The Trouble with Generalism

On knowing what we don’t know.

Alastair Roberts writes:

One effect of biblical™ ideology has been to elevate pastors and theologians as universal experts. If all truth is biblical™, then the Bible experts are the universal experts. We should look to them for our psychology, philosophy, politics, economics, etc., etc. The result can be pastors who claim authority on a lot of issues about which they are naively ignorant, presenting these as matters of direct biblical™ authority in ways that end up undermining and even discrediting the authority of Scripture.

This is certainly true. It’s also true of more people than pastors and theologians. A pretense to expertise from a pastor is arguably worse because of the spiritual authority attached to his office, but it’s still pretty bad when journalists, politicians, and mommy bloggers do it too. In fact, pretense to broad authority based on specialized credentials is common enough in public life that we could consider it part of the problem with generalism.

To be a generalist is in some sense to always see continuity between issues and ideas, even—especially?—if that continuity may not really exist. Take generalist blogging. No one has done generalist blogging better or more interestingly than Andrew Sullivan. Yet it’s incredibly easy to peruse Sullivan’s archives and see where he is obviously stepping outside his knowledge. This isn’t something that a generalist blogger does despite his best intentions; it’s what he intends to do.

A lot of the American journalism industry depends on this kind of generalism. Most columnists are experts at writing, not experts at their subjects, which explains why it’s so common to see an MFA grad doling out explainers about foreign policy or the theological history of world religions. One of the secrets of the writing economy is that you don’t actually have to know anything to be a writer except how to write. The vast majority of books, articles, essays, and blogs, even the good ones, are the products of very brief research and virtually no seasoned experience.

Most of the smartest people I know are people are engineers, chemists, doctors, etc. You know what’s interesting about these friends? The vast majority of them do not blog about politics or submit articles on complementarianism. The most highly credentialed people I know are quite satisfied in their own specialized slice of life. They’ll talk circles around anyone when the topic turns to what they’ve spent years of their life learning and practicing, but they’re not going to be asked to be a columnist anytime soon, and they’d say no even if asked. The people I know who have the most to say about the highest number of topics, including myself!,  are not actually that qualified to talk about, well, any of them. We’re generalists, not experts.

When you say this, folks often get offended. They hear elitism and snobbishness. I think this is for two reasons. First, culturally, we really don’t make any distinction between free knowledge and deep knowledge. Google and iTunes U are epistemological Wal-Marts that constantly undersell the overpriced (=”elite”) competition. Everyone feels like an expert because why shouldn’t they? They’ve got the facts right in front of them, and they’re just as good as the facts at that university, right?

Second, the infrastructure of life in Western culture still does a pretty decent job of protecting ordinary people from the consequences of pretenses to authority. What Alastair is saying about evangelical pastors is definitely real, but it’s mostly a “dynamic” that is off-putting but seldom meaningful. There aren’t many stories about a church suffering a smallpox quarantine after hiring an anti-vaxxer as senior pastor (for what it’s worth, I think Jim Jones-like cults are a different kind of case). Likewise, a journalist with a bachelor’s degree who wages an ignorant Twitter war against history professors is mostly spitting into the wind. If you’re bound and determined to stick it to the “elites,” you can, of course, do so, but there’s only so much your Facebook posts can do.

All this makes it hard for most of us to feel the negative effects of generalism. It’s not that generalism is bad. It’s that generalism is generalism, not a synonym for “scholar” or “expert.” Alaistair’s point about evangelical pastors who use biblical worldview as a euphemism for selling their own intuitions and opinions is not an argument against actually doing biblical theology, or trying to live life in a biblically faithful way. It’s an argument against laziness, the laziness of wanting to constrict the complexities of life into a handful of truisms and in the process anointing Rehoboams as Solomons. It’s a temptation that everyone who likes to read and write widely faces, and it’s one we should be honest about.

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Excerpts from my sent folder: Michael Gerson and evangelicalism

In Gerson’s revisited 20th century evangelicalism, the mercenary character of the Religious Right disappears because conservative Christians embrace evolution. He’s wrong, not only, as you point out, about the uncontested truthfulness of Darwinian biology, but also about the connection between causes and effects. Gerson seems to think that accepting evolution would have kept evangelical Christianity’s respectability and allowed conservative theological emphases to flourish with the broader culture. He ignores the fact that mainline Protestantism did exactly what he recommends—embrace evolution and higher criticism—and has been unraveling ever since, bleeding members while slouching toward the sexual revolution. His wistfulness for an evangelicalism that doesn’t alienate the elite universities is a day late and a denomination short.

 

New blog category blatantly stolen from Alan Jacobs.

Why Men Like Me Shouldn’t Be Pastors

Why responding to the scourge of pastoral malpractice in evangelicalism starts in the pulpit itself.

Last August, Daniel Mattson wrote a heartfelt essay for First Things entitled, “Why Men Like Me Shouldn’t Be Priests.” Continue reading “Why Men Like Me Shouldn’t Be Pastors”

A Question

A question

The Green New Deal is ridiculous. But the idea that elected officials ought to authentically legislate their worldview is not ridiculous. In fact, it’s the only way a democratic republic can function. Socialist progressives seem to understand this. Pro-life Republicans do not. Question: Which of those movements do you think, right now, is more likely to carry out the implications of their beliefs first?

Honestly, is there any doubt?

Get On My Lawn

The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness.

In chapter five of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport recites a familiar but enlightening distinction. Drawing from Sherry Turkle, Newport pits Connection against Conversation. Connection is digital interaction; it’s a category of social experience that is low-grade, easy, fast, and mostly impersonal (e.g., it avoids things like facial expressions and vocal cues). Conversation is human-with-human time, an exchange of physical identities and characteristics in the course of talking. A conversation is what you have when a friend drops by for a visit, and connection is what you have when you Like or comment on that friend’s photo. Newport’s essential argument throughout Digital Minimalism is that, for the modern tech user, balancing these experiences is almost impossible, because each one requires time, and time spent on one is time taken away from the other.

I’ll have more to say about the book in the weeks ahead. But I was intrigued by the intense contrast Newport draws between connection and conversation, and the way this contrast reveals how important place is to his entire digital minimalist project. There’s no separating conversation from place, because conversation depends on the people near you, in this moment, wherever you are physically. There is no such thing as place-less conversation, and there’s no such thing as local digital connection, because the digital medium necessarily dislocates users.

If you know a little something about the history of Facebook, this point is very important. Facebook was originally structured to be a platform within specific places, called Networks. In the early days of Facebook Networks were everything; you couldn’t even join the site unless you applied for membership in a Network. The original Networks were colleges, then cities. When I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, the site required me to indicate I was in Louisville, Kentucky’s network. In addition to curating a list of “People You May Know” from mutual networks, the network requirement—at least in its own way—tethered the experience of Facebook to place. It gave place something of an honorary role as gatekeeper for social experience. Nominally, you could not experience Facebook without belonging to a particular place.

Facebook dropped the Network requirement shortly after I registered my account. Without the Network requirement, anyone could join Facebook, and Facebook was now its own “community” instead of a digital tool for experiencing your community. The point of Facebook became one’s relationship to the site, not one’s relationship to specific people in particular places. Almost every major ill that Facebook has spilled into the public square is downstream of this change. The loss of Networks was representative of the transformation of Facebook from a site that facilitated social interaction to a one that encouraged isolation, advertising, and artificial relationships. The truest, most natural experience of Facebook now is not achieved out in the offline world, meeting friends whom you can “connect” with later. The authentic Facebook experience now is being constantly logged in, attending to one’s own digital ID and trying to master Facebook’s ever-shifting algorithms that create the impression of “good content.” We are left with connection for connection’s sake, which is to say, we are left with a platform instead of a network.

By “overcoming” place, Facebook thrust users into nowhere. The same ways that place constricts our relational bandwidth are the ways in which it richly rewards it. You cannot have the humane joys of place without also experiencing its power to locate you here instead of there, with these people rather than those people. The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness: ephemeral “connection” that demands addiction to self-consciousness in exchange for minute sensations of digital belonging.

On Bothsidesism

A gnat and a camel are both bad ideas to swallow, but swallowing the camel is a much worse idea.

American political culture has a nasty way of inspiring all of us to take something that is true and use or apply it in a way that makes it false. “All lives matter” is a great example. The sentence is 100% true; it is invoked almost exclusively for the purpose of rebuking someone who just said that a specific kind of life (black, immigrant, unborn, etc.) matters. Another good example is Whataboutism: The act of immediately responding to any fair critique with an example of how your opponent, or his tribe, have also failed in this category. Example: “It’s absolutely wrong for a President to talk about women or the disabled in such a derogatory way.” “What about Bill Clinton?!?!”

Bothsidesism is another example. It bears a close relationship to Whataboutism but is its own species. Bothsidesism is what you do when someone points out that a particular party or tribe is guilty of something. Rather than pushing back against the accusation, you simply remind the person making the observation that “Both sides do this,” and present an example of comparable sin committed by either a) the party/tribe generally thought to be the polar opposite of the party/tribe being accused, or b) the party/tribe that you think the person making the observation represents.

This sounds a lot like Whataboutism, but there’s an important difference. Whataboutism is an accusation of moral hypocrisy that implies the original observation is meaningless or the first speaker is inauthentic. Bothsidesism, on the other hand, is not a direct charge of hypocrisy, but rather an attempt to change the subject. “Both sides do this” is often code for, “Now instead of talking about each other, let’s talk about how awful everything is.” Whereas Whataboutism challenges the moral authority of the original point, Bothsidesism challenges whether there’s any moral authority to be had at all.

Complicating all this is the fact that neither Whatboutism nor Bothsidesism are really fallacies. It does matter, for example, that the same media institutions bemoaning toxic masculinity stood up for Bill Clinton and shamed his accusers. It does matter that, while the Democratic Party sanctions the killing of the unborn, the Republican Party has also adopted language and policies about minorities, immigrants, and others that dehumanizes and obscures the sanctity of life. These are fair points, and they have to be reckoned with if our understanding of culture is going to rise above the level of AM radio.

Last night I tweeted (I know, I know):

Isn’t it weird how abortion on demand at 30+ weeks is “complex,” “intimate,” and “hard to talk about without dividing people,” while single-payer healthcare and a wall are “matters of justice” and “the Jesus way”?

I think most readers knew that my point was about left-leaning evangelicals, many of whose prolific Trump-era political tweeting has taken an intermission since the state of New York approved a ghoulish abortion law, and the governor of Virginia offered some similarly ghoulish thoughts about which born infants can be killed. It’s an observation I’ve made many times; there’s a weird overlap between the folks who go straight to the Old Testament to explain why a certain immigration policy is wrong and the folks who seem totally unable to articulate an argument against letting live-born infants die on a medical table. It’s an overlap that has the stench of identity politics and the “age of lumping” all over it.

A friend responded to this tweet by reminding me that “Both sides do this,” by which he meant that the Republican Party and the Trump administration have sanctioned the cruel separation of families and other odious, anti-Christian policies. He’s 100% correct. Both parties are, right now, imago Dei-denying, family-subverting parties. A pox on all our houses.

And yet: Both sides are manifestly not equally OK with infanticide. That’s the point. My tweet was not intended at all to flatter the GOP. It was intended to point out a lethal confusion in many evangelical writers, several of whom have rich book contracts, sold-out speaking engagements, and influential platforms. It’s the confusion that cannot see a moral urgency to the willful, state-sanctioned killing of a perfectly recognizable tiny human. It’s the confusion that looks at abortion and sees only a “divisive wedge issue” that Christians should “get beyond,” but looks at single payer healthcare and a border wall and sees a clear biblical mandate to care for the poor and welcome the stranger. It’s not that the latter conviction is wrong; it’s that the former conviction is so very very wrong that, yes, it colors everything that comes after it. A gnat and a camel are both bad ideas to swallow, but swallowing the camel is a much worse idea.

The problem with Bothsidesism is that it assumes a moral equivalency that doesn’t exist. What matters most is not that both tribes get equally dinged. What matters most is that human life, born or unborn, white or black or brown, healthy or disabled or young or old, is respected as the crowning jewel of a sovereign Creator’s work. However such life is disrespected, it is always a tragedy; but the authorized killing of innocent human life is the worst tragedy of all because it cannot be remedied. It is permanent, forever, and irreconcilable until the resurrection. Bothsidesism is correct to point out faults in both political ideologies, but it’s wrong when it’s invoked to obscure degrees of seriousness in our faults. Without being conscious of those degrees, we cannot hope to remedy injustice.

Bothsidesism feels good in the moment because it feels like taking a wider view of things. But a wider view isn’t always helpful if what you need to see is right in front of you. The bigger failure of evangelicals in the 19th and 20th centuries wasn’t that they didn’t have a fully realized, magisterial doctrine of human dignity and the political sphere. It was that they either supported or ignored lynching, slavery, and disenfranchisement. They ignored what was right in front of them.

As do we.

Everybody Worships

Today I’m happy to publish my first essay at National Review.

Today I’m happy to publish my first essay at National Review, “We’re All Fundamentalists Now.” In the essay I reflect on the curious similarities between the secular social justice movement and religious fundamentalism. I think the two movements are similar because they express the same truth about humans: We must worship and devote ourselves to something that has transcendent power.

Here’s an excerpt:

My fundamentalist upbringing gave me (though of course imperfectly) a grasp of non-neutrality, the inevitable moral character of the things we say, watch, and experience.

The rising generation of students is coming to this same realization but without the help of religion’s spiritual insight. The modern campus culture is a religious culture, but it’s a religion without God, and consequently it is a religion without grace. Many students would probably hear my story about growing up in conservative Evangelicalism and conclude that I have been violently oppressed. What if, though, we have more in common than they think? What if SJWism and religious fundamentalism are both expressions of a dissatisfaction with the decadence of modernity: its mindless consumerism, its divorce of virtue from culture, and its kowtowing to profit and power?

The crucial difference, of course, is that Christians and many other religious conservatives have a coherent theological narrative. Because we retain the language of sin and guilt, we have the categories necessary to confront cultural decadence with more than outrage.

Read the whole thing here.