On Making it Personal (Or, One and Half Cheers for ‘Abstraction’)

If you’ve spent much time discussing any ethical issue of great import, you know there are times when it’s appropriate to ask someone, “What if it was your kid? Would you still take this position? Or hold it this way?” as a way of personalizing and putting flesh on the dilemma under discussion. Nevertheless, there are corresponding moments where you need to ask, “Okay, what if it wasn’t your kid? Would you still look at it this way?” as a way of prodding folks to recognize the way their own personal commitments might be obscuring and biasing their view of the objective issues at hand. Which is to say, both personalization and abstraction, or depersonalization, have their place in the reasoning process.

This basic point is often obscured by much online discussion at the moment: the ability to distinguish people from positions and particular situations from general principles is good and necessary for all sorts of reasons. Even more briefly, abstraction can be good, actually. Depersonalizing and exercising critical distance might be healthy for us.

I offer a few rambling and incomplete thoughts in defense of the latter in what follows.

Skin in the Game and the Reverse Ad Hominem

There are a couple of different ways of personalizing an argument. One is to go on the offense with an ad hominem. “A bourgeoisie like you would say that, wouldn’t you?” In that case, you make the other person’s character, class, or some other personal marker the issue instead of the issue–or rather, you connect the two in order to undermine their argument. Now, that’s actually relevant if the argument is an appeal to authority and credibility based on their character. It also may expose a motivating factor in an argument, but it’s not always relevant, which is why it’s usually considered a fallacy. (Relatedly, as C.S. Lewis points out, even if you can expose someone’s motivating reason underneath an argument, eventually you still have to actually answer the argument.)

Another way of personalizing an argument is by inserting yourself (or perhaps a present, watching, third-party) into the argument—you identify your life, your choices, your own existence with your position. Now, this isn’t always bad. Sometimes personalizing the argument is a way of showing you have skin in the game. In a sermon, putting flesh on a point and demonstrating that you yourself have embraced this truth as a way of life can be valuable for the sake of modeling and purchasing credibility; you are not preaching anything you yourself are not trying to practice. It also may serve to awaken folks to the flesh and blood implications of their positions. Personalizing the argument can bring a qualitative dimension to quantitative analysis in the same way an interview with a subject puts a human face on an impersonal graph or a data set. Finally, a disengaged, abstracted stance is not the ultimate or final state of a rational evaluation of the truth of an issue. Especially when the principle to be applied impacts concrete, flesh-and-blood situations.

Nevertheless, even leaving aside the problem of choosing between normative narratives and experiences we invoke, there are dangers with this approach.

One is that it can easily turn into a way of daring your opponent to engage in an ad hominem of sorts against you. You so identify yourself with the position you’re arguing for, or you make your own story the argument, that nobody can critique the position without (at least implicitly) critiquing you personally. To say your position is wrong is to reject you, your values, your very self. “Refute, deny, or even question my argument, you’re questioning me.” Depending on the context and the participants, this easily becomes emotionally manipulative. “Unless you don’t embrace this doctrine, this social policy, this particular solution to our organizational crisis, you can’t possibly embrace me personally.” This quickly devolves from rational persuasion into relational coercion. It’s a conversation-stopper.

A move like this is especially powerful when done in front of a watching audience where you know you’re the more sympathetic figure. Indeed, the gambit may not even be aimed at the main dialogue partner, but as a way of choosing the audience to pick a side, “him or me?” threatening to functionally reduce rational dialogue into a high-school popularity contest. But people we like can be wrong and people we do not—even for good reasons—can be right. Think of the classic Clickhole article, “Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made a Great Point.” We’ve all seen it happen.

On the Good of Critical Distance
All of this can be exacerbated when the personalized position is articulated within a narrative of trial and pain. When folks are sharing their struggles and pains, one healthy instinct is to want to validate their experiences—to let them know you hear, you care, and are committed to their health and well-being. Asking critical questions, breaking down premises and arguments, sitting back with what appears to be a dispassionate, cold assessment seems potentially emotionally triggering, painful, and communicate a lack of concern. It can also smack of arrogance—how dare you sit in judgment of my own evaluations of my experiences? Or it might be seen (and can often be) a self-defensive mechanism—especially when the narrative might imply an indictment of your own behavior. We should be aware of these things.

Of course, the problem is that we all know none of us is an infallible interpreter of any experience—even our own. How many abuse victims have wrongly blamed themselves for their own suffering? How often have we seen manipulators recount a story in such a way as to excuse their own engagement with others and come to find that they have convinced themselves that is actually the truth of the situation? Or in dealing with our own journeys of healing and sanctification, how often do you recognize that your 25-year-old self’s understanding of the dynamics at work in your own sin and temptation were too clean, too binary, lacking the depth, grain, and texture as you’ve grown in self-awareness, humility, and painful experience?

To take a morally neutral example, it has taken me close to 10 years to find out what actually went wrong with my body when I had something like a full-system collapse at 24. Over the years, as I tried new therapies, went to different doctors, worked my way through various exercise programs, and continued to read online about different joint conditions, I had a variety of evaluations of what the “cause” was: it was “tendinitis”, a doctor’s misdiagnosis, stress-induced over-exercises, spiritual attack, bad diet, poor movement patterns, mis-prescribed pain medication, and so on. Now, looking back at things 10 years on, I think it was probably a mix of all of these factors and a few more. But at any point in my journey, I would have had different evaluations and takeaways—normative prescriptions for how I and others should tackle this problem in the future based on my own self-understanding. And these were not things I held neutrally or at a distance—at times these diagnoses were explanations giving me clarity and hope to deal with my pain.

At just that point we find the value in being about to, at times, distinguish a person from their positions, their story from the moral they’ve drawn, or the validation of an experience as real from a corresponding evaluation of what that experience was. Every good counselor knows that there are moments in a session when what is needed is to listen and validate an experience of pain. They also know that there are moments when what a suffering patient needs is a liberating question, a new lens that helps them reframe their pain and its meaning because they’ve adopted a flawed, self-understanding (“I’m worthless,” “I’ve always got to do it myself”, “I’m the only one who knows what’s going on”), or a universalized maxim (“you can’t trust anybody”) that is warped and crippling their ability to heal and move forward.

In those moments, it is precisely the ability to distinguish a moral from a story, a person from their self-diagnosis, and actually offer substantive critical feedback that is helpful to them. At that moment, the value of a counselor lies precisely in being someone who has enough critical distance from the pain; to be an outside observer who can lovingly disagree.

Critical Distance and Love

This brings me to my brief, final point. I could go on to speak about how good this is for the public square and the churches, for the deliberative process whereby we reason together about issues of great social import, etc. But also on the more personal level, it’s just good for your ability to love those you disagree with (“I don’t agree with you on X, but I still love you”), and for us to recognize and allow folks who disagree with us to love us (“I get that we don’t see eye to eye on this, but I recognize you don’t hate me”). And this can go a long way towards helping us love our ideological enemies in obedience to Jesus’s commands.

We’re humans. We cannot, nor should we, always strive to make arguments impersonal—or rather, to hold our conclusions to those arguments impersonally, especially when they are matters of great ethical import. God gave us more than abstract reason as a mode of discernment. Nevertheless, it is one of his gifts to us, and it is one we neglect to our peril.

One thought on “On Making it Personal (Or, One and Half Cheers for ‘Abstraction’)

  1. The Holy Trinity is differentiated; the Three-in-One are not falling over each other due to lack of space. Oliver O’Donovan writes about the gift of genuine otherness given to Adam in the Garden (Resurrection and Moral Order). I have found these thoughts helpful. Additionally, the Crucifixion of Christ helps me to absorb the evil of others.

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