Responsible Engagement in a Reactive Age

Anti-Nazi Graffiti (Photo: Cogiati)

Over a week ago, I tweeted on acting and thinking well in a fraught political context. Twitter is a limiting medium for extended trains of thought, so, in response to a request and for the sake of a broader readership, I thought I’d gather together and slightly elaborate upon my tweets in a post.

Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to resist the natural human tendency to reactive engagement, when all our media are fueling it.

Reactive people seek—and often establish—enemies to define themselves over against, rather than defining themselves on their own terms. Everything gets caught up in escalating games of ‘us vs. them’: people begin to attack everything their opponents stand for, while becoming ever more like them in their methods, behaviour, and disposition.

If we are playing the reactivity game, we will be making things worse. It doesn’t matter if we are ‘opposed to fascism,’ for instance: if we are acting and thinking reactively, we will be giving strength to it.

President Trump is a cautionary example of how the reactivity game leads people to assume the defence of the indefensible. Instead of a clear and uncompromising word of truth addressed to the evils of racism and white supremacy within society, he has pursued the path of reactive recriminations. His judgment in the matter has seemingly been undermined by the partisan dynamics of the present conflicts, by the fact that there is a perceived alignment between him and the identitarian right and that the radical left strongly opposes him. This has led him to measure groups with whom some of his sympathies lie by the behaviour of those groups that are hostile to them—and him—and to use such comparisons—‘many sides’—to exculpate or mitigate guilt.

Of course, in such situations each side will invariably perceive the other as the wrongful aggressor and truth and justice will wind up as the victims. Even when it may be granted that there is blame enough to go around, when we measure ourselves by and compare ourselves with each other, we will routinely avoid accepting the responsibility that belongs to us. When all that we are concerned about is appearing more righteous in our own eyes than our opponents appear to us, we have abandoned any actual commitment to righteousness.

The fact that extremists on the left tar all conservatives with the brush of racism and fascism shouldn’t make us at all sympathetic to actual racist and fascist movements. If it does, we are just playing reactive politics. If we permit our position to be determined by polar opposition to our ideological antagonists—by a fixation with some demonized opponents—we can thoughtlessly become their facilitating and validating obverse.

The rise of neo-Nazi movements is a serious threat to society. We must clearly present them as completely outside of the bounds of social acceptability, but we must do so non-reactively. We must never fight fire with fire.

We should condemn the lawless vigilantes on the left, in Antifa and other such movements. We must do so because we are people on the side of justice, truth, and law, not because we hold any sympathies for racists and neo-Nazis.

In such days we will be challenged to respond to the ‘which side are you on?’ question by voicing a commitment to one or other polarized party in an increasingly belligerent political and social environment. The situation, it is assumed, is one of a few directly opposed sides, with no real ground for neutrality. Anyone not aligning themselves with the anti-fascist left, for instance, will be reckoned to have chosen their side by virtue of their failure to take a moral stand when the stakes could not be higher.

Yet the common assumption that is operative here is that moral engagement in a situation can only take the form of alignment with one party or other in their reactive antagonism with each other. This assumption is widely held and consequently has a superficial appearance of truth, as both engagement and disengagement from moral issues in society typically proceeds according to it. Either people will engage by assuming a reactive alignment with a party, or they will, by washing their hands of the situation and wishing a pox on both of the antagonistic houses, disengage from the moral issues entirely.

What has been neglected is the possibility of what Edwin Friedman has called ‘well-differentiated’ engagement, of non-reactive moral concern and involvement and responsible and morally invested agency that isn’t merely driven by emotional instinct and herd dynamics. The person who has such self-differentiation can resist the emotional contagion that moves throughout the social organism and makes it function like a stampeding herd. They can take a strong stance without simply aligning with a side. They possess the ability to respond—‘responsibility’—because they have overcome their instinct to react.

This does not mean that those invested in matters of moral concern in a society should not form groups and alliances to pursue shared interests, nor that all parties are reactive in character. However, it does mean that we must be vigilant against the reactivity that commonly operates in such situations, the reactivity that blinds us to the truth on the side of our opponents or to the errors on our own, the reactivity that tends to treat truth and justice as if they were the possession of a particular side, rather than a higher standard by which we all must be tested.

For instance, in the current situation we must be able to recognize the many ways in which our own positions and camps are deeply compromised by historic and ongoing forms of injustice and oppression. We must learn to tell the truth about ourselves, without becoming the abject playthings of every accusation of guilt that is cast in our direction. We can only do this well as we resist reactivity.

We must recognize truths even when they are found in extremist camps and not let truth become the victim of our partisanship. For instance, there are statues that really must be torn down, and we can and should say this while also resisting the broader iconoclasm of many on the extreme left.

Reactivity further robs us of our ability to respond, of the essential interval preceding action that is required for reflection, meditation, and deliberation. As we function in terms of reactive antagonisms, we can also be blinded to the fact that many of our social problems are most prudently tackled, not by raising the level of our political conflicts, but by the intelligent pursuit of non-antagonistic means or the shrewd use of pressure at carefully chosen points. The reactive person, thoughtlessly reacting to social stimuli, cannot appreciate that few social problems are best addressed through the exertion of a directly opposing force, indeed that such an approach typically exacerbates our difficulties.

Nor does this mean that our visceral reaction to perceived injustice in society isn’t important or something to which we must attend. Such a reaction can often give us a pronounced sense of injustice, allowing us to enjoy some measure of an instinctual attunement to good and evil. As something that informs and colours our reasonable response to evil, it is immensely valuable and important. However, the power of such reactions, when poorly managed, can be a very dangerous obstacle to right and just action. It can overwhelm our ability to determine justice and a wise response, producing a profound moral shortsightedness in the emotionally reactive person.

Resisting reactivity isn’t just something that we can lightly will ourselves into, especially in the age of social media. As we are brought ever more close together, it becomes harder and harder to have robust self-defined identities of our own, rather than the sort of fragilized, polarized, and reactive identities which are tossed to and fro on the waves of mass emotion and reaction.

If you want to be non-reactive, you will need to commit yourself to practices protecting you from it. Firmly ground yourself in non-reactive contexts. Do most of your thinking and reading in private and on your own terms, away from the social saturation of online media. Turn off your phone. Set aside time to deliberate, reflect, and meditate. Form deep real world friendships with people who disagree with you. Commit yourself to local community work and volunteering, where common goods beyond partisanship are often apparent. Pray for your neighbours and pray for our leaders. Recognize any addiction to media that keeps you anxious, or which gives you the thrill of shallow emotion. Learn to recognize the presence of acedia in your life. Don’t mistake merely online community for the real thing.

We face immense social dangers and evils in our day and age. We have many battles to fight. The most important one remains the battle for ourselves.

“Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.”

Proverbs 16:32

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 Culture, Ethics, In the News, Politics, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Responsible Engagement in a Reactive Age

  1. megan davey says:

    I really like this article. It expresses much of what I feel, especially this: Form deep real world friendships with people who disagree with you.

  2. hygelac says:

    Thank you for this, Alastair.
    Both groups may be counted as evil with respect to their respective political visions and a shared infatuation with violent insurrection fueled by the embrace of ideological hatred. But while we must indeed recognize that “the rise of neo-Nazi movements is a serious threat to society,” and “clearly present them as completely outside of the bounds of social acceptability,” I must wonder if Antifa and other groups of the radical left actually present the more clear and present danger. The fact that neo-Nazis and White supremacists are regarded with contempt by most American citizens would indicate that in the popular imagination it was the radical left who struck a blow for freedom and morality by mixing it up with the miscreants of the alt-right at Charlottesville. That act vindicates them as the ones who inhabit the high moral ground. Last week, Peter Leithart posted his views concerning that violent confrontation and expressed sentiments similar to your own. But since Antifa has also seen fit to target Trump supporters sporting MAGA baseball caps for violent reprisal, he wonders if a time is coming when Christians who publicly oppose gay marriage and transgenderism will have clubs taken to them, since their words would be welcomed as a call to beat down fascist violence with antifascist counter violence. It is something to consider, as there is little doubt that with respect to those issues our culture is coming little by little to view orthodox Christianity as a socially malignant force.

    Thanks once again, Alastair

    • Thanks for the comment. There are certainly contexts where I believe that extreme antifascists pose the greatest threat to social well-being, although this isn’t always the case. Their antagonism to the police and their propensity to class everything that does not align with their politics as crypto-fascist is deeply concerning. For instance, it was telling that James Damore, author of the infamous ‘Google memo’ on gender differences, has been called to dissociate himself from the alt-right and has been casually aligned with fascists by some. We should expect a lot more of this. Vaguely employed terms like ‘fascist’, ‘alt-right’, and ‘Nazi’ can become a convenient carte blanche for legitimizing violence against people who you don’t like.

  3. hygelac says:

    Yes, the Damore incident is one example of a tendency in leftist groups to discourage Friedman’s “well-differentiated engagement” by cultivating a vigorously reactive moral climate and strong herd mentality. Their approbation of the identitarian cause seems to be a case in point. Of course, you could argue that the alt-right is as deeply invested as the Left in the group think of identity politics. But unlike the latter, the alt-right has utterly divested itself of any moral capital in the public square. It is regarded with complete opprobrium by all persons with a sense of moral decency, and I doubt the neo-Nazis will ever gain an ounce of sympathy in the culture on a wide scale. That, of course, is a very good thing; but the moral advantage it cedes to the left, makes well-differentiated engagement in our society all the more difficult to realize. It will be a daunting task for the Church to establish a well-differentiated engagement on issues such as gay marriage and transgenderism, when our opposition to such on theological, moral and philosophical grounds may receive cheers from some quarters of the alt-right. The Left would interpret this as an excuse to oppress an already marginalized group on grounds that are not only incomprehensible but positively evil. They would hunker down in the herd mentality all the more intractably by seizing every opportunity to smear Christianity as an agent of fascism. I strongly suspect that a call to reject reactive moral engagement along the lines of Friedman’s article may be perceived by some on the radical left as dangerously subversive to the cause.

  4. Physiocrat1 says:

    I’m very much in agreement with you caution against reactivity. I find the 24hr new cycle largely distracting and superficial – I try to keep my diet to once a day on it. Also your call to genuine personal friendship is an important one especially for men. If they leave their home town or where they studied at university it can be difficult to strike up new friendships, even in the church so I imagine it is more difficult outside it; this is especially problematic when you are married and have children.

    On your specifics of Charleston I think you are off the mark. If Trump was purely reactive you would have expected him to blame the antifa immediately saying the Unite the Right marchers were mostly acting in self-defence and that there was an unfortunate mentally ill man (the accused was prevented from joining the army on such grounds) who did something terrible. That there was violence on both sides is demonstrably true, the question is who started it? In many cases this is very difficult to determine. Also I don’t think neo-nazis or white supremacists (a very vague term indeed) have much support at all – looking at a recent poll self-described Republican voters stated overwhelmingly there was violence on both sides rather than blaming the antifa per se. The traditional media and intellectuals are against them which cannot be said for the antifa.

    If you are interested, this is by far the most even-handed and comprehensive analysis of the events I have read. It’s written by Keith Preston who self-describes as a left-anarchist. He acknowledges where he is unsure and needs more information. https://attackthesystem.com/2017/08/14/some-initial-thoughts-on-charlottesville/

    The major story from Charlottesville, IMO, is the diabolical policing which is absurd given the time they had to plan this. Given the attempt the ban the event this seems likely to have been partially deliberate.

    With respect to statues, the major issue is that they are on government property. If the parks and statues were privately owned there would be little issue. Given they are on government property I think it is a bad idea to pull any of them down for the same reasons I would oppose the pulling of the statues of Stalin following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The are historical monuments and remind us of our past – they could have been erected for propagandist purposes but the way they are viewed by the populace need not be positive, rather it reminds them of previous evils and how people were swept into the believing them. In regards monuments with the War Between the States, the monuments could be viewed as a reminder of terrible war, defence of the south or that people int he past supported slavery and gives some context as to how they may have done – as an aside I recently read Aristotle’s justification for slavery in the Politics. Further, when pulling monuments you really need a consistent justification otherwise anyone not on the right side of history ceases to be history and becomes a non-person..

  5. John Kavanaugh says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. I first so some of your ideas on tweeter and liked your logic.

  6. quinnjones2 says:

    Hi Alastair,
    I really like your blog.
    I have some thoughts which are not about events in the US or about Twitter, but they seem to me to have some relevance. I’m thinking about some of Prince William’s words in the BBC documentary about Princess Diana (Seven Days). He said that, as he walked behind his mother’s coffin, he could not understand why so many people in the crowd were ‘wailing’ when they didn’t even know Princess Diana. He also said that he himself was struggling to hold back tears and that he was thankful for the fact that, when he bowed his head, his eyes were partly covered by his hair. So many people who express strong feelings at public protests (and on Twitter) are also expressing feelings about people they don’t actually know. Prince William was not judgemental when he made his comments, and I don’t want to be judgemental either, but I really think that many people use protest marches and Twitter as a ‘dumping ground’ for their own unbridled feelings. That said, I realise that many people also have genuine concerns which they express in a more restrained and reflective manner, as Prince William did as a fifteen-year-old in his mother’s funeral procession.

    • I think the deaths of such iconic figures can often be symbolic for people. People aren’t mourning the individual who has died so much as that which they represented to them, e.g. their childhood, hopes of a more innocent time in their lives, an important relationship they never had, etc. Others get caught up in the contagious emotion of the occasion.

  7. Geoff says:

    Applying your “how to” summation and sitting on my visceral response, this post has provoked spontaneous apathy and excited studied indifference to logical fallacies in inherited and indoctrinated identity. Now, where is that neighbour who hates me in my real life community? Where is that colleague that hasn’t a clue?

  8. Geoff says:

    I take it that the Nashville Staement falls within the perview of Responsible Engagement?:
    https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement

  9. Geoff says:

    Thank you for the link to your post. It fills in some back ground, with balance and ballast.
    However, I don’t see why a dispute over the theological intricacy of the Person of our Triune God should divide on the subject matter of the Statement, other than through selfish bruised, fallen egos.
    The Statement is much needed to shore- up ordinary believers against the avalanche of present day sexual mores and gender constructs.
    If anything, it has taken too long to make a robust stance. The church at large seems to have been blindsided in all this. Perhaps, insular, subject absorbed theologians bear some responsibility, being unaware of how to live life, with all its pressures, outside the church, in communities, in the work place, in politics, in the professions where they have no control or little influence.
    The homosexual and gender lobbies have played a long game social change strategy, which has had a chameleon – like flexibility towards normalisation, such as when lobbyist Peter Tachel (England) opposed marriage then embraced it as another step towards that normalisation, and in the movement from genetic determinants to free choice.
    It has now moved to (transitioned) to freedom to self-identify.
    The unity of purpose in the so called spectrum is the goal of normalisation, through social engineering.
    The Church at large, in this whole field, seems to be devoid of an ultimate unity of purpose. What are the goals? What does it hope to achieve? Is there a stragegy? Many will baulk at the idea of strategy, but scripture is replete in the strategy of God’s purpose in Christ Jesus.
    The letter to Hebrews couldn’t be any more contemporary, written for us who live today, and aren’t we to be as Jesus instructs?:
    “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:6 ESV

    The response, alternative view, in the Premier Blog, is nothing new but is palid and even self-serving simplistic proof texts. No doubt there are other more robust and some more nuanced rebuttals.
    As I’m not on facebook, nor twitter and am quite selective in what I look at on the internet much by-passes me but it doesn’t take a lot of nouse to realise the farrago of noise the Statement will/has generate(d).

  10. Geoff says:

    PS. I am aware of your interaction with views of Grudem, Ware and others on the Trinity, which your multiple posts draws out. But my point over division stands, not that I know in whom or where the division resides.

  11. Pingback: On the Nashville Statement and My Signing of It | Alastair's Adversaria

  12. As Peter Vardy says, ‘It takes courage to stand up to your enemies. It takes more courage to stand up to your friends.” Thanks for being in that much smaller, second group!

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