The Attack Of The Tone Police
Now, how has Smith made this epistemological leap whereas others of us have not? Is it because of his theological education? Gosh… I have a theological education, too. I attended Perkins School of Theology. And can theological education transcend the limitations of social location? If that is the case, why did his education have this effect while ours did not? Is it because he is a better reasoner than we are? If reason can trump social location in his case, why does he not extend the same assumption to us? Is it because certain life experiences have affected his perspective, even beyond the limitations of his social location? If so, then why does he seem to feel that social location is an epistemological trump card? There is a name for this kind of argumentation: self-referential incoherence. But who needs coherence when you have rhetoric? – Rev. Dr. David Watson
There are few things more amusing than people who get their feelings hurt by something someone else wrote about them on the internet. Folks removed from the situation can sit back and enjoy the unreflective, barely-contained anger expressed by someone like Watson facing someone who had the temerity to write a post saying that the idea of closing General Conference in 2016 comes from the fear our current power structure – rooted in straight, white men – has confronting the demands of an ever-expanding, rarely-quiet pluralistic church that will not remain quiet or polite or in its place.
Watson’s post is amusing, to say the least, if only because he begins by extolling his own, virtuous, approach to intellectual dialogue on the internet.
How we argue matters. I can’t emphasize this enough. The way in which we engage one another, the motives we attribute to one another, and the rigor with which we engage one another’s arguments–these all matter. We cannot make intellectual or moral progress simply by arguing with one another. Rather, such progress requires that we argue with one another in the right way.
I often disagree with posts I come across in the blogosphere, but I generally refrain from engaging with them unless I have the time to take their arguments seriously and provide a well-reasoned and fair response. I appreciate when others engage my arguments in the same way. Disagreement does not bother me.
By the end, however, reading between the lines, one sees the flecks of spittle as Watson, whose entire post could be summed up by the hashtag #NotAllStraightWhiteMen, pushes Smith’s meta-critique further and further from the bounds of what he, Watson, serving now as tone police chief, considers proper. He calls Smith’s post “incoherent” and “rhetoric”. The former I’ve heard myself, in reference to a discussion about what someone labeled “Progressive Christianity”. Apparently, disagreement with some people isn’t possible; thus, what claims to be a counter-argument (or in Jeremy Smith’s case, a meta-criticism) is actually incoherent. As for “rhetoric”, that’s bad because it unlike argument, which only uses “intellectual” information (such as the fact that protesters at the 2012 General Conference were bad because they had the temerity to demand the leadership allow them to speak after having been silenced; somehow this bit of “intellectual” information should arouse no emotional response in anyone), rhetoric appeals to people’s emotions. So Watson is only using reasoned argument when he proposes that all those fussy, silly groups with their agendas and their demands to be heard not be allowed a protest voice at General Conference in 2016. Jeremy Smith, however, when pointing out that those proposing to close the floor in Portland are a bunch of the aging old-guard in the church, afraid of losing their power, their influence, and refusing to listen to the plurality of voices that is now the United Methodist Church, is only using “rhetoric”.
It’s so much fun when people get their feelings hurt because someone has pointed out a basic truth about something they’ve said. Between pretending superiority, acting the tone police, and dismissing actual criticisms because they are “rhetorical” and “incoherent”, well, like all such games in internet discussions, it has happened before and will happen again. David Watson, however, does it with a kind of flair that only an academic, challenged by a non-academic, can demonstrate. As for the paragraph that serves as the epigraph to this post, I can answer Watson’s “rhetorical” questions easily enough: Smith has been able to make the leap from his own life and experiences, his own social position that provides comfort and privilege, because (and here I’m guessing but I bet I’m right) before he told people about rhetoric and intellectual virtues, he listened to those angry voices from beyond the margins and realized the Holy Spirit was there in the midst of them. Hearing the still small voice in the midst of the raging storms and earthquakes of social protest, Smith came to understand how he occupies a place of privilege and power, a place he neither chose nor accepted but was granted him by his social status. He rejected the power and privilege that social status provided him as a straight white man because it is only in powerlessness, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed over and over again, that we encounter the raised Christ who rejected power to die on the cross. Sitting behind Smith’s meta-criticism is a deep theological, especially Christological, reality that Watson, in pursuit of other goals, cannot even recognize despite having been educated at Perkins School of Theology and being on faculty at United Theological Seminary. This final paragraph, which can be summed up with the phrase most heard by petty celebrities when confronted by authority, “Do you know who I am?!?”, is evidence enough that Watson’s tone policing, like all such efforts, becomes a kind of parody of the very thing the tone police officer is protesting.
Imagine, someone on the internet wrote something that doesn’t meet a certain individual’s rigorous standards of discourse and argument! The only thing to be done is to make clear just how incoherent and rhetorical they are, having the temerity to write something in opposition! Again, a very old game, and one Watson has lost just by writing his post.