Triggering and the Triggered in the American Conservative and some further thoughts

Visits to this blog have received something of a bump over the last couple of days, as both Steve Sailer and the American Conservative linked to a post of mine from a few months ago – On Triggering and the Triggered, Part 4. This sudden influx of attention, while not unwelcome, is certainly surprising. One does not expect old rambling posts of over 10,000 words to garner much attention, so it comes as something of a shock to see this piece resurfacing in such a public setting.

The piece was originally written to a very limited audience, in the context of a very particular debate that caused a lot of waves in a small corner of the Internet. It was part of a longer, multi-part attempt to reflect upon the shape of Christian discourse in an Internet age, taking that particular debate as its starting point. It was never completed, as I went on a long trip to the US before I could post the concluding parts.

The distance that my post has travelled from its original context and the manner in which its words have been harnessed in service of positions that are entirely alien from those I intended (I am not referring to the two sites mentioned above here), has served to underline for me the points that I made in the second post in the series, on the manner in which the Internet tends to dissolve context. I hope that the recognition of this dissolution of context will encourage us all to be more patient and charitable interpreters of the various words that we read online.

A number of readers have kindly observed that my writing is rather … well … long-winded. I would be the last to dispute this claim. It really is. I write my posts fairly rapidly and they seldom undergo much editing or sometimes even basic spell-checking before posting. I write primarily as a way of thinking through subjects out loud. Einstein once famously remarked that his pencil was smarter than he was. I feel the same way about my blog. My blog’s primary purpose is that of a thinking tool. Its secondary purpose is to communicate those thoughts to others. Were I writing in a more public forum, I can assure you that at least half of the dense mass of verbiage in my posts would be removed. What you read on this blog is my thought in its unexpurgated, raw form.

Writing at such brain-numbing length has certain advantages. It has been suggested that Nigerian 419 scammers include so much poor grammar and spelling and so many comical details in their e-mails precisely because they want to narrow their self-selecting pool of respondents. If they can write in such a manner that only the most gullible of persons would respond, they will have a far better rate of success for their scamming. Likewise, by writing at such tedious length, I ensure that only the most charitable and patient of readers will bother to engage. This suits me fine.

Within the posts I had strong criticisms for both sides. My purpose was not to side with one party over another, but to make a firm stand for gracious, non-reactive conversation, the sort of conversation that does not allow itself to be emotionally manipulated, but is also able to avoid the drives of anger, retaliation, self-justification, impatience, and malice.

Unfortunately, as I never finished the series, I never got to turn my attention fully to addressing the deep problems that I see in the sort of rhetorical approach adopted by Pastor Wilson and others supporting him to the situation, a sort of rhetorical approach that can prove no less effective at prematurely arresting conversation than the approach of those who were reacting to his statements. While there are times when conversation must be stopped, lines drawn, minds made up, conclusion reached, and judgments issued, my concern is that this not occur before the other party has actually been understood.

There is a way of participating in debate that is more concerned with proving oneself right in all matters and never admitting fault than it is with pursuing the truth. I know rather a lot about this fault myself as it is one that is deeply embedded in my own character: uprooting it isn’t easy.

The sort of gracious debate that I am advocating is one in which we are firm and uncompromising when it comes to the truth, but far less concerned about fighting to prove ourselves right. We should care much less about being misrepresented and, while we continue to bear witness to the truth, give a lot less attention to our own reputations, turning the other cheek to those who would malign us.

Acknowledgment of our failures and mistakes is also crucial. By being ready to admit where we have gotten things wrong, worded ourselves poorly, acted in an uncharitable manner, or misjudged our opponents, taking responsibility and apologizing is not weakness. The more responsibility that we are prepared to take for our words, the more weight that people will put on them. Constant fighting to prove ourselves right and to avoid taking responsibility for poor statements that we have made has the effect of devaluing our words, giving opponents the impression that we are more committed to our own infallibility than we are to the truth. Where our words have been seriously misjudged, the way that we respond can be crucial. Often the best course of action is to hold our peace and to allow our words to defend themselves, or to trust that fair-minded readers will do so for us.

My hope was to draw particular attention to the role played by those who are in a position to influence the thoughts and feelings of others and the shape of communities. Such leaders stand as those holding the first stone, or as the one holding the match that could ignite the firestorm. Leaders should be held to a far greater standard than others. On the Internet, many individuals with no official leadership office find themselves as the de facto leaders of significant communities, with the power to influence the thoughts and emotions of many thousands. My concern is that we hold such people – first of all ourselves – accountable for the way that we use this power.

Reactive leaders produce even more violently reactive communities. Self-righteous leaders produce communities impervious to correction. Emotionally manipulable leaders produce communities without nerve or character. Hostile leaders produce communities incapable of learning from and listening to those in the position of opponents.

James declares in his epistle: ‘[T]he tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!’ If this was true in the first century, it is even more so in the age of the Internet. Careless and impulsive words can whip up wildfires that sweep around the globe in minutes. They can burn bridges, damage ministries, hurt vulnerable individuals, reopen old wounds, and poison friendships. The Internet is a vast array of raw nerves, of muddled and muddied contexts, of crossed wires, and different idioms. James 3 has never been such a significant passage. Learning to speak circumspectly, thoughtfully, responsibly, firmly, carefully, and with grace, learning to forgive and be forgiven, taking responsibility for our words, and resisting the urge to react or self-justify is the only way that we will safely navigate it.

If you are a new visitor to this site: welcome, it is great to have you here! If you are a regular, the next part of the podcast review of A Year of Biblical Womanhood should be posted soon, along with some other book reviews.

About Alastair Roberts

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

6 Responses to Triggering and the Triggered in the American Conservative and some further thoughts

  1. Pingback: Friday, December 14, 2012 « Tipsy Teetotaler

  2. Thursday says:

    I thought I’d present this quote as food for thought:

    “I ceased in the year 1764 to believe that one can convince one’s opponents with arguments printed in books. It is not to do that, therefore, that I have taken up my pen, but merely so as to annoy them, and to bestow strength and courage on those on our own side, and to make it known to the others that they have not convinced _us_.” – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

    Of course this does not necessarily decide what _kind_ of discourse to pursue. Calm and reasonableness may be more effective even if ones purposes are not to dialogue with someone. It is easy to dismiss someone who is ranting away.

    • I primarily write to sharpen my own thinking. Secondarily I write to give spectators a clearer basis on which to judge between positions: one seldom convinces one’s opponents in a debate. Giving strength and courage to those on my own side is important for me too, but I don’t believe that preaching to the converted is the best way to achieve this. Rather, I prefer to engage more with the arguments of those who differ and try to prove that they should provide no occasion for fear or concern.

  3. Pingback: A Look Back at 2012 on Alastair’s Adversaria | Alastair's Adversaria

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

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