Ad Hominem

I picked up on UM Insight shortly before GC2012 and found it a great clearing house of thought. However, I have backed off from reading it because it tends to come across as mostly a place where liberal/progressives complain and belittle those that do not agree with them. – Comment by Ella Pauline, “Disengaging From The Conversation”, United Methodist Insight, September 22, 2015


The editors of UMInsight regularly republishes articles amounting to a little less than libal [sic]— a little less because it hasn’t been tested in court, and not likely to. Rather, the attacks on others should at least be tested at the JC. . . .

Geoff, I’m going to go ahead and issue a blanket statement here. Anytime Jeremy Smith, or you, mention Dr. David Watson and/or Drew Mac, it usually comes close to libel. – Comments by Joel Watts, “An Open Response ToUMInsight”, Unsettled Christianity, September 21, 2105

A pretty typical Internet commenter

A pretty typical Internet commenter

Perhaps I’ve related this story elsewhere. It’s fitting, I think. I’m going to add a kind of “post-script” story. My first semester of Seminary, one of our faculty was promoted to full professor. Teaching Systematics as well as seminars on Karl Barth, Black Theology, and Liberation Theology, Josiah Young is a gifted, intelligent, thoughtful theologian and teacher. A student both of James Cone and Cornell West while studying at Union Theological Seminary, his dissertation concerned the relationships between American Black Theology and African theologies of liberation. He has published further on the topic, including how a synthesis between these two very different ways of theologizing might work; the relationship between Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and contemporary liberation theologies, and other topics.

In his inaugural sermon, he offered a deeply personal testimony of his journey from the child of pretty typical post-WWII middle class life on Long Island through his summers spent with his grandparents in the South – South Carolina, maybe? – and his growing realization that his existence as a black human being in a society rooted in white supremacy would never value him as highly as his white peers. As he grew older, experiencing ever-deeper layers of our national psychosis, he passed quickly through anger and sadness to rage and hatred. He spoke honestly of what he called his desire to see white-blood running in the streets. He went further and spoke of how it was the grace of God that pushed him through hatred to seek not so much reconciliation as white understanding.

Later that same day, our professor of the Sociology of Religion asked for our thoughts on Josiah’s sermon. One woman, speaking candidly, began to cry as she expressed both fear and sadness at Josiah’s admission of his anger and hatred of white people. Several of us spoke up, telling her that his story didn’t end there; that his message was one of grace; his message was of the power of intellectual curiosity combined with the love of Jesus Christ that rescued him from the despair that would destroy him. She refused to hear what we were saying; for her, Josiah Young said nothing after declaring his younger-self’s desire to see white people die.

Fast forward two years. Same professor, this time a seminar on Liberation Theology. We’d just finished reading Cone’s Black Theology And Black Power, the preface to the rest of his career. In the course of our discussion, one man, someone I considered a friend since entering Wesley, made a statement that blanked out pretty much everything he said after. In fact, the emotional impact was so strong I don’t recall his words verbatim,  but is was something to the effect that African-Americans should respond to the systemic violence they experience with an eye for an eye; he thought killing white people was justified. I sat fuming through the rest of the class and after. In the Seminary refectory at lunch, I walked up to him, enraged. He looked at me, put his hands up in a gesture of peace, but I wouldn’t have any of it. “What good does it do to be an ally if I know I have a gun pointed at my back?” I said. Probably a bit too loudly. He tried to explain that his words weren’t personal. I refused to hear that. It took me a few more years, running through that incident in my head to realize just how wrong I had been. All the way around. Rather than hear his words for what they were – honest to the point of public nakedness; not so much venting as they were expressing the anger so many African-Americans feel, his words were not just an expression of his own emotions but also those of a people who were quite tired of the empty words and promises of a white establishment that continued to target African-Americans, especially young men, for incarceration and police violence – I only heard something directed at me. I considered myself an ally of African-Americans in their struggle for freedom. I had yet, however, to surrender my privileged position as a white male; I wanted folks to see just how righteous and open I was. Instead of shutting up and listening, I wanted people to hear what I had to say. Look at ME and just oh-how-radical-I-am! I just wish I could find him and apologize for my ignorance – well, really it was rudeness and thoughtlessness combined with stupidity, arrogance, and immaturity – and hope he would hear my words as I didn’t hear his.

Sometimes I think the limits of communication make it nearly impossible for us to hear best when we need to be listening the most. Few things are as painful as having someone telling us things which we believe, beliefs that shape who we are and how we live our lives, may not be the sole way to understand and live in the world. I tell anyone who asks about my experience at Seminary that classroom discussions could become very heated precisely because, particularly for older students in their first year, this was the time their faith was challenged, rocked to its core. A woman I’d known years before who had attended Seminary told me the first year of Seminary was a process of destroying one’s faith. The trick was learning how to use the tools Seminary offers to spend the rest of one’s life to rebuild one’s faith brick by brick. I had an idea what was coming; what I had not expected was how thorough and necessary that initial destructive act would be. In fact, during the Old Testament survey class my first year, two men got up and left and immediately withdrew when the professor said the creation stories in Genesis were multiple, contradictory, and had nothing to do with the physical creation of the Universe. Sometimes it takes something as small as that to end one’s ability or willingness to listen.

Bemoaning the rudeness, intolerance, and often personally insulting nature of Internet discourse is as old as Internet 2.0. There are many people on the Internet who seem to take pleasure in belittling others, using often violent rhetoric addressed to others, or simply being annoying by posting meaningless, petty, childish comment and comment for the sole purpose of rousing others to anger. These last are known as “trolls”. At the same time there are people who engage in serious discussions without resorting to any reference to the person making that argument. Such Debaters as I call them at least have the virtue of keeping attention focused on the topic at hand. The problem with Debaters, however, is two fold: (a) they expect others to abide by what seems to me to be arbitrary rules of discourse, preferring to withdraw than engage when one or more of those rules is violated; (b) ideas are not things that exist by themselves, separate from the people who hold them. To remain focused solely on “ideas” without considering the person expressing those ideas, that person’s motives, social and cultural position, and other factors is a comforting fiction that offers to some a barrier from the realities that none of us hold the ideas we do because we’ve been convinced of their logical purity. What the late Richard Rorty calls the web of our beliefs and desires are, rather, tied together with our life. Adding or subtracting a strand or two from or to that web effects change in our whole lives.

Heated discussions on the Internet very often sound to many little more than recess-yard name-calling. Let’s be honest – a lot of it is just that. Name-calling has the virtue, however, of showing that the person so commenting is demonstrating how ridiculous they are. There is, however, a very fine, very fuzzy line between honest but heated discussion and simple ad hominem attacks or insults. To me, an ad hominem attack is little different from a personal insult: “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny” is an ad hominem attack. On the other hand, being clear that another person’s position is one with which one does not agree, and including observations rooted in experience with that other person, their stated beliefs, and how they present their arguments very often appears to skate across that fuzzy line from honest disagreement to personal attack. I won’t deny it. I’ve skated on that line many times and have gone over it more than once.

Taking issue with a person’s ideas and arguments, however, always includes a personal element. How can it not? A person is presenting particular ideas and arguments, after all. They’re not these things floating around in the air that offer themselves. An actual human being, occupying space and time and social and cultural position writes them. For example, last year when some people wrote that the proposal that the floor of the United Methodist General Conference be closed to all except credentialed speakers, several people including me made the claim that those making this proposal were part of the old straight white power structure in our Church. Rather than consider for just a moment that social location – being older, white, straight, and part of the power structure of our denomination – might very well influence one’s position on the subject, this view was dismissed out of hand by some. Is this an ad hominem attack, or perhaps a way of avoiding the topic by dismissing the arguments with a generalization that doesn’t fit the facts? I know my position on this one, but others disagree. It might well be a case that different people view the whole process of discourse as distinct social constructs. I know that I refuse to play by particular sets of rules that I believe restrict honest discussion. I call it a game because that’s precisely what it is. When one person gets to set the rules, and there’s no explanation of what those rules might be, it isn’t possible to abide by them. That just gives allowance to the person setting the rules to dictate the terms of the conversation.

Have I ever said anything that I believe is libelous as was alleged, or at the very least went beyond the pale and was an attack on an individual or that person’s character? I think what follows certainly reads as if it crosses that line from serious engagement to personal attack:

I cannot speak to what is in his heart, but the constant beating of the drum around Doctrine in the United Methodist Church smacks just a bit too much both of trying to steer the conversation away from where it needs to be as well as on what he thinks is safer ground but is in fact where he slips and falls far too often.  For instance, that two United Methodist clergy-scholars, one in New Testament studies the other in Evangelism and Theology, could publish just the above-cited bit and consider it theologically sound makes me wonder just how seriously I should consider their work.  To place Doctrine of any sort on the same plane as the means of grace; to suppose that an individual’s salvation is determined by getting particular words and phrases just so, rather than Doctrine being the collective expression of the faith of the gathered people of God; to offer the ridiculous “analogy” with which the authors begin this article and pretend is has anything to do with anything the church does . . . I don’t know.  I just . . .

A bit further down I wrote:

Let me back up just a moment and say that much of the problem I have with this piece is that it’s unspoken assumption – that any individual’s adherence to any particular doctrine is determinant and necessary both for their salvation as well as their being considered a part of the church – is blatantly, laughably, ahistorically false.  Doctrine is teaching, the understanding of the church’s encounter through Christ in the Spirit with the Father.  Both the body we call doctrine and our understanding of it are a wholly human creation; unlike the Sacraments, which we declare in faith were instituted by Jesus Christ to be means of grace for the uplifting of believers, their salvation, and their connection together in the Body of Christ, Doctrine is an ever-evolving understanding of our understanding of who God is, what God is doing, and what we, in the Church, are to be about.  Unlike the Scriptures, which we profess in our teaching to be wholly sufficient guides for faith and action, doctrine is not inspired.  It is, alas, as broken and liable to error any other solely human creation

Then I provide an alternative view:

Doctrine is our collective profession of faith.  When people say, “What do United Methodists believe?”, we point to our Articles of Religion, our Doctrinal Standards, and our Theological Task.  That is why they exist.  Individuals can and do vary in their understanding, adherence, and acceptance of various teachings; that’s a given in a Church body of 9 million adherents across the world, in a variety of countries, languages, socio-economic contexts, political and legal contexts, and other factors that create human diversity and difference.  What any particular individual expresses about doctrine is neither interesting nor important, certainly not for their salvation.  That is wholly the act of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit; it is the supreme expression of the Divine Life, freedom in love expressed in gratuitous acts of mercy.  When we understand ourselves grasped by this Love that never gives up on us, that is always behind, around, and before us, we begin the real journey of the Christian Life – moving on to perfection in love in this lifetime.  This Doctrine, uniquely that of the followers of John Wesley, is an expression of our collective experience of the efficacy and workings of grace in our life as the Body of Christ.  Some move along this path; some do not.  Some move further along than other.  Some get stuck, while others dedicate their lives to this life of entire sanctification.  This is an experience; the Doctrine merely puts in words – contingent, time-and-history bound lines on a page or computer screen that represent sounds we make, sounds that change over time – our understanding of the experience, which is primary.

I then delve further:

I have to wonder why they bothered writing anything else.  Consider the whole bit here: Orthodoxy then describes a gateway requirement for admission into the life of the church. Unfortunately, orthodoxy has been used in this way many times, but this is actually a secondary use, if not a misuse, of its intended function.  Is it a secondary use or a misuse of doctrine to use it in such a way?  A secondary use would imply it is still legitimate.  To then add, “if not a misuse” seems more than little disingenuous.  The truth of the matter is the authors do believe it to be a legitimate use, doctrine as definer of who’s in and who’s out.  This is so because the rest of the paragraph, for all intents and purposes, accepts this as a given.  Indeed, the notion that Doctrine is “the truth about God” – which I cannot find in Scripture, which actually insists that Jesus Christ is the Truth of God – is contradicted by Biblical teaching itself.  Ours is not a faith in human words, or human understanding of our experience.  Our faith is in the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  All doctrine does is make clear the Church’s collective understanding of this living faith.  Whether or not we get the words right or wrong, well, that’s a project that keeps the Church going, because how would it be possible to have the Truth about God, whose Eternal Life is the fullness of gratuitous love and interpenetrating mutuality that is most fully expressed in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus?  While it is true enough that life within God is our true life, we do not find this through adherence to Doctrine.  We find this through our collective life of confession and profession and living out our Living Faith in our Living God.  It is never that we know the Truth of God.  Rather, it is that the Truth of God known and takes hold of us and never lets us go.

The title of my post was “This Was Written By Theologians”. For some, this might seem a snarky attack on a person’s professional or personal credibility; to me, it was shock and not a little anger that two respected United Methodist scholars would write what I can still only describe as a shallow, ridiculous piece that relies not only on a silly and false notion of what “liberal” Protestantism offers people. It relies in the end on an individualistic understanding of theology and doctrine that is neither Biblical nor historical. I offer a serious, historical, Biblical, and Trinitarian understanding as an alternative, one I think far more in keeping with our traditions.

Do I cross any lines in this piece? Perhaps. I would argue that if I do, it’s in the somewhat snarky, dismissive tone of the post’s title. All the same, I would insist this is real, substantive discourse. Others can disagree, which is fine. If some can find something I’ve written that is little more than, “Wow, you’re stupid!” please go ahead and let me know.

I often find claims of personal, ad hominem attacks a too-convenient excuse ready at hand because of the well-known snarky nature of Internet discussions. Real discussions and arguments get heated; they deal in more than “ideas” as if such things either could or do exist separate from real living and breathing human beings. Last spring during an online discussion over a police-involved shooting of a young African-American man, a good friend of mine took exception to some of the things I wrote. I made my position clear, without hostility toward him or any police officers. Later in the spring, we ran in to one another, and the first thing he did was apologize to me for getting a little too “heated” as he called it. I smiled and insisted he didn’t have to apologize. I understood his position and why he took it. I also told him my feelings don’t get hurt when people disagree with me, or write or say things that I could under certain circumstances take as personal attacks. He is a friend. We disagree. We both have good reasons, experiential, personal, and logical for holding the positions we do. I was not interested in changing his mind or having my mind changed. We had an honest exchange in which we made clear both what we thought and why we thought those things; what could be better than that?

We always need to be careful when addressing others in online discussions. No matter how heated we might get, we should be sure never to descend to simple name-calling or personal attacks. On the other hand, we should always remember there is a personal dimension to all argument and not allow ourselves to get too caught up in that dimension that we stop listening to what others are saying. Heated discussion is fine; calling another person names on the other hand, is just ridiculous.


Comments are welcome, as long as they apply to issues rather than individuals. Don't make me break out the Benevolent Banhammer Of Love

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