Looking for a different way to write, ctd.

You’ll be much better served by reading this series of three posts by Alan Jacobs than my reflections on them, so in case you have to choose I’ll link them up front:

Jacobs examines the modern addiction to a certain sort of “philosophical hubris, to the idea that arguments can be produced that will defeat the opposition once and for all.” And its corollary, that disagreement must be destroyed rather than tolerated. He contrasts this to Bernard Williams’ claim that disagreement is not only tolerable but valuable:

The context here is, broadly speaking, ethics—how people should live—and Williams thinks that ethical questions are immensely complex, so that disagreement about them is “merely to be expected.” Indeed, any attempt to shut down disagreement on such matters will be an impoverishment of thought, and perhaps of life itself.

I am definitely on the side of Willams (and Jacobs). The only things I know about life that are useful and satisfying arose in some way from a dissent from conventional wisdom, whether the dissenter was (occasionally) me or (usually) someone else, and whether I ended up rejecting the conventional wisdom or, due to a deeper examination of it, embracing it. Jacobs again:

The ancient idea of the philosopher as gadfly arises from the awareness that a person can serve society not only by being correct but also, and in a distinct way, simply by being different—by challenging conventional wisdom and received beliefs.

I remember very clearly the moment I woke up to this truth. It was during the five-year stretch when some friends and I met monthly to discuss readings selected by the Great Books Foundation. That month’s reading was Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. I’d never read Freud before, and knew little about his thinking beyond what the average person assumes he knows. But this short book addressed a cultural topic I knew something about, and as I read through it a second time I realized: I not only don’t agree with this, but I have substantial objections to his claims which I can back up.

Now, the point is not that I was actually in a position to refute Freud, but only that for the first time I felt I could profitably engage a thinker of Freud’s stature. I learned that day to carefully consider a position I was inclined to disagree with, identify the strengths and weaknesses of the presentation, challenge it at some points with my own thinking, and walk away edified but unpersuaded.

Since then I’ve treasured and even sought out opportunities to amiably disagree with folks who’ve given their own positions enough thought to present them intelligently. The potential for doing this on the internet is staggering—butif it was ever a possibility it seems to not be one now. As Jacobs points out in his second post:

Occasionally Americans debate the correctness of beliefs and practices — political, moral, social. But not very often. Most Americans, or so one would judge from social media anyway, are Bulverists: they already know who is right and who isn’t, so all they need to debate is why the people who get things wrong — so, so wrong — do so.

Jacobs goes on to observe that lately we have moved on from wallowing unreflectively in our received beliefs to demanding justice be exacted on those who believe differently, what he calls “disciplinary bulverism.” The examples he gives are all too familiar, so I’ll leave you to read that post without further commenting on it.

Not only can I not relate to this attitude, I can’t even find a suitable pathway into the fray. Several times in my life I have tentatively embraced a way of life—not with wholehearted before-the-fact acceptance, but in the spirit of exploration. There are some things you can’t evaluate properly by observing them from a distance, you need to be up close. On the other hand, plunging in runs the risk of blinding you to what is weak or just plain wrong about the approach. When you are fully invested, it is tempting to rationalize those away for the sake of protecting your investment.

The most recent example for us was farming. We farmed for seven years without becoming farmers. And that was intentional—the time was spent looking for a way to embrace the life fully, to find a balance between the need for income, the needs of children growing into adulthood, and the need to live with integrity. There are many possible ways to strike the balance—we know several who have done it, no two alike—but we weren’t able to piece one together out of the hand we’ve been dealt, our history and inclinations and skills and beliefs. So it ended up being a good and valuable experience that we also needed to walk away from.

Similarly with writing. I’ve written for 25 years now, in letters and emails and newsgroup exchanges and blog posts and blog comments. And I still don’t consider myself a writer—or, more accurately, I haven’t committed myself to a particular approach to writing. I continue to write things down because to me it is an integral part of self-examination, something I have long been committed to. But making that writing public has always been experimental, and each experiment has left me mostly disappointed. I try approaches that others use to achieve their own goals, approaches that have at least some potential for helping me realize mine. I am mostly frustrated by the results.

But I’m also OK with it. Inability to make progress towards a goal is also an opportunity to re-evaluate the goal itself. I’ve been unable to engage others in fruitful discussion—but is that so vital? Where I see others so engaged, the discussion itself is rarely fruitful. And although a clash of viewpoints can sometimes be enlightening, if done in good faith and with mutual respect, the truth is that I am far more edified when someone has the courage to give a full-orbed account of their own thinking, without an eye to defending it or using it to club opponents into submission.

So I’m thinking now of focusing more on getting my thinking recorded and less on shaping it into a consumable bit of writing ready to be floated out into the stream. I’ve created a wiki, using the platform that runs Wikipedia, and am proceeding to fill it up with my own notes. The content of this blog (at least the stuff worth keeping) will eventually be recreated there, expanded and annotated and with links to related material. If that continues to look promising, I will make it public. Meanwhile, this blog will continue to exist in its current form, both as a historical record and a place where I can post new bits and pieces created for the wiki as seems appropriate.

Jacobs’s third post in the series, Code Fetishists and Normolaters, presents a good example of why I need to find another vehicle for my writing/thinking. It highlights some intriguing ideas from the philosopher Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age—intriguing enough to get me to order two of the books mentioned in the post, plus James K.A. Smith’s introduction to Taylor’s thinking, and to read several of the articles mentioned—as well as articles mentioned in those articles! In the past I would have written a longer post about this particular post, quoting excerpts and adding my own observations, perhaps going off on a tangent or two, but all as a fairly immediate reaction to what Jacobs wrote. Now I think it would be better to use the post as an opportunity for extended study, creating a written piece which I can revisit and expand and rearrange as I follow the trains of thought that the original blog post inspired. We’ll see if that works!

Meanwhile, Taylor’s intriguing idea is that for perhaps 800 years now we’ve endured a tension between “code fetishists” and antinomians, between those who believe “the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code” (a code which can then be enforced), and those who reject any imposition of such a code. Jacobs writes:

I think the key lesson to be drawn from Taylor’s account is that code fetishism produces antinomianism: antinomians are people who get frustrated by the code fetishists’ relentless policing and disciplining of disagreement—which the fetishists do because they are trying to build a more just society and think that codification and enforcement of rules is the only way to do it—and believe that a simply rejection of rules is the only way to resist. That is, both sides agree that morality is a matter of rules; but one side thinks that since rules require elaboration and enforcement, and other people are the ones elaborating and enforcing them, they would prefer what they see as the only alternative, a rule-rejecting, morally minimal commitment to freedom.

And then he raises this possibility:

But what if this is a false dichotomy? What if the code fetishists and antinomians are both wrong, and wrong for the same reason: because they have unwittingly accepted the false idea that “the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code”? What if rule-following doesn’t produce justice, and the antinomians have an inadequate conception of freedom?

I think this is right, and I agree with many (but not all) of the reasons that Jacobs gives for thinking this. And it fits with my growing understanding of God’s economy, of goodness as the ordering principle of creation, a principle that is best embraced but is not imposed. But I’m in no position right now to present my own thinking, since it will surely be informed and shaped by what Jacobs has inspired me to read. So again, I need a way of planting a stake, identifying a piece of ground that needs to be revisited and elaborated in due time.

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5 thoughts on “Looking for a different way to write, ctd.

  1. This would be an example of probable disagreement between us: I read Civilization and its Discontents when I was about 22 and found it hugely enlightening, as if scales fell from my eyes while reading it. I still occasionally quote it :) but not usually in mixed company.

    Thanks for the links. One of the problems to me is that we don’t have any relationships with a lot of the people we encounter online — if my mother has a political opinion I find outrageous, for example, or my best friend, I cope with that. But when it’s a stranger? Not the same thing. In essence, I felt after 20 years of college teaching, students in a classroom have to decide (or have the professor decide on their behalf) that they are in relationship and agree to certain rules, or classroom discussion can’t work. Not only does this not happen on the Internet, if one tries to impose it even within the limited bounds of one’s own platform, one can run into all kinds of trouble. Many people seem to have decided that in contrast to face to face encounters, where we meet all sorts of contexts and speech situations and have to modify our speech and behavior to meet them, one set of rules should apply all over the Internet, and that set of rules is simultaneously moralistic and free-for-all-ish. I have the most freedom to be open and controversial in settings where I may assume I will be cut some slack and the Internet is usually not that situation. Why should strangers cut us any slack, I suppose. But I find my hackles rising, for example, at the implication that it’s the Left that would be the primary imposers of some kind of thought control, for instance. My experience based on growing up in a conservative household is a different one, but then I suppose that we think of thought control primarily in the sense of being forced to think something we don’t agree with, so we will see it occurring primarily at the hand of the other, rather than in those whose sympathies we share.

    I like your point about not finding a way into the fray. I don’t know how to teach people the attitude that it is possible to look at an idea abstractly, without having to feel implicated, identity-wise, in one’s own gut reactions to it, if they are not already predisposed to do so. I intuitively react against the suggestion that people deserve to be destroyed for an idea or a joke, no matter how repellent I find it. I don’t know how we can really teach compassion for strangers to adults. I don’t know how one can say (and I said it millions of times while I was teaching), look first for the beam in your own eye, and have people take that message seriously. I’ve been deeply committed twice, religiously, and yet the ideas that I think are true in religion are not encoded as central matters in either of those commitments — they are realizations that come out of living in relationship with people and watching them both try to apply codes and make space for antinomianism.

    So maybe the thing is just to leave the ideas somewhere and hope someone will find them when they need them? I don’t know, either.

  2. This would be an example of probable disagreement between us: I read Civilization and its Discontents when I was about 22 and found it hugely enlightening, as if scales fell from my eyes while reading it.

    I was enlightened too, though likely not in the way you were and not to the extent. I need a different vocabulary to describe how such reading affects me. It matters far less whether I was persuaded by what Freud wrote than that he took me on a tour of unfamiliar territory and showed me things the likes of which I’d not seen before. I didn’t usually draw the conclusions Freud wanted me to draw, but what he showed me was very important to my future thinking. Saying that I found the book “unpersuasive” is misleading.

    I still occasionally quote it :) but not usually in mixed company.

    Me too, e.g. in this old blog post. And it made at least one friend angry. He called me out for approvingly citing a godless heathen, but I think what made him angry (he didn’t say) was the part about childbirth, since he was once of the full-quiver persuasion and his wife is a midwife

    we think of thought control primarily in the sense of being forced to think something we don’t agree with, so we will see it occurring primarily at the hand of the other, rather than in those whose sympathies we share.

    One man’s thought control is another man’s like-mindedness. There are many thoughts I’ve left unshared simply to keep the peace. Which is not a bad thing—I’m a big fan of peace, and I value it much more highly than having my say—but I do think that being overly touchy makes it difficult to have honest and edifying discussions. Plus there seems to be a downward spiral in effect, with people trying to outdo one another in enforcing sensitivity.

    It’s not only profundities that are involved. In one friend’s Facebook discussion about guilty dislikes, i.e. admitting that one doesn’t care for something universally admired by the crowd, I wrote that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe left me cold and I’d never read the rest of the series. No one was outraged, but several were stunned. One friend (who loves the books) replied, “Yeah, I can see that about you.” And that’s really the only important thing I wanted to contribute—I think it helps explain the appeal of a great work to know what sort of person doesn’t find it appealing.

    I’ve been deeply committed twice, religiously, and yet the ideas that I think are true in religion are not encoded as central matters in either of those commitments — they are realizations that come out of living in relationship with people and watching them both try to apply codes and make space for antinomianism.

    The first chapter of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together put this together for me (one, two, three), at a time when I had just given up in frustration over the reality of an “intentional community” we had moved across the country to join. He helped me see that it was like-mindedness, or the urge for achieving it, that was the source of my frustration.

    I also think you’ll find Charles Taylor’s thinking worthwhile. I’m working through James K.A. Smith’s guidebook to Taylor’s A Secular Age, and Taylor tackles these matters at a depth I’ve never seen before. For one thing, he claims that the modern sense of self (the buffered self, he calls it, a self that observes and pronounces and is not vulnerable to the rest of creation) is not only a key element in the modern outlook but one that prevents us from turning back to an earlier, pre-Renaissance form of spirituality. Taylor also observes that efforts made by Christians to confront the opposition more or less concede the game by employing tools and techniques (e.g. apologetics) that were critical to enabling secularization in the first place.

    So maybe the thing is just to leave the ideas somewhere and hope someone will find them when they need them? I don’t know, either.

    I’m thinking these days that I’ve already accomplished the most important part, for better or worse, in what I’ve conveyed to my kids and a couple of close friends. Just a couple of weeks ago my daughter was preparing for an apprenticing stint at a farm by reading through my old blog posts about our own farming experience. She kept laughing and reading me bits and pieces that have become family chestnuts. So at least some of what I’ve written has passed a certain sort of test—we actually do live this stuff, and we don’t try to obscure our lives to hide the effects.

    I’ve mentioned that I found the book Shantung Compound thought-provoking not so much for the writer’s interpretation of events in the prison camp as for its clear presentation of surprising behavior: these things happened, although our conventional view of people (and Christians in particular) would have suggested otherwise—what then should we think about this? I don’t expect to write anything nearly as significant—and even if I did would it matter much? who even knows about Shantung Compound?

    But I think there is value in writing in that same spirit: of the things that happened to and around me these seemed significant, and here are my tentative explanations for some. I don’t think that the content of my explorations is nearly as important as the fact of them, as an example—you can do this too, and these are the sorts of things that could happen to you if you try.

  3. I have found the ideas contained in your writing extremely thought-provoking, having followed you for many years. Now that you settled in your “new” house, I’m wondering if you would be willing to post some reflections on your journey of agrarianism and living in tune with God’s economy — what sorts of lessons you and your family learned, and how that has changed you (plural), and how you see that reflected in the lives of you, your wife and your children. (Yes, not a little post, nor a small request, I know!) Thanks, Lori

  4. Lori,

    Thanks for sticking with me, and for the excellent suggestion! It’s been ten years since we moved to the farm, five years since we decided to leave, and three years since we managed to do it—a good time to review how well/badly our expectations matched up with reality.

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