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Friday, May 12, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Unhinged Racism

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Jonathan Merritt contributes to The Atlantic and has been named one of “30 young influencers reshaping Christian leadership” by Outreach Magazine. All good so far, provided you don’t mind your “Christian leadership” flavored with a big honkin’ tablespoon of social justice.

Tom: He also just called Doug Wilson an “unhinged racist”, and Doug has sensibly called foul right here in one of the funniest posts I’ve read in a long time.

IC, these accusations of “racism” are getting so common today as to be almost meaningless.

Immanuel Can: Yes, along with the words, “sexist”, “homophobic” and “Islamophobic”, they comprise today’s “Four Horsemen of the Horse Manure”.

Alinsky 101

Tom: Precisely, thank you. But we have learned to expect this sort of thing from the political Left. It’s what they do. It’s Alinsky 101: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon”. They’re happy to call their enemies names whether there’s any truth in their accusations or not, because it works. The mud sticks.

But we have not generally seen these tricks picked up and used by professing Christians to attack other Christians, have we?

IC: A little bit. Calvinists call anyone who disagrees with them an “Arminian” and then shout them down. KJVers call every other version a “per-version” and don’t check the Greek and Hebrew to find out how wrong that is. Those sorts of tactics happen on the lunatic fringe; but most Christians are very charitable about tolerating the views of others. It’s an inherent necessity, because Christians believe that people must be convinced of the gospel. It really is not possible to insult, bully or force people into salvation or holiness, because “without faith it is impossible to please God”. To encourage faith, you have to speak to people in a reasonable and respectful way.

#LittleBlackLivesMatter

Tom: Right. But in this instance we’re not talking about heresy or even a doctrinal disagreement; in fact, it’s actually politics that brought this on. So I’m not sure how the name-calling helps. Merritt’s stated objections to Wilson (on this subject at least) stem from this quote:
“Not only must the dignity of human life be upheld by white and black Christian leaders alike, to the extent we may allow any differences, it should be to expect a greater vehemence in opposing abortion (in the person of its advocates and enablers) from black leaders. This is because it is their people who are being disproportionately targeted by the white Sangerites. And a black Christian leader who cannot identify a Sangerite is a rabbit leader who does not know what a hawk looks like.”
Sounds to me like Wilson is concerned about the disproportionate numbers of black babies that are aborted in the U.S., and thinks black Christian leaders should encourage their flocks to vote for candidates who stand against abortion. Now we can argue about whether that’s Doug Wilson’s job, or whether what he says has merit, but calling him an “unhinged racist” is just a cheap attempt to disqualify him at the gate so that his ideas don’t get a hearing at all.

A Kid With No Toys

IC: There certainly are some statistical metrics one could use to decide whether or not his concerns were warranted and his proposed remedies justified. And maybe talking about those is both better for Christian fellowship generally, and certainly better for the community in question.

Tom: When you’re a kid in the heat of battle with one of your brothers or sisters, you will often call them things like “stupid idiot” and “moron” in your frustration. The charge of racism is very much on that level. It’s a generalization that, even if it turned out to be true, doesn’t move the discussion anywhere helpful. When I was a child, my father would always make me and my brothers explain in detail what we were mad about rather than simply hurling insults. That was usually something like “He took my toy!” or “He didn’t want to play the game I wanted to play.”

As adults, when anyone uses these sorts of generalizations rather than specific critiques, it’s often a sign they are arguing in bad faith. If you’re ultra-sensitive about how Christians of difference races speak to one another, you might look at Doug’s quote and say, “I think Doug’s use of the phrase ‘their people’ is unhelpful and inflammatory”, or whatever. That’s at least a fair, honest way to state your complaint, even though I think it’s a silly one. But calling your fellow believers unhinged racists is not something you do to advance your side of an argument. You do it to shut the argument down altogether.

Shutting Down the Argument

IC: Yes, of course. The goal is to accuse the speaker of having unsavory associations with racism. The “unhinged” is just an additional rhetorical flourish …

Tom: … and a particularly false one in that Doug Wilson chooses his words more carefully than just about anybody I read regularly. He’s the furthest thing from “unhinged”.

IC: Right, but that’s just so that he will become defensive and stop speaking. After all, if one is accidentally talking people into thinking you’re a racist, you’re going to want to stop. But the goal of the accusation is not to locate a genuine problem, far less to promote discussion or arrive at harmony. It’s to prevent speech and end thought. It’s an anti-intellectual move.

Real white racism — the card-carrying Nazi type: racial purity, eugenics, segregation-type racism — is actually pretty rare today. And when such is located, it’s very easy to deal with, being so flagrant and propositional. That’s why the Left now focuses on allegedly-hidden, smoke-and-mirrors types of racism: “unconscious bias”, “institutional discrimination”, “patriarchy”, “white privilege” and so forth — all of which are ghosts. They’re unsourceable, obscure in ultimate remedy, persistently illusory and impossible to prove. Having this ghost on hand grants those who love labels an infinite license to pose as virtuously searching and rooting out a problem everyone knows is evil. And with that, an open license to silence criticism.

Changing the Subject

Tom: And it purposefully changes the subject. Wilson was talking about the need for black pastors to encourage their congregations to vote strategically so as to minimize the legalized murder of children in their own communities. THAT was the issue. Suddenly, we’re all talking about … well, what ARE we talking about? Is Jonathan Merritt accusing Doug of unconscious bias against blacks, or of thinking blacks are inferior beings, or of being a segregationist, or of being a white supremacist, or of outright hatred … who knows? Nobody does. Merritt doesn’t say, and he doesn’t have to, because he’s used the magic invocation of race to change the subject. So we’re no longer worried about dead kids, we’re worried that Doug didn’t discuss their murders daintily enough for Merritt’s tender sensibilities.

IC: Yes, and that’s incredibly stupid. You would really think that the man who wants to keep as many black babies alive as possible (i.e. Douglas Wilson) was the anti-racist, and the guy who doesn’t care enough about the issue to take a stand would be the racist ... or at least the uncaring churl. But propaganda reverses this, and calls Wilson “racist” for even having picked up the issue.

Can’t you hear the Snake hiss?

Tom: I can indeed, and Doug Wilson agrees:
“The point is not about whether we disagree on stuff. All politics have always been about such disagreements. Moving the Overton window is a larger project, one that seeks to move the acceptable range of disagreement. Within the window we find all the positions that a person might openly maintain and still get elected to something. Outside the window are positions that might best be described as unthinkable.

So you don’t believe that we are not currently experiencing massive culture-wide pressure to get the historic Christian view of ethics, particularly sexual ethics, into the realm of the unthinkable? You need to wake up and smell the sulphur. Wake up and taste the acrid touch of brimstone on your tongue.”
If you’ve never heard of the Overton window, that describes it nicely.

Lessons From the Internet

So, let’s be practical here: Tell me, IC, what can Christians take out of this sorry little episode?

IC: Well, for starters, when somebody calls you something suddenly — racist, sexist, phobic, whatever — don’t immediately jump and get wounded. Don’t feel you have to defend. The person who’s saying it is almost certainly being manipulative and diabolical. Remember that those labels have no business in civil or Christian discourse.

What else, Tom?

Tom: First, whatever you do, don’t ever concede a point of truth out of fear of being labeled. Doug Wilson has the right attitude here: he sticks to his guns rather than running from the abuse in fear that it might damage his reputation or his ministry. The worst thing you can do in the face of an unspecific accusation is start apologizing in case you might have accidentally offended anyone. The point is to disqualify you rather than to debate you, and once you take the bait, the discussion is over. Note that Merrick’s goal is to get Wilson to tender his resignation, shut up and go away. An ill-considered apology would accomplish that perfectly. Instead, Wilson takes the fight right back to Merrick, not defensively but almost in a jocular way.

I Can’t Hear What You’re Saying

Secondly, as you say, don’t use the term, even to describe actual racists. It’s not a biblical word, and we don’t need it in our Christian vocabulary. Deal with arguments, not people. It’s cowardly, unimaginative, unclear and unhelpful to charge people with things you haven’t proven, haven’t clearly defined and probably don’t even truly understand.

IC: On that note, it reminds me of the old saying, “I can’t hear what you’re saying, because what you’re being is shouting.” That’s relevant.

Mr. Merrick evidently isn’t above calling people offensive names instead of addressing their claims rationally or behaving civilly toward them.

Consequently, I wouldn’t look to him for my intellectual content ... and even less for my moral example.

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