Exposing Bad Thinking: An Illustration of Why Method Matters

My most recent post spoke to the importance of good method in having arguments.  I follow up here with a specific example to show why it matters in crucially practical ways.)

A recent flurry of blog posts and “sharing” among United Methodists reveals some of the problems we need to avoid if we’re going to make any progress toward resolution of our denominational struggles.  One blogger , for example, openly charged that others suggesting that General Conference 2016 be closed to all except delegates and other essential parties are all white straight males trying to protect their privilege.  A briar patch of problems we find here.  Statements have implications and when we begin to look at them, we see the problems.

First, if I say, “You call for action X in order to protect white privilege,” rather than (at least initially) accepting your statement at face value, I’ve taken it upon myself to change the subject altogether.  Immediately, we stop talking about what you actually said and switch to how I read your intentions behind what you said.  By implication, I’m effectively saying,

“You don’t really mean what you are saying.  You’re just saying so for something you want to protect.”

Fatally bad thinking abounds here.  First, I offer my statement as a description of the fact of the matter – the real issue is your bad motive, not something with General Conference.  I’ve made a claim about what is.  In that sense, I expect you to take my statement at face value, but, at the same time, I’m looking past yours.  By implication, I attribute honesty to myself as I claim to state the truth about your bad motive.  Second, while thereby accusing you of using language to exert power (protecting privilege), it turns out that my statement is a power move, too.   Why?  Because I changed the subject without explaining why I think the subject should change.  I have committed the very rhetorical sin that I identify in you.  A certain teaching about specks and logs in people’s eyes comes to mind.

Third, if I start by assuming bad motive in you, I am far more likely to misunderstand than to understand.  But understanding is one of the central goals of argument!  I should start with preliminary generosity or a kind of “innocent till proven guilty” principle not only out of respect for you, but also that I might have the best chance at understanding you!  Imagine if every time you tried to sort out a disagreement, the other party assumed you were using words in a certain way to cover your real intentions.  Nothing but misunderstanding, frustration and alienation can result.  On the contrary, if you and I are having an argument, I should always assume that you are speaking honestly and with good intent until you show me otherwise.  And in coming to the conclusion of bad intent on your part, I must always exercise extreme restraint.

(Side note: yes, motive matters.  In a court of law, it does, but even there culpable motive has to be demonstrated in order to be compelling.  It cannot just be asserted.  Yes, we are more than just thinkers.  We are motivated beings.  We still need to exercise extreme caution in assigning bad motive to our opponents.  Rather, we should be checking our own motives, not our opponents.)

Now, I can imagine one objection.  I know there are others, but this one comes quickly to mind.  By pointing out the problem of white male privilege, it does not necessarily mean that I’m attributing bad motive.  Maybe not, but if you read the blog that I’ve referenced (here) and notice the “want” in the title, not to mention how the whole post is constructed, it’s pretty hard to conclude that people’s motive are not being questioned.  So, yes, of course, one can make references to privilege as a principality to be resisted, but that’s not what I’m worried about.  I’m worried about how easily and often we use facile reference to structural evil as a way of “identifying” someone’s “real” intent.  That, too, is a mistake in thinking.  Structural evil exists often apart from bad intent and quite in spite of good intent.

The only way forward – the only hope of resolution of our deep denominational disagreements – is for us to listen generously, to think carefully and to argue clearly.  We should do so for a number of good reasons, but especially we need to remember who is listening.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.


  1. What conditions will allow those who have been silenced and belittled to be heard with respect?

    • The best answer I can give, Jon, is for a community to commit to the very principles I’ve been advocating: charity in listening to opponents, care in understanding, and sticking to ideas rather than going for motives. A community has to create these conditions. It’s what I think of as ethos, for example, on a college campus or in a congregation (or annual conference?). But let’s get specific. Who is being silenced? And how? By whom? On what topics? Someone somewhere undoubtedly will continue to experience belittling or lack of respect while on a more general level their concerns are being listened to. If I insist that no one is being listened to until everyone is heard by someone every single time, then we’ll have to conclude that no one will ever be heard. And of course, context matters. You have mentioned in other comments that where you are you see cruelty and prejudice from conservatives. I work in academia where conservatives know they are in the minority (that’s not just my opinion) and they sometimes feel squelched, intimidated and ridiculed. It happens to students, faculty and staff. In general, however, academics who identify as politically liberal work hard to be fair in their dealings with others and they exercise care in expressing their viewpoints. In that sense, they’re truly liberal. Are students, junior faculty (i.e. pre-tenure) and staff being silenced? In some cases, yes. In general, no. So, how do I assess the conditions?

      • Could we hear from gay kids who are bullied? How about from the parents of gay kids who have killed themselves because they were bullied? How about from gay kids who have been kicked out of the house by their “Christian” parents? How about from not gay kids who are bullied because they act “effeminate” or “butch”? I’m sure that sounds confrontational, but a lot of the folks we seem to want to discuss “at a remove” from ourselves don’t make it to higher education.

        • I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a family whose gay child committed suicide, but I’ve certainly had other opportunities for close conversations in virtually all the situations you raise. There is strong support for l/g/b/t/q/i students at SMU. We have a center whose primary purpose is for support and education, yet we know that students hear bigoted and sometimes threatening remarks, name-calling, etc. So, generally strong support and a welcoming environment, but in relatively isolated situations, bigotry. I honestly don’t know how we would meet the expectation for justice that you seem to hold.

        • I was teased and bullied as a child because I was tall, smart, shy, and bad at sports. I was bullied by both girls and boys. I have been bullied and called names at such varied places as Perkins, several of the churches I have attended, and, of course, Facebook, because of my orthodox views on marriage. Bullying is never right, no matter who the subject or what the issue. Can we just all agree on that, jaltman81?

          • I have been bullied for being “too smart” and “showing off.” It’s considerably easier to “shake it off,” though if one is a heterosexual white male, as I am.

  2. Gary Bebop says:

    Great post, Steve. You allude to what seems to be the stone in the heel of our internecine debate: the very lengths one must go to place a traditional argument before the church! Are you up for the fight?

  3. Steve, may I reprint this post on UM Insight? Thanks!

  4. Leanne Payne has had a very powerful healing ministry to persons trapped in sin and self-destructive behaviors connected to gender identity problems (her term: symbolic confusion) for years. Her first book, written in the 1970’s, is entitled HEALING THE HOMOSEXUAL. Mrs. Payne was involved early on in the debate in the Church regarding homosexuality in the Episcopal church. Mrs. Payne’s advice: Give it up. One cannot dialogue with the devil.

    I know I should not approach the issue here from the perspective of good and evil, or even right vs. wrong, but those of us troubled by the agenda of some in the church to accept homosexual practices as a positive good, and to invoke the blessing of the Trinity upon persons compelled to practice same sex sex sometimes lose sight of the fact that the souls of persons for whom Christ died are at stake.

    A key issue that is at the core of the discussion but that remains unaddressed is the nature of homosexuality.

    Reasonable persons can conclude, based upon available evidence, that homosexuality is not innate, is not normal, and that persons who self-identify as a “homosexual” can change and receive healing.

    The core belief of the “reconciliation” movement is that gays are born that way, can’t change, don’t need to and shouldn’t want to.

    No amount of love, reason, methodical discourse, or “holy conversation” can resolve this basic conflict.

  5. Sorry for the double-dipping. I just returned from a “Bishop’s Conversation on the Future,” Bp. Larry Goodpaster who leads the Western NC Conference refused to allow the June, 2014, Annual Conference to discuss or debate the present controversy, and proposed to conduct “Conversations” (holy ones, at that!) about the future of the Church in our various Districts.

    This afternoon, Bp. Goodpaster began the “Holy Conference” by giving us some background. He stated that in the spring prior to our Annual Conference, approximately 80 UM Pastors proposed that it was time to stop arguing about homosexuality and split. He identified the pastors as “conservatives” and part of “Good News”, and expressly stated that these men and women wanted to split the church over the issue of homosexuality. No mention of farcical “trials,” no mention of Conferences, churches, pastors and Bishops who refuse to abide by the Discipline.

    It got worse from there, but the point here is exactly the point you made: There was no effort at real conversation and certainly no attempt at reasoned discourse.

  6. Larry was a colleague in the Mississippi Conference. I have observed him handling difficult situations for a long time. His “thumb” would be on the scale of being sure all are heard.

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