Lately, I’ve been having to field a lot of questions along the lines of “Your pastor just said WHAT?” with the expectation that I have to come up with something to say in their defense. Sometimes, frankly, there isn’t much to say in their defense, but that’s OK, because, as my wife said pertly in answer to such a query from a Catholic friend yesterday, “We’re Protestants, so we don’t have to agree with everything our church leaders say.” Indeed, I have the Christian liberty to stand up (respectfully) and say so if I think they’ve just gone off their rocker, while remaining a happy parishioner all the while. Sometimes it’s better to just let love cover it and let others carry on the controversy, if controversy there need be. But as I’m increasingly troubled by the rhetorical trend—the “All I Really Meant” Syndrome—and as I’ve blogged extensively in the past to reflect on the challenges to responsible rhetoric posed by new media (i.e. here), I thought I would weigh in with a few reflections. (IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: This post should not be taken by anyone as my “firing a salvo” against either of my pastors or “throwing them under the bus.” I refuse to be sucked into the “If you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality that dominates in so many circles. Friendly critique can and should go hand in hand with love and loyalty. This is a point I want to elaborate on in a post hopefully later this week: “The Guru Syndrome and the Fear of Difference.”)
The particular posts that prompt this reflection (though many examples of similar rhetorical bent could be found) were by my current pastor Toby Sumpter’s “Free-Range Gluten-Free Yoga vs. Jesus” posted just yesterday, and, to a considerably lesser extent, my mentor and former pastor Peter Leithart’s “The End of Protestantism” posted a little over a month ago on First Things. Although very different in subject area, intended audience, and quality, both had at least this in common: both created quite the online kerfluffle of controversy (Leithart’s, of course, in a wider sphere), and both knew they would do so, and intended to do so. Both, for the sake of maximizing rhetorical effect and provocation, avoided defining their terms, and indulged in broad generalizations.
I am not interested in evaluating or critiquing those original posts in any detail (for excellent, simultaneously charitable and hard-hitting responses to each, with which I largely agree, see respectively here and here), but rather in assessing the interesting follow-up posts, the “All I Really Meant, Guys…” posts (see Toby’s here, Leithart’s here). In both cases, the author admitted that the original post had clearly caused offense, but insisted that he thought it had been misunderstood, and defended it on the basis that there was a genuine problem out there that he was trying to critique, and those to whom the critique didn’t apply should just relax. What both conspicuously lacked was a recognition that much of the offense caused may have been their fault, and accordingly needed to be recanted of. (Leithart’s, I should note, did strike a humble note, and made concessions at several minor points, but it unfortunately did not do so on the really key points. Leithart admitted that there was probably a lot of unclarity in his choice to designate contemporary American sectarian Protestantism as simply “Protestantism,” but maintained unapologetically that this helped give him the “rhetorical edge” he was looking for. And when confronted over the fact that his article had conflated historical Reformational Protestantism with contemporary pseudo-Protestantism, he simply denied ever making any historical claims, despite several lines in the original article that could hardly be read as anything else.)
And this, it strikes me, is a major problem. Let’s assume that the follow-up posts, in each case, cleared up all the potential misunderstandings and dealt with all the objections (I don’t think, in fact, they did in either case, but leave that aside). First, the fact that such follow-ups were necessary is still probably evidence that something had gone seriously awry in the initial salvos. To be sure, that isn’t necessarily the case. It’s possible for people to take offense when none has been given, or to misunderstand and misrepresent what has been very clearly set forth. But when you have a large number of intelligent charitable folks who know your work quite well taking offense or misunderstanding your target, then odds are, you didn’t put things as clearly as you should. Especially if you admit that you were intentionally being rhetorically edgy. So such follow-up posts need to strike a more penitential tone.
Second, even if the follow-up clears everything up, that doesn’t mean, “Ok, we’re all good now.” There seem to be a lot of bloggers out there (and I’ll be the first to admit I used to be one of them, and still can get worked up and fall prey to the temptation) who think they can be as provocative as they want at the front end, so long as they’re ready to qualify and clarify and soften things later on. Unfortunately, the medium doesn’t work that way. You can’t throw a verbal grenade into a crowded e-audience and just plan to clean up the pieces afterward anymore than you can throw a real grenade into a crowded audience so long as you have paramedics on hand nearby. The fact is that follow-up posts almost never get anything like the hit count of the original post. Even after the follow-up has been posted, there are still plenty of people out there sharing and re-sharing the original and taking offense at it (or using it as ammo to generate offense, just as likely) heedless of all the ex post facto qualifications. Moreover, studies show that our minds have a very difficult time forgetting first impressions and overwriting them with subsequent corrections. Like it or not, your first take is likely to stick in most people’s minds, especially given that it is going to be the more rhetorically explosive and the more likely to appeal to those of short attention span.
So, all of that to say, adding clarifications after the fact is nice, but it’s a heck of a lot nicer to speak clearly in the first place.