Tag Archives: identity politics

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.

Advertisements

The Idolatry of the Young and the Future of the Church at General Conference 2012

Image

As a culture, our golden calf is young people: their presence, whims, fashions, and thoughts.  Advertisers certainly know this.  MTV does.  The head of MTV once said, “We don’t shoot for young people, we own them.”  Everyone wants young people.  The church is no different.

The identity politics at the UMC General Conference 2012 has been troubling.  Our church has been in decline since 1968 when it formed, and yet our structure has remained the same: a multiplicity of corporate-style boards with redundant agendas, massive bureaucracies, and little oversight.  The economic and cultural realities are such that we as a church can no longer fund this corporate beast.  Attempting to make any changes, however, has proven difficult.  Tribalism is rampant.  Each group is asking, “Who made that plan?”  “Why wasn’t I at the table?”  “Did you think about this group?”  “Were they consulted?”

At one point in the deliberations, someone actually said, “I want everyone who wrote this legislation to stand up so I can see who they are.”  Read: it matters little whether or not the legislation is good or effective, it matters if the people who wrote it look like me.

To be certain, we are a worldwide communion, a big-tent denomination if there ever was one.  We have many voices that need to be honored, many constituencies that are a gift to Christ’s church and the Wesleyan movement.  I had enough schooling to know that social location matters.  I don’t think it should matter more than faithfulness to Christ or zeal for fulfilling his mission, but that is a separate debate.

One of the strangest things in all of this has been the idolatry of the young in our church.  I’ve seen it at all levels.  “Why aren’t there more young delegates at General Conference?” they ask.  Well, to get elected to GC involves being known by a lot of your peers, and this likelihood increases as one is around for longer periods of time.

Most troubling is the reversal of the locus of wisdom in our culture.  Ancient societies and even Americans of recent generations revered the old; we looked up to their witness, honored their accumulated knowledge, deferred to their experience and listened to their voices.  That day is gone.  We want the young: to know their thoughts, to have them present, to follow their lead.

As a young pastor in a church that has few of them, I’ve seen this repeatedly.  “What do the young adults think??” “How do we get more young adults??” We are desperate for young clergy and desperate for youth and young adult representation in the church.  Granted, the Oxford Methodists were young when they got going; however, anyone who knows the story of the Wesleys is well aware that they were very unusual 20-somethings by the standards of any age.

So why all this fuss about young people sitting at the leadership table? Frankly, I don’t get it.  I’ve been a pastor now for just under three years and I have very little wisdom about the church to share.  I’m still learning, studying, figuring out how all this actually works.  A big deal was made of GC 2016 being after school was out so more young adults could attend.  For what?  Honestly, other than for the sake of appearances, what are 20-somethings going to contribute? (Again, note: I am one of them.)  Let the conferences send their best and brightest, their wisest folks, most effective in a diversity of roles: large and small church, campus ministry, chaplaincy, peace and justice ministries, district superintendents.  That is a range of experience that would matter.  Those are gifts that could serve the church.  What we’re doing now is little more than parroting the worst in tribalistic American politics.

Would you want a 19-year-old brain surgeon operating on you?  Would you want a 26-year-old to be President?  Me neither.  Nor do I want a large number of 20-somethings, who have proven to be effective at little (if anything), to be making decisions for the worldwide communion of people called United Methodists.