Tag Archives: Edwin Friedman

Are We Witnessing the “Suicide of Thought”?

chesterton
G.K. Chesterton

“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

-G.K Chesterton, “The Suicide of Thought,” in Orthodoxy

Satire is effective because it wraps a kernel of truth in packing that, if well-constructed, is hilarious.  An example of effective satire is this “story” from The Onion:

Saying that such a dialogue was essential to the college’s academic mission, Trescott University president Kevin Abrams confirmed Monday that the school encourages a lively exchange of one idea. “As an institution of higher learning, we recognize that it’s inevitable that certain contentious topics will come up from time to time, and when they do, we want to create an atmosphere where both students and faculty feel comfortable voicing a single homogeneous opinion,” said Abrams, adding that no matter the subject, anyone on campus is always welcome to add their support to the accepted consensus. “Whether it’s a discussion of a national political issue or a concern here on campus, an open forum in which one argument is uniformly reinforced is crucial for maintaining the exceptional learning environment we have cultivated here.”

dissent-is-hateOf course, college campuses are not alone in tending towards a sort of intellectual univocality.  Various corners (or are they cul de sacs?) of the church vie to have their views not only recognized, but made sacrosanct.  We see it also in our wider culture.  I am not among those who thinks that the sky is falling due to the Oberfell ruling; nevertheless, Justice Alito was probably correct in saying this decision will be used against those who will not “assent to the new orthodoxy.” (For all the bleating about “thinking for oneself,” every community has its own orthodoxy, after all.)  He was similarly prophetic in his concern about “those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”

But it isn’t merely the reduction of valid viewpoints that is at issue, it is the manner in which those viewpoints are decided.  Another aspect of what Chesterton called “the suicide of thought” is the power play that the injection of a kind of fundamentalist identity politics as brought to contemporary discourse.  In many corners of American intellectual life, what matters is not what one argues but one’s identity which determines (before a word is spoken) the validity of what is proffered.  A self-described liberal college student aptly described the illiberality of such power games in a thought-provoking piece titled, “Social Justice Bullies”:

“But here’s the thing — who I am does not (or should not) have any bearing on facts. The problem with this brand of modern social justice advocacy is that who one is as a person (race, class, gender, etc.) is the be all and end all of their capacity to have a certain viewpoint. A millennial social justice advocate can discount an opinion simply because it is said or written by a group they feel oppresses them. It is a logical fallacy known as ad hominem whereby one attacks the person saying an argument rather than the argument itself. But this logical fallacy has become the primary weapon of the millennial social justice advocate. It is miasma to academia, to critical thinking, and to intellectual honesty. Yet it is the primary mode of operating on college campuses nationwide.”

To be clear, at issue is not the ends to which contemporary “social justice bullies” aim but the means employed (side note: if you are worried you may be a SJB, check here).  Any means that rules out certain thoughts or ideas based solely on the identity of the person who holds them (outside of, say, a KKK or Nation of Islam member, someone who self-describes in a prejudiced way) is the opposite of the liberal ideal, which values exchange of ideas and wrestling for the truth.  Orginos elaborates:

“What I am talking about so far is not meant to discredit feminism or any social justice position that seeks to empower oppressed people or remedy social ills. As I made abundantly clear to begin with, these are fundamentally good and necessary goals. What is the issue here are the tactics used by some from a purported place of moral high ground to immunize themselves from criticism while promoting a close-minded authoritarian vice-grip on society through chillingly sinister tactics.”

It is both disingenuous and counter-productive to demand conversation about serious issues facing our society AND police attempted conversation so tightly that only the pre-determined righteous elite can come to the table.  This is at least part of the reason for the gridlock we currently face; those who set the terms of the debate have done so in a manner that predetermines the outcome, and then shame those who refuse to play their power game as unwilling and backwards.  The faux empathy which demands to settle ahead of time not just what can be said but how it is said  – resulting in the exchange of “one idea,” as The Onion so aptly put it – is regressive in the extreme. Rabbi and systems theorist Edwin Friedman called such gridlock “a failure of nerve”:failure of nerve

“…societal regression has too often perverted the use of empathy into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the ‘sensitive’…I have consistently found the introduction of the subject of ’empathy’ into family, institutional, and community meetings to be reflective of, as well as an effort to induce, a failure of nerve among its leadership.”

It’s tempting to be an alarmist about all this.  But the good news is that the flesh-and-blood people I talk to in my community, or pray with at the church I serve, are more fully-orbed than this.  I worry that, with Chesterton, “We are on the road to producing a race of [people] too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”

But most people I know – those not trying to get a book deal or grow their Instagram following – are not like this.  If you pay too much attention to the thought police – the basement bloggers, armchair theorists, and self-obsessed justice tourists – it’s easy to become convinced that truthful speech and honest, vulnerable conversation are at an end in the 21st century West.  But we can do better.  Thought need not be destroyed on the altar of ideology masquerading as empathy.

But fighting this trend will require all of us – left/right/center, libertarian and communitarian, Christians and atheists and agnostics, progressives and traditionalists – to embrace a hermeneutic of charity that will allow us to be more interested in genuine engagement than in scoring points with the home team, more desirous of actually achieving progress than being seen as an expert in demanding it.  Otherwise, we are fated to continue trying to move forward as a church and society while fighting over the few, narrow, pre-determined views.

What do you think? Are we witnessing the suicide of thought? What institutions, places, arenas are there for genuine engagement across the usual battle lines? Leave a comment below.

“Just Resolution,” Or Just Bullshit?

just resolution meme

In the United Methodist Church, we have a bullshit problem.  It’s been piling up of late.  Observe this trend:

  • In March of 2014, Bishop Martin McLee (RIP) of the New York Annual Conference set a precedent in announcing a Just Resolution of the complaint against UM Elder and former seminary dean, Thomas Ogletree.  This Just Resolution resulted in a day of holy conversation with representatives from across the theological spectrum.
  • In October, 2014, Bishop Peggy Johnson of Pennsylvania announced a Just Resolution against 36 clergy who had participated in a same-gender wedding.  The result: the clergy had to acknowledge a violation of the Discipline, but Bishop Johnson also “pledged” that future violations of a similar nature would “will be handled swiftly and with significant and appropriate consequences, which may include a trial, involuntary leave of absence without pay, or other significant consequences.”
  • A month later, in November 2014, Bishop Deborah Kiesey announced that a Just Resolution had beed reached against two Michigan clergy who had conducted same-sex marriages.  No comment on the complaint procedure was given by Bishop Kiesey, nor by the complainants, who remained anonymous. (The plaintiffs, in recognition of their victory, attended a public celebration shortly after the announcement.)
  • In January 2015, the Western Jurisdiction announced a Just Resolution had been reached in the complaint against retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who had participated in a same-gender wedding ceremony against the request of both the resident Bishop in Alabama and the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops.  The result of this Just Resolution was a one-page document which said nothing either interesting or significant.
  • Just last week, Bishop Trimble of the Iowa Conference announced a Just Resolution in the complaint against Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner.  The result was a relatively long and comprehensive document whose only real action item is a letter which Dr. Sonner is required to write that amounts to, “I’m sorry some people feel that way.”

Notice the trajectory developed in a very short period of time: from a resolution that called for a public event (something significant & costly at least happened), to a resolution which promised future consequences in exchange for avoiding them at present, and lastly to “Just Resolutions” that quite literally result in nothing happening.  (Other than the progressive wing of the church taking them for what they clearly are, despite all the administrative rhetoric to the contrary: unambiguous victories.)

To be sure, these Just Resolutions had much blood, sweat, and tears poured into them. Some of them even put up quite beautiful smoke screens: quotes from the Book of Discipline, soul-searching, hand-wringing, and apparently sincere language of “accountability” and “unity” abound throughout .  But as Henry Frankfurt says in his classic essay On Bullshit“However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.” (23)

Someone has to say it:

The Emperor Has No Clothes

In Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story, a vain and foolish king is tricked into going around naked because no one will tell him the truth: the clothes he thinks he is wearing simply don’t exist.  At the end of the fable, an innocent child, who has no need of the monarch’s favor, is blunt enough to say the obvious.

Emperors-New-ClothesIn that same spirit, let me suggest something many of us know instinctively, but which we’ve just been too polite to say: these Just Resolutions are neither just nor resolutions.  They are bureaucratic punts which are, at best, designed to avoid the monetary and PR costs of church trials   (To be fair, Bill Arnold saw this clearly at the outset, and said so in the NYAC panel.)  This may have been the intention at the beginning,  and it’s an understandable one.  At present, however, we are avoiding any tangible form of accountability and yet celebrating resolutions that are anything but; this means the resulting illusion of due process and a unified church under the Discipline is nothing short of bullshit in a precise, even academic, sense.  “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with the truth – this indifference,” says the Princeton philosopher Frankfurt, “to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” (33-34)

I won’t argue that the Just Resolutions named above do not follow the letter of the law.  What I would suggest instead is that touting these as if they resolve anything, or as if they maintain the integrity of the church, is to engage in pure fantasy.  Again, Frankfurt notes, “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” (47)

Bullshit vs. Lying

on bullshitTo be clear: I’m not saying we’re being lied to. I’m saying, with Frankfurt, we’re
being treated like we are idiots.  The Emperor has no clothes, but is prancing about declaring, “Resolution! Resolution!” when the things which are purported to hold us together are only further tearing the fabric of our fellowship.  The Discipline is followed, but it’s all smoke and mirrors because the church is no better for it:  “The bullshitter is faking things.  But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.” (48)

Unfortunately, bullshit is actually worse than lying.

Worse Than Lies

In the case of the above complaints, a lie would be better than all of this mounting bullshit.  Tell me there’s been significant (but private) consequences.  Tell me due to personal illness, the complaint has been put on hold indefinitely.  Tell me it was lost in the mail.  All of these would show more respect for the truth than the bullshit resolutions that are currently in vogue. Frankfurt argues that the bullshitter

“…does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” (61)

Legal Fiction or Covenant Integrity?

The Just Resolutions are, increasingly, little more than institutional bullshit.  They substitute a concern for truth and adherence to reality for a mirage of accountability wrapped up in enough legalese to make a Church of Scientology lawyer weep.  This is not about the good of the church, it’s about maintaining an illusion of integrity while doing nothing.

“For the bullshitter, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false.  His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.  He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (56)

Finally, this trend represents what Rabbi Edwin Friedman called a “quick fix mentality.”  One of the characteristics of a “chronically anxious family” is this focus on a fast remedy rather than comprehensive change.  Friedman describes this mentality as, “a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.” (Failure of Nerve, p. 54) Read in the most charitable way possible, the present ubiquity of Just Resolutions has its origin in an aversion to acute pain (via trials) that manifests as a choice for a short-term faux peace instead of either a modicum of order or what Robert Quinn would call “deep change.”

A Personal Postscript: Cards on the Table

If you’ve hung in this far, there’s a good chance you think I’m a jerk.
That’s fine. You are, of course, free to think that.  But I’m actually not opposed to change in the church.  In distinction to many of my evangelical and conservative colleagues, I do not believe that the human sexuality debate represents a first-order doctrinal concern, which for me would be a non-negotiable.  I believe this is about people of good will bullshit-meter1with different hermeneutics who all love Jesus and want what’s best for the church.  Moreover, I believe it’s mostly about hospitality: the UMC needs the presence and witness of LGBTQ persons, and we need to figure out a way to welcome our neighbors better.  Moreover, we need to recognize serious burdens that our current polity places on ministry in some areas of the Connection.  (Those pushing for change should also recognize the resulting difficulties that this could bring for their colleagues and neighbors.)

I don’t have an easy answer for you.  I could live in a church that answers this challenge by recognizing the inherent complexities and granting some flexibility, perhaps by region or some other distinction in our structure.  But currently our Discipline is clear about what we as clergy are and are not permitted to do, like it or not.   In the meantime, it’s deeply problematic for our Bishops and other leaders to seek out and celebrate “Resolutions” which do an end-run around real accountability and instead amount to a de facto change in church teaching and polity, powers which lie with the General Conference alone.

And by “deeply problematic,” I mean it’s pure and simple bullshit.

no bs

Empathy – the Enemy?

 

I read an interesting piece by Mark Steyn recently that questioned to oft-vaunted “empathy” of the Left.  The occasion for this discussion was the horror that some members of the media showed when Rick Santorum explained the circumstances around the death of an infant child.  In brief: though told that the baby would live only hours outside the womb, Mr. and Mrs. Santorum decided to take the child home so that the family could meet him.  Basically, he decided to treat his non-viable child like…a life.  How strange.

Steyn points out the irony of the “empathetic” Left showing horror at this occasion:

The Left endlessly trumpets its “empathy.” President Obama, for example, has said that what he looks for in his judges is “the depth and breadth of one’s empathy.” As he told his pro-abortion pals at Planned Parenthood, “we need somebody who’s got the heart — the empathy — to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom.” Empathy, empathy, empathy: You barely heard the word outside clinical circles until the liberals decided it was one of those accessories no self-proclaimed caring progressive should be without.

Of course, the irony goes deeper than this instance.  The Left’s empathy ends when it meets people with whom it disagrees:

The Left’s much-vaunted powers of empathy routinely fail when confronted by those who do not agree with them politically. Rick Santorum’s conservatism is not particularly to my taste (alas, for us genuine right-wing crazies, it’s that kind of year), and I can well see why fair-minded people would have differences with him on a host of issues… The usual rap against the Right is that they’re hypocrites — they vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, and next thing you know they’re playing footsie across the stall divider with an undercover cop at the airport men’s room. But Rick Santorum lives his values, and that seems to bother the Left even more.

All this has me wondering if empathy is much good at all.  I recently completed Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve.  If you aren’t familiar with systems theory, you probably should be.  His basic argument in this book is that leaders lead best who lead themselves.  That is, the best leaders are able to remain connected while staying differentiated (not “bound up” on a core level with those one leads).  Doing so enables leaders to take well-defined stances that, if maintained, encourage growth on the part of those around her or him.

Empathy, as it turns out, is counterproductive to this model of leadership (and maturity).  Friedman points out that “empathy” entered our language very recently, and yet in its short history has come to be viewed as indispensable in all kinds of professions and contexts.

“As lofty and noble as the concept of empathy may sound, and as well-intentioned as those may be who make it the linchpin idea of their theories…societal regression has too often perverted the use of empathy into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the “sensitive”…I have consistently found the introduction of the subject of “empathy” into family, institutional, and community meetings to be reflective of, as well as an effort to induce, a failure of nerve among its leadership.”

The basic assumption of empathy is understanding.  The classic illustration is that sympathy can look down on someone from above with pity, but empathy puts us right next to the person in trouble.  Friedman’s argument – and he is not a reactionary arch-conservative but a Reformed Rabbi and counselor – is that the empathetic stance is actually counter-productive to the growth and “self-regulation” (read: maturation, development, positive change) of the others we seek to help.

The bottom line:

“Forces that are un-self-regulating can never be made to adapt toward the strength of a system by trying to understand or appreciate their nature…it is self-regulation, not feeling for others, that is critical in the face of entities which lack that quality.” (133-135).

What do you think?  Is empathy actually holding back our churches, families, and communities?  Is empathy the enemy?