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.