The “All I Really Meant…” Syndrome

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.

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Where the Action’s Happening

As my blogging hiatus drags on into its third week, I thought I would come out of hibernation briefly to tell anyone who might still be listening where they can find some very exciting stuff going on in blogdom.

First, one of my favorite sites, to which I’ve contributed on a number of occasions, The Calvinist International, has now built an all-new website, which is exceptionally cool-looking, and very much more navigable.  Prominently displayed on the homepage, you’ll find articles of enduring interest and significance highlighted, along with a well-organized and invaluable index of other  resources and blogs on the sidebar.  Plus, they’ve now started, in addition to their occasional ponderous essays, posting a regular stream of short notes and quotes from a wider range of contributors, which you will see in the Nota Bene section.

Second, another of my favorite sites, to which I also occasionally contribute, Mere Orthodoxy has also just finished a nice redesign.  It’s less sweeping, but it, like the Calvinist International, includes the addition of short snappy mini-posts, in a new section called “Mere-O Notes,” alongside their more substantive material.  With all this great new material filling the blogosphere, maybe I needn’t bother returning to blogging after all….

Third, the Junius Institute has recently been launched.  An outgrowth of the Post-Reformation Digital Library project, the Junius Institute represents a fantastic venture to bring the resources of the Reformation and early modern periods into the digital age.  I highly recommend that you check them out.

Prodigal Words

In case anyone has any attention to spare for a topic besides the premiere of the Dark Knight Rises today (and the accompanying tragedy), I would encourage you to devote it to an extremely helpful post by Alastair Roberts, weighing in on Great Misogyny Controversy that’s been rocking the evangelical blogosphere this week.  For those of you who’ve remained mercifully oblivious, the gist is as follows (links omitted, as you can find some in Alastair’s post and more in Wilson’s here):
Jared Wilson of the Gospel Coalition posted an excerpt from Doug Wilson’s (no relation) book Fidelity (published 13 years ago), which offered, he thought, a helpful explanation of the recent remarkable popularity of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey (which is, as I understand, characterized by perverse, degrading, and abusive sexuality).  The gist of the Wilson passage was to say that the rejection of healthy God-given complementarity and asymmetry in the bedroom has led to a taste for hideously distorted forms; the best way to prevent rape is cultivating the right kind of understanding of the man as initiator, rather than attempting to deny such asymmetry altogether.

Needless to say, not a statement likely to endear him to many these days, and a thorny enough topic to wade into no matter how delicately.  But the passage quoted was not, to say the least, phrased particularly delicately, and unsurprisingly has provoked a firestorm, especially after egalitarian blog-warrior Rachel Held Evans got ahold of it.

Perhaps even more pressing than the already very important debate about gender roles that this controversy highlights, is the way it has drawn attention to the rhetorical dynamics of online debate.  When does what someone said matter more than what they meant?  When does how someone responded matter more than what they responded?  When is taking offence justified and when is giving offence justified?  How does the nature of blogging cause otherwise civil conversations to spiral out of control?  All questions I have had cause to ponder many times, and which are thrown into sharp relief by this controversy.  

Thankfully, I need expend no more effort on pondering them, because Alastair is doing all that for us, and a truly remarkable job.  This post of his is, lengthy though it is, is just projected as the first of several, so stay tuned. Here’s a little sampler of the fine thoughts on offer:

In order to give people the space and atmosphere in which they feel able to retract comments, we need to cultivate charity, patience, and good will towards each other. We need to master our own instinctive urges, learning to respond thoughtfully, rather than merely reacting in kind. Crucial to this picture is good humour. The reactive person always treats everything with extreme seriousness. The good humoured person is able to take things lightly when they need to be taken lightly, without losing the ability to take things seriously when necessary. This sort of good humour can defuse such conflicts with surprising ease. Sadly, I fear that such Internet debates would make humourless reactives of us all.

Our words are like sons. They bear our image, but can become prodigals. Pastor Wilson’s words wandered far from their original home and – dare I say it – have engaged in a little of the semantic version of riotous living. In such situations, though, I believe that we should beware of visiting all of the sins of the son too readily upon the father.

The meaning of our words exceeds authorial intent. Authorial intent and, more particularly, authorial care in expression can set certain limits upon meaning, but they can never completely determine this meaning. Like children who grow up and fly the nest, our words having left our tongues can work all sorts of unwitting good or mischief.

The Promise and Perils of Academic Blogging

The following is adapted from a talk I gave yesterday at the University of Edinburgh’s IT Futures Conference

The purpose of blogging for me (and what seems to me its most valuable use for students like myself) is both to brainstorm ideas for my reserch, and to reflect on issues lying at the intersection of my academic work and the interests and experiences of more ordinary people.  This latter goal is perhaps easier for me, given my particular field of study, than it would be for many young academics.  After all, I am working in Christian ethics and political thought, and almost everyone has occasion to worry about how to live ethically and to dispute about politics.  Perhaps a biochemist would have more difficulty blogging in this middle space.  But where it’s possible, it’s very useful, since it helps keep you from becoming the kind of detached, super-specialized academic that can only talk to other academics.  If you’re planning to teach, this kind of blogging is very good practice. 

But my first purpose now is not, of course, to teach.  Rather, my blog serves, first and foremost, as a thinkspace, a place for me to brainstorm ideas on questions that I’m thinking of researching or writing, as a place to post book reviews or interesting passages as I research key sources, which I might use later in my writing, or even as a place to post initial drafts of my thesis or other projects.  

But the blog also helps keep me from becoming so narrowly focused on my research that I can’t think intelligently about other issues, as too often happens to Ph.D students.  Attending conferences and talking with fellow students is of course one good way to maintain some breadth, but for many of us, there’s no substitute for writing, as a way of processing and organizing information, and indeed generating new insights.  Of course, many students try to publish journal articles on topics loosely related or unrelated to their research, as a way of keeping some breadth in their studies, but this can be a very demanding and time-consuming process, requiring a level of thoroughness in research and care in citation that one can rarely justify given the demands of one’s primary research project.  Blogging is a great way to solve this dilemma.  It gives one an outlet to reflect seriously and carefully on issues that one is interested in, but without demanding the rigor and time investment of a journal article or conference paper. 


Now what makes the blog a truly useful way of accomplishing both these ends is of course the presence of other people.  Naturally, I could sit and brainstorm and write up thoughts on my computer to my heart’s content, but this would not be terribly useful, for any number of reasons.  For one, it would be difficult to be sufficiently disciplined; the temptation would always be to stop writing when a thought was half-formed and only partially articulate.  The simple awareness that others may be reading compels you to organize your thoughts, to clarify them, to qualify them where necessary; to anticipate objections, rather than simply trusting in one’s first instincts.  And, if you are writing with a largely non-academic readership in mind, as I am, then you’re also forced to think about how to simplify complex ideas, how to communicate them in lucid language, rather than hiding behind technical terms, and how to make the thoughts interesting and compelling to a non-specialist.  Ph.D students often have woeful writing skills, and the exercise of writing a Ph.D is not one that tends to improve them much, since your supervisor has to read your work, no matter how boring it is.  Although blogging was perhaps once associated with loose, careless, and sloppy writing, nowadays, quality blogs are in high demand, and blogging can provide a great opportunity to practice writing well, really engaging people’s attention.  And of course, if hypothetical readers translate into actual readers, as they almost surely will do if you have anything worthwhile to say, you can get feedback–criticism of poorly-formed ideas, questions that invite you to reflect and explain further, suggestions of sources that you could use in further research.  Your posts may also lure in other readers–potentially other postgraduate students, or even established academics, with interest in similar issues, giving you the opportunity to learn from them and form relationships.  Sometimes you will be lucky enough to find regular interlocutors, with your same interests but somewhat different perspectives, who will consistently challenge you to rethink and refine your assumptions, often opening up space for great intellectual breakthroughs that reshape your research and make it far clearer and more useful than it otherwise would have been.  This has been my own experience, and I have been enormously blessed by it.


Now it is important to note at this point an important tension that has been introduced.  I started off talking about blogging as something I do primarily for myself, but its usefulness depends also upon its being done for other people.  Now this tension turns out to be a persistent and difficult one. It is important, I think, not to start out with a more altruistic concept of blogging–“I am writing in order to help share my wisdom with others, and illuminate them about all these important issues.  I will use my superior learning to help correct popular misconceptions on a whole range of issues.”  Such a posture is actually ultimately more selfish, because more arrogant.  You may in fact have many useful things to offer the world, but it’s best not to start off by assuming that you do.  It’s easy to get an inflated idea of your own importance in blogdom.  It doesn’t take much for you to find that a couple dozen folks a day are popping in to see what you’ve been writing, for maybe one hundred pairs of eyes to read each well-written post.  If you venture onto a subject of popular interest (as I did when I wrote a theological critique of the final Harry Potter movie), then social media could turn you into a temporary celebrity overnight.  This can quickly go to your head, and this is bad for any number of reasons.  For one thing, even if you have a truly wide readership, and one that is well-deserved, that doesn’t mean you really know what you’re talking about.  1000 hits a day is no substitute for a peer-reviewed journal article or positive feedback from your supervisor.  If your #1 goal is to be a successful Ph.D researcher, then you need to keep your eye on the ball and maintain due humility about the scope of your knowledge.  

Even aside from that problem, however, too much of a focus on your readership can pose a real problem.  For instance, suppose you get in the habit of posting about three times a week, and then you get to a phase of your Ph.D where you have to focus really intensively on some research, and you find you hardly have any time to post.  Well, if you fall into too much of the mentality that your blog is for your readers, then you will feel a lot of pressure to keep putting up posts.  Otherwise, readers might start getting restless–or stop following your blog altogether!  If the pressure to keep posting means you spend time on your blog that you should be spending on research, then the blog has shifted from being a useful servant to a cruel taskmaster.  Another way that this can happen is through comments.  The payoff of a successful blog is that it demands more of your time.  Lots of people read your posts, and they comment–they ask questions, or they argue with one another, or they argue with you.  Naturally, you want to engage their comments, especially if they’ve been hard-hitting in their criticisms, and you start taking it personally.  But they may end of having much more time to keep arguing with you than you have to spare; it’s not hard to find yourself spending up 10 hours a week blogging and replying to comments.  And there’s also the danger of becoming so worried about projecting a polished, all-knowing, omni-competent image that you’re afraid to actually think through difficult issues on your blog or be honest about questions you’re struggling to answer.  That makes the blog less useful for yourself and your readers.  


 Now, all of this might suggest that the best way to blog is to write as if nobody is reading.  But, for obvious reasons, this is not a suitable solution.  As mentioned above, one point of blogging, instead of just jotting down notes to yourself, is to compel you to write better.  A false humility that assumes that hardly anyone is actually reading can become an excuse for carelessness and flippancy.  This can become particularly dangerous when expressing controversial opinions or critiquing other writers.  Controversy and criticism are of course an inevitable part of academic life, but they have to be managed very carefully.  Within academic writing, there are a host of unwritten rules about how one engages in these, attempting to ensure that even the sharpest disagreements remain gentlemanly, respectful, and restrained.  There is naturally a bit more freedom in a blogging environment, which can be useful, but it is very easy to go too far, indulging in colorful rhetoric or blunt attacks that will hurt your own image and may come back to haunt you.  In fact, it’s remarkable how quickly one may be brought to regret the carelessness that comes from this false humility.  Once, when blogging about a prestigious visiting lecturer’s presentation, I made some carelessly-phrased joking criticisms in the midst of what I thought was clearly an attitude of good-natured appreciation, assuming that only a few friends and students would be reading my post.  But tones of voice do not come through in writing, and 24 hours later, my supervisor was asking me to explain myself, the lecturer in question having seen my post and angrily contacted the school.  Since then, I’ve made a point of trying to always write with the assumption that anyone could be listening, and to guard carefully in advance against possible misunderstandings.  If I do have anything to offer in my blogging, I don’t want to turn people off by the way I say it.


So, in order to blog successfully, it’s important to simultaneously be always aware of your possible audience, and yet not preoccupied with them, remembering that the blog is first and foremost a tool to aid you in your own thinking and research, and that you will likely be of much more use to the world, and any potential readers, in the long-term if you successfully complete your research than if you spend all your time blogging.  It’s important to try to project an intelligent and respectable image through your blogging, but not to be so concerned with image that you’re no longer being genuine–the key is to use the blog as a way to explore your own interests and clarify your own ideas.  By making this your focus, you may well find that, as a by-product, lots of people–even important people, even potential employers–do want to listen to you and talk with you.  Through my blogging, I’ve formed lots of great relationships and hopefully made lots of good impressions.  But important as this result is, it’s more likely to happen if it remains no more than a secondary goal, not the primary purpose of all your blogging.