Friday, February 11, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: Not Playing the Game

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

Immanuel Can: Hey, Tom, what’s all this I’m suddenly hearing about “NPC”?

Tom: Oh my, you sure know how to pick ’em. As you have surely noticed, there’s a big media brouhaha around that term, and Twitter has banned it outright as “hateful”. I’ll let writer Brandon Morse explain it:

“If you’ve ever picked up a video game that features other characters that are controlled by the computer, then you’ve run into non-player characters or NPC’s.”

When you call someone an “NPC”, what you are saying is that they are programmed with preset behavioral patterns decided for them by somebody else, be they professors, activist groups or the media. You are telling them they are unable to think for themselves.

Valley of the Talking Dolls

IC: That seems to be the essence of it. It’s kind of like those old “talking” dolls you used to be able to buy: they had a string, and when you pulled it, they would say one of five or six preset things. Of course, that’s because the doll wasn’t really talking, let alone thinking about what made sense to say: it was just making noise.

Now, I don’t play any of those participatory, multi-player video games, but I’ve seen them played. And you can really tell when a character on screen is being managed by a real person, versus when you’re just dealing with a character programmed by the computer. The experience is quite different in each case. The latter is the “NPC” experience.

But I’ve heard some of the early criticism of the term. The people who whom it is sometimes applied claim it’s bad, and we shouldn’t use it because, they say, it “depersonalizes” them.

Tom: I can see why people might find it offensive. It’s insulting. It basically says, “You’re a robot. You’re on autopilot waiting for your next cue from CNN or The New York Times.” And yes, it does “depersonalize” the Left. But the reason the meme has gotten so much traction is that it rings true to people who have dealt with leftists. Leftists reliably refuse to engage with arguments. They shout slogans like mantras, as if repeating something often enough makes it true. They predictably use the same deplatforming and shaming tactics against all their detractors. And it especially rings true of the media, who have been caught coordinating their attacks against the Right. They all put out the same story at the same time in almost exactly the same words, trying to shape public opinion. They are clearly getting direction from somewhere, and nobody wants to break lockstep and offer a different viewpoint.

It’s that ring of truth that makes “NPC” so offensive to its targets. But there are certainly much worse things you could call someone. You have to be pretty thin-skinned to call for banning a term that is more accurate and humorous than anything.

The Language of Protestant Conscience

IC: Well, and here’s the thing: the whole tactic of the leftist social justice types is to invoke the language of Protestant conscience to shame and punish their opposition. Their approach depends on us having a consciousness that they are making serious allegations and are holding the moral high ground. What a term like NPC does is to deny them the illusion that the self-satisfied posture of moral superiority is based on anything at all. So that’s one good effect it has: it points out the insincerity of leftist rhetoric.

Tom: Agreed, and sometimes it is necessary to say something mildly offensive in order to make your audience wake up and pay attention. You could accomplish the same thing by saying, “You know, you really sound like you’re just reciting somebody else’s talking points,” but this is much pithier.

IC: Here’s another really good thing it does: it calls on leftists to recognize their mental lockstep for what it is, be ashamed of their insincerity, liberate themselves, and start speaking like human beings again. It’s a provocation to them to stop resorting to pat answers and to start thinking for themselves. In that regard, it’s not “dehumanizing” at all: rather, it points out that the Left HAS BECOME dehumanized of its own volition, and can reclaim its humanity by ceasing to talk inauthentically and robotically, or merely reciting a political script.

In any case, it reassures them that so long as they do not speak authentically, nobody’s going to be listening anymore. And that’s a very good thing for all parties involved.

Tom: Well, I think that’s what the Left finds so immensely frustrating about the last two years: their old tricks don’t seem to be working anymore. When they cry “Racist!”, instead of falling all over themselves apologizing, people on the Right say, “Where’s your evidence?” When they screech, “All women must be believed!”, more and more people are saying, “Where’s your evidence? I’m prepared to listen, but I’m going to evaluate it for myself by a set of time-honored objective standards, not just take your word for it.” The problem is that the Left doesn’t do evidence. It only does accusation. It’s going to take them a while to figure out how to deal with that.

In the meantime, if someone tells them to “punch a Nazi”, and that “Nazi” means anyone who disagrees with them, they keep throwing the punch. To any objective observer sitting on the fence, that looks ridiculous, not to mention criminal.

IC: Right you are.

Christianity by Rote

Now let’s take this to some Christian applications, Tom. What do you think we, as Christians, can learn from the coinage “NPC”?

Tom: We can learn to be real in our critiques and responses; not to simply regurgitate something we’ve heard without any personal investigation of its truthfulness. Anyone can be an NPC. Just because it seems like more leftists are robotic and unthinking currently doesn’t mean we’re immune to going along to get along. And if people are starting to see through them, they’ll certainly see through you.

I think about people like John the Baptist or Stephen or the Lord Jesus himself. These were not people who were the least bit swayed by popular opinion. They spoke the truth even if they were the only one speaking it, and even if it was not popular at all. No safety in numbers there!

IC: Good, yes.

I think of this, too: when we evangelize, do we know, believe and live what we are talking about, or are we going through a method, a prepared evangelism-script the meaning of which we could hardly explain at all if pressed? This “relationship with God” into which I’m inviting the unbeliever; do I have a vibrant, sincere, real one myself, from which I can speak, or am I only rote-reciting my Sunday School creed? Am I authentically what I am offering to others?

And in my own field, apologetics (rational defense of the faith), there are canned answers to particular questions that people tend to throw up. Do I, as a Christian apologist, merely turn to them, or do I hear the personal investment of my interlocutors, and engage them as real human beings with particular interests and questions? Do my answers always have the same ring of polished readiness, or is each conversation unique and respectful of the person to whom I’m speaking? In other words, am I being real, or am I being NPC?

Playing Church

Tom: The same applies to Bible teaching. I’ve heard speakers recite other people’s anecdotes — often uncredited — plagiarize other people’s thoughts (and get them wrong), and use hoary religious clichés from the platform, things that are often meaningless to anyone who has just walked in off the street. If you’ve ever written or taught, you’ll know how easy it is to approach a familiar subject by simply recycling things you’ve said or heard before rather than really engaging with a passage of scripture. People refer to it as “playing church”, and it’s really another form of NPC-ishness.

IC: Very good, Tom. I agree.

Another application might be the many popular sub-movements Christians are sometimes invited to join: the Emerging Church, the Charismatics, the Neo-Calvinists, the KJV-only Club, the liberal reformers, the traditionalists, or whatever. Each has its own patter, its own set of clichés, its own set of verbal traps and tests, and its own slant on what orthodoxy means. Fail their standards, and you’re out — you’re not really a Christian, so far as they are concerned. And the answers as to why this is okay for them to do will come back at you in the language of NPC.

Tom: I guess it comes back to what you accept as authoritative. If it’s the hive-speak of whatever culture you’re immersed in, then you can hardly blame people for poking fun at you with memes like NPC. Going with the crowd will always be laughable, because popular morality changes every few months. Nobody can take its new pronouncements seriously. But if you test everything by the word of God, and speak truthfully and sincerely to the arguments that are made to you, well, that’s another story.

People may disagree, even violently, but they won’t call you a robot.

A Message Incarnated

IC: Right. What we’ve got to remember is that God sent his love to us in human form. Not as a set of propositions, and certainly not as a cold mass of knowledge. And the Lord left us a pattern: that the message to be conveyed must be incarnated in a life that matches with it. That’s not to say we’ve got to be perfect: but that the message we speak has to have a natural fit with the experiences we’ve had, the lifestyle we inhabit, and the values and actions to which we are committed, so that we do not merely act as NPCs, but as demonstrations of the life of Christ in real human beings.

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