You should respect him, they said. Listen to him. Don’t dismiss him, engage him. Why are you so unkind? He deserves a hearing. In a magazine exchange, I’d called a cantankerous reader’s racist statement racist and other readers jumped on me for saying so. When I repeated the point, another reader declared that I sounded “self-righteous.”
When I was younger, I might have taken them seriously. Now, having grown old and calloused from decades of public discussion, I don’t. They’re bullies. The two claims — “You must respect him!” and “You’re self-righteous!” — attempt to manipulate. The people who use them want to stop you from speaking without defending the statement they’re implicitly defending.
People wield both charges as if they were knock-out punches, and in Christian circles they often work. People drop to the floor.
These people cheat. They don’t want to argue with you, so they make you out to be the bad guy. They do it in two different but very common ways, both of which I experienced in this discussion. Almost anyone who argues a position will have suffered them too. It may be useful to explain how.
The first group did not say that I should engage the reader in the hope of helping him see how racist his statement is. That would have been a fair point. It’s hard to tell when you should speak sharply and when you should speak softly. You may just be peeved when you think you’re prophetic. You may have assumed that this person, who’s only a name on a page to you, meant everything he said the way he said it, and many people don’t. Fair enough.
But these people demanded I engage the man because his position itself deserved respect just because he’d said it. It was an idea to be entertained, a point or a pole in the debate, a claim not to be ruled out of bounds without earnest discussion. This charge, by the way, appears in other forms, particularly the claim that you’re being “judgmental” or “uncharitable.”
The second group (the critical reader surely spoke for others as well as himself) did not say I should admit my own failings before criticizing someone else’s. They didn’t tell me to look at the beam in my own eye. That might have been a fair point. We do react most hostilely to failings we dislike in ourselves. We tend to show least mercy to the sins for which we ourselves most need forgiveness. Again, fair enough.
But these people tried to make me feel guilty for saying what I thought. They didn’t suggest I make the claim in a different way, but rejected my making it. Just making it they declared self-righteous, that I was making a statement about myself and not about the subject. This charge also appears in other forms. Last year, the rightwing fad was to dismiss claims they didn’t like as “virtue-signaling” and to smack them down as “wokeness.” (The leftwing style was to dismiss their opponents as “fascists” and the like and not bother to describe their motivations.)
The Knock-Out Punch
People wield both charges as if they were knock-out punches, and in Christian circles they often work. People drop to the floor. I think I was supposed to hit the floor and plead that I didn’t mean it, that the man had a point, that I shouldn’t have refused to respect it, etc. Or at least that I was sorry that I’d put my point so harshly, that I didn’t mean to be so rejecting, that I say bad things too, faults on both sides, everyone has some part of the truth, etc.
I might have reacted that way when I was younger. I’ve been at this long enough now not to be cowed by such tricks. How else should one respond to an overtly racist statement, aggressively made? Why should anyone pretend to respect it or treat it as if it were an issue on which good people could disagree? Why would anyone want to signal that racist claims had a place in the discussion?
How else should one respond to an overtly racist statement, aggressively made? Why should anyone pretend to respect it or treat it as if it were an issue on which good people could disagree?
People use these lines when they don’t like what you say, but can’t simply disagree, for various reasons, including how embarrassing defending the idea you’ve rejected would be. (I say this in part from the many times someone has chided me for saying something and then told me in private that he agreed with me — and even that he was glad I’d said it.) In this case, I’m fairly sure, the critics either could not see the racism or shared it.
They don’t disagree. They try to claim you’ve violated an objective measure. That is, they moralize the rhetoric, separated from the substance. They want to say you’ve said something wrong without actually saying you’ve said something wrong. Some people seem to do this instinctively.
Ideological, Not Innocent
But not innocently. The charges are ideologically-based or ideologically-motivated. They express a view of things. One the critic wants to defend, but to which he will not own up.
Here’s the test: I would be surprised, nay shocked, if the same critics would say the same thing about the same words used in a reply from a pro-lifer to a pro-abortionist. That response wouldn’t be unkind or self-righteous, but brave, prophetic, bold, truth-telling, etc. They’d forget the moral standard they’d used to try to shut down someone responding to a racist claim. I don’t say these people consciously use the term ideologically, but it is demonstrably selective, that is, ideological.
They’d do better just to argue their point. The fact that they don’t suggests even they recognize its weakness.