Poverty, Dreher, and Story

Rod Dreher, a writer for whom I have a lot of admiration and respect, nevertheless has a tendency to overstate things, especially when those things pertain to his lived experience. Likewise, he has an unfortunate tendency to assume the worst intentions of people who push back against the conclusions he draws from his experiences. Those two flaws—which I shamefacedly confess to sharing—were on full display in the minor kerfuffle over this post. I won’t recap the mud-throwing, but suffice to say that I think Rod’s critics are right in their substantive critiques (Jemar Tisby’s, in particular), and that this whole episode might have been avoided by pondering for a few minutes longer the wisdom of defending transparently bigoted remarks by a transparently bigoted politician.

But there’s another contour to this thing that’s worth a very brief reflection. Part of what Rod was getting at in his original piece was that political correctness often runs counter to what people actually experience. This is a familiar beat to Rod, and it would be a mistake for people to assume that Rod has a vested emotional interest in punching down on poor people. If I’m reading him correctly, I think what Rod resents is the deliberate turning away from reality in favor of sentiments that play well with people who have no (literal and figurative) skin in the game. I think there’s something to say about that, and in an era of actual “reeducation” by our culture makers, the effects of Rightspeak are worth contemplation.

But I think what I’ve come away sensing is that Rod, and plenty of others, have not given enough contemplation. Instead, they’ve intuitively normalized their own experience of poor communities and downtrodden cultures into an argument. Rod’s desire to look for truth through experience is further confirmed when one considers the letters that he’s publishing as responses, as well as some responses to the responses. I think the best course of action is not only to reconsider tropes and stereotypes about the poor, but also to ask sharp questions of our tendency to equate experiences with an argument.

A lot of people have had a negative encounter with poor people or communities. And many of them choose to reason from their negative encounters to much bigger ideas about the moral quality of those in poverty. The problem with this is that one’s experiences are not worthy of such intellectual power. Yes, our experiences matter, and they can powerfully shape us, body and soul. But it doesn’t take much imagination how reasoning from experience is an awfully selective and unfair enterprise. If your only experience of poor Americans is being accosted by panhandlers, you’re likely going to reason from that experience that poor people are poor because they’d rather stand on the side of a highway off-ramp than find a job. Is the problem then that you haven’t had more experiences with poor people? Perhaps! But even if additional, more positive experiences broaden your horizon, continually over-relying on your experiences to inform you about the world will simply manifest itself in some other wrong, prejudiced, or naive way.

We see this everywhere right now. People who experienced judgement in a church might start a blog in which their experience of a relatively small number of people is extrapolated into huge, sweeping ideas about Christianity or the church. People who experience unexpected illness or health might intuit such experiences to big, specious notions about what is healthy and unhealthy (how do you think the essential oils business runs?). The point is not to discount our experiences entirely. We couldn’t do that even if we tried! The point is that piecing together our experiences and coming to a true knowledge of anything requires more than just gathering as many experiential narratives as we can.

The truth about American poverty lies far beyond the possibility of my experience, because it is indelibly rooted in history and ideas. I cannot visit the south side of Chicago for a weekend and come away with authoritative knowledge about poverty or urban policy. Nor can I justly conclude that a friend, associate, or Uber driver’s testimony is warrant enough for me to be dogmatic about an issue. My experiences and the truth are not coterminous.

I’m convinced that if Christians are going to coherently carry their witness to Christ and him crucified into future generations, we have to insist on this fact. I know Rod agrees with me, because I’ve read him long enough to know he does. I hope that he’ll apply this principle as liberally to issues of poverty and race as he does to modernism and confession.