[WARNING: This post contains language and discussion that rape or sexual abuse survivors may find upsetting.]
Within this series of posts I am commenting on the dynamics of many heated online and offline debates and arguments. These thoughts were occasioned by the recent brouhaha surrounding a quotation from Pastor Douglas Wilson on Jared Wilson’s blog, which was condemned by many, most notably Rachel Held Evans. While I will be making remarks at several points about that particular dispute, my primary intention is to bring into clearer focus forces that are at work, to some extent or other, in the vast majority of debates that I encounter both offline and online nowadays.
In my previous post, I discussed different kinds of bad readers, sought to identify some of the causes of bad reading, and the relationship between the virtues of the good reader and Christian character. Within this post I will be proceeding to look at the matter of offence.
Offence, Vulnerability, and Trust
At the outset, before we discuss the way that offence shapes our debates, it is important to recognize that in the majority of cases the problem of offence arises from the fact that the participants in a given debate do not have the same degree of personal investment within it, or power relative to each other. A discussion that may be largely academic for many participants can be of great personal import and impact for others. It is considerably more difficult for such individuals to establish the distance between person and issue that is demanded for conventional disputation. Establishing this distance becomes all the harder when they feel that their personal stake in the issue is threatened by the other voices in the conversation.
The fact that some people are incapable of establishing such distance is worth reflecting upon. While this alone proves nothing about the legitimacy of either side’s case, problems in this area are generally a symptom of the absence or decay of trust between the parties in the debate. When trust is lacking, even the smallest sense of vulnerability can develop into full blown paranoia, encouraging highly reactive forms of discourse.
In many of our cultural and political debates today, the absence of mutual trust produces paranoia on both sides. When all parties feel vulnerable to other parties that they don’t trust, a paranoid victim mind-set takes hold on all sides, as do reactive modes of interaction. This is quite evident in the ‘culture wars’, for instance, where most parties seem to act as if their existence and identity were on the line, and the discourse plays out like the interactions between two animals that have simultaneously cornered each other. While I will argue that the distrust that prevails in many of our cultural debates is actually a carefully manufactured distrust, this manufactured distrust is seldom a sufficient explanation for the actual distrust that exists between most parties.
In the absence of such trust, discourse between two parties, one or both of whom feel vulnerable to each other, will always tend to revert to reactive forms. If we are to improve the quality of our public discourse, one of the most pressing questions that we must ask ourselves is why and how other parties feel threatened by us, and what can be done to restore or create a sense of trust, especially in situations where persons in the conversation are intentionally manufacturing distrust to serve their own extremist ends. In certain cases the absence of such trust is an indictment on the way that the parties have behaved relative to each other in the past. Reactive persons are poor readers and even poorer at debating and reasoning. Yet the existence of reactivity can in certain case, though definitely not all be its own evidence of mistreatment, mistreatment that has made it difficult to differentiate oneself from the subject matter and/or one’s opponents (as I will proceed to argue, this is definitely not true in every case: often people have little justification for their thin skins and these thin skins can often be cultivated). Consequently, the reactivity of our opponents in debate should raise troubling questions for us too.
The issue of reactivity in debate becomes an increasingly pressing problem as discourse is widened to include parties formerly marginalized from it. As public discourse is no longer limited to the privileged and the less personally vulnerable, it becomes a place where power differentials are more operative, visible, and exploitable. Discourse has to adapt itself to or negotiate these power differentials in some manner or other.
The Transformation of Public Discourse
As Western society has become progressively more sensitized to victims, the unempowered, and the disenfranchised, and has desired to give a voice to them, we have tended to truncate or limit public discourse in various ways to ensure that such groups don’t feel threatened. While well-meaning, this reformation of public discourse has come at considerable cost. It has rendered the taking of offence or the playing of the victim or underdog card incredibly powerful ploys within debate. In many cases these ploys overwhelm the debate, making challenging debate next to impossible. These ploys, as they are often open to only one party in the debate, establish their own secondary power differential, a differential that can frequently provide more influence on the course of a conversation for those willing and able to leverage it than the primary differential would provide to those advantaged by it. I will discuss this in more depth later in this post.
The retailoring of public discourse around these power differentials and the negotiation of the limited amount of trust between parties has resulted in a significant transformation of that discourse in a manner that jeopardizes certain values that are integral to a free society. Within this transformed public discourse, values such as ‘tolerance’, ‘nonjudgmentalism’, and ‘reasonableness’ are paramount – all values that result in the restriction of reason and the claims of challenging discourse from realms in which they formerly operated. ‘Tolerance’ is perceived to deny any right to subject individuals and their core beliefs and identities to the claims of any greater truth or the challenge of a broader conversation. ‘Nonjudgmentalism’ denies the right to be rigorous in forming and applying considered judgments, particularly moral ones. ‘Reasonableness’ denies us the right to introduce our deepest convictions into public discourse. To be ‘reasonable’ is to expect much less from rational discourse and the power of persuasion, reining in the socially unsettling force of challenging debate, seeking rather to settle matters using the decidedly limited resources of consensus principles.
However, each of these commitments entails the closing down of the sort of challenging and searching public discourse that can secure a free and open society. Discourse is increasingly truncated, to the point that it is no longer able to say much that is meaningful, and is unlikely to be able to settle many of our differences without our deeper convictions being smuggled into the debate under vague terms such as ‘equality’, ‘freedom’, and ‘reciprocity’. With the loss of trust in the power of rational discourse, the unifying power of a shared pursuit of truth, and the effectiveness of persuasion, public discourse provides a slender basis for intellectual community, and core convictions tend to become ghettoized. As this truncated discourse is unable either to resolve or clearly to expose the source of our differences, parties end up talking past each other and the temperature of debates swiftly rise.
There is a form of unity and community that can be protected by and within social forms and institutions that give us a defined context and the means by which to articulate and relate our differences and oppositions (parliaments, legal systems, sports, etc.). Without such bounded and rule-governed contexts of interaction, there is a constant danger that rivalries and differences will produce polarization, alienation, ghettoization, or outright and total conflict. It is by no means clear to me that the form that public discourse is moving towards is sufficient to provide us with such contexts. In place of a conversation enabling us to relate our differences and oppositions in a mutually challenging and sharpening manner, controlled by a shared commitment to rational discourse, rules of debate, and belief in the power of persuasion, we have settled for fragile truces between coexisting errors, truces that can be unsettled if anyone is allowed to speak too much. As substantial rational engagement with others’ positions is abandoned, the dominant modes of interaction between opposing viewpoints become offence-taking, reactive dismissal or attack, or ridicule, provocation, and offence-causing.
In contrast to a society bound together by a shared agonistic public conversation in search of truth through engagement with substantive issues, it is by no means clear to me that freedom will thrive in the new context of ‘tolerance’ and ‘reasonableness’, where the public quest for truth has been abandoned and many of the most significant matters in our society’s life are being gradually withdrawn from the realm of public debate. While freedom and emancipation could be advanced in the past by means of the claims of truth, in the context of the new ‘tolerant’ society, the claims of truth hold less weight. Politically inconvenient or inexpedient truths can no longer easily be advanced by recourse to the uncompromising force of reason, as ‘tolerance’ and ‘reasonableness’ start to exclude them from discussion altogether. Society is left ever more vulnerable to political caprice and is progressively dispossessed of the emancipatory discourse that has served it so well in the past.
Contrasting Forms of Discourse
In observing the interaction between Pastor Wilson and his critics in the recent debate, I believe that we were witnessing a collision of two radically contrasting modes of discourse. The first mode of discourse, represented by Pastor Wilson’s critics, was one in which sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness are key values, and in which persons and positions are ordinarily closely related. The second mode of discourse, displayed by Pastor Wilson and his daughters, is one characterized and enabled by personal detachment from the issues under discussion, involving highly disputational and oppositional forms of rhetoric, scathing satire, and ideological combativeness.
When these two forms of discourse collide they are frequently unable to understand each other and tend to bring out the worst in each other. The first form of discourse seems lacking in rationality and ideological challenge to the second; the second can appear cruel and devoid of sensitivity to the first. To those accustomed to the second mode of discourse, the cries of protest at supposedly offensive statements may appear to be little more than a dirty and underhand ploy intentionally adopted to derail the discussion by those whose ideological position can’t sustain critical challenge. However, these protests are probably less a ploy than the normal functioning of the particular mode of discourse characteristic of that community, often the only mode of discourse that those involved are proficient in.
To those accustomed to the first mode of discourse, the scathing satire and sharp criticism of the second appears to be a vicious and personal attack, driven by a hateful animus, when those who adopt such modes of discourse are typically neither personally hurt nor aiming to cause such hurt. Rather, as this second form of discourse demands personal detachment from issues under discussion, ridicule does not aim to cause hurt, but to up the ante of the debate, exposing the weakness of the response to challenge, pushing opponents to come back with more substantial arguments or betray their lack of convincing support for their position. Within the first form of discourse, if you take offence, you can close down the discourse in your favour; in the second form of discourse, if all you can do is to take offence, you have conceded the argument to your opponent, as offence is not meaningful currency within such discourse.
I also don’t think that sufficient attention is given to the manner in which differing forms of education prepare persons for participation in these different modes of discourse. There is a form of education – increasingly popular over the last few decades – which most values cooperation, collaboration, quietness, sedentariness, empathy, equality, non-competitiveness, conformity, a communal focus, inclusivity, affirmation, inoffensiveness, sensitivity, non-confrontation, a downplaying of physicality, and an orientation to the standard measures of grades, tests, and a closely defined curriculum (one could, with the appropriate qualifications, speak of this as a ‘feminization’ of education). Such a form of education encourages a form of public discourse within which there is a shared commitment and conformity to the social and ideological dogmas and values of liberal society, where everyone feels secure and accepted and conflict is avoided, but at the expense of independence of thought, exposure to challenge, the airing of deep differences, and truth-driven discourse.
Faced with an opposing position that will not compromise in the face of its calls for sensitivity and its cries of offence, such a mode of discourse lacks the strength of argument to parry challenges. Nor does it have any means by which to negotiate or accommodate such intractable differences within its mode of conversation. Consequently, it will typically resort to the most fiercely antagonistic, demonizing, and personal attacks upon the opposition. While firm differences can be comfortably negotiated within the contrasting form of discourse, a mode of discourse governed by sensitivities and ‘tolerance’ cannot tolerate uncompromising difference. Without a bounded and rule-governed realm for negotiating differences, antagonism becomes absolute and opposition total. Supporters of this ‘sensitive’ mode of discourse will typically try, not to answer opponents with better arguments, but to silence them completely as ‘hateful’, ‘intolerant’, ‘bigoted’, ‘misogynistic’, ‘homophobic’, etc.
A completely contrasting mode of education, one more typical of traditional – and male-oriented – educational systems, values internalized confidence, originality, agonism, independence of thought, creativity, assertiveness, the mastery of one’s feelings, a thick skin and high tolerance for your own and others’ discomfort, disputational ability, competitiveness, nerve, initiative, imagination, and force of will, values that come to the fore in confrontational oral debate. Such an education will produce a mode of discourse that is naturally highly oppositional and challenging, while generally denying participants the right to take things personally. Deep divergences of opinion can be far more comfortably accommodated within the same conversation by those accustomed to such discourse. While the first form of education risks viewing persons as passive receptacles of knowledge to be rewarded for their conformity to set expectations, which are frequently measured, this form of education prioritizes the formation of independent thinking agents.
This form of discourse typically involves a degree of ‘heterotopy’, occurring in a ‘space’ distinct from that of personal interactions. This heterotopic space is characterized by a sort of playfulness, ritual combativeness, and histrionics. This ‘space’ is akin to that of the playing field, upon which opposing teams give their rivals no quarter, but which is held distinct to some degree from relations between the parties that exist off the field. The handshake between competitors as they leave the field is a typical sign of this demarcation. It is this separation of the space of rhetorical ritual combat from regular space that enables debaters, politicians, or lawyers to have fiery disagreements in the debating chamber, the parliamentary meeting, or the courtroom and then happily enjoy a drink together afterwards.
This ‘heterotopic discourse’ makes possible far more spirited challenges to opposing positions, hyperbolic and histrionic rhetoric designed to provoke response and test the mettle of one’s own and the opposing position, assertive presentations of one’s beliefs that are less concerned to present a full-orbed picture than to advocate firmly for a particular perspective and to invite and spark discussion from other perspectives.
The truth is not located in the single voice, but emerges from the conversation as a whole. Within this form of heterotopic discourse, one can play devil’s advocate, have one’s tongue in one’s cheek, purposefully overstate one’s case, or attack positions that one agrees with. The point of the discourse is to expose the strengths and weaknesses of various positions through rigorous challenge, not to provide a balanced position in a single monologue. Those familiar with such discourse will be accustomed to hyperbolic and unbalanced expressions. They will appreciate that such expressions are seldom intended as the sole and final word on the matter by those who utter them, but as a forceful presentation of one particular dimension of or perspective upon the truth, always presuming the existence of counterbalancing perspectives that have no less merit and veracity.
In contrast, a sensitivity-driven discourse lacks the playfulness of heterotopic discourse, taking every expression of difference very seriously. Rhetorical assertiveness and impishness, the calculated provocations of ritual verbal combat, linguistic playfulness, and calculated exaggeration are inexplicable to it as it lacks the detachment, levity, and humour within which these things make sense. On the other hand, those accustomed to combative discourse may fail to appreciate when they are hurting those incapable of responding to it.
Lacking a high tolerance for difference and disagreement, sensitivity-driven discourses will typically manifest a herding effect. Dissenting voices can be scapegoated or excluded and opponents will be sharply attacked. Unable to sustain true conversation, stale monologues will take its place. Constantly pressed towards conformity, indoctrination can take the place of open intellectual inquiry. Fracturing into hostile dogmatic cliques takes the place of vigorous and illuminating dialogue between contrasting perspectives. Lacking the capacity for open dialogue, such groups will exert their influence on wider society primarily by means of political agitation.
The fear of conflict and the inability to deal with disagreement lies at the heart of sensitivity-driven discourses. However, ideological conflict is the crucible of the sharpest thought. Ideological conflict forces our arguments to undergo a rigorous and ruthless process through which bad arguments are broken down, good arguments are honed and developed, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of different positions emerge. The best thinking emerges from contexts where interlocutors mercilessly probe and attack our arguments’ weaknesses and our own weaknesses as their defenders. They expose the blindspots in our vision, the cracks in our theories, the inconsistencies in our logic, the inaptness of our framing, the problems in our rhetoric. We are constantly forced to return to the drawing board, to produce better arguments.
Granted immunity from this process, sensitivity-driven and conflict-averse contexts seldom produce strong thought, but rather tend to become echo chambers. Even the good ideas that they produce tend to be blunt and very weak in places. Even with highly intelligent people within them, conflict-averse groups are poor at thinking. Bad arguments go unchecked and good insights go unhoned and underdeveloped. This would not be such a problem were it not for the fact that these groups frequently expect us to fly in a society formed according to their ideas, ideas that never received any rigorous stress testing. Margaret Heffernan has some very insightful thoughts on this subject:
As I will argue in more detail as I proceed, the problem does not lie with sensitivity-driven discourses per se – there is a genuine need for such discourses – but rather with their immodest demands upon public life and interaction and academic discussion. The expectation that all public and intellectual life must be ordered in terms of the sensitivities of the members of such groups or reformed in terms of the ideas of such groups cripples society, preventing it from engaging adequately in the searching and difficult task of intellectual inquiry. Both confrontational and sensitive discourses are essential in their own place, but both can endanger the other and, by extension, the healthy functioning of society when they have ambitions beyond that place.
I believe that, within the recent debate, such a distinction between modes of discourse and the training appropriate to each could be seen. A deeper appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of these two approaches is important here. When the sides in a debate are operating using entirely incompatible modes of discourse communication between the two is quite unlikely. What we need are means of communication and translation between the two, and an appreciation of the strengths, weaknesses, and place of each. The common expectation that challenging conversations must yield to the demand of ‘sensitivity’ is unreasonable, but we should seek to provide some degree of protection for those emotionally incapable of participating in such challenging discourse from its combat.
The Culture of Offence
One of the most striking things about the response to Pastor Wilson’s statements was the visceral character of the reactions. The language of the responses is peppered with words and expressions such as ‘upsetting’, ‘I’m shaking’, ‘reduced to tears and trembling’, ‘weeping’, ‘hurtful’, ‘nauseating’, ‘outrage’, ‘makes me want to punch things’, ‘sick’, ‘so mad I’m shaking’, ‘disgusted and hurt’, ‘irate, my stomach has sunk’, etc. The prevailing response to Pastor Wilson’s statements was not focused on a carefully argued case that they were incorrect and unsupported by Scripture or the bounds of the metaphors (some presented a few arguments on this front, but weren’t really prepared to admit a response), but on the assertion that they were hurtful and hateful, a claim that neither invited nor permitted much challenge.
The power of offence and outrage was very much on display in that which followed. Those who protested that they have been offended were able to close down Jared Wilson’s voice and get him to apologize, something that was regarded as a victory for those prepared to attack ‘misogyny’. While I believe that Jared was right to apologize, the empowering of offence-takers is far from a salutary development in Christian discourse.
While we should be aware of the dangers of insensitive language, the empowering of offence-taking is a means by which our conversations become more reactive, by which unwelcome positions are closed out, and illuminating intellectual conflict is prevented. While a call for greater sensitivity may seek to tone down the language and heat of discourse in sensitive environments, without stopping the conversation itself, offence-taking typically functions as a means by which voices and positions can be removed from the conversation simply because they offend our sensibilities, challenge us, or make us feel uncomfortable. Thus discourse becomes tyrannized by the thin-skinned, all parties having to conform to the sensitivities of those who claim to be most ‘vulnerable’. Any position that might upset these sensitivities is immediately dismissed from or muted within the debate.
Such offence-taking has become a standard feature of theological and social discourse. Offence-taking is routinely used to close down voices arguing for the Church’s traditional stance on the vocations of women or voices arguing against same sex marriage. In light of the feelings of gay persons, some argue that arguments against same sex marriage are hateful and homophobic at worst, or insensitive at best, and so must be shut out of or downplayed within public discourse. To protest this limitation of discourse is itself insensitive and offensive. Offence-takers then present capitulation to their demands as the only sensitive route to take. Lacking the nerve to resist, society quickly gives in to their demands. By excluding challenging voices from the debate in such a manner, and expecting acceptance of their demands as proof of sensitivity, offence-takers win by default.
Offence-taking is a tried and tested tactic by which certain movements can dismiss critics without need for engagement, and bend society to their wishes. It is enabled by society’s lack of nerve, and by a persistence and willingness to take advantage of society’s weakness on the part of those employing it. Over the last few decades it has been used extensively by the feminist and gay rights movements. While many of the positions held by these movements may be perfectly justified, they have advanced in many quarters by silencing opponents and inoculating themselves against criticism, characterizing opponents or critics and their positions as hateful or insensitive and petitioning powerful allies to close down their voices.
On account of offence-taking and outrage-making tactics, such movements have rendered society incredibly pliable to their wishes. Given the social value of appearing enlightened and sensitized to the concerns of such groups, other parties can fall over themselves to take offence on their behalf, or to pander to their professed concerns. Those opposing certain of the claims of such movements will not infrequently find themselves marginalized within respectable society, suffering great damage to their reputation, being sidelined within the academy, or removed from public office. Offence-taking and outrage-making parties do not have to win any arguments, just to claim that other parties are being ‘intolerant’, ‘prejudiced’, ‘misogynist’, ‘homophobic’, etc. Little evidence is required to support such claims. Where opposing views are still voiced, they are exposed to an extreme double standard, having to meet standards of argument and evidence considerably greater than other positions. In such a manner, public discourse becomes a closed shop.
Culture War and Hate Speech
One routine tactic employed by offence-takers is to accuse anyone who opposes their (typically radical) positions of waging a ‘culture war’. Offence-takers win by society’s choice of appeasement as its response to their unreasonable demands and incessant agitation. The agitators will generally present themselves as people of peace. They have no desire to start a culture war. All that society has to do is to accede to their – perfectly reasonable! – demands and peace will prevail. Whenever people choose to resist the demands of the agitators they will be presented as beastly bullies and belligerent culture warriors. While they are pressing to achieve their goals, and even more so when they have achieved and wish to consolidate their gains, offence-takers will present themselves as proactive about peace. Any attempt to regain lost ground will be presented as unprovoked aggression. Offence-takers consistently lament the belligerence and intractability of their opponents.
Of course, appeasement never really works as a strategy in such situations: the more ground that you give the more emboldened the appeased party will be in demanding further concessions. In such cases it is imperative that people find the nerve to stand their ground when necessary, learn to resist the agitation, develop a higher level of tolerance for others’ discomfort and offence, and care a lot less about the accusations thrown in their direction.
A further tactic is the use of the language of ‘hate’ with reference to opponents. Offence-takers fixate on the extreme and intemperate voices of opposing camps, and use those –frequently hateful – voices as a means to characterize all opponents and critics. Some might try to present more nuanced arguments for the appropriateness of the use of the language of ‘hate’ with reference to opponents beyond the extremists. However, such arguments typically argue that the language of ‘hate’ is justified by: a) the way that the arguments of opponents will be heard by or impact upon those they are opposing, or b) that the ‘hatred’ in question is a systemic hatred, which supporters are complicit in. There are some immediate problems with these approaches.
First, the way that opponents’ arguments are heard are heavily influenced by the way that they are framed by the offence-takers, as is the impact that such words will have. As I will proceed to argue, communities of offence prime their members to take opposition personally, and to perceive strong disapproval of their actions or disagreement with their beliefs on the part of opponents as a personal attack. The very terminology of ‘hate speech’ will function as a self-authenticating designation in this regard. When all opposition to same sex marriage, for instance, has been labelled as ‘homophobic’, any debate is entirely loaded from the beginning, and it will be merely presumed rather than demonstrated that such opposition springs from an irrational systemic animosity towards homosexuals. Once this has been accepted anyone voicing such opinions will be perceived as being complicit in and expressing this systemic hatred, which merely reinforces persons’ sense of being victims of hatred, and opponents as being perpetrators of it. Likewise, the alienation and polarization that supposedly results from such speech is generally merely reinforced by the community that claims to deplore it.
Second, without clear public criteria of demonstration, this approach can merely underwrite the typically highly unreliable perceptions of thin-skinned, paranoid, and reactive people, and serve as a ploy to displace the measure of responsibility for polarization resulting from a lack of charity in the interpretation of and reactivity in response to opponents and critics onto their supposed hostility.
Third, ‘hate’ is an emotion and a motivation. While some of those referring to the positions of others as ‘hate speech’ or ‘hate-driven’ may claim that they such a description is justified by the systemic injustice that they are, by virtue of their words and actions – often unwittingly – complicit in, it is important to recognize that it is persons who have emotions and motivations, not systems per se. Consequently, in practice the language of ‘hate speech’ typically stigmatizes persons by imputing motivations and emotions to them, in a manner that goes some way beyond a mere statement of their unwitting complicity in sinful structures. The language of hatred in such contexts is also routinely used to demonize opponents. While some might deny that in using such language they are making a personal judgment about the one advocating particular arguments, this is the way that the language will function in popular discourse. And given the ‘hate the haters’ rhetoric that gets thrown around, there isn’t even the fragile nuance of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ to protect you from such persons’ wrath.
Fourth, certain expressions, words, and arguments have legacies of hateful societal use and must be approached with due recognition of this fact. However, the prior hateful use of a word or an argument may not necessarily render it inapt or incorrect. Arguments do not always arise from or serve the same emotion, motivation, or societal impulse. The notion of ‘hate speech’ generally seeks to discredit arguments by the usually unargued assumption that opposing arguments must always spring from the same fundamental impulse.
Fifth, the language of ‘hate’ turns up the temperature of the rhetoric in a debate. It is one thing to say that one’s opponents are unwittingly complicit in injustice, quite another to call their position ‘hate-driven’, imputing motives and emotions to their stance (even if you believe that these motives and emotions belong more generally to the community of thought that they participate within, rather than to them as individuals). I believe, for instance, that the same sex marriage position compromises the rights of children and impacts upon them in very harmful ways. However, it would be quite a serious step were I to move from this to accuse proponents of same sex marriage of being participants in ‘child-hating speech’ or of being ‘paedophobes’. I believe that the use of the language of ‘hate’ needs far more substantial justification than commonly provided.
The language of hate suggests that any opponent or critic is (generally wittingly) serving a societal impulse of irrational fear, hatred, or antagonism. The designation of such viewpoints as ‘hate speech’ immediately discredits them, treating them as unworthy of careful engagement. It stigmatizes opponents, and heightens the sensitivities, fears, and suspicions of one’s group with regard to them. It inoculates your group against hearing its strongest critics. The language of ‘hate speech’, as it stigmatizes opponents and makes judgments concerning the bad motives and vicious impulses of the communities of thought and action that they participate within will generally function as a sort of ‘hate speech’ itself. I cannot count the times that I have been told that I am hateful merely for strongly disagreeing with a popular politically correct position, whose proponents I hold no personal animosity towards, by persons who quite obviously despise me for doing so. The designation of one’s opponents as ‘haters’ provides a justification for exhibiting an animosity towards them merely on account of the animosity that they supposedly hold towards you.
The rhetoric of ‘hate speech’ also justifies the harshest and most intolerant treatment of one’s opponents. If one’s opponents are ultimately driven, even unwittingly, by an irrational and hateful social impulse, they can often be treated as being beyond reason and dialogue. No attempt should be made at engagement. Their views should not be tolerated in a tolerant society, as the argument usually goes. Their freedom of expression can be compromised with impunity, they can be hounded out of public or academic office, and official muscle can be used to clamp down on or suppress them.
The language of ‘hate speech’ is most effective in marginalizing moderate opponents and critics – exactly the sort of people best qualified to unsettle a position that lacks sufficient foundation. By presenting opposition and criticism as fundamentally motivated by a vicious societal impulse, moderates are ignored or frozen out.
Moderates are also discouraged from speaking out as persons heavily sensitized by the language of ‘hate speech’ will perceive themselves as being personally attacked by them. When a direct connection between opposition to a particular position and hate-driven attacks upon other persons is drawn, any moderate who speaks up will be accused of engaging in such attacks and people will denounce their heartlessness and cruelty. Apart from being a sort of gaslighting ploy, this also serves to make moderates lose their nerve. Once the direct equation between opposition to same-sex marriage and homophobia is established in people’s minds, for instance, those speaking out against it know that they will be perceived as directly attacking vulnerable gay teens or expressing a hateful animosity towards the loving lesbian couple next door. Most people lose nerve in the face of this and shut up, concerned that they aren’t falsely understood in such a manner.
If the concern were merely to protect sensitive persons from discourse that might potentially hurt them, a number of options would be open to us. Debates could occur in contexts removed from the presence of the extremely sensitive, be accompanied by ‘trigger warnings’, or have toned down rhetoric. However, in a culture of offence, sensitivities are empowered to such a degree that there is a perverse incentive both to maximize and to manufacture offence and outrage. When those who can successfully leverage offence can close down debates in their favour and protect their positions from hostile criticism, the routine employment of offence-taking and outrage-making should take no one by surprise.
One of the immediate effects of the culture of offence is to encourage the thinning of skins, and the raising of sensitivities. Persons are trained to be suspicious to the point of paranoia of all differing viewpoints, a suspicion that enables them to put the worst possible construction on the words and actions of their opponents and critics. Far from representing a triumph of critical thinking, these hermeneutics of suspicion tend to reproduce the same threadbare analyses that have been applied on a myriad previous occasions and create a sterile groupthink (a significant number of analyses that make reference to such concepts as ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘heterosexism’ fall into such a camp – what merit such notions may have is heavily compromised by the way that they function within communities of thought). They do not promote ‘questioning’ in order to start a mutually challenging and open conversation or even to invite a response, but in order to dismiss some existing narrative and replace it with an alternative of their own, a narrative which is often difficult to differentiate from a mere conspiracy theory, frequently framed in a way that discredits all of its critics at the outset, is impervious to rational debate, and which predetermines all discussions. Typically being inculcated in a context closed to criticism, people are indoctrinated with a narrative which is more asserted than argued.
As such narratives usually operate primarily by means of indoctrination and the discrediting of critics, they commonly lack the ability to sustain close critical analysis and engage in challenging discourse. Consequently, those who seek to establish dialogue with the supporters of such positions will not uncommonly find themselves exposed to a barrage of ad hominem attacks, discredited from the outset on the basis of who they are or the supposition of a false consciousness, subjected to constant accusations of insensitivity or hate speech, or shouted out of the conversation. Once one realizes that the dominance of these positions owes as much if not much more to the leveraging of offence and outrage and the silencing of critics than they do to rational persuasion, one is less surprised to find them unreceptive to questioning.
Without constant exposure to critical opposition, the arguments for such positions – and they generally do possess arguments that, well expressed, would be quite worthy of engagement – tend to be fairly blunt, and seldom have their mettle tested. Having cultivated a sense of being under unrelenting siege and a complete distrust of outside voices, the reactivity of such movements can be off the scale: attempts at reasonable engagement can be met with a form of hysteria (though heaven help you if you point this out!). However, a hysterical reaction to challenge can generally be far more successful at closing down criticism than rational and open interaction would be.
The Heightening of Sensitivities
As such discourses gain their dominance through the leveraging of offence, they have a vested interest in making people increasingly sensitive to offence. This end is achieved in several ways. One of the most immediate ways is through the development of paranoia and the sense of being besieged, presenting critics and opponents as evil oppressors and persecutors, defenders of such things as rape culture or the systemic mistreatment of women. Those who feel besieged are highly reactive, will put the most negative construction possible on all actions of opponents and will be hyper-vigilant for any cue to react to their critics.
When attempting to interact with such persons, one will typically find that little attempt is made to engage with the substance of what you argue. Rather, isolated phrases or statements that you make, wrenched from any explanatory context, and presented in the worst possible light are fixated upon. Little attempt will be made to interpret these: rather, they are presented as straightforward evidence of your bad intentions. People who are made to feel besieged in such a manner will seldom seek to interpret their critics: they are looking for cues to react, not for sympathetic understanding of opposing viewpoints. When a single ill-chosen or uncharitably heard word can be sufficient cause for reaction, there is no need for further engagement.
This besieged mind-set, constantly reinforced, primes people to react and take offence or be outraged. Some time before the recent brouhaha developed around Pastor Wilson’s comments, I had commented on this effect on Rachel Held Evans’s blog. Complementarian viewpoints were routinely presented in terms explicitly rejected by their supporters. There was a fixation on decontextualized quotations from complementarian writers calculated to produce outrage, rather than on close and careful interpretative engagement. Motives were imputed to advocates of complementarianism. Complementarianism was consistently – subtly and often not so subtly – connected with matters such as power dominance, patriarchal oppression, and rape, without much seeming recognition or acknowledgment of the manner in which complementarianism, for all of its faults, speaks out against all of these things. When critics are characterized in such a manner, is it any surprise that every one of their statements will be subject to the worst imaginable construction? No one trusts the bogeyman.
The Subject Supposed to be Offended
A further way in which sensitivities are heightened is through the notion of the ‘subject supposed to be offended’. When a person cannot claim to be offended himself, he can always claim to be offended on another’s behalf. There is someone, somewhere, for whom the hurt is immediate, sincere, and completely natural. This displaced offence is particularly effective. No one may know the person who actually is deeply, genuinely, naturally, personally, and justifiably hurt by the statements in question, but by positing the existence of such an individual – who need not be discovered – they are empowered to exercise offence on their behalf. When practically everyone takes offence on others’ behalf, offence can become an immensely powerful social force, even though the actual ‘subject supposed to be offended’ is never truly present in person (admittedly, the subject supposed to be offended is probably curled up in a foetal ball in a darkened room somewhere, whimpering at the cruelty of the world).
The ‘subject supposed to be offended’ is especially powerful as a construction as it can include more empowered and privileged people in the offence game. In fact, the power of the culture of offence arguably owes more to this ‘subject supposed to be offended’ than to anything else. There are few people more zealous in offence-taking and outrage-making than persons doing so on behalf of the ‘subject supposed to be offended’. Few people who actually stand in a position to be personally hurt display anything approaching the degree of offence or passion for political correctness that the person taking offence on behalf of this posited individual can. Such persons regard themselves as sensitive and caring protectors of the weak and oppressed. Offence-taking and outrage-making is not a mere prerogative for them, but is a noble duty and calling. The more of an outrage they create on others’ behalf, the more virtuous they feel.
One of the effects of the ‘subject supposed to be offended’ is a sort of competitive offence-taking on the part of certain persons in positions of power or influence. The most virtuous person is the person who is most successful in kicking up a fuss on behalf of the subject supposed to be offended. The accumulation of such virtue is generally fairly painless, but can win people great adulation, and a sense of moral superiority (which can conveniently serve as absolution for other faults). It is also a perfect way for officials to deflect attention away from other issues and to feel good about themselves. The temptations of this easily-won virtue are considerable, especially when the espousal of politically correct views can be sufficient to outweigh the personal vices of a life that demonstrates little evidence of a commitment to self-binding virtue. The sort of selective and excessive empathy that our culture can celebrate is a virtue that costs one little in comparison with the personal demands of other virtues, but which is nonetheless ideal for public display of one’s moral ‘character’.
This notion of the ‘subject supposed to be offended’ also provides people in power or with influence with a means by which to scapegoat their political and social enemies. The ‘subject supposed to be offended’ is typically employed in order to stigmatize some other party for their insensitivity and cruelty, to hound them out of office, marginalize them from respectable discourse, and silence their voices. By positing the ‘subject supposed to be offended’, opposing viewpoints cease to be treated as arguments demanding critical engagement and become the nasty words of evil bullies and oppressors. The ‘subject supposed to be offended’ is one of the most powerful pieces on the board of society’s power games.
Playing to Weakness
As a culture of offence plays to weaknesses, those weaknesses will tend to become more pronounced. Some might believe that the shocked and hurt reactions of those shaped by the culture of offence are entirely feigned: I am not convinced that they are. Rather, these reactions are cultivated, nurtured, and conditioned through the extensive character formation of particular communities, which systematically drives the offence thresholds and tolerance of their members down and saps their nerve. Initially affected reactions can become second nature through frequent repetition. The members of such communities routinely become weaker, more dependent, more reactive, and more sensitive than they were before they joined them.
The lowering of these offence thresholds and tolerance levels occurs as the members of these communities are incessantly sensitized to their vulnerability and victim status. It occurs as they are taught to think of themselves as besieged, oppressed, and persecuted by malicious and evil opposition. It occurs as the actions and words of opponents and critics are presented as personal attacks. It occurs as reacting with outrage at offence is consistently rewarded with affirmation and encouragement by the group and with the concessions of wider society. It occurs as reactions characteristic of very high sensitivity levels are validated, rather than regarded as signs of excessive weakness. It occurs as sensitivities are privileged with attention and grant the holder protected and empowered status over others. It occurs as ever increasing recourse to protection, comfort, support, validation, and aid is provided by society to those claiming offence.
Strengths are developed as people refuse to pander to our weaknesses, viewing these weaknesses as obstacles that we both need and are sufficient to overcome. While we may not yet be prepared to face certain challenges, and need support and protection in such cases, we need to be pushed beyond our existing limits, to attain to new levels of independent strength.
The community of offence, through its continual accommodation and validation of supposed weakness, stifles this development of strength. Rather than seeking to strengthen its members to the point where they can hold their own in combative debate on level terms, it encourages the notion that they are so vulnerable that, unless one tiptoes around their sensitivities and emotions, they will be deeply hurt. The members of such groups internalize this expectation and are consequently less likely to overcome their overly sensitized condition.
Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, two feminists, comment on the effect of this within the context of Women’s Studies, one area where such playing to weakness is frequently in evidence:
No doubt there were students who gained confidence and a sense of belonging from the sharing, caring, and calls to empowerment that pervaded feminist pedagogy. But we found that others felt excluded by the strict enforcement of whatever the prevailing feminist norms happened to be. And those who did fit in were taking on a worldview that militated against anything but a life as a feminist activist – and this by design. It is right for women to be alerted to the possibility of rape and violent assault and apprised of methods of prevention and legal recourse. But if such topics are to be discussed in a classroom setting, they must be dealt with carefully and analyzed as a complex social issue using the tools of social science. All too often the definitions and doctrines espoused within Women’s Studies seemed calculated merely to make women feel besieged. Their sensitivities were being sharpened to such an edge that some were turned into relentless grievance collectors or rendered too suspicious to function in the workaday world outside of Women’s Studies and were left with few possible roles in life beyond that of angry feminists.
These communities of offence also insist that the whole of society adapt itself to their members. As these psychological invalids are stretchered or wheeled out, and the walking emotionally wounded hobble out, onto society’s field of play, all play must be brought down to their level. Anyone who seeks to use their strength to get an advantage is shamed and penalized. Any result that doesn’t flatter the invalids will be presented as bullying, cruelty, and oppression. Injuries will be exaggerated in order to gain penalties against opponents. While supporting and protecting those with genuine weaknesses that they cannot overcome is laudable, it is quite another thing to use these weaknesses as a means to bend society to one’s will and prevent the expression of strengths. Unfortunately, when the strengths in question are those necessary for open, challenging, and lively public conversation, all of society suffers as a result. Society needs affirmative and supporting contexts for its more vulnerable members, but these contexts must be kept away from the combative contexts that it requires for its critical discourse.
A ‘troll’ is a person who exposes others to offensive or inflammatory material in order to produce an emotional response generally in order to sabotage or prevent conversation. While trolling is typically thought of as a hostile action, explicitly calculated to offend the trolled party, there is a commonly ignored but exceedingly widely practiced form of trolling which functions quite differently. This sort of trolling – which I term ‘offence-trolling’ – involves the trolling of one’s own community. Like other forms of trolls, offence trolls use material calculated to be offensive and inflammatory in order to provoke an emotional reaction and to derail debate. However, the offence-troll does not seek personally to offend their community, but rather purposefully seeks to offend and provoke an emotional reaction in their community by means of the sharing or reporting of the words or actions of another party.
The offence-troll will typically take an extreme or ill-worded statement of their opponents, wrench it from context, put the worst possible construction on it, and present it to an audience carefully primed to take extreme offence to it. The emotional reaction, offence, and outrage can then be leveraged against the opposition, helping to push them out of the debate, and relative to the wider society, capitalizing on the offence to gain greater support and concessions. While the offence-troll may claim to desire to protect the weak and sensitive from offence, their real goal is to use the offence that results when the weak and sensitive are exposed to sharp, muscular, and combative discourse to get their way. The goal of the offence-troll is to ‘trigger’ others and thereby to accumulate the social capital of offence.
The offence-troll is the person on Twitter or in your Facebook newsfeed who is constantly posting links to articles or stories calculated to confirm your worst possible impressions of your opponents, yet who never devotes much effort to engaging with those opponents at their best. The offence-troll is typically the person who paints a picture of their opponents as being driven largely by bad motives, by hatred, cruelty, greed, selfishness, or animosity, will generally take a highly selective approach to the evidence in order to prove their case, and then broadcast that ‘evidence’ as loudly as they can to all and sundry.
Such offence-trolling is calculated to heighten polarities and sabotage the sort of receptive discourse that might lead to moderation of positions, convergence, and a bilateral rapprochement. The offence-troll is the extremist who will countenance no compromise and seeks to ensure that all perceive the opposing side to be unreasonable and intractable aggressors. The offence-troll is usually a reactive individual, who wishes to encourage reactivity in others. Consequently, while they could engage critically with their opponents’ most careful and representative statements in contexts where the sensitive are not present, they choose to broadcast distorted and decontextualized extreme statements of their opponents – statements which their opponents will generally have given in more bounded contexts – as widely as they can.
The offence-troll derails conversation, presenting the most extreme voices within a movement as representative of the whole, the isolated ill-worded and uncharitably interpreted statement as the hermeneutical key to the entire ideological system they are arguing against, or the case of abuse through rejection of the practice of the belief system as its paradigm case. By framing the opposition in such a manner and breaking down the conversation on other fronts, the offence-troll loads all of the questions that will be asked of the opponents, making it incredibly difficult to recover meaningful discourse.
The offence-troll also empowers the extreme voices of the opposing camp (who are often trolls themselves). Moderate or balanced opposition views will not be engaged with or reported, as they threaten the desired polarization, a polarization that is in the best interests of the offence-troll.
Offence-trolls and their ilk tend to use the sensitivities and offence of persons within their communities in a fairly predictable manner. Their tactics are incredibly dirty, although I suspect that these tactics are usually employed without a great deal of calculation or consideration. I doubt that most have given much thought to what they are doing.
As Pastor Wilson and others have argued, there are strategic offence-takers. Such individuals may pretend that they have been genuinely and personally hurt or offended, or feign greater feelings of offence than they actually have. The offence-troll is not usually the most vulnerable person. They go out of their way to find offensive material. However, they frequently try to surround themselves with people who genuinely are vulnerable and highly sensitive.
Offence-trolls do not show much regard for the sensitivity and vulnerability of those within their communities, as they routinely expose such persons to the most extreme and potentially offensive statements from opponents. Those opponents are then denounced by the offence-troll as cruel and evil bullies. The offence-troll, morally outraged by the statements of the opponents, will rush forward to attack them, treating any attempt to respond as grossly insensitive and cruel.
This is a tactic that should be familiar to all of us. It is called the ‘human shield’. While terrorists using a human shield will express deep sorrow over the harm caused to those who get hurt, they don’t genuinely care: if they genuinely cared about the lives of vulnerable non-combatants they wouldn’t be using them as a human shield in the first place.
The value of the human shield is twofold: 1) it protects your position from attack, while allowing you to be as offensive as you wish; 2) it gives incredible propaganda value when vulnerable non-combatants are hurt or injured. In some instances, terrorists will even show such callousness towards their human shields that they will seek to draw their enemy’s fire in the direction of the human shield, merely to make the most of the propaganda value (this is where much of the value of offence-trolling comes from). Of course, the terrorists using the human shield approach always present their enemies as the great aggressors and threats to the vulnerable non-combatants, and themselves as the noble defenders and protectors of the weak.
The vulnerable non-combatants in this scenario seldom perceive that they are in a human shield situation. They regard the offence-trolls as their heroic defenders. Onlookers will also frequently fail to grasp the true dynamics of the situation: to them the opponents of the offence-takers will often appear to be the unreasonable aggressors.
The use of a ‘human shield’ to close down challenging conversations and to protect cultural movements from criticism or resistance is a tried and tested tactic. Those using it will seek to prime vulnerable persons for offence as much as possible and then bring them into contact with the strong language of the opponents of the offence-troll’s viewpoint. The tears and hurt that result – the tears of the bullied gay teen who has been taught to think that opponents of same sex marriage believe that God hates him, or the deep fear of the abused woman who believes that the complementarian pastor is seeking to support the male dominance over women involved in rape culture – are then presented as evidence of the cruelty of opponents’ viewpoints, and used to close their voices down. While the offence-troll expresses deep sorrow at the aggression of their opponents and the hurt caused to the vulnerable, there is a hypocrisy and disingenuousness to such declarations of sentiment.
Such situations present us with difficult choices. If we come into such a situation with all truths blazing, we will be perceived as the aggressors, and vulnerable individuals will run from truths that could liberate them, will support those who are employing them as a human shield, and become even more persuaded of their claims. Such a result is especially likely where fair-minded fence-sitters start to become persuaded by the claims of those using the human shield.
To resolve the situation we need first to expose its true character. Unless it becomes very clear to the vulnerable individuals and the many onlookers that they are being used as a human shield by those who claim to be their protectors and that their supposed enemies are actually deeply and genuinely concerned for and committed to securing their good, the situation is lost.
If we respond without regard for the human shield that is being employed, merely blaming the wounded innocents on the offence-troll, we become little better than the debate terrorists themselves. We must go to whatever lengths we can to protect the vulnerable and the weak from genuine spiritual or psychological harm, while seeking to present those employing the human shield to tyrannize their opponents and get their way in the debate for what they are. This demands far more careful, measured, and guarded rhetorical approaches.
The way that we treat the vulnerable and the abused is frequently a central issue in these ‘discussion’. For this reason our language and approach will come under especial scrutiny: our concern for the vulnerable really must be transparently genuine in such a context. Actions outweigh words in such situations, and it will be in the demonstration of a greater true concern for the protection of the weak and the representation and hearing of their voices than other’s partially feigned concern that debates will be won. No matter what truth there may be to our words, if our concern for the vulnerable is not transparent in action, we have lost (and I would be inclined to add that if our concern for the vulnerable is not transparent, we deserve to lose). We can only refute the falsehoods by our actions in the debate: our words are not enough.
The role of fair-minded onlookers in such debates is crucial, and they should be the people that we seek to win over. They often play a deciding role in determining the result of debates. Unless we act very carefully, such persons will buy into the claims of those using the human shield.
The Loss of Truth
One of the most troubling consequences of the culture of offence and the reorientation of discourse around sensitivities is a loss of regard for truth. In challenging discourse, the ultimate goal is to expose the strengths and weaknesses of different arguments and interpretations, revealing truth through this process. In discourse focused on sensitivities, personal validation and the affirmation of people’s feelings and perspectives takes priority over truth.
As I have already stated, not all conversations need to be driven by an uncompromising quest for truth. Some conversations are appropriately focused upon ensuring that people feel loved, accepted, and included, whoever they are, whatever they believe, and however they live their lives. The problem arises when all discourses must adopt this character. When this occurs, the criteria of truth can be neglected or even abandoned in favour of palliative falsehoods.
One of the striking things to witness in the recent debate was how ‘you can’t say that – how utterly beastly!’ style responses to the statements of Pastor Wilson and others took such priority over responses that critically challenged and engaged with his statements as truth claims. The offence-value of Pastor Wilson’s statements seemingly overwhelmed any need carefully to ascertain and probe their truth-value. In the same way, any attempt to argue that Rachel Held Evans’s response involved the overwhelming of reason, argument, and evidence by emotion produced a predictably appalled reaction that one should employ such a sexist stereotype to dismiss a woman’s claims. The supposed offence value of the claim nullified any need to ascertain its truth value.
A further striking thing was the sort of statements that were made in response to Pastor Wilson. All sorts of wild claims and accusations were thrown around. For instance, Pastor Wilson and Jared were accused of being ‘rape apologists’ and ‘praising marital rape’. The offending post was described as ‘overtly misogynistic’ and their position as being ‘about power’ rather than about such things as Scripture. Complementarianism was repeatedly described as being about ‘man’s rule over woman’. Several other highly tendentious and questionable claims were also made about Pastor Wilson’s personal position. Making unfounded accusations (or what the ninth commandment refers to as ‘bearing false witness’) of such a serious nature against another person is not a matter to be taken lightly. However, little attempt was made to make a case in support of such claims – they were merely asserted.
In a society oriented around sensitivities over truth, hurting someone’s feelings can come to be treated as a far more egregious offence than bearing false witness against one’s neighbour. Love is defined relative to feelings, rather than the objective character of actions. The truth value of words and the factual accuracy of statements cease to be matters of primary concern: the validity of words arises not from their accurate communication of the objective character of affairs, but from their emotive, affective, and expressive value, that is, from the feelings of the one who utters them or the one who hears them. I have come to suspect that referring to one’s opponent as a ‘rape apologist’, for instance, is less a truth statement about the objective state of affairs, a statement that one is prepared to defend against criticism with careful arguments, and more an expressive communication of the emotive reaction of the speaker, a statement relatively indifferent to the truth value of the words being employed. This impression is reinforced as one seeks to challenge and question such claims as truth claims. They seldom offer or show much interest in offering a defence for themselves as their justification arises from the person’s own feelings, not from the objective meaning of the words, or the relation that they bear to reality.
This encourages an attitude that treats offensive words as commensurable with lying words. If someone says something that offends you, there is no need to challenge it as a truth claim: the mere fact of the offence justifies your responding with an unfounded accusation for which you have little basis. The speed with which people were prepared to brand Pastor Wilson a misogynist, advocating male violence over women, was breathtaking, suggesting a failure to engage closely with the evidence and to produce careful support of a position that would justify such incredibly serious accusations. Complete ignorance of Pastor Wilson’s more developed position was much in evidence. It is hard to believe that such a rush to judgment is characteristic of persons with a high regard for truth and the importance of the ninth commandment.
Let me stress, I do not believe that people are generally purposefully lying about positions such as Pastor Wilson’s. Rather, I suspect that the culture of offence produces an indifference to truth, as emotions and offence take priority. The truth or falsity of people’s words takes a backseat to the immediacy and strength of the feelings and emotions expressed or produced by them. The liar seeks to deceive, but the reactive speaker merely uses words to play a sort of emotional or expressive ping-pong, without giving thought to the truth value of their utterances (we should rightly recognize this as a form of ‘bullshit’). This sort of speech is demonstrated by the person who says things that they don’t truly mean when extremely angry with another person: the words that such persons speak are chosen merely because they will sting, not because, after careful consideration, they genuinely believe that what they are saying is true, or that they have grounds for arguing it.
As Christians, truth should be the central concern of our speech. A form of discourse that reveals truth and falsehood and which exposes us to realities that unsettle, threaten, and discomfort us must be integral to our life as the Church. At the heart of the culture of offence is the idol of feelings, an idol for which the God we worship shows little regard. God praises persons who overcome the dangerous sense of pity for those who wilfully reject him. God condemns those who are overly concerned about the regard of men, or who pander to the feelings of others in a manner that compromises their witness to the truth. God presents our own feelings as common obstacles to the reception of the gospel message and the life of discipleship.
We need to be attentive to the needs of the weak and vulnerable, and to provide support and protection for those who could be hurt by exposure to overly strong discourse. This involves maintaining clear boundaries for certain forms of discourse for their sake, addressing sensitive issues carefully when in their presence, and trying to keep straight-talking treatments of such issues to contexts where people are equipped to deal with them. As I pointed out in a previous post, the Internet presents us with particular challenges on these fronts. We should also seek to strengthen the weak, so that they can participate more widely in our communities’ conversations.
In maintaining these boundaries we need to ensure that the weak and vulnerable are kept out of our strongest forms of challenging discourse, while ensuring that their concerns are represented within them. We need to ensure that those in these conversations always prioritize truth over sensitivity, and that they can show a high pain tolerance for the discomfort and feelings of others, when that discomfort or those feelings would prevent them from upholding or pursuing the truth, or would cow them into submission to unjustifiable demands.
Towards the end of my next post I hope to move onto the question of appropriate leadership and alternative forms of community – an issue that is especially important in this context. If we are to overcome the culture of offence, it will only be through such firm leadership, a mastery over and wisdom in our words and speech, and healthier forms of community.