Generalize, dehumanize, marginalize

I’m reading a very good short book by John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses. It touches on a subject that greatly interests me, namely which blessings are available to the average person, and which are not. Literature, for example—clearly not all of what passes as literature is going to be accessible to everyone, or even potentially accessible. Which leaves me wondering, are some joys just beyond the reach of most people, or do we make an important mistake when we assume that such things are joys?

I like a writer who is upfront about his intentions. Carey introduces his book as follows:

This book is about the response of the English literary intelligentsia to the new phenomenon of mass culture. It argues that modernist literature and art can be seen as a hostile reaction to the unprecedentedly large reading public created by late nineteenth century educational reforms. The purpose of modernist writing, it suggests, was to exclude these newly educated (or ‘semi-educated’) readers, and so to preserve the intellectual’s seclusion from the ‘mass’.

Sometimes changing circumstances can shine a bright light into the dark recesses of our hearts. As long as access to “the best that has ever been thought or said” was limited by practicalities, intellectuals could view their special social status (and the lifestyle it required) as noblesse oblige. But once the public became literate, that status had to suddenly be defended; there’s not much special about a club that just anyone can join.

The end point of this attitude, of course, is the old Groucho Marx quip: “I refuse to join any club that will have me as a member!” Most of us are not so secure in our conviction that we are right and the rest of the world is wrong, so we like to have at least a few others in our club for reassurance (and for purposes of mutual admiration). But there must be a gate, and it must be manned vigilantly.

As an element in the reaction against mass values the intellectuals brought into being the theory of the avant-garde, according to which the mass is, in art and in literature, always wrong. What is truly meritorious in art is seen as the prerogative of a minority, the intellectuals, and the significance of this minority is reckoned to be directly proportionate to its ability to outrage and puzzle the mass. Though it usually purports to be progressive, the avant-garde is consequently always reactionary. That is, it seeks to take literacy and culture away from the masses, and so to counteract the progressive intentions of democratic educational reform.

What has surprised me in reading Carey’s book is how transparently contemptuous the intellectuals were of the newly educated public, what they referred to as the masses. Writers we all admire (or think we admire) wrote some pretty vile things about these folks. And Carey claims that it was made possible only by conjuring up a notion of “the masses” which had no basis in reality.

The ‘mass’ is, of course, a fiction. Its function, as a linguistic device, is to eliminate the human status of the majority of people—or, at any rate, to deprive them of those distinctive features that make users of the term, in their own esteem, superior.

Intellectuals aside, isn’t this a fairly accurate description of the rhetorical strategy of our age? We are quick to seize on any group characteristic that doesn’t include us, whether it be racism or environmental wackoism or climate change denialism or easy believism or fundamentalism or feminism or capitalism or socialism or partriachalism or egalitarianism or clericalism or individualism. We apply the name to ‘people’ who don’t actually have names or faces or histories, who we have no personal acquaintance with. And then we proceed to point out to those inside the gates how ridiculous these ‘people’ are, how absurd, how irrational, how lacking in character, how … inferior they are to us.

Carey makes a telling observation about the idea of the masses.

Its usage seems to have been originally neither cultural nor political but religious. St Augustine writes of a massa damnata or massa perditionis (condemned mass, mass of perdition), by which he means the whole human race, with the exception of those elect individuals whom God has inexplicably decided to save. Even in modern times, the belief that God is implicated in the condemnation of the mass lingers on among intellectuals […]

Outer darkness comes in many forms, and there is no small pleasure to be had in consigning others to it, since it reinforces the idea that God has very strict standards for choosing those He will love—and it’s sweet to have made the cut.

Lately I’ve been exploring the opposite attitude, namely that if it is something that separates me from a (potential) brother—and who isn’t a potential brother?—then it is adiaphora, neither mandated nor forbidden. I don’t want to deal with the difficult cases by dehumanizing them in order to consign them to outer darkness, I want to confront them in their rich, complex, confusing, mixed-bag humanity.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote this:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

It reminds me of a friend I had once, a very kind and sweet older woman who along with me attended the most liberal Episcopal church in Austin, the most liberal city in Texas. She was a dedicated parishioner, participating fully in the life of the church. At one retreat we both attended, somehow the conversation turned to overpopulation, and she told me that even though it was pretty tough-minded she could see the wisdom in China’s one-child policy. In that moment it was very, very important to me that we were sitting across a picnic table from one another, that I could see the thoughtfulness in her face, that I had a history with her and knew her to be kind and sweet and very serious about her faith—because it forced me to wrestle truthfully with the things in our thinking that separated us, rather than simply write her off as an abstraction.


16 thoughts on “Generalize, dehumanize, marginalize

  1. Lately I’ve been exploring the opposite attitude, namely that if it is something that separates me from a (potential) brother—and who isn’t a potential brother?—then it is adiaphora, neither mandated nor forbidden.

    You seem to be saying that anything you and I might happen to disagree on is therefore not important. If that’s what you’re saying, I have to disagree.

    Your main point, that we must remember that those with whom we disagree are people, that we must not cast them into the outer darkness, I agree with wholeheartedly. But there are beliefs and actions (starting with my own sins) that deserve no such mercy.

    But perhaps I’m not understanding?

  2. You seem to be saying that anything you and I might happen to disagree on is therefore not important.


    On the contrary, I think differences between brothers are very important. But they are adiaphora in the sense that they are not to separate us, being neither mandated nor forbidden. And it is less vital to resolve those differences than it is to transcend them.

    But there are beliefs and actions (starting with my own sins) that deserve no such mercy.

    I assume you would say that about my friend’s belief that China’s forced abortion policy was wise. Given that she was a sister in Christ, how would you have dealt with that?

  3. In my dictionary, adiaphora means points of doctrine and practice about which reasonable men can agree to disagree. In the purely Christian context, the range of adiaphora is more limited–there are doctrines you must hold, or you gut the word Christian of its meaning. If you are a specific kind of Christian, Reformed or Catholic, say, the range of adiaphora grows smaller still.

    Breakfast is here; more later.

  4. Rick,

    Do you believe that the issue of whether to perform abortions, or not, for the purpose of controlling population growth is adiaphora?

  5. Jeff,

    Do you believe that the issue of whether to perform abortions, or not, for the purpose of controlling population growth is adiaphora?

    I don’t think one’s beliefs about that issue tell us anything about whether they are regenerate.

  6. So, anything that separates us from a potential brother, ie everyone and anyone, is adiaphora. Does that not make the idea of adiaphora itself meaningless?

  7. Jeff,

    So, anything that separates us from a potential brother, ie everyone and anyone, is adiaphora. Does that not make the idea of adiaphora itself meaningless?

    No, not as long as there are some things that are not adiaphora. Those things become the test of brotherhood.

    By the way, I may have unwisely confused things by referring to potential brothers. It’s true that we need to be careful about how we treat those who are not yet born again, since some may eventually be and some may never be. But I think we can address this issue by considering only those who are in fact brothers right now.

  8. I am all for a pushing as much as can be withstood into the category of adiaphora, but I get the impression that you would put much of the Nicene creed, a basic summary of the faith, into that category as well.

  9. Jeff,

    Do you think the Nicene Creed is a good test of brotherhood, i.e. that someone who does not embrace some part of the Nicene Creed should not be considered a brother?

  10. I would say that if someone knowingly rejects part of the Apostles Creed, I would not consider them a Christian.

    The only part of the Nicene Creed that might be subject to adiaphora might be “baptism for the remission of sins”, though I think that would be pushing it.

    Of course, I am speaking here in objective terms, since know one can know the heart of another.

  11. I would modify what I wrote above to read “….Apostles Creed, the Church would not consider them a Christian.”

  12. Jeff,

    Well, the good news is that I accept both the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds—even the filioque!—and so I don’t think that our mutual brotherhood is in doubt.

    This thread has wandered off from my original intent in the post, which was to suggest that we are prone to dehumanize and marginalize others over matters which, while important, are not essentials of the faith—which meas we are dehumanizing and marginalizing brothers, even if we profess to love them despite their wrongness.

    Here’s an example I just ran across in a blog post from a well-known conservative pastor, speaking (in passing!) of a difference he has with well-known liberal pastor Jim Wallis:

    “The Sojourners/Call to Renewal document says, “The Hebrew prophets consistently say that the measure of a nation’s righteousness and integrity is how it treats the most vulnerable” (p. 138). Exactly. And even if we leave the unborn out of it (which the Hebrew prophets would not allow us to do), this is precisely why leftism is such a pathetic counterfeit of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Economic illiteracy is a principal cause of poverty, and watching it parade around as though it were capable of creating wealth by simply wishing for it is a bit thick. Watching Jim Wallis advise the president on economics is like hearing that Typhoid Mary got herself appointed as the head of the Center for Disease Control.”

    This is a crude caricature of Wallis’s thinking—and that is exactly what allows the writer to characterize Wallis as pathetic, illiterate, a bit thick, and a Typhoid Mary. And the difference here is over economic theory!

  13. Rick,

    The above example that you cite makes your point directly and well. I regularly see much worse between men (and women) who largely agree. (I do wonder why I never see Walls’ or Claiborne’s similarly dehumanizing and marginalizing statements used as an example for this type of thing, but alas, that is a different topic.)

  14. Rick,

    To finish my post up above, and answer your question: the Bible tells us to speak the truth in love. We must love our neighbors whether we disagree about crucial matters or not. I think the woman you mention was gravely mistaken about China’s one-child policy, and if I were faced with her as you were, I’d think it my duty to say so. But that can be done without “casting her into the outer darkness,” marginalizing her, or bashing her over the head.

  15. Rick,

    Are you saying that things that separate me from my brother, IF they are neither mandated nor forbidden, are adiaphora; or are you saying that things that separate me from my brother are THEREFORE neither mandated nor forbidden, and hence adiaphora?

  16. Will,

    The former.

    Under the old covenant, there was a long list of things either forbidden or mandated that could legitimately separate Israel from the rest, including God-fearers—circumcision, for example. And there were other things which illegitimately separated Jew from Jew, e.g. Pharisee from Saducee from publican.

    Under the new covenant I think the legitimate list of such things is very, very short. Things not on that list are what I am calling adiaphora here.

    Incidentally, I realize that the word “adiaphora” carries historical freight, and it might have been better if I had used a term like “non-essentials” instead. But that is exactly what “adiaphora” means. People tend to use it in the sense of “things that Christians sometimes differ about,” rather than the more accurate “things that Christians are allowed to differ about.” I am using it in the second sense.

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