. Going from the religious right to the religious left is like going from meth to cocaine.
the causality runs in both directions.
There is no symmetry here. Modernity in the form of capitalism destroys traditional society. But nothing on the left is about restoring traditional society.
Your opening sentence is missing a crucial verb, so I am not sure exactly how to respond to it.
You seem to have a rather narrow conception of the religious left. Aren’t most Radical Orthodox writers, for instance, on the religious left? Are they really unconcerned about restoring traditional society? For that matter, many would class me as being on the religious left, and I wouldn’t entirely resist such a designation, although it would be a little misleading in certain respects. Once again, my concern is that you are making sweeping generalizations that don’t stand up to close examination and can only support whatever counter-movement they seek to support on the basis of serious misrepresentations.
I also wonder how much first hand reading of the ‘religious left’ writers whose views you claim to be characterizing you have engaged in.
“I find almost nothing . . .”
You will notice from my comments that I never dismissed all of the religious left, and even suggested how there could be an authentically religious left!
You have spoken about the ‘current incarnation’ of the religious left. My point is that the religious left is far from monolithic and that many of them really don’t fit your description.
I haven’t read much of the Radical Orthodoxy people aside from a handful articles by and about them. From what I can tell, many of them are actually just plain traditionalist conservatives, who eschew the the terms “conservative” or “right wing” because of how those terms have been tainted by the Reagan/Thatcher/Bush neoliberal/neoconservative juggernaut. Some of them call themselves socialists, but explicitly eschew the state, so either they’re being inconsistent, or they’re not using that term in the modern sense. Many who think of themselves as on the religious “left” are no doubt similar. Things may be different in England too as compared to North America, where you have the Blue Labour people. I doubt that they’ll have much influence on policy, but they are clearly different than people of the Wallis stamp.
Does one really have to be on the left in order to take seriously the biblical injunctions to serve the poor?
Well, you can call these things what you want, but different people can have different emphases and still be considered Christian. I was just trying to be generous to the many good people who label themselves as part of the religious left.
Or, to the extent that one does, should it not be the right that is accused of co-option and vulgar caricature of the gospel?
Not exactly sure what you mean by this, but much of the religious right has sold its soul to a different form liberalism.
Perhaps, but we need to ensure that we are not using the word ‘liberalism’ in such a broad sense that it ceases to mean anything any more. I think that the word ‘liberalism’ is an extremely important one, but if we aren’t careful and disciplined in how we employ it, it might be blunted beyond use.
This seems a good place to start: Liberalism: What and Why?
Looking at the piece, it seems to involve some extremely sweeping and hasty generalizations. Trying to reduce positions to some ideological ‘essence’ is a dangerous game. While I think that Kalb is recognizing some genuine connections, the way that he argues his case throws caution to the wind and, while some stereotyping caricatures have the capacity to accentuate key features of a position in a revealing and illuminating way, a number of his caricatures bear much less resemblance to their object.
My concern with your approach throughout these comments has been your willingness to adopt hasty generalizations and, perhaps more particularly, the way that you deal with the more complex positions of particular positions through the lens of the hasty generalizations. The hasty generalization is thus imposed upon the reality that it originally claimed to account for, procrusteanizing the very positions to which it ought to be responsive. Good generalizations can be helpful, but they should be held lightly when it comes to explaining particular positions.
It would probably be for the best if this is my last comment on this issue here. We are unlikely to agree. I have already expressed my position and don’t want to end up just repeating myself. Thanks for the comments and the interaction, Thursday. I’ll leave you to have the final word.
Kalb can be abstract and sometimes it is helpful to bring up specific examples. Here are a couple passages from a report put out by all the Nordic governments together:
“Though the path hasn’t always been straight, one can discern over the course of the twentieth century an overarching ambition in the Nordic countries not to socialize the economy but to liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, the workers from their employers, wives from their husbands, children from parents – and vice versa when the parents become elderly…legislation has made the Nordic countries into the least family-dependent and most individualized societies on the face of the earth. To be sure, the family remains a central social institution in the Nordic countries, but it too is infused with the same moral logic stressing autonomy and equality. The ideal family is made up of adults who work and are not financially dependent on the other, and children who are encouraged to be as independent as early as possible.”
“[A]uthentic relationships of love and friendship are only possible between individuals who do not depend on each other or stand in unequal power relations. Thus autonomy, equality and (statist) individualism are inextricably linked to each other.”
Click to access Davos-The-nordic-way-final.pdf
While there may be some differences on the liberty/equality axis and some disagreement as to means, I find it extremely difficult to imagine any way that this is all that different from the individualism of the classical liberal/libertarian variety. Libertarians may carp about dependence on the state not being any better than dependence on families, and welfare liberals may carp about the vast inequalities permitted under certain forms of capitalism, but the ethic of liberty and equality is the same.
A great article on another religious movement, one with which I have some sympathy, which has also sold its soul to utility:
Brilliant stuff. I’m getting a PhD in rhetoric, and I don’t think I’ve come across as lucid an analysis of argumentation as yours since I discovered Kenneth Burke and Richard Weaver five years ago. Glad I was linked here. You’re officially on my reading list.
Your idea about the ‘feminization’ of discourse (rightly hedged, of course) finds a lot of support in the work of an American rhetorician named Robert Connors. He called the ‘old model’ of discourse an agonistic model, which he ultimately traced back to the Hellenistic law courts. However, the older model began its long decline in the 19th century as women started gaining admittance to elite eastern universities. He never claims it was a determining factor in the decline of old agonistic debate . . . but it was certainly a factor. And it gains added support if you ever look at American education statistics; women are as over-represented in the humanities today as men are in physics.
Anyway, wonderful analysis, as I said. Thanks.
Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment, SDL.
I have never seen Robert Connors’ work before: I will have to check him out. Thanks for the recommendation!
Did you hear the joke about how many feminists it takes to screw in a light bulb?
THAT’S NOT FUNNY!
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Thanks for this excellent series. I understand that the German sociologist Georg Simmel
prophesied in the 19th century that women would eventually transform the public sphere to suit a “more feminine sensibility.” I guess this is it.
I’m not a particularly “masculine” man, but I do prefer discussion that doesn’t have to obsess about peoples’ feelings!
I think it’s more complicated than that. I think un-masculine men such as myself (and, perhaps, you by your own admission) have debate as a way to use our testosterone because we can’t cut the mustard on the playing field. 😉
In short, debate is sports for nerds. It may have other positive aftereffects, such as an examination of ideas, just as sports may promote team spirit, social unity, and physical health, but that’s how it ‘evolved’, so to speak.
It’s also interesting to note the trans-Atlantic debate on the ‘religious left’ between Thursday and Alastair. A lady I once went out with was born of English evangelicals…she of course rebelled and wound up as a standard American lefty (or I wouldn’t have run into her in the college town I was in), but she told me that even when she was still within the fold, she was horrified to read about the American Christian Right’s views on economics. So we are a product of our surroundings in more ways than we think.
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It would be interesting to analyze, in a similar way, the interactions (debates?) between jihadis and terrorist supporters on the one hand and the modern and post-modern on the other.
I realize it’s cheeky of me to hand out assignments I’m unable to fulfill myself, but my curiousity overwhelms my modesty…
I’ll bite. Sorta.
First of all, I don’t really think the Left are ‘terrorist supporters’, simply people who think they’re defending an oppressed group. Radical Islam holds little appeal to the Left (unlike the situation 50 years ago with Communism).
Second, I’d say that the Left have a postmodern style, as nicely described by Alastair. The jihadis have a premodern style, familiar to anyone who has read a book written before 1950–you are with us, and the Faith, or you are against us. Similar to the postmodern style in its subjectivity, but quite masculine. There’s no need to deny your enemies any positive traits–jihadis are tough, resourceful, and brave.
But this is the West, and we like it that way. And so it shall stay.
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Alan Jacobs has posted a response to this post and some of the others that have followed it. Take a look: he makes some helpful points and raises some important criticisms.
I left a comment in response (waiting in moderation at the moment). I will post it in full here:
I wrote the original piece that started this conversation off. I have been rather surprised, to say the least, by the amount of attention that a dormant blog post (which I fired off in one evening without much sleep) received when it came to wider attention, especially as it had passed without much comment at its original posting. It was the last of a series of posts and the discourse about which and into which it was written was already moribund at that point.
For me the changing forms of discourse are best understood primarily in terms as an effect of the changing configuration and composition of our spaces of discourse, rather than primarily in terms of the sort of ideological change that ‘postmodernism’ might name. There have always been contexts of discourse that are primarily ordered towards the ends of inclusion, affirmation, cooperation, and the minimization of confrontation, functioning primarily on an ‘internal’ axis, concerned with negotiating and enhancing relationships and a sense of belonging within a group.
There have also always been contexts of discourse that function primarily on an ‘external’ axis, concerned with things such as truth and justice, frequently operating in a disputational, assertive, agonistic, and combative fashion. Even when the mode of such discourse has been less aggressive and more irenic, the irenicism is less likely to be designed to curtail dispute for the sake of sensitivities, and more concerned for maintaining dignity and focus in proceedings and preventing the impugning of the honour of any of the participants, in a manner that prevents rivalries and antagonisms from escalating. Such discourses are like a sport, often rule-governed and refereed, in a manner designed to ensure that ritual combat is vigorous, without ever falling into personal attack or vicious conflict. For instance, in the House of Commons in British parliamentary politics, affairs are mediated by the Speaker, who prevents mimetic antagonisms from developing. Debate also involves the use of titles designed to maintain the honour of all parties – ‘the (right) honourable lady/gentleman.’
Of course, seeking to protect the honour of participants is a very different matter from protecting the feelings of participants. Honour is a sense of self derived externally from such things as status and the recognition of a person’s agency. Where honour is not in question, discourse can take an incredibly combative form without anyone getting hurt.
I have been rather dismayed by the way that a number of people have read my post to be advocating extremely aggressive discourse as ideal, when my point – which in retrospect, I probably needed to make clearer – was that the confusion of forms of externally-oriented and inclusion-oriented discourse threatens the integrity of theological discourse. Anyone who knows me and my writing should know that, while I relish reading a spirited polemic or watching a sharp but non-personal dispute, I personally prefer to adopt a direct but irenic style, as such aggressive modes of discourse generally only work in limited and closely defined contexts.
We need both forms of discourse, but we need to keep them and their ends distinct.
We face three problems, however. The first is that these modes of discourse are generally gender-weighted, with male groups more likely to favour honour-governed and externally-oriented discourse and female groups more likely to favour inclusion-oriented discourse. Even though we all need and rely upon both forms of discourse to some extent, men are more likely to locate their identity primarily in the practice, demonstration, and public recognition of their agency and women primarily in a sense of group belonging, acceptance, and affirmation. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but a noticeable tendency and one that is typically heightened in group contexts, as people tend to conform to the most distinct or pronounced features of the particular ‘types’ that they most associate with in a social setting.
The second problem is that externally-oriented and honour-governed discourse is more naturally the discourse that creates, maintains, and exercises power, while the other form of discourse typically enjoys and exercises little power, save for borrowed or co-opted power. Honour-governed discourse is a discourse made possible by privilege. Where honour has not properly been acknowledged in the past and discourse later extends to the less socially privileged – race-relations are a good example here – a much less combative form of discourse will have to be adopted (even though the discourse can still be honour-governed).
The third problem is that the distinctions between honour-governed and inclusion-oriented discourse are being broken down and the possibilities of honour-governed discourse are more limited in contexts where people are acutely aware of imbalances of privilege. While imbalances of privilege only entail a scaling back of the combativeness of honour-governed discourse, the attempt to move beyond the gendered weighting of our empowered discourses is not so straightforward. Perhaps especially as a result of the breaking down of the gendering of the spaces of our discourse through co-education, greater political enfranchisement, and the changing configuration of our public discourses through modern media and technology (the public and the intimate are constantly muddled together online, making it harder for all of us to avoid taking opposing positions personally), the ends of honour-governed but externally-oriented discourse have become confused with those of inclusion-oriented discourse. Public and political discourse is now often oriented to ensuring inclusion and affirmation in a way that often exceeds, corrupts, or undermines concerns of truth, justice, and honour.
Our problems are heightened by the fact that the classic rhetorical tradition and the Christian tradition, for that matter, have from the outset been rather uneasy about the participation of women in public and political forms of speech. This isn’t just because of the different tendencies in the weighting of gendered discourses, but also because society has perceived and negotiated the identities of women differently from those of men. Men are perceived to pursue and be responsible for their own honour as individuals, while women are perceived to be sources of social meaning and communion, and their honour is identified with the community’s own honour and protected by the community, rather than asserted by their own action.
This makes combative relations between men and women much harder to negotiate, as rhetorically challenging a woman can be perceived to be an attack on her intimate personal identity and upon the integrity of the community and can evoke a vigorous male response and a response of personal outrage from the woman. It can also be seen as an assault upon both the woman and her community as, since women’s identity is traditionally tied more to their maintenance of their ‘integrity’, their belonging within the community, and their creation of new intimate social ties, and less with an assertive agency that invites combat, a challenge to them is perceived to strike at something that is out of bounds. Their discourse is seen to relate to an intimate personal and communal identity, rather than to an exercise of individual agency in the public realm. Similar issues surround the question of women fighting on the front lines.
It seems to me that our problem is that, in many respects, this implicit gendering of female modes of discourse and identity hasn’t disappeared with the rise of feminism and the extension of women’s participation in public discourse, but has rather extended its reach, leading to all sorts of difficulties as it has entered into traditionally honour-governed and externally-oriented discourses. Within such discourses, the traditionally gendered place of the woman can be employed as leverage to shut down discourse in various areas. Once this dynamic is admitted, this traditionally gendered place is then colonized by all sorts of other groups – religious, ideological, social, or otherwise – who wish to characterize issues or practices as matters of intimate personal identity and thus out of bounds for challenging public discourse.
Whether and how exactly this problem is soluble in a manner consistent with the worthy goal of the inclusion of all parties in public discourse is unclear to me. However, I think that we need to be cognizant of the sort of dynamics that can be at work and to pursue modes of inclusion that maintain the integrity of our public discourse. My suspicion (not yet my conclusion: I would like to believe that there is another way) is that truly inclusive discourse is impossible, but that truly representative discourse [i.e. establishing a better ‘discourse between discourses’, without collapsing the differences between them] is the better goal to aim for as an effective public discourse that retains its integrity will always retain a weighting to privileged males. This is obviously a very unwelcome conclusion in the current context.
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