I’ve been thinking about arguments again, but this time with respect to the turn to first-person narratives in the broader internet landscape, and within the online, Evangelical world. One of the persistent features of these sorts of essays is the move from “personal story to general point.” You tell your harrowing, or odd, or funny story, etc. and then move to what you learned from it (and maybe what we can all learn). In church circles, we often make theological points this way, especially if we can tie it to a major change of mind on some issue.
It’s an engaging way of making a point and so it has come to dominate much Internet publication culture. But more than any other style, it also tends to tie people to their positions in a way other modes of writing (a persuasive essay, inductive argument, etc.) do not. That’s true in the broader cultural phenomenon as well as theological writing in Church circles.
Now, I don’t have space for a full-on analysis of this style, its benefits, its grounding, or how much it actually connects to Biblical narrative, or even Evangelical testimonials. I just want to make two or three points about what it seems to do to our ability to talk to one another in a dispute.
Reactive Reading. If you have been trained, either by reading or writing this way, to sort of insert yourself into the argument all the time, this tends to make people reactive readers. In other words, you may be prone towards assuming you’re the intended audience, or target of a piece, when you couldn’t be further from the author’s mind.
This matters because it may cause you to misread the piece. For instance, you may fill in bits of the argument from your own (assumed) analogous experience, and thereby change the shape of what an author is saying. I have seen this happen and have had it happen to my own arguments more than once. (This is actually why I am prone to excessive caveating.)
In any case, this bogs down communication and understanding horribly.
Argument confused with Ad Hominem. Connected to this is the tendency to confuse arguments with ad hominems. If your story is your argument for X (Calvinism, Gay Marriage, a Trump Vote, vaccines, etc.), then if I argue against X, it’s very easy for you to feel hurt, be offended by the “tone”, or to take it as a personal assault or insult to you. And this could be the case even if I very studiously avoid commenting on your story at all.
And this hinders discussion in at least two ways: it injects an extra note of personal hostility where none may exist. Second. it confuses the nature of the argument immediately. So instead of dealing with the various premises put forward by one person, we’re now focused on managing the feelings of the second, and none of the issues are actually clarified.
Argument replaced with Ad Hominem as Conversation-stopper. Finally, this tendency encourages us to actually replace arguments with ad hominems. The more theology is reduced to biography without remainder, the quicker we are to reach for ad hominems in the middle of an argument. “Well, you would say that since you’re X…”
There is, of course, a point to noting nobody is an identity-less thinker. I’m a married, 30-year-old, bilingual, tri-cultural, Arab, Hispanic male who lives in the States, grew up in SoCal, and is in grad school for theology. There’s a story there and it impacts my perspective on the world and even my theological development and positions. Perspective does matter. Hear me say that.
But simply noting these facts about perspective logically cannot (and morally should not) stop an argument dead in its tracks. Especially when it is used to leap-frog over arguments entirely.
This move has the effect, first, of reducing persons to key identity-markers and not recognizing them as individual, Image-bearers in any conversation. Second, it is unsatisfying and likely to backfire in the long-run, because the quicker you shut down the conversation this way, the more likely it is that you have left the argument (and the arguer) unanswered. And so they (and onlookers) may be cowed into silence for now, but the issue is still there festering.
Or, again, it encourages us to rely heavily on the argument from inconsistency or hypocrisy, “How can you say Y, when you have done X?” Now, there may indeed be an inconsistency in a person’s position or life, but that doesn’t immediately invalidate an argument. It just means the person is a hypocrite, or a sinner (ie. human), or maybe you’re just being massively unfair.
In any case, this happens all the time in online debates, and I suspect it is connected to this tendency to first-personalize every issue. Arguments about issues are not arguments about truth, but power-grabs and defensive moves. We tend towards the “what this really means” defense.
(And let me note from the examples I mentioned above, this tendency isn’t just about theological conversations in Evangelicalism. It is everywhere. Watch how quickly someone on the political Right spits out the word “elitist” at someone when the argument isn’t going their way.)
Golden Rule Reading (and Arguing)
I have passed over too many details and nuances too quickly. Still, I think these brief considerations ought to give us pause. I’m not saying we ought to ban first-person narratives, nor think about the relation to biography to theology, nor am I even rejecting the appropriateness of an ad hominem from time to time. I am simply encouraging us to take notice of these tendencies and be careful of them.
Do I tend to insert myself into articles or arguments too quickly? Am I prone towards narcissistic reading?
Do I tend to feel insulted by arguments all the time? Are people constantly needing to explain their meaning to me all the time to clarify their lack of ill-intent?
Do I tend to reach for biographical or ad hominem arguments quickly? Do I tend to do so before I actually engage the argument under consideration?
Again, it comes down to an application of the Golden Rule in our reading and our arguing: Read as you’d like to be read.
Soli Deo Gloria