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Understanding Rage

Leading Questions:What are the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed Christian perspective on political discourse (Subtopic 2)? Are there ideas so repugnant and dangerous that they shouldn’t be allowed to be uttered in public? What is wrong, if anything, with passionate speech? Are there limits to civility? Is the call for civility a means of control by those in power? Is the call for civility a means to marginalize those “who have no voice?”  

I find that I agree with much of what Harold has said about the need for Christians to engage with humility, courage and love. But I also agree with Greg that our culture is struggling with problems that are deeper than managing the mode by which we engage. Civility is a good thing—of course it is. But I am wary of calls for civility, especially because those calls often come from people in power irritated by others who are angry about injustices that they have experienced.

So, first I’ll make a few comments about the Proposed Christian Perspective, as I have been asked. Then, I’ll talk about the challenges in characterizing incivility. Finally, I’ll close by introducing some thoughts about free speech that will be expanded on as Micah and I continue the conversation.

The Proposed Christian Perspective

Two things strike me as important in understanding the conversation between Harold and Greg. First, what is the nature of the problem? Second, what is the impact of institutions and rules?

There are five bullet points that make up Harold’s guidelines for the love, courage and humility of a Christian political discourse. These include making a safe space for others, listening carefully, expressing things in a non-coercive manner and so forth. These are good guidelines. But, as Greg points out it is possible to employ all of these tools and still work toward policies that harm the weak, the sick, the poor in society. So, it seems that they disagree.

However, Harold buried the lead. I think the most important piece of the whole essay rests in his line that follows these points. “There is an extremely important element that pervades these steps: “getting to know” the person who disagrees with you.” For me, this is the point that bridges what Harold and Greg are both getting at.

Knowing the other has to be the key to what Harold calls convicted civility. And, knowing the other could also be the key to solving challenges in society made up of haves and have nots. If the worker and the owner care to really know the other before they negotiate pay and benefits, they might be more likely to negotiate well. If the powerful seek to know the powerless their approach to rules could be different. Knowing the other leads to standing in the shoes of someone else. And, it’s really only when we can see the world through the eyes of others that we can attempt to love them.

With respect to institutions, Harold points out that gerrymandering, closed primaries and the role of fundraising contribute to lack of civility in political discussion. Greg says as institutions break down, the public square changes and opportunities to influence the community decrease for certain groups. Again, I’d say that both of these important observations are connected to the necessity of knowing the other. If rules about political parties result in moderates and extremists never talking, knowing the other declines. If government rules that de-fund libraries and service groups result in a shrinking public square for some, then lack of knowing the other is both the cause and the effect of challenges for the poor.

So, I’m looking forward to reading the upcoming pieces that relate to the role of money, political parties and so forth. My own contribution to the discussion of institutions will be more developed in my next piece on the government and limitations on free speech.

Greg says that the crisis of political discourse identified by Harold is not new, and that it is not even necessarily a bad thing. “Different sorts of discourse arise in the context of different sorts of politics, as different sorts of people try to have different sorts of conversations….And so the shape and scope of the public sphere, and of what counts as ‘civil discourse’ have always been negotiated and renegotiated in a necessarily messy and conflictual process.”

I find this hopeful.

Hopeful, but still difficult. And for me, the difficulty lies in rage.

Incivility in the Eye of the Beholder

Too often, even in Christian circles, one person’s effort to be recognized and known is another person’s definition of incivility. Here are some examples.

First, my own story. As a white, upper-middle class Christian female, I have been on both sides of the “call for civility” discourse. I was raised in the conservative Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and was a teenager during the 70s when the second wave feminist movement hit up against a church still firmly committed to the idea of male headship in both institutions and families. At a CRC high school I was scared of feminists, but I also saw their point. At that time in history sexual harassment and domestic violence were hardly developed as legal concepts. Women were making only fifty cents to the dollar made by a man. My church, to my confusion, thought this was perfectly fine.

At a CRC college I tutored younger male students who planned to become pastors and they would explain earnestly that God designed creation in such a way that certain doors should never open for me because of my sex. But, they cautioned, I should not be angry about this. It was God’s will, and God had a different plan for women in the church and in the home. One had only to examine Scripture, they said, to see that any irritation I had about this was misdirected. 

I felt confusion in high school. In college I felt irritation and anger. By my thirties, as my advocacy moved into justice for the LGBTQ community, I felt rage at the sexism and injustices in the evangelical church. I tried to internalize the rage but had limited success. I was told many times that my anger led to incivility, and I should control it better. But, when one dismissed or is denied a place at the table frustration easily becomes incivility. When backed into a corner, people push. When not at the table, people get rude. I know, I’ve been that person. When I was younger I may have made mistakes in expressing myself, but I don’t think the problem was really with my expression—the problem was with what was causing my anger.

Now, many years later, I teach political science at a Christian university connected to a denomination that has had female preachers for over a century. But, race, class and sexual identity issues continue to challenge us. Today, as someone with a place at the table I am the one faced with the rage of others. Because they are students one could argue that it is my job to tutor them on the art of civil discourse. Perhaps. But, I think it is better for me to see my job as trying to understand what causes incivility when it occurs. Sometimes people are just rude and eager for disruption. But, more often than not it is frustration, anger and then rage that leads to incivility. Understanding the rage is more important to me than calling for civil discourse.

Second example. This summer a group of conservative Christians got together to publish the Nashville Statement. This is a multi-part manifesto designed to clarify what they see as a Biblical view of sexuality, manhood and womanhood. They took pains to say they loved everyone, even LGBTQ persons, but they also said that Scripture is clear about appropriate sexual behaviors. They said they were just trying to state Christian Truth in Love.

On the one hand this is a perfectly civil document. It is calm; no name-calling exists; it’s a document that states what they themselves believe. For me, it was easy to ignore. I’m not gay and I’m not part of that group and I don’t care what they believe. But for my Christian LGBTQ friends this statement was tantamount to declaration of war. It didn’t matter that it was calm or that the authors said they had Christian love for everyone. The choice to make the statement, to publicize it and to call out the gay community as living lives antithetical to Scripture was viewed not just as a lack of civility but as an aggressive, hostile attack.

And, the LGBTQ community along with their advocates were not shy about expressing their disdain for the statement. They took to social media with a vengeance and they caught many signers of the statement off-guard. One of the signatories, Randy Alcorn, wrote that he was so hurt and taken aback by the anger to what was in his view such a civil document. Others were dismayed by the lack of civility in response to their simple effort to summarize God’s desire for us.

The key here is that the Nashville statement meets the bullet point tests of the Christian Perspective. The most important aspect of what Harold emphasizes, though, was ignored. The Nashville statement authors had no interest in knowing those they were disapproving of. It simply doesn’t matter that they think they were being civil and declaring their love for all humans, because their act did violence to those they disagree with. And, in being careless about others they unleased rage. Had they taken the time to know the other their beliefs might not have changed but I think their approach might have been different.

The third example relates to the NFL Take a Knee Movement. By temperament I am drawn to the legal system as an avenue for dispute resolution. Both sides state a perspective, evidence is collected, arguments are made and a well-developed set of rules is imposed on the whole procedure. But, scratch the surface of the criminal justice system and you are faced with rage—the rage that brought about Black Lives Matter and the Take a Knee movement.

When Black Lives Matter protests in the street turned chaotic and even violent, people said the protestors should be more civil. But then when Colin Kaepernick took a knee in a football game as a quiet, non-violent, non-disruptive expression of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement people were furious. They said he should shut up and play football. His silent expression was interpreted as an attack against the flag, and the President of the United States engaged in conversation about managing and controlling Kaepernick and other players. Black Lives Matter should be “more civil,” but silent expression was still not civil enough. Well, that’s a recipe for frustration turning into or revealing rage.

Finally, I want to make a point about inconsistency in an age of Facebook, twitter and blogging. The phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” refers to the way newspapers have acquiesced to the American fascination with violence. People would buy newspapers if they emphasize the blood, gore and gossip that draw out our more base instincts. In the world of the Internet, I think a similar theme is at work. Bloggers do not get attention when they are working toward the common good. They get attention when they are snide and dismissive of others. And, even Christian bloggers who believe in civility fall into temptation.

For example, Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option and commentator at the National Review is a smart, thoughtful Christian who often calls for civility. As others have pointed out, though, Dreher regularly uses sarcasm and dismissal of others as a rhetorical tool. Dreher has admitted this about himself, and readers of his pieces can see his struggle and effort to reign this in. But, it’s difficult. When one’s livelihood depends on loyalty of readers it’s hard to be temperate and eager to know and understand those your readers see as enemies.

So, these examples show me a few things. I’d say that sometimes people feel pushed into acting in an uncivil manner. Sometimes what I may characterize as incivility in others is a result of something I might actually have done to them. Sometimes I might characterize what someone else has done as lack of civility but when I do the same thing I simply see it as advocating for God’s truth in love. It’s complicated.

I’m caught between two beliefs. On one hand, I think civility is important. One of my colleagues Lorna Hernandez Jarvis often references Maya Angelou in stating that words matter. We become the words we use. I think that is true. But I also believe calls for civility are usually a tool to limit someone else’s behavior. That troubles me.

As Harold says, though, what is the alternative? Civility, knowing the other, these are important things in the Kingdom of God. We need to require much of ourselves.

Next entry: response to Micah, and considerations about the First Amendment

Part of the discussion between Greg and Harold relates to the difference between our personal disposition and institutional efforts to make room for or quash the speech of others.

The discussion about the nature of the public square was illuminating to me. It’s important to understand how the political and legal systems have been complicit in shutting down some aspects of the public square for some populations. I thank Greg for pointing this out. It’s also important to understand the impact technology has had on the means and mode of speech and civility. The ability to exchange ideas is important in a democracy and the courts have been fairly rigorous in protecting speech. But, the concepts of inciting violence, hate speech and fighting words need more attention. Furthermore, free speech jurisprudence has not kept up with changing technology. Next time I’ll talk about developments regarding political speech on university campuses and I’ll discuss some areas that Congress is being encouraged to regulate.

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Reader Comments (1)

Thanks Julia. This was a very helpful clarification of issues and of genuinely important matters on both "sides." And very pertinent examples.

November 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterClarke Cochran

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