Anti-intellectualism

Perhaps I am becoming more sensitive to it, but I have noticed a significant uptick of anti-intellectual sentiment in the last several years. As I research more about the history of the cultural perception of science and academia at large, I think that my suspicions are vindicated. I’m certainly not alone, with calls for a New Enlightenment from numerous groups and individuals (myself included). Climate change denial, anti-vaccine, anti-medicine, anti-academia movements are frighteningly commonplace. One need only survey Facebook for the the most frequent posters in order to find someone who subscribes to most (if not all) of the cultish belief systems I have listed here.

My interest in this topic is primarily fear-motivated, and secondarily justice-motivated. I am afraid for myself and for the future of humanity if these movements continue to grow in influence and power, as I think a world that is governed by these emotionalistic, short-sighted ideas would quickly be sent careening towards catastrophe. I’ve written before about my concerns with the idea of scientism, primarily from the perspective of a leftist philosopher, but today I want to defend a lot of the ideas that scientism takes for granted.

Scientism, at least in its modern form, is primarily reactionary. I think this is indisputable, as a lot of the weight it now pulls is due to atheists, agnostics, and other religious skeptics’ (often justified) feelings of discrimination and reduction to second-class citizens. That’s one of the reasons that scientism frequently comes up with absurd, indefensible claims about reality and the limits (or limitlessness, as the case may be) of the scientific method. I find myself in an unfortunate middle ground that recognizes the faults in modern science, but I must struggle to not be lumped in with anti-intellectualism. Science is a method based in empiricism, and is both philosophically and practically defensible as the best solution to discovering the nature of the material universe. Science’s ultimate goal is to uncover truth, and it has an incomparably excellent record in doing so.

I refuse to rehash arguments against the anti-intellectual positions at which I have aimed, as I think the nature of those positions is largely emotional. At bottom, the people who believe these things will not be convinced by scientific or philosophical reasoning because they seem to not recognize such forms of truth-seeking as trustworthy. Some accuse academics of being dishonest or corrupt, while others accuse them of being elitist. These accusations are usually met with some anecdotal argument about a doctor they saw or heard about or a professor they had that was pompous. Granted, this is my own experience, and perhaps in referencing these anecdotal data I am making the same mistake. Given the data on my side and science’s track record, however, I think that I can be forgiven for dismissing anecdotal evidence with my own. More to the point, web searches for data proving some corruption in the sciences is universally met with papers by politically-linked institutions who themselves have been proven to be corrupt through the profit motive (Heartland, ALEC, etc.).

I’m more interested in why these anti-intellectual movements have gained so much traction, and I think I have an answer. Traditionally, science and capitalism have worked hand-in-hand to each other’s advantage – the scientist or engineer produced new technology, and the capitalist purchased that technology and built new things to sell for profit. However, science finds itself increasingly at odds with capitalism, particularly in the area of climate change. The old alliance crumbles, and capitalists funnel money into scientists and engineers who will doctor data for them to make even bigger profit. The logic of capitalism, though, is so ingrained in our minds that instead of accusing the capitalists of corrupting the truth, we accuse the scientists of corruption. We revert to stone-age ideas that God will save us from our own environmental errors, that alchemy is better than modern medicine, or that personal experience is more valuable than scientific data. Rather than recognize that it is pure greed driving this corruption, we develop some new layer of faith that excuses some types of greed while blackballing others.

It boggles one’s mind to consider how easy it is to subscribe to these beliefs. How awesome would it be if the cure for cancer was some magic tonic you can make yourself at home? How great would it be if the climate wasn’t warming, and that climate scientists are near-universally corrupt? Wouldn’t it be fabulous if my thoughts on quantum mechanics as a non-theoretical physicist were just as valid as Brian Green’s? The cherry on top is that in addition to this sudden self-empowerment I’ve been given is that the motive of greed is still good! These are purely illogical, fallacious, unhealthy thoughts to have. The idea that various corporations and institutions have succeeded in making them commonplace is beyond worrying, and it indeed makes me wonder if there is a good (in both the moral and practical sense) way to counter these base appeals to human nature.

If the truth is too perfect, it probably isn’t truth. If something you do might affect someone else negatively, don’t do it. If something flies in the face of reason, that means it’s unreasonable. If someone stands to make money off convincing you of something, you might take that something with a heaping lump of salt.

Anti-intellectualism

Freedom, Justice, and Competition

I frequently bemoan the fact that political debate starts at narrow issues, rather than at foundations. I’m also fairly certain that I’ve mentioned before some thoughts about the nature of human institutions and their relation to freedom and justice and the inherent competitive nature of them. I’d like to take a few moments to explore that concept a bit, because I think it is one of the fundamental pillars of how I think societies should be understood. I strongly believe that human institutions should have humanity as their primary goal and focus: we should focus our efforts to bettering ourselves and our habitat, as a whole. Secondarily, we should promote all life in our habitat. I think these tenets are held by a majority of people – it benefits each and every one of us. When we imagine utopia, unless you are Ayn Rand, you imagine a world of peace, of tranquility, of selflessness, and comfortable living. In my experience, this is almost universally the case. Therefore, in order to achieve these goals of transforming society into something more conducive to said goals, we must understand the way that societies are built and they way institutions exist and interact.

There seems to be an intersection of real positive growth in understanding of human culture in philosophy, economics, and sociology. Philosophers grow and develop new analyses of the human condition, while economists and sociologists confirm or deny or build upon those ideas. I think, then, we should do some armchair work and think about the nature of humanity as a whole, and from there, human institutions. Humans are fundamentally self-centered, seeking one’s own survival even at the expense of others. Even among those of us who might sacrifice ourselves for the good of others, we often do so at least somewhat begrudgingly. We do it either because it is expected of us or we hope to receive something in return at a later date. We have laws on the books protecting one’s ability to protect oneself or one’s property even to the point of killing some trespasser. I’m not stating something we all don’t already know: foremost in our minds, at least to some extent, is the fundamental belief that you are more deserving, more important than others. We lie, we cheat, we steal, we hurt in order to guarantee that we keep our jobs, that we get the last turkey on the shelf, that we win the prize. At the fore of these behaviors is a maxim that, whether consciously or unconsciously, we hold above all else: I am worth more than you. I don’t think there is much evidence to the contrary, and the evidence required to disprove this observation seems enormous.

Human institutions are, at bottom, groups of humans working together to some end. Whether its the church, the state, or your company, each of these institutions can be understood as a collaboration of individual powers and skills to a combined purpose. That collaboration need not be voluntary to be exist, and that power need not be recognized to exist. I think this is the key observation: human institutions multiply (or at least combine) the power of numbers of individuals into one single entity, such that that entity is much more difficult to overcome by those of lesser power. In other words, a bigger company, a bigger government, a bigger labor union are all more difficult to topple compared to smaller ones. The combined effort of each individual to survive is multiplied into the behavior of the larger entity, simply based on the fact that all its members of human. The entity, then, operates in such a way that it adopts the same maxim as humans themselves: I am worth more than you.

Consequently, institutions lie, cheat, steal, and hurt in order to guarantee their survival. This behavior extends even to the members of that entity. Anyone who has been an employee of an especially unreserved corporation knows the cutthroat nature of some policies that, while harming members of the entity, fundamentally strengthen the entity’s chances of survival. We further see this in nuclear arms races, in stagnant wages, in destruction of the planet. A government is more likely to survive if it has more nuclear weapons than everyone else, a corporation is more likely to survive if it keeps wages as low as possible, and both are more likely to survive if they value productivity at the expense of the environment.

Generally speaking, this survivalist behavior is fundamentally short-sighted. We value a short-term guarantee of our survival against long-term goals beyond that. We can see this in individuals, too, and it seems to reflect Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in both cases. When we do not perceive our survival as guaranteed, we are more likely to behave rashly in order to improve our chances. Conversely, when we perceive our survival as more or less guaranteed, we are more willing to spend our time or money on pleasures or even on other people. Similarly, a human institution not guaranteed its own survival is more likely to behave more rashly.

At this point, I think we can make some arguments about how we should structure our societies and institutions, given the aforementioned goals and observations about human nature. If we want guarantee of survival as individuals, we must guarantee methods of survival (income, food sources, etc.). If we want to guarantee survival for ourselves, we must guarantee survival for most (preferably all) people, otherwise we run the risk of being subject to the unhappy end of our selectivist policies. Moreover, our institutions must be guaranteed some form of survival. Guaranteeing individual survival seems at least hypothetically doable, but in most theories I have encountered, guaranteeing survival of institutions runs contrary to that. I’ll examine a few.

Anarcho-capitalism is absolutely fascinating, and honestly, I would love it if I thought it were at all viable. It relies on the belief (with which I agree) that humans, on an individual level, are more likely to be responsible and compassionate to others without government mediation. It tacks on free-market principles in a very neoliberal fashion, holding that capitalism holds the secret to human happiness. I reject the latter notion out of hand, because capitalism without government mediation results in different all-powerful institutions fighting for survival at the expense of individuals (i.e. feudalism).

Socialism is, I think, a step in the right direction. Varying forms hold differing methods and results, but in general, socialism promotes the ownership of the means of production collectively by the citizenry. In many cases, socialism becomes necessarily hostile to other institutions, gobbling up all sorts of functions under a single monopolistic hegemonic monster. I reject this (simplistic) form of socialism out of hand because it still harms individuals by promoting the institution at their expense.

The next few theories are actually strangely similar, in that they recognize a few of the same problems with the former theories and in that they recognize the inherent flaw in our quest for utopia. Forms of social democracy (Marxian, et al.), anarcho-syndicalism, and some forms of anarcho-communism I think learn a lot of the lessons of our economic history and attempt to account for flaws in our behaviors. I do not want to delve into any detail, but I would invite the interested reader to look through the linked articles and perhaps read some other material on the subject. The important points, though, are that these libertarian forms recognize the need to level the playing field, so to speak, of institutions against one another. Government should never exceed the power of corporations so as to usurp them, and vice versa. Corporations, similarly, should never have the power to usurp one another. Indeed, maintenance of equality among all people and institutions is what makes these theories tick. In recognizing that the survivalist instinct is an unerasable element of human nature, they instead try to effectively lock it down in a standstill. By guaranteeing that one person or institution cannot overcome another, they simultaneously guarantee individual and institutional survivability. Helpfully, social democracy and syndicalism both retain much of the sort of hierarchy in society to which we are accustomed, maintaining the roles of leader and follower many people (including myself) agree are necessary.

I ended up writing a good bit more than I originally intended to, so I will leave a short summary to tie this together and to help those who skipped some (or all) of the post. Because humans and their institutions are fundamentally selfish, we need a system of economics and government that either eliminates or ties down those selfish tendencies so that we can realize greater happiness. Left-libertarian forms of government and societal organization retain the individual freedoms we cherish while transforming institutions in such a way that they retain their productive power while significantly reducing their capacity for harm. It’s not utopia, but it’s a gigantic leap in the right direction.

Freedom, Justice, and Competition

Morality and Politics

One of the most frustrating parts about modern politics (and perhaps politics throughout history) is that it seems to me that behind the scenes, we are still duking it out over some of the oldest moral debates: is something moral because of its results (what we attribute to it), or is something moral in and of itself? In other words, do we construct moral principles or are moral principles discoverable objects of the universe?

It’s very easy to see this in political discourse. There are some certain groups of people who act purely egoistically, seeking their own personal gain and satisfaction purely, even at the expense of vast numbers of people. Think Charles and David Koch, Wall Street bankers, and a significant number of our politicians (if not all of them). There are other certain groups of people who discuss high-minded idealisms, seeking some sort of end goal in society through their political action. Think Occupy (yeah, I know), the Tea Party (yeah, I know), and all sorts of people across the spectrum who are involved in politics to effect some sort of change change in the system. I want to differentiate these two groups from the outset. The first group is purely selfish: the only change they ever seek is change which improves their own personal lot in life. They are nihilistic in the worst way. The other group, regardless of how you feel about their individual beliefs, is revolutionary. Rather than seeking to benefit only themselves, they seek to reach some end goal that they believe is morally better. It is, at least potentially, an altruistic goal.

I want to set aside the egoists for now. As far as I’m concerned, they should have no say in the political system, because we cannot trust their actions or their words. That’s a discussion for another time, though. Let’s focus on the altruists, who I believe are the majority (numerically speaking; by definition the egoists have more money). Within this group, I believe we find the moral debate I referenced in the first paragraph. You have the top-down ethicists (deontologists) who want to enact change based on a set of principles, regardless of their consequences. On the other hand, you have the bottom-up ethicists (consequentialists) who want to enact change based on results. There have been studies that compare people that have found evidence supporting the idea that we might be naturally deontologists or consquentialists, but that’s another discussion for another time. Moreover, I think studies like that might only lend some small amount of wisdom.

I will try to cut through a lot of the less important information and get to something resembling a point. What I conclude from this observation is that even if we adjust for the fact that moneyed interests (egoists) have influenced our political debate in their favor, it seems to me that change is very difficult to enact. This is because agreement is hard to come by. Those of us who argue for results-based policy have a hard time arguing against those who believe in principled policy, simply because a lot of the time we might want results that conflict with those principles. I do think that there is a way out, though. We need to agree on a new set of principles. Behind the scenes, I think that deontologists and consequentialists are secretly envious of the other side. Sometimes we engage in the other’s tactics in order to get our larger point across. In other words, we’re not as intellectually consistent as we pretend to be. Because of this, I think there’s an opening.

What principles should we agree upon? That’s a matter of debate, but I think there’s one that we must all agree upon. I think it’s non-negotiable. I think that without this principle, we are doomed to continually repeat the cycle of oppression and revolution that has existed throughout history. We must value human life above all else. I don’t mean human life in the categorical sense. I mean each individual human life. We must seek the maximization of every individual person. From this, I believe we get certain resultant principles: people shouldn’t harm one another, people shouldn’t seek personal gain at another’s expense, people should treat each other as equals, etc. I think this satisfies both the deontologists and the consequentialists, and if we argue from these principles (and we argue honestly!), we can reach some conclusions upon which we all agree.

It’s lofty. It’s kind of ridiculous, and it will likely not happen. I think it is at least possible, though, and that hope is worth my time and effort. I want to develop these ideas quite a bit further, but I think they should be considered.

Morality and Politics

Competition

I got into a debate on Twitter earlier that helped me to sift through a lot of the reasons I have for thinking the way I do about the economy and ethics in general. The main point, I believe, is that human selfishness and competition are simple facts and that we must decide how we can manipulate those factors in order to produce a better system. The failings of past systems were the result of human nature and the way we responded to social structures, so we need to design a social structure that reduces the likelihood of unfairness or injustice or what have you.

I doubt I need to delve into feudalism or mercantilism to explain why they were bad systems. They were bad because they were less efficient and they distributed the fruits of labor unjustly (I’m vastly oversimplifying the case). With that in mind, we should analyze the history of capitalism against the criteria of it being just and fair and efficient. Volumes have been written on this subject, so I intend to provide a very summary view of what I think are some of the most important critiques of capitalism and how they relate back to the title of this post.

For anyone that has taken even only a single economics course, capitalism sounds fantastic. It distributes goods efficiently and people are rewarded for work in such a way that it is perfectly in fair with regards to the rest of the market. However, it seems to fly over everyone’s heads that these sorts of results are only possible under conditions of perfection: perfect information, perfect competition, etc. It should be no surprise to anyone that we have nothing like perfection in reality. People and corporations lie and there is hardly perfect competition anywhere in the market. In fact, it seems that there is vastly more competition among buyers than there is among sellers. There is vastly more competition among employees than there is among employers. Not only do we lack perfection, but the ratio of power leans heavily against the average individual.

What results from this? Unjust distribution of wealth. People lie and manipulate to make sure the die is cast in their favor. People group together to form corporations and use their combined power (reduced competition!) to prevent those whom they employ from grouping together also. By necessity it seems, there must be fewer businesses than there are people. Therefore, there is less competition among businesses than there is among individuals. As buyers of labor, employers therefore hold more power than the potential employee, the seller of labor, because while there are only n businesses, there are some 2n (or whatever the number may be) people who could potentially fill that job. The idea here is, “If you don’t work for $7.25 an hour, I guarantee the next person in line will.” This creates a race to the bottom, resulting in incomes for people that are lower than what their work is actually worth. In other words, you are paid less than your production value to your company. Conversely, when a product is sold to you, it is sold with profit margin. That means that while you, in terms of productivity, are being shortchanged, the businesses and their owners are getting more than what they put in. This is all due to the competition mismatch and guarantees that without some sort of outside intervention, the economy will tend towards a polarized distribution of wealth with workers on the poorest end and capitalists on the richest.

It should come as no surprise that workers, historically, have revolted against this pattern in capitalism (cue the populist response to the Industrial Era). From this we get government intervention and labor unions. Governments come in and attempt to distribute some of the profit back to workers who were unfairly paid (and, later on, we get more welfare). Labor unions attempt to unite workers as one entity in order to reduce competition among them, thereby decreasing the buying power of the employers. Cue the prosperity of the middle class.

All I’ve done is described with extreme brevity what happened in history. Yet people look back on the policies of the Industrial Era with some sort of twisted nostalgia, as though it was those policies that brought on the middle class. Such is not the case, as history has shown. As I’ve explained, it is impossible for a middle class to exist for long when competition among the workers causes accelerating, increased profit margins at the end of the employer and reduced wages on the end of the employee. There is a fundamental mismatch of competition between employers and employees and there is no way around it. To pretend as many seem to want to do that we can live in this system is to think very shortsightedly. With outsourcing, automation, and other labor-saving devices combined with decreased government regulation and regressive taxation, the economy is once again chugging right along in the direction of polarization. It is inevitable by the logic of capitalist theory itself.

That’s not to say that I’m not optimistic. I’m not sold on alternate theories quite yet, as I’ve yet to see one that produces the vast amounts of wealth that capitalism does. All that said, it seems readily apparent that Marxist-socialist critiques and ideas should be fused with the current state of things. One of my favorite economists, Richard D. Wolff, has a book that I like to recommend to people that advocates for a lot of socialist reforms that could coexist with a capitalist structure. His concept of worker-directed enterprises is particularly interesting and I think it should be a major point of reform going forward. Read that or watch some of his videos if you’re at all interested in the idea of a more just economy. It’s inspiring during a time when the news is rarely good for anyone who isn’t in the top one percent.

Competition

Society’s Bogeymen

I toss around terms like “cognitive dissonance” quite a bit, and I feel the need to occasionally attempt to convey exactly what sort of baggage I carry with such terms when I use them. I am fairly certain that I’ve explained it before, but I’ll explain it again: when I refer to cognitive dissonance in society, I am specifically referring to the way that people are forced to cope with the world in which they live. We go to work and school everyday, promised a better life if only we work harder. All the while we’re bombarded with gossip about celebrities and socialites, news about philandering bankers and stock traders, stories about corrupt politicians, and so on and so forth. I shouldn’t need to explain how most of these people share something in common: they are rich, and they are lazier, more selfish, and/or more dishonest than the general population.

I am generalizing to some extent, but I don’t have the time to go through and quantify each and every statistic, but the overall truth remains the same: we are told that by being good, honest, hardworking people that we can improve our lot. However, we find that those who are at the top of the ladder are often the most unjust, dishonest, lazy people of society. Though I believe people are naturally selfish, most of us are unwilling (or unable) to be so selfish that we would thoroughly compromise our values for material gain. We sometimes make small exceptions, and perhaps we do that quite a bit. It seems evident that when it comes down to it, though, most of us would not completely sell out our fellow man for our own greed.

The most materially successful people are the greedy, yet we ourselves are not willing to compromise so thoroughly. How do we reconcile this? As much as we parrot the ideals of democracy, I think each person is largely aware that our votes change little in our society. We might donate to certain causes, we might volunteer our time, some of us even attend protests and rallies. Even then, we effect so little change that it can be demoralizing. All the while, in order to survive, we have to participate in this same system that rewards callous greed. We have jobs, some of us have nice cars, some of us take the bus. The struggle remains largely the same, though: we work for those people at the top, and they give us some percentage of the revenue we help to generate. Sometimes that percentage is more fair than others. Our very survival depends on holding up the same system that I think we all know is corrupt. This is the very essence of cognitive dissonance: we simultaneously love and hate ourselves and our livelihoods and the society in which we live.

The simple solution is to create bogeymen. We blame sexism or racism or homophobia or war or illegal immigration or the tech industry or some vague idea of social oppression. While certainly there are individual examples of oppression (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.), the idea that modern society is inherently oppressive against these certain minority groups seems detached from the reality. (Granted, LGBTQQIAAP rights certainly are behind the legal standard of equality that other groups experience.) In other words, we take the traditional ideas of oppression (patriarchy, et al.) and apply it to the modern era in order to create an intellectual problem that can be sorted through. If we can blame society’s problems on patriarchy, we can change the system without getting rid of it! The same example rings true, I think, in other iterations of social justice. When we can identify a bogeyman that affects only some group of people, then the system seems salvageable. It seems possible that we can create this scapegoat and then the problem will be solved.

Yet this is a stellar example of using an emotional coping mechanism that is passive. We comfort ourselves by creating an internal paradigm where there is some battle being waged by men versus women, or whites versus minorities, and so on. The reality is that people are inherently selfish. Yes, there are racists; yes, there are sexists; yes, there are prejudiced people who simply hold wrongheaded, stereotyping views. The reality seems to be that people are insecure. The more insecure a person is, the more selfish he or she is likely to be. If I don’t know how I will get my next meal, I’m much more likely to do something bad to you in order to guarantee that I’ll eat tonight. The more chaotic the system is, the less predictable it is. The less predictable it is, the less security we have. Therefore, the more chaotic the system, the less secure we are. We live in a society where our jobs, our retirements, our homes, and so on cannot be guaranteed. It is chaotic and unpredictable, and we therefore are more likely to be greedy and selfish towards one another. That seems fully apparent to me.

Using these passive coping mechanisms only serve to perpetuate the system that seems to be spiraling into further chaos and unpredictability. It seems to me that the best way, if not the only way we can counteract this is to throw off our bogeymen and to be a little kinder towards one another. Live moderately, and show people that you can be trusted. If we learn to voluntarily trust one another, we might not yet be slaves to greed. We ought to stop blaming each other and find an active solution. We ought to show compassion and altruism, because it seems to me that there is no other way that we can thwart our descent. I think that by showing compassion as opposed to self-centered egoism that there is some progress to be made yet. Perhaps the only way we can redress our cognitive dissonance with society is to quell our own greed and selfishness by fostering trust and security.

Society’s Bogeymen

Inflammatory Language

I’m writing this primarily because I’ve been meaning to mention this topic for a long while now and I am really trying to avoid doing a paper for a class that I don’t like. With that in mind, I’d like to remind everyone that words matter. The words we use are more complex than I think we can possibly understand. They are shells containing ideas and thoughts and feelings and emotions and I think an infinite number of human experiences. Individual words can contain entire metaphors which themselves may reference metaphors ad infinitum. To prevent myself from completely going off on a tangent, words are powerful tools that need to be examined with excruciating detail if we want to know the truth of what a person is trying to communicate.

One of the most obvious choices for me to go to is the news media. The media constantly bombard us all day long with inflammatory, emotional words and catch phrases meant to elucidate certain emotions and ideas in order to get us to react in a certain way: become their audience. It’s hardly interesting for me to accuse media outlets of being partisan or biased, but the danger goes deeper than that alone. The sorts of stories a network covers and the way they cover them can have a huge influence on the viewers and whether or not those viewers remain in the ecosystem. That is to say, it is in Fox News’ (replace with MSNBC, CNN, ABC, what have you) best interest to create coverage that encourages the viewer to buy from advertisers (buy gold!), to support their consultants (neocon think tanks, largely), and to keep coming back to Fox News so that the viewer remains a part of that ecosystem. As I mentioned, we can without any effort at all attribute the same characteristics of Fox News to any other network, because as capitalist agents these groups have major incentive to maximize profit for the advertisers, the consultants and executives, and for the company itself.

Thus is born coverage that features the same talking heads (McCain, Graham, etc.) telling you to be afraid, to shake in your boots, because ISIL/Ebola/Al Qaeda/Russia (pick your favorite boogeyman of the decade) is coming for America, and they might be coming for you. Thank goodness, though, because the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute or the Institute for the Study of War already have the solution, and it’s simple! All you have to do is give up more of your money and your rights, and the government will take care of the rest. Easy!

I have oversimplified my case to this example primarily because I think it is one that is already easy for us to believe. I think that the same sort of logic can be applied to the concept of how it seems so in vogue to call things a “war on” something (war on women, etc.). Are we becoming angry about the issue because there is something the matter with our society or because some clever writer decided to make him or herself or his or her company some extra money by using inflammatory language? The fact is, that gambit worked, regardless of the facts. (For the record, I am using this as an example. Please don’t take this as a comment on modern women’s rights or third-wave feminism.)

I am willing to admit that perhaps I am in the minority. Perhaps I am the only one who actually, even if only for a moment, thinks of an actual war when I hear the phrase “war on women.” I do not think that is the case, though. Words seem to me to be intimate and inherently human. As such, they can evoke powerful emotion in our minds all on their own. It’s hardly a nuanced idea that exaggeration can be dangerous and deceptive, but in the age of mass media those words can have incredible effects that I think have been taking hold over the last few decades or so. When the narrative can be morphed using the power of metaphor, our ideas and attitudes change perhaps drastically. Our thoughts and feelings can become slaves to the tug of a meaning hidden behind a word that we might not even recognize.

Bear in mind, when words are used to be inflammatory in a malicious way, we call that something else: propaganda.

Inflammatory Language

Fire and Brimstone

The typical sort of campus preachers made their rounds at my school this past week, and normally that wouldn’t be particularly notable. In fact, normally I hardly pay any mind myself. For one reason or another, there was a stronger reaction this semester, which could be due to any number of reasons that I am not particularly interested in exploring.

I have been going to my current school for several years now, the first few as a part time student. Campus preachers are part of the norm, especially during the warmer months of the semester (even God’s chosen apparently can’t handle the cold). In my experience, most people walk away or entirely avoid the quad when the Quad God is out. Thankfully, this semester the preachers have been attracting a large number of people, which I find highly entertaining. If people are arguing, then I have the opportunity to gauge people’s thought processes; if they are mocking and shouting, that alone can be amusing. After class a few days this week I walked out to the quad and observed the goings-on, and I picked up on a few differing points of view.

The most vocal group of people most of the time was of course those who simply reversed the rhetorical strategy of the preacher. By that, I mean that while he was shouting that all sinners were damned, that “homosex is an abomination” (that’s an exact quote!), or that women should “keep their mouths shut,” there were those who would fling right back. Some shouted obscenities, one person plugged in his guitar and amp with some hefty volume and blared noise, and so on. The details are less important than the reaction. The reaction was anger. The reaction was that this person was being offensive, so he ought to be silenced. Indeed, someone called the campus police to remove him. This seems wrong. If I believe that all people should be treated with love and respect (as these people seemed to think), then I am not allowed to renege on my beliefs at some moment at my convenience. That alone is reason enough to give people with even the most vile of speech the right to say as they please.

There were plenty of folks who stopped by out of pure curiosity, yours truly among them. Most in this group seemed content to discuss among themselves what they believed about what people were saying. Some found the situation goofy, others were troubled, and occasionally a few tried to inject some calmer language into the gathering, which brings me to my point.

As the throng ebbed and flowed throughout the afternoon, there was usually one reason that it began to build up: someone had something different to say (and it wasn’t someone screaming about Hulkamania). There seemed to be three distinct responses. The first two I think are actually the most related. Some people claimed to be Christians themselves, but objected to what the preacher was saying. The preacher, they would say, does not know how to win souls – he was condemning people, not loving them. In other words, these people disagreed on a matter of method, not of substance. The second group were irreligionists who rejected outright the claims of God altogether. They also agreed with the substance (that the Bible calls for an eternal hell for the unsaved/unrighteous), but disagreed in that they believe the Bible is not a depiction of truth. These people also agreed with the substance of the matter, and disagreed with the method (they believe there is no need for a method at all, as the substance is unimportant).

There was still a third, smaller group, of which I am a part. These people, by all accounts, were Christians, but they disagreed with the preacher on a matter of method and of substance. At a couple points these people spoke out, but mostly I overheard agreement among conversation. These people seemed inclined towards a belief that “God is Love,” and that the Bible and spiritual experience should be interpreted from that. I want to draw this line quite clearly – they are in opposition to the view of the first group I mentioned. The first group believes there is such thing as a wrath of God (wrath is a sin, no?) and that wrath will be incurred upon people who do not accept Jesus Christ. I believe this is an inconsistent and illogical view, but the reasons for that belong in a separate post. The third group disagree with the first strongly. They believe in the priority that God is Love, and reject the idea of eternal hell (and usually hell altogether). I believe this distinction is of the utmost importance.

My point has been largely made, but I also want to explain one last key bit of information. I do not consider the first group of people to be in favor of tolerance. While a man spouts hatred of gays, women, and all people (dubbed “sinners”), they tell the man, “No, you can’t say that!” When the other groups are saying, “No, you are wrong!” Disagreeing with a man’s vocabulary because it is too offensive does not change the idea behind the words. These people believe that God will overlook the fact that you are gay, that he will forgive when a woman disagrees with her husband, that he indeed does not love all equally, unconditionally. In biting their tongues and playing games with semantics, they prove themselves no allies of love amongst all. I believe this view is cowardly and uninformed. For those who disagree, I welcome you to read the Bible, or at least 1 John 4. If God’s love is truly unconditional, he does not hate, and he does not condemn. Think critically, deeply, and peacefully, friends.

Fire and Brimstone