Putting Down My Inner Polemicist

I’m not a pastor, but this post by Kevin DeYoung hit me where it hurts. For the sake of clarity, “polemics” in the sense that DeYoung is using here refer to a particular mode of engaging ideas critically, with a goal of correcting bad ideas. While polemics qua polemics are inherently valuable, the word is often associated with a genre of writing that is attitudinally aggressive, critical, and negative. If you find a “polemics blog” you won’t likely find much “dialogue” or even nuance; you’ll see writers naming names and naming blasphemies.

DeYoung’s exhortations convicted me because, even though I don’t think my writing is really polemical in the above sense, it’s become clear to me that my disposition and my instincts are more polemical than I want them to be. And the biggest evidence for that is in my social media use.

Not long ago I perused my own Twitter timeline, and a frightening thought occurred to me: I probably would not follow myself. Way, way too much of what I tweeted was cynical, snarky, pedantic, and more than a bit self-important. I don’t remember, but my guess is that I probably only noticed this because I was having similar impressions of someone else’s feed (remember C.S. Lewis’s point about how prideful people are extra-sensitive to the pride of others?). I was astonished, in a very bad way, at how much time I spent thinking and saying reactive, defensive things. If my wife or a friend ever told me this is how I talked to others in non-digital life, I would be embarrassed.

The allure of polemics is the thrill. There’s an actual adrenaline kick when you’re breezily dismantling (at least in your own head) other people’s wrongness. There’s a feeling of control, of power, and, especially if this is a kind of Christianized sort, of doing God’s work. Being given a chance to feel smarter than someone else in the name of Jesus is an offer many of us can’t refuse. That’s why self-awareness is so difficult, at least for me. To stop and think, “Is this really the best use of my time and brain” is to interrupt the thrill and the superiority. And when nothing stands between your thoughts and your public words except a button smaller than your thumb that says “Tweet,” the incentives for delayed gratification are few and far between.

Now of course, engaging ideas is what I do. It’s why I write. I love thinking and writing and talking about important things, and you’re not going to think and write and talk about important things long before you’re doing to advocate for X instead of Y. That’s part of being made in the image of a truthful God and believing in a narrative of human history that says truth is knowable and real and matters.

The problem with cynical polemics, the kind that comes so easy to me, is not that they’re unnecessarily obsessed with “truth.” It’s that they actually aren’t really about truth at all. It’s about “my truth.” At the end of the day, the cranky polemicist makes everyone around him certain of only one truth: himself. A defensive posture toward everyone and everything is a posture of self-actualization. I need to ruthlessly tear down this Wrong Idea because its existence is a challenge to my existence. My opinions become my identity. And when that happens, your opinion is not just incorrect, it is incompatible with me as a person.

This is why rational discourse has become so difficult in the internet age. It’s why commenting sections degenerate so quickly into acid-throwing endurance events. And it’s why confirmation bias and declining attention spans have combined to give us a culture that equates nuance with compromise and carefulness with cowardice.

So I want to put down my inner polemicist. I want to think more and Tweet less. And I don’t want to look at the conversations of the public square as little more than a ripe opportunity to assert my own cleverness. Dear reader, for those times, either in this space or another, that I have failed this ideal, I apologize, and hope you will forgive me, and bear with me as I try to keep truth, love, and beauty in harmony.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.