Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Response to an Open Letter

Hi, Nancy.

I don't think we've ever met at any of the US conventions I was over at--apologies for my bad memory if we have. So I hope you won't mind me addressing this to you personally from a public platform rather than generalising to a post on the topic in and of itself. As an implicit addressee of your own post, simply by dint of being part of the SFF community, and as a regular combatant in this specific corner of the discourse, I feel it's only fair for me to step out of the faceless mob and engage one-to-one, but I'm not doing so as pugilist. Where I've written other open letters to the likes of John C. Wright that were combative to say the least, your own post, which I came across via a Twitter thread between Jim Hines and Paul Cornell, is not at all the sort of thing I'm inclined to pour scorn on. An appeal for tolerance written from a sense of alienation, of being under constant low-level assault, is not to be belittled.

Through the opening of that post, actually, I'm in total sympathy with you. It's just that as soon as the specifics of the appeal begin--not as directives, I understand, but as requests--I find myself baulking, thinking "but... but..." and ultimately I feel a response is called for, something measured and honest. I really don't want this to play as oppositional, to play into the very dynamic of defence and attack you're addressing, but where I read your post and think, no, I can't promise what you're asking, it seems only right to offer an explanation of why. Why I think it's too much to ask. What I see in those requests in terms of unspoken premises and assumptions. How the plea for tolerance becomes, functionally, a request for capitulation to a paradigm I can't afford to let go unchecked.

So, I might chuck in some thoughts on other points below, but mainly I want to focus on the immediate crux of it, the first principle: the request not to scorn faith in God in and of itself, not to stereotype it unfairly as unthinking servility, not to do so when, as outsiders, we really don't get it at all.

1. Please do not ridicule faith in God or equate it with blind obedience. Unless you have spent time interacting with a wide variety of organized religions, you probably have no idea what the word actually means.



Thing is, for me, there's a disregard here that instantly jars. Actually most of us have spent our entire lives to date interacting with a wide variety of organized religions. We're born into a world shaped by the discourse of millennia, in which religion has been the prime institution of moral authority for as long as is recorded. We need to factor in secular politics and ethics, of course, from Hammurabi to Hume and beyond, but the fact is, we're all steeped in cultures where the discourse of God's Law is so pervasive it's the landscape we navigate daily. Your condition, it seems to me, is always already met. So:

1.1 Aren't you disregarding the landscape in which we're seldom not interacting with a whole history of religions?

As I grew up mired in heteronormativity, I grew up mired in socionormativity, and I see an analogy here. It would be ridiculous, surely, to jump from my not having been in a conventional "husband and wife" relationship to a presumption that I haven't spent enough time interacting with a sufficiently wide variety of straight marriages to understand what the word "fidelity" means. Similarly, I think you're way off base in presuming that those of us not in a conventional "devotee and Deity" relationship (and indeed critical of such on principle) are in no position to understand what "faith" means. So maybe I haven't been in either a "husband and wife" or "devotee and Deity" relationship; heteronormativity and socionormativity have made no small effort to drum the principles of fidelity and faith into me. So, an extension--and I ask this sincerely, not rhetorically:

1.2. Isn't the socionormativity of faith, the way it's institutionally championed, a concept we can't help but absorb, self-evident to you?

Note that I pick "fidelity" rather than "marriage" as analogue. One might need to be in a traditional Christian "husband and wife" marriage to understand fully what that means, but that's a specific formalised instance of a fidelity relationship--traditional, Christian, straight. As a sodomite, even if I surrender the term "marriage," even if I accept that I can never know that state, I can be, to use a nifty term, matelotaged. The word borrowed from an art of knotworked rag-ends of rope, matelotage was a formalised romantic/financial relationship between two pirates. (No, really.) I'm sidestepping a big debate here in the aim of rapprochement, working on the assumption that we can agree that fidelity is not just a traditional, Christian, straight thing, that it's patently to be found in non-Christian marriages, civil unions, any form of monogamous relationship. Faith sits in a similar situation. It need not be in God, is not so in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism. With the latter being quite far from the sort of "devotee and Deity" relationship that's socionormative in our UK and US cultures, I want to open up the next question:

1.3. Is an assumption that atheists and agnostics don't know faith comparable to an assumption that the matelotaged and merely partnered don't know fidelity?

For sure, the state of faith being a qualitatively distinct affective stance, not being in that state would mean an absence of an experience so profoundly personal it's roundly considered ineffable. So I can see where you're coming from in the idea that in their lack of that state, the faithless surely risk projecting preconceptions on a mystery they'd have to experience directly, or at least study, to truly understand. I can argue that we're so steeped in the socionormative discourse of faith that five years as an interfaith liaison would actually be a superficial education in comparison. But if one has never been in a "devotee and Deity" relationship, isn't it fair to say that one is lacking the crucial experience to understand it as an insider does? My point above is no. That would be to disregard all those in "devotee and divinity" relationships--where divinity encompasses non-supreme deities and divine forces without agency (e.g. the Buddha nature or the Tao.) And the larger thrust of this is that if a Buddhist doesn't need a Deity to know faith by direct experience, maybe it's a mistake to assume such an absence of knowledge in other atheist or agnostic philosophies. I mean, in the interest of total transparency, that's the point that immediately defeated your own purpose for me, seemed wildly presumptive. So:

1.4. Are you disregarding the possibility that it's not faith we're absent, simply the Deity, actually being in a "devotee and divinity" relationship... or something like that?

Indeed, among us atheists and agnostics, many will be coming from having had direct first-hand experience even of the narrower mode. Many of us will be apostates who were in "devotee and Deity" relationships but transitioned into agnosticism or atheism, and not because we were thrown from the stance by tribulations that weakened us to doubt, but rather because we followed through on that stance into a focus on its subject--the divine--such that we came to unpack the key trope, to put it in SFF terms. We never lost faith, but we came to feel it was misdirected at a crude conceptual shell, the anthropomorphic Deity inadequate to encapsulate that which we had faith in. I'll put aside for now the idea of atheistic faith in the sublime existential mystery of the cosmos and humanity in it. The first point here is more straightforward, that when you say we'd need extensive interaction with sundry religions to understand, I presume you see this as compensating for an experience of participation we lack. And that's where I started gong "but... but... but..."

1.5. Aren't you disregarding the actualities of our pasts, in which many of us were in "devotee and Deity" relationships?

It's not like there aren't plenty of doorways in religion leading away from that God trope. Taoism and Buddhism don't bind the divine into the template of an agency. Iconoclasm sees the divine as insulted by being boxed into trite anthropomorphic renderings. (I've often argued that the logical end point of that is a rejection of all those quintessentially existential human characteristics. I mean, surely imagining the divine to have wisdom, justice and mercy, to be jealous or loving, to be a human-like psyche of judgements forged in reason and passion, is as problematic as to imagine it with an ithyphallic penis, a hawk's head, or whatever. It's no coincidence, I suspect, that my local socionormativity is Scottish Protestantism, with its disdain of "pagan and papist idolatry.") That's important to bear in mind, I feel: there are atheists and agnostics who've abandoned the God trope not from the bad taste left by bad experience, but because a signpost in some corner of religion itself pointed beyond it. You seem to be disregarding their past, their process, and their present. With the first of those three, there's a risk of the assumption that we don't know faith only sustaining itself, in the face of actual personal histories, by dismissing our experiences as false faith. We wouldn't have forgotten what the word means, so we must have never really got it. As I say... it renders that first point, to my reading, awfully presumptive.

1.6. If the apostate is assumed to not know the meaning of faith, doesn't that stand as a disregard of their previous condition as invalid?

But there's also the process and the present, and that's actually where I think there's an even more important reality not to be disregarded: that a scorn of the God trope and specific structural features of organised religion doesn't mean an absence of faith, not if you're willing to open up the notion of "divinity" beyond even the Tao. I'm not actually an apostate as described above, but my rejection of Deity is born of a relationship that is to religious devotion as matelotage is to marriage. While christened as a child and a regular attendee of Sunday School and church as a member of the Boys' Brigade, or at weddings and funerals, school assemblies and whatnot, there was no sense of self-identification as Christian among my family, so the tropes of this faith were equivalent to the tropes of other faiths I quickly learned of in primary school, so I met them all as... an unaligned independent. I can't remember a time when I didn't have a profound sense in my heart that the truth lay beyond the parables--didn't the parables themselves teach us that the truth lay beyond the parables!--and these forty odd years of my life I've been merely seeking to articulate that which I understood.

For what it's worth, ultimately, my faith is, and has always been, an existentialist humanism. I see the cosmos as a purposeless wonder in which, as ephemeral material agencies, we're always already (wondrously) creating purpose, with the imperative of faith an imperative to trust a sacred inspiration (or pneuma theos, you could say,) in ourselves and each other. The matelotage/marriage comparison carries a neat correlation: as the opposite gender of the other party in a "husband and wife" fidelity relationship is replaced with someone of the same in matelotage, so I believe one can collapse the material/spiritual duality of a "devotee and Deity" faith relationship into a material/material "man and everyman" faith relationship. (Or "man and Son of Man" you could say, if you were using the comparable Jewish "common man" idiom of a few thousand years back.) No afterlife, no eternal soul, no Supreme being, just this staunchly atheist stance I'll defend to my dying breath as a legitimate mode of that profound personal experience in the heart of any reverent Christian, Buddhist, Taoist or whatever. (I won't justify here. You can probably tell my outlook is... quirky. The main point is I think you underestimate what's going on inside atheists and agnostics.) Which brings us to the crunch:

1.7. If every truly committed humanist is coming from the same place, would you disregard that as a legitimate basis of knowledge?


All of this is a long way round to get to the point, but I think it's necessary. From being wholly sympathetic through your intro, I find myself suckerpunched by that first point as you disregard any possibility that I could know what you're talking about. You're rejecting my scorn of faith in God on the grounds that it's rendered illegitimate by ignorance--I don't really understand what I'm scorning. So now suddenly I need to assert legitimacy. I shouldn't need to, I'd say. The legitimacy of a humanist's understanding of faith should be self-evident, and would be, I'd say, would be taken as read if weren't for the disregard I'm teasing out above. What I've been outlining is what I mean by unspoken premises and assumptions. What I've been trying to build, so you understand where I'm coming from here, is a picture of what it is, more than anything, that necessitates a combative stance on the part of the atheist or agnostic. That disregard has, I mean, a palpable impact on this side of the fence. I'm trying to avoid jargon words of academic liberalism such as erasure, but essentially when someone like myself runs into a statement like your second sentence there, we're instantly aware of the action taking place behind it: there's a weak caveat in the "unless maybe X" and the "probably," but the default assumption is clearly, "if you're atheist you have no notion of what I'm on about," and for this to be held and applied, all of that which I cover above has to be dismissed out-of-hand, preconceptually removed from consideration.

That action could be a product of glibness in a cursory comment, a bit of misjudged rhetoric, but it's also recogniseable as an endemic problem: we run into this consistently, and in each case the disregard effectively disallows as invalid any stance we're upholding in the moment, by rendering us as lacking essential qualifications, by refusing to recognise that which we consider to be obvious realities, even that which know to be self-evident fact--e.g. that a whole lot of atheists and agnostics were believers at one time. Whether instinctually or consciously, we also recognise that the problematic impact of this action is functional--that is to say, by invalidating any stance we're upholding, it serves to defend the position from which the action is being taken; it sets up an impenetrable shield around a stance advocating faith in God. For such an advocate to defend that stance is only fair, but this impenetrable shield actually extends that advocacy to a stance in which, the opposition being inherently illegitimate, faith in God is the only legitimate stance. It functions as an attack then. Disregard like that isn't just a barrier preventing even sound critique from hitting home. It's a steamroller effectively flattening dissent as illegitimate. So...

1.8. Can you see how experiencing that sort of action as a consistent, functional invalidation would basically put us under constant low-level assault, even theoretically render us, if successful, second class citizens in the discourse?

I mean, I wander through the discourse, with no small degree of respect for many practitioners of this faith or that, with my own personal existential humanism a "man and everyman" faith relationship I see as equally legitimate. While that very philosophy leads me to a deep admiration of many religious individuals I see essentially practising the same because their faith incorporates it, I have profound issues with the God trope and its impact, but if I'll argue it unsound that doesn't mean disregarding the realities as seen by its advocates, self-evident or otherwise. It doesn't mean disregarding their experiences to cast them as unqualified, doesn't mean disallowing any stance they make as inherently invalid. But I turn a corner in the discourse, and I'm like to find myself running into an instance of that action. I might be all set to engage on equal footing, but all too often that's just not an option. The advocate of faith in God has already set this steamrolling barrier up. Direct experience, immersion in the discourse, existential humanism--none of that matters. The disregard of it collapses atheism into valueless nihilism, bereft of faith, baseless and hollow. "If you don't know God, you don't know shit." And if that comes with a specific stance on what a proper "devotee and Deity" relationship entails, no stance of dissent I can take to that decree is valid.

This is the very socionormativity I'm talking of. The entire history of the discourse has shaped the terrain such that my mode of faith is always already invalid. I'm not even qualified to speak--that's established wisdom in the discourse, I mean, in which atheism and agnosticism are cast as a lack of (knowledge/experience of) the relevant passionate conviction. We've struggled past the point where socionormativity was so thorough in its effect as to render such stances largely unthinkable, where theism was so successful in its hegemony that even the questioners were working within it. We've struggled past the point where the counter-stances were countertheisms and altergnosticisms, so to speak--heresies. Those non-socionormative faith relationships were precursors, disregarded in much the same way with "You haven't actually experienced true revelation so your stance is invalid." The assertion that "You haven't actually experienced true faith so your stance is invalid," seems to me to be just the same tactic for a new context. It's emptying the specific content of revelation, because to do otherwise would be to delegitimise all other faiths having their own content, but it's casting the affective vessel of that content as a comparably revelatory experience of inspiration. I'll set this as another step, another chunk to encapsulate:

1.9. Doesn't it seem a fair view of history, and the present emerged from it, to understand that very disregard as a socionormative tactic by which the socionormative faith relationship defends itself and undermines dissent?

To be fair here, you are allowing sufficient indirect experience as a valid foundation for a legitimate stance. But the implication remains that this mass of educative experience is necessary because (obviously) it has to make up for the lack of revelatory affect. While less brusquely dismissive, in fact, in some ways that's more undermining. Because its object is not a Deity, not even cast as the divine, my passionate conviction doesn't count as true faith. Yours does. In order for you to consider my stance legitimate, I need an extensive CV to demonstrate relevant experience. You don't. As I read it, the "unless" phrasing sets my requisite level of experience as exceptional. So it seems the default assumption is that I lack that too. I can imagine providing you with enough of a CV for you to acknowledge that I'm not an ignorant bletherskite here. (As someone whose latest novel is a retelling of the Gospel narrative, I'm well aware that I've probably devoted a lot more attention to religion than your average atheist/agnostic.) But if I get deigned an exception, that doesn't change the assumption that others are "probably" talking out of their arses. And I'm not willing to leave them so disenfranchised.

I'm not at all concerned with the personal emotional import of that delegitimisation, I'll stress. If you can appreciate how I'd see socionormative assumptions at work here placing a filter on atheists and agnostics, casting them as inferior, presuming a lack of inspiration and a paucity of experience, you ought to see how that could be taken as a slight, exacerbated by the hauteur in which there's no question of you understanding what "faith" in God means. It's like to be all the more irksome, I'd say, if you're dealing with an apostate who sees your understanding as one they consider themselves to have achieved and surpassed. But I don't want to focus on the superfices of emotional effect and derail into issues of umbrage, of offence and etiquette. An appeal for tolerance is not cause for offence; I'm sure that none is intended in that "no idea what the word actually means," and I'm sincere in saying that none is taken. But if you appreciate where I'm coming from politically, philosophically, I'll throw in this:

1.10. Does it make sense, on this basis, how some dissenters might jump to scorn, less out of incomprehension of faith than out of umbrage at the hauteur in the disregard, especially if they feel the reality is a deeper wisdom on their part, and especially if they see the disregard as an inherent feature of that socionormative faith relationship?


I hope this starts to make it clear why I think your request is just too much to ask. You're applying this request to the SFF community, which is enough of an oddity in terms of socionormativity that I can understand entirely why you'd feel the shoe to be on the other foot. I don't doubt that the weight of your experience in this context is the opposite of the bigger picture I'm conjuring (in which the UK still has an established church, in which atheists are more distrusted in the US than gays.) What with the Rationalist aesthetic at play in the discourse, there's a gravitation into the field of atheists of a particularly aggressive ideological strain. And if you add that to the lack of social graces going hand-in-hand with geekery, that's a recipe for an outright hostile atmosphere. But where you feel alienated from the community, subject to the social pressures of a subcultural socionormativity and the concomitant affective stresses, this is a community that's built itself thus precisely as a bastion of alterity. For us this is an exception to the dominant socionormativity outside. It's the exception to the rule of socionormativity. It's the corner of the broader discourse we've consolidated in, in no small part because the rest of the territory is hostile to us.

And it's not that much of an exception, to be honest. We shouldn't disregard here the Orson Scott Cards and John C. Wrights staking their place in what is far from ideological homogeneity. Our subcultural socionormativity is not a simple inversion of the broader context, with the shoe on the other foot, with your experience of social pressures born of an established conformity that won't stand to be challenged. Rather this is a place of ongoing conflict, often heated. Where the broader socionormativity has always already won in the broader context, that doesn't mean there's a dominant discourse that's always already the status quo of our little bastion. All we've established here is a zone so destabilised that in the constant dispute it's impossible to maintain full hegemony. Here it's not that we have authority. Arguably, it's not even that we have equality. It's simply that we're not inherently denied those by dint of not being socionormative. The game's not rigged here such that we've lost before we even begin, any stance dismissed as inherently invalid. We still have to fight our corner; we're just not stripped of weapons and armour. That's the extent of our foothold, and socionormativity, it rather seems, is hostile even to that. Where I see that disregard as a socionormative tactic, one functioning to undermine dissent by invalidating it, that means I see it as essentially trying to undo that small foothold. Which leads to the next question:

1.11. Can you see how, from my perspective, your request comes hand-in-hand with an action driving to create the same conditions within the bastion as persist outside, driving to establish the same inherent disadvantage for me?

And what of the request itself? Within that fractious context, I can appreciate how many a Christian of a mindset far from the Orson Scott Card brand of zeal would, out of the very core of decency I most admire in that faith, be the most affected by the aggressive conflict. It only stands to reason that those of the anti-boorish strain of that faith would struggle hardest with a subculture in perpetual confrontation. Here the atheists and agnostics are freed from the self-restraint required under socionormativity, where the steamroller is the rule; so they're bound to let off steam here. They're also mingling, bonding over common interests, shared experiences; so they're going to facilitate each other's catharsis in feedback loops and snowball effects. And they're no less subject to rhetorical aggression like that of Card or Wright; so they're going to be standing their ground and in many cases going on the attack. All in all, in a bastion like this, their discourse is going to be a quantum leap more assertive than here than you'd find outside. So I'm not at all surprised by an appeal to lay down arms, practise tolerance, with a first principle in that being to desist from the rhetorical aggression of scorn. To stop ridiculing faith in God.

But I question, for a start, if that's reasonable in terms of need, if the level of assertiveness in the bastion is not in fact at the just and equitable level it should be with the discourse operating freely. I freely accept that some of those letting off steam, fueling each other's outbursts, and cutting loose against ideological opponents will be doing so with an unreasonable excess of invective and deficiency of consideration, but these will be the extreme end of a bell curve of tact and diplomacy, as one would find in any free discourse. I question whether that bell curve is actually shifted so far towards that extreme that the general situation can be considered unreasonable or whether in fact it merely looks so in comparison to the situation under socionormativity where it's shifted outrageously far in the other direction. I question whether it's the normalisation of an unreasonable suppression of discourse that makes a reasonable bell curve of assertiveness look unjust and inequitable to those favoured by that suppression and used to being so favoured.

1.12. Is it possible that in part the discourse seems unreasonable because you expect the unjust and inequitable protections socionormativity affords?

When I say I question though, that's not just a rhetorical device; I mean that sincerely. I can also entertain the idea that there is actually a distinctly higher level of assertiveness than one would consider reasonable in unfettered discourse. But then I question whether that's not actually reasonable relative to the wider context, in terms of a counter-balance--i.e. whether the bell curve of subcultural discourse which looks excessively aggressive is simply a product of a natural and necessary response, a community consolidating to act as corrective, the bell curve of socionormative discourse being unreasonably far in the other direction. To put it in simple terms: a Judaean Pharisee, raised in a socionormativity that brooked no heresy, might so take for granted the suppression that they'd find the discourse of early Christians unreasonable in its just critique; and if they were actually right to some extent that those Christians were crossing a line into extremism, maybe that "woe unto you" rhetoric was the extreme needed to shift the balance in the wider culture. I'm not trying to dismiss your experience of extremism here as collateral damage or somesuch. It's just that it seems reasonable to me to meet a request to curtail invective with a consideration of where the line should fall.

1.13. Is it possible that insofar as the discourse is weighted toward over-combative irreligionism, that balances out the wider context, brings the spread of discourse back to something more reasonable overall?


But I question also if the request is reasonable in terms of effect. Don't ridicule. That's a request for one side to stop using a mode of contempt diminishing the importance of the opponent's stance when the other side is all too often using a mode of contempt inflating the importance of the opponent's stance. That is to say, mockery of faith casts it as an absurdity to be laughed at. The key socionormative tactic throughout history has been, and still is, to render absence of faith--or alterity of faith, or breach of an article of faith--as an abomination to be expunged. We're talking atheism, heathenism and "insults to God" such as sodomy, so I don't believe I'm overstating my case. My tactic in the struggle of the discourse extends, at its most aggressive, to scathing flytings of ideologues and their agitprop. I seek to puncture their pomp, strip them of dignity, cast them as risible knaves and fools to be left stewing in their own bile as we move on. To disarm the rhetoric. The message: they'd be inconsequential if only no one took them seriously. The tactics of those I'm set against, in contrast, may actually be weaker in their rhetoric, but their contempt seeks to inflate my importance, casts me, as a sodomite, as threat to the fabric of socionormativity itself. Their message: there will be dire consequences unless I'm taken as seriously as can be.

1.14. Is it reasonable to ask me to stop using a pin to try and prick windbags, deflate them of their hot air, when the very purpose of that hot air is to raise them up over the crowd, so they can throw their ballast of stones at someone like me as they preach, and thereby rise ever higher, all the while whipping up the crowd over the threat posed by my kind, urging them to join in on the stoning.

Don't get me wrong; it's a long way from a John C. Wright screed to Uganda. I use "someone like me" in that last question advisedly, because I don't feel myself to be imperilled and persecuted. I neither feel a need nor desire for the sort of "safe space" that others in the community prize. I'm not looking to play a "poor me" trump card, like your hurt is invalidated by the need to coddle my delicate condition. What I'm saying rather is that because of my sense of security here, my willingness to forsake enforced securities, to tackle hostile discourse rather than exclude it, I feel it falls to me to give according to my abilities, as they say, to others according to their need. Others are not so secure and others will be even less secure, as I see it, unless someone acts against the rhetoric that's persistently spawned by socionormativity. While I might not be directly and personally hurt by it, the long term impact of such rhetoric if unopposed can be literally murderous. There is a need here then. Ability? I have a whip of a tongue in my head and the balls to use it when I reckon a lashing is called for, when a windbag's harmful rhetoric needs to be driven out of the discourse like money-changers out of a temple. So it falls to me to do so. I'll note in response to your seventh point that sometimes a superficially polite articulation is not simply disagreeable in terms of content but is profoundly boorish in terms of the assumptions of prerogatives, in terms of the sort of action it constitutes within the discourse. I can't promise to refrain from insults in such circumstances. I mean, I'm talking about words like "abomination" being bandied about. I'm seeking to disarm that sort of rhetoric bomb. You're asking me to disarm myself of a little sting.

But does this ridicule have to extend specifically to faith in God? If it's specifically harmful rhetoric that's the issue, isn't that what should be scorned if anything is? If the windbag is arguing, for example, that SyFy welcoming a negative rating from GLAAD on the inclusion of LGBT characters is an act of craven capitulation to political correctness run amok, that this should not be considered a good thing because homosexuality is a perversion in the same category as incest, paedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia, that the tolerance of an abomination such as homosex will ultimately destroy the very fabric of society... isn't that what we should be scorning? (Yeah, the fabric of society was a hideous plaid. It just didn't go with the curtains!) Where's faith in God in all of that? Well, in the word "abomination," as used in the John C. Wright screed I'm paraphrasing here. That word is inseparable from the Old Testament judgements on homosexuality. Leviticus. Sodom. Carried in that specific use is a faith in a specific God, one for whom homosexuality is an abomination. That attitude written into the God trope's history, if I scorn the use of the word "abomination" with even a simple "Really?!" I'm scorning the reason for using it. I'm scorning the abrogation of ethical judgement entailed in actively using God to validate prejudice and in passively accepting prejudice as the writ of God. And this, if anything, is the sort of exterminationist rhetoric I feel it unethical--unsafe--not to scourge. The John C. Wright screed gives us a specific (and actual, historical) example where I can't promise to refrain, (and didn't in the case in point,) a crunch point where the conflict can be nailed and unpacked. If someone is bandying around the word "abomination" in an attack on my sexuality, I will defend with attack.

1.15. Can you appreciate that if you deemed this an unreasonable stance, I'd find that counter-stance unreasonable--unconscionable actually--the advocacy of my restraint here facilitating the exterminationist rhetoric in its purpose?


The problem then becomes that the moment I attack passive acceptance of prejudice as the writ of God, I'm always already attacking the principle of received moral wisdom. The moment I attack the active use of God to validate prejudice, I'm always already attacking the principle of ascribing attitudes to a Deity, of ascribing attributes to the divine. If I ridicule the abrogation of ethical judgement to an authority spouting claims such as that homosexuality is an abomination, the absurd claim stands as an example showing the approach to be unsound in principle. If I ridicule the projection of an attribute such as homophobia on a deity, the absurd attribute again stands as an example showing the approach to be unsound in principle. In deriding the rhetoric of "abomination," I'm not just mocking some optional peripheral feature to a faith in God. I'm mocking the action of faith as and when it specifies its object--the divine--to have an absurd feature. In so far as this asserts the capacity of such faith--faith specifying the divine to the deity, to the Deity, to God--to fail absurdly, it is ipso facto, whether I intend it or not, a mocking critique of faith in God.

The only way I can practically refrain from ever ridiculing faith in God is to never assert its capacity to fail absurdly. If I'm never to cruelly mock a person, that injunction comes into play, of all places, whenever they carry out an act of folly opening themselves up to mockery. So too if I'm not to ridicule faith in God, that injunction comes into play, of all places, whenever faith in God entails the execution of a constituent act of folly inviting scorn. Where your request requires me not to mock such follies, it's profoundly problematic in multiple respects. There's a massive component of subjectivity and sensitivity at play here, such that if I simply highlight a folly, draw attention to it as a folly, this may constitute a breach of the injunction. To simply assert that an act is ridiculous is to ridicule that act; there need not be a sneering laugh involved. Thus the injunction theoretically extends to affording an unreasonable protection: never asserting an act to be absurd. I cannot limit the extent to which you or others judge an assertion of absurdity on my part to be an infraction. If I commit to accommodating subjective and sensitive judgements of umbrage, I cripple my freedom to critique.

Whether we extend it that far or not, in fact, the protection from ridicule is an unreasonable advantage in free discourse. If a person is foolish enough that they invite derision, it's simple ethics to nonetheless refrain from derision where it would be cruel. If an ideology is foolish enough that it invites derision, its adherents may feel cruelly treated in so far as ridicule of a supposition reflects on any who subscribe to it. But to afford protection on that basis is to make a special exception for precisely the ideology unworthy of such an advantage precisely because it is unworthy of that advantage. Indeed, it is to turn the ideology's most blatant absurdities into assets, as the advocate aggressively employs such, pushes restraint to breaking point, forces an infraction, and attacks their ideological opponent on the basis of that infraction, as a miscreant who's actively wronged them. I can't in good conscience facilitate such shenanigans. (Like the fact that God has a cock for so many. He's gendered as a male, rendered as male. The more important this is as an article of faith, I've found, the more any mention of the absurd cock is cause for convenient outrage at one's flagrant disrespect.)

1.16. I don't blindly expect you to agree with me, but does it make sense why I wouldn't necessarily refrain from scorn to spare your feelings, not because I consider them immaterial but because to do so has specific impacts, unfairly biasing the discourse so that, if you follow it through all the way, homophobes can call me an abomination and I can't even mention the fact that God has a cock?


This stance becomes all the firmer when faced with the fact that many of the absurdities in question are not just folly, but knavery. If it's simple ethics to refrain from cruel mockery when a person is harmlessly foolish, when that folly is malicious in intent and malign in impact, their sensitivities cease to be a priority. So too with, for example, the folly of a faith in God ascribing to that God an attitude that homosexuality is an abomination. Such a faith in God [as being a homophobe] deserves only ridicule, as far as I'm concerned, and the sensitivities of those subscribing to it are the least of my concern. The sensitivities of those who don't subscribe to it shouldn't even factor in... unless that vile absurdity, exposed as such, reflects badly on faith in God per se by standing as an instance of failure. Unfortunately, maybe that's the case. If you look at faith in God as a system of thought, invest faith in that system, believe in its power to deliver... If I then ridicule one application of that system as abject failure, that would be to ridicule the system itself, the faith invested in it.

I hate to say it, but I think that's fair. I've no doubt the derision is hurtful, but faith in God [as being a homophobe] is worthy of derision. As an application of the system of thought, it shows that system to be unreliable. And it renders faith in that system of thought to be hubristic--overweening in its pride, oblivious of its flaw(s). So again, the sensitivities of those invested in that system of thought are not a huge priority. I'm looking at that system of thought and seeing the reason people like me got burnt at the stake. Where that hubris disregards the risk of human prejudice coming into play in any instance of a belief ascribing attributes to a Deity, in any instance of a faith in God, it makes faith in God [as being a homophobe] a natural and inevitable product somewhere along the way--or it gives us God-the-racist, God-the-misogynist, whatever the bias is in the relevant time and place. Where faith in that system persists by disregarding the blatant knavery of faith in God [as being a homophobe], the hubris is not just complacent but complicit, assertions of the reliability of the system serving to bolster the authority of the unjust application. To me, that renders faith in the system of thought a proven threat and therefore a necessary target. Again, unfortunately; if I can't prioritise the feelings of the everyday faithful who're anything but hatemongering, it doesn't mean I don't consider them.

The application of ridicule to faith in the system of thought is always going to collapse, on the receiving end, into a ridicule of faith in God in and of itself. And I appreciate that's an inherently insulting and hurtful action. But I see no alternative in the face of wildly unreasonable knavery. If we can't ridicule faith in God, we can't ridicule any of the acts of dangerous absurdity that are performed therein. It removes any capacity to check the absurdity: any question beginning "How can you possibly believe in a deity that...?" just becomes a scornful challenge to that individual's faith in God, so it doesn't matter what follows the "that." As this applies to mere folly, so it applies to outright knavery, gives it impunity. The knave is enabled to place into that gap anything that suits their purpose. They can do so consciously or unconsciously. They can crib from the existing stock of traditionally ascribed attributes or, if they have the audacity to do so, they can exercise originality. They can pander to the basest aspects of human nature, and strike back in outrage at the insult to their faith if anyone so much as sniffs at their characterisation of the divine. They can express and exploit prejudice in order to consolidate power for themselves, scapegoating the innocent. Again, the more absurd the act of specification, the more advantageous  it becomes, the arbitrary scapegoating a spur with which to force infractions and vindicate persecution as reprisal. Political acts of specification accrue through organisation and institutionalisation, and the very individuals who should and could be acting as a corrective end up burnt at the stake for blasphemy, heresy, sodomy.

So, yeah, the end point is rather intransigent, I'm afraid. I just can't promise not to ridicule faith in God. When the rhetoric of "abomination" comes out, ridicule is deserved and effective in exposing dangerous nonsense. And while my focus is on particular toxic beliefs and behaviours, it is likely to focus on the foundations now and then. All I can really offer is this explanation of why that request, as I see it, asks too much of me. I've no doubt there's plenty to it you'd dispute, and that's fair enough. It's not intended to persuade, just to offer a perspective from the other side of the fence.

Other Thoughts

One other point of conflict: I'm unlikely to comply with point 5, not as I understand it. If you mention a controversial church doctrine with an explicit or implicit expression of support for it, you're asserting a moral imperative. If that moral imperative applies to me, you're implicitly telling me how you think I should live my life. Seems to me, I have every right to immediately and unreservedly dismiss that imposition. Sorry, but that's how it is. I'm also happy to engage in polite discussion, but I don't consider the assumption that my business is subject to your church's dictate to be polite; I consider it to be boorish. If we're simply talking theoretically, that's a different story, but I'm assuming from your scenario, in which this springs from my realisation that you accept tenet A, that the support is evident. In such circumstances you've acted upon me in a way that challenges my behaviour contentiously, and I reserve the right to respond. I reject your denial of that right.

I'm not going to start "mansplaining" why a doctrine is wrong, to be sure, but neither am I going to play novitiate for you, asking to be enlightened as to why it's right. If your veto on mansplaining is not intended as a veto on a straight comeback, with or without justification, but rather on pontification, then fair enough. If it's just a matter of a passing comment being seized on as cause for a self-important lecture, then we're on the same page. But in telling me to ask for more information, it rather sounds as if you're setting a quite unreasonable condition in a case where you have just asserted a moral dictate: that I am to defer response to your imposition, prompt you for explanation, and allow you to expound on the specifics of your opinion before exercising my right to simply reject the imperative. I have to say that I can't help but see this as a request that I should submit myself to the very thing you're characterising my response as. The controversial church doctrines that will cause conflict are liable to be ones involving my sexuality, I'd hazard, and I have no interest in listening to someone simultaneously straightsplaining and faithsplaining that tenet A doesn't really logically depend on or result in B, C, D, E, or F, that it doesn't dictate actions G, H, or I as imperatives, or validate them indirectly, or stem from the same underlying hamartia. As I read it, this is what you're asking of me, to surrender equality in the conversation to you, to surrender authority on the subject to you. It comes perilously close to characterising my legitimate rejection of an imposition as 'splaining in order to assert the right to do just that to me.

I mean, if you were to mention in passing a church doctrine forbidding "miscegenation," it would likely be immediately obvious from context and tone whether you supported that or were against it. If I was a white man with a black wife, and you clearly supported it, I'd feel quite entitled to cut you off dead, tell you that I found that doctrine utterly abhorrent. I suspect I'd automatically be relating that tenet to other racist and segregationist beliefs and to actions such as lynching. Not knowing just how far your convictions went in that direction, in the face of irrational prejudice, survival dictates that one assume the worst, I'd say, that one be prepared to have to deal with a situation that could get dangerously ugly. So if I asked for more information at all, it'd almost certainly be in a "But don't you see how...?!" form. To cast this as mansplaining would, I think, be reprehensible. This is assuming, of course, I didn't just walk away there and then, in order not to lose the rag. If I was capable of maintaining coherent discourse at all in the face of casual segregationism, it certainly wouldn't involve me politely requesting that you elaborate on the specifics. I wouldn't be deferring to you, wouldn't be giving you leave to subject me to a wholly unpredictable level of prejudice.

It's not so different with current church doctrines that do impact me personally. Throw this one or that one into the conversation in an act of casual advocacy for something that is to me today's equivalent of segregation, and I'll react as circumstances dictate, not how you prescribe it here. Bear in mind, if I don't know the details of your opinions, I don't know where you're likely to go with this. I don't know if you're going to come out with something so grossly homophobic, I genuinely don't understand how you can lack the self-awareness to see it as such. There are successful writers in the field who stagger me like that, and they're just the ones I know of. I've no reason not to expect there to be ones I don't know of.

If there was a pre-agreement, with the sort of church doctrines in question, that not being a member of that church, obviously said doctrine did not apply to me, that would be one thing. But the opposite is true. Those church doctrines absolutely assume the authority to judge me and, if possible, actively impose their will in terms of what I am and am not allowed to do. As an advocate of that doctrine, supporter of the church's efforts in that respect, you'd be endorsing that assumption of authority. Really, I'd say such support would constitute an assumption of authority in and of itself. I can appreciate the desire not be condescended to. I'd hope you can appreciate where I'm coming from in terms of the overweening presumption of the Church as regards my business.


As a last note: not a matter of conflict between what you request and how far I'm willing to accommodate, but rather between what seem to be mixed signals. As I read you, I think there's a conflict in, on the one hand, urging us to eschew an assumption that your mode of faith entails "blind obedience" while, on the other, casting the specific tenets of your religious beliefs as an indivisible unity inherent to your identity. If I were to use the phrase "blind obedience," what I'd be talking about is passionate conviction so deeply rooted that it brooks no question. I'd be talking about that conviction as it upholds specific tenets, articles of faith that might be held as metaphysical truths and/or as moral imperatives. I'd be talking specifically about the latter. I'd be unlikely to use the term "obedience" actually, as I don't imagine anyone practically being able to live in total slave-robot conformity to the rule book. If I were using that word at all, it could only be in terms of an absolute mental compliance, a submission of judgement to the moral imperatives, a wholesale acceptance that these are the dictates to follow, in so far as one is able. That's what I'd mean. That's what I'd be criticising as, in my view, an abrogation of ethical judgement. Thing is, that seems to be what you're professing in point 4.

In terms of that point 4, to be clear, I don't expect anyone to just capitulate to an ethical judgement from someone like me, or from a score or more of someones like me. But as far as I'm concerned, any human being has the ability to critique their own beliefs, revise them through a process of consideration. Maybe that possibility is covered here, and it's only instant and complete u-turns on demand you're ruling out. But with an uncompromising tone, you do seem to be laying down a pretty hard limit in casting these as tenets as constituent of self. What I would expect of someone is that their beliefs shift somewhat, not when and how I want them to but over time, informed and reformed by experience. What I might expect of someone is ownership of that process, an active engagement in which they call the shots at the end of the day. But you seem to be saying, to all intents and purposes, "This is who I am. Deal with it." You seem to be saying that your personal metaphysical truths and/or moral imperatives are integrated so wholly into your being, and so of a unity, that they rule you rather than vice versa. It sounds like exactly what I outline above, I mean, a wholesale acceptance that these are the dictates to follow, in so far as one is able.

That puts me in a double-bind, as I see it: if I expect you to be ethically flexible to a degree I'd consider reasonable, I'm offending by not respecting the depth of your passionate conviction; if I expect you to be ethically inflexible to a degree I'd consider unreasonable, I'm offending by mischaracterising your passionate conviction as rigid.

I'm not arguing with the post here, to be clear. I'm just trying to get a handle on what it is you're looking for, because while much of the rest of it is perfectly reasonable, I'm getting conflicting messages here that I just can't reconcile.

As for the rest of your points, I don't know you or your beliefs in order to fall foul of 2, have no cause to make a palaver of disavowal. I sincerely hope that this in no way reads as trying to diminish your experience by trumping it with that of others, thereby breaching 3. I know that there's a risk of that in my broaching the possibility that a reasonable mix of heated discourse may look unreasonable because of unwarranted expectations. But I hope it's clear that I do accept there's a weighting in the discourse rendering it more extreme than is reasonable, that this plays out in vicious misguided invective, that I don't question the reality of your experience of prejudice, that I absolutely accept you have reason to be hurt. I wholly support you on point 6. This sort of stuff... this I can do. And would expect of myself indeed, as simple common decency.

Anyway, I'll leave it there, at this ridiculous length. I didn't to go into a simple request in quite so much depth. It's just that that first point pulled me up short, and in the combination of what I cast as disregard--that assumption of a lack of knowledge--and a request to afford special protection to faith in God--something I have to consider a very real threat on the basis of history--well, it just opened up into all of this. Again, it's inevitably oppositional, but I hope it doesn't read as an attack.. There's certainly no animus intended.





Blogger David B. Ellis said...

Well said, I had a similar reaction on reading Fulda's essay. It struck me as an uneasy mix of legitimate reaction to real cases of rudeness and the sense of shock that comes when religious privilege encounters an environment where reasonable criticism of religion is not taboo. Hard to tell, though, when she gave no anecdotes relating specifics of the sort of encounters she's had.

10:10 pm  

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