Today’s post will be a bit rambling. I will use as a starting-point something that Rachel Held Evans said in a recent post, Post-Evangelicals and Why We Just Can’t Get Over It. Rachel says about certain conservative articles she has read that criticize post-evangelicals:
“Then they charge us with printing up silly, oversimplified labels to slap onto all that we condemn, and I can’t help but recall all the labels I learned from them—feminist, liberal, postmodern, evolutionist, nominal, lukewarm, heretic—and think, where do you think we learned how to do this, folks?”
Rachel has been accused more than once of caricaturing views with which she disagrees. She wrote a book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which was a critique of conservative evangelical views regarding gender roles. Complementarians howled that she was caricaturing their position, that she was not seriously interacting with their thought, and that she was misunderstanding what they had to say.
I’ve seen this sort of thing play out elsewhere in online discussions. Arminian theologian Roger Olson wrote a post about how different Christian hospital chaplains might attempt to account theologically for patients’ suffering in answering patients’ questions. He characterized the hypothetical Calvinist as saying: “God designed, ordained and is governing your suffering for his glory, so it is not meaningless or merely accidental. It serves a wonderful purpose and therefore has meaning. God intends to use it to bring him glory and good for you if you offer it up to him in trust.” Some Calvinists were outraged about that, contending that Calvinism teaches no such thing! But Olson did not understand why his characterization of Calvinism was so controversial to Calvinists, for he read those kinds of sentiments in actual Calvinist writings. See here, here, and here for some of his follow-up posts.
Whether or not Rachel Held Evans and Roger Olson are guilty of misunderstanding positions that they do not hold, I admit that I have done my share of caricaturing. And some of my views have been caricatured. Here are some thoughts about this:
1. In terms of being caricatured, there was one conservative guy who kept on insisting that progressives talked about income disparity out of class envy. It didn’t matter what anyone said to him. In his eyes, progressives were just jealous of the rich, or playing on other people’s class envy. “Why not let the rich be?”, he asked.
I admit that progressives are not always clear about why income disparity is such a problem. Or let me say this: they’re not clear if all you hear from them is a thirty-second soundbite, or if all you read from their thought is a brief quotation online or in a newspaper. There are progressives who have explained why disparities of wealth are a problem. Robert Reich did so a documentary on it: Inequality for All. My impression is that progressives are not opposed to dramatic income inequality because they are jealous of the rich, nor are they saying that everyone should make the exact same amount of money. Rather, they’re saying that an economy that primarily benefits the upper classes, while middle and lower classes struggle, is not going to be a sustainable economy. In the 1950’s, prosperity was widely-distributed, and that benefited the rich, too, because there were lots of consumers who could buy their products.
But try telling this to that conservative guy! Even if he saw your point initially, he would come back a few months (maybe even a few weeks) later and say that progressives are promoting class envy in talking about wealth inequalities! This guy accused me of caricaturing his positions, at times. And sometimes I was. I would say that he was saying that Obama was a horrible human being, when he said no such thing.
2. There are times when a person may put a nice, intelligent face on his position, and I wonder if he is wearing that face all of the time. Example? Suppose you have a person who is ranting and raving against Obama or Islam. I challenge that person on it. The person then proceeds to coat his position in reasonable terms, perhaps adding some qualifications. I’m somewhat satisfied, even if I don’t agree. But later that person proceeds to deliver his usual rants, which sound pretty hate-filled. That makes me wonder: What is the true face of his position, as he holds it? Is it the nice, reasonable face? Or the hate-filled, ranting face? Now, if I characterize what he’s saying as hate-filled ranting, he would accuse me of caricaturing his position, of misunderstanding it, of putting words in his mouth. But am I? Is the reasonable face the real face, or at least the dominant factor that motivates him to believe what he does? And, if people like him got into power, which face would hold sway?
3. Someone can make a position sound reasonable, and yet how that position plays out on the ground can be pretty scary. The opposite is true, too: people can apply a principle that sounds unreasonable in a reasonable fashion. Example: complementarianism. I am almost afraid to offer a definition of it because complementarians may accuse me of mis-defining what they believe! My understanding, though, is that complementarianism holds that men and women have different, albeit complentary, roles. There is evangelical feminism, and then there is complementarianism, which is usually seen as different from evangelical feminism. Now, some complementarian writings may sound reasonable and nuanced, but, on the ground, complementarianism in certain families can amount to men dominating the home and women being encouraged to be docile and sweet, and discouraged from doing things that are thought to be reserved for men. Conversely, some complementarian writings may sound scary and authoritarian, but, on the ground, complementarian families have found ways to apply complementarianism in a manner that satisfies men and women, a manner that people in the family agree is respectful and appreciative of people’s voices and talents.
My point here? Well, a point I’m making is that Rachel is not reacting against a figment of her imagination, even if complementarians may not recognize themselves in what she is writing against.
4. There have been times when I characterize a person’s position in a certain way, that person says I am misunderstanding him and articulates his position, and what he says doesn’t sound too different from what I said he said; it just uses different words. In that case, am I caricaturing the person’s position? I think I’m grasping what his position is essentially is, or, at least, what the implications of his position are, or could be. (The “could be” part is probably where I am getting slippery.)
I’ll stop here.