The Outraged Are Always Right

It’s getting really bad out there. Americans, including very intelligent, thoughtful ones, simply cannot abide the mere presence of someone they don’t agree with. How else to explain the spectacle of allegedly reasonable people scurrying to punish The New York Times for hiring Bret Stephens to write op-eds? Stephens, his critics charge, is a climate change denier. He’s not, though he does think jumpy journalists and apocalyptic politicians need to chill. Not good enough. A slice of NYT progressive readership wants the paper to choose; it’s Bret Stephens or their subscriptions.

As he is wont to do, Alan Jacobs gets right to the point:

For some time now I’ve asked the New York Times to give better and fairer coverage of social conservatives and religious people, and hiring Stephens seems to have been at least a small step in that direction. But if their core constituency continues to engage in freakouts of this magnitude over any deviation from their views, will we see any more such steps?…The pressures of the market are relentless. And the more of our institutions, especially our intellectual institutions, are governed by those relentless pressures, the fewer places we will have to turn for nonpartisan inquiry.

Again, my concern here applies to every institution that deals in ideas. When people ask me how academic administrators can allow student protestors to behave so badly — can allow them even to get away with clearly illegal behavior — I answer: The customer is always right. And I’ve got a feeling that’s exactly what the publishers of the New York Times are thinking as members of their core constituency cancel their subscriptions. Religious weirdos like me are a lost cause; but they can’t lose their true believers. Mistakes were made; heads will roll; it won’t happen again. And America will sink deeper and deeper into this morass of “alternative facts” and mutually incomprehensible narratives.

This is exactly right. Sometimes conservatives talk as if bias in the media exists merely because “elites” want it to. There’s some truth to that, of course, but it’s a very incomplete truth. Bias in media exists because people with money hand it to those in control of the media and say, “You know what I want to see, right?” Whether these people with money are cloistered suits wielding enormous, anonymous power, or whether they are just paying customers–it doesn’t make a difference. This is how it all works. If the NYT’s readership decides they don’t like Bret Stephens and their checkbooks don’t either, Bret Stephens is gone.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to journalism. The idea that the customer is always right pervades almost every institution in our culture, including the church. As a pastor’s kid, I have seen firsthand the efforts of “major tithers” to exercise a huge amount of control over the leadership and direction of a church. Often even well-meaning pastors and elders don’t know how to address this situation; one member clearly does not have ruling power of a church, but what are you going to do without that weekly check?

Same goes in education, too. As Tom Nichols writes about in The Death of Expertise, universities see students as clients. They’re willing to pay for a degree? Give it to them! Dumb classes down. Make “A” stand for “Average.” Yield to student protesters’ every demands. Don’t cross your customers with antiquated stuff like authority, hierarchy, and leadership. The customer is always right.

And it comes in subtler varieties too. A version of “the customer is always right” is “the person with the personal story is always right.” The logic is that if you have a narrative, if you have firsthand experience of how people you disagree with on issue X really are all obnoxious jerks, then you win the debate. You don’t have to say anything else, because any response that someone would mount to your story amounts to denying your existence and erasing your humanity. This is the cultural equivalent of manipulating an organization through money. For many millennials, the currency that matters in the exchange of ideas is your story. If you have more currency than the next person, congratulations. The experiencer is always right.

Polarization has become weaponized. Nobody wants to hear from people they disagree with. If I don’t like your Facebook posts, I’ll unfriend you. If I don’t like your column, I’ll boycott the paper until they fire you. I want to hear from good people who think and talk and live like me. That’s polarization. And polarization meets weaponization because many in our culture are willing to use whatever they have, whatever they can leverage, to make this polarization work for them–whether money, friends, jobs, hobbies, even sports. There are lots and lots of folks willing to blow up their lives to make sure there’s no presence of the people and ideas they hate.

I’m not sure how to counteract this trend. Increasingly, I’m suspicious that doing so is impossible without radical steps in regards to technology. As long as social media and TV news make us feel like we’re actually engaging with others (when we’re simply at the control panel of our echo chamber), there is no cure. No one looks in the mirror and says, “I think I’m an easily-outraged person.” All of us that fall into this mentality do so having no clue it’s happening. That, perhaps, is the worst part.

 

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If You Like Your Theocracy, You Can Keep Your Theocracy

My issue with pieces like this one comes down to a question of good-faith. In a certain context, given some mutual assumptions and amongst people who share particular convictions, arguing from the New Testament to a certain political program can be persuasive and valuable. The trouble comes when such an argument appears ex nihilo in a secular worldview universe. Then it becomes a transparently manipulative attempt to appropriate a belief system that the author clearly sees no transcendent value in–aside from the value of momentarily making his opponents look like hypocrites.

This is the kind of theological co-opting that harms the gospel, whether it comes from the right or the left. I have Christian friends who believe, as Kristof apparently does, that the teachings of Jesus lead us to a particular system of healthcare in government. Their perspective is informed by Scripture and Christian ethics. But it’s also informed by a more general humility toward the lordship of Jesus Christ and the inspiration and authority of the Bible. My Christian friends who argue from a biblical perspective for their healthcare policy also believe that, for example, Jesus really was speaking through the apostle Paul when he says that those who practice fornication, adultery, homosexuality, idolatry, covetousness, etc, will not inherit the kingdom. Their perspective on healthcare comes from a place of good faith, and even if I do not agree politically, I have to reckon with their arguments as if it is indeed possible that they articulating a genuinely Christian position.

But Kristof’s op-ed comes from no such place. There is little evidence that Kristof himself operates on a biblical worldview, and there is even less evidence that he really believes a Christian-oriented political governance would be good for the country. In 2004, Kristof issued a strong rebuke to Christians who opposed same-sex marriage, attacking them for their transparently theocratic attempt to force their religion on their neighbors:

In any case, do we really want to make Paul our lawgiver? Will we enforce Paul’s instruction that women veil themselves and keep their hair long? (Note to President Bush: If you want to obey Paul, why don’t you start by veiling Laura and keeping her hair long, and only then move on to barring gay marriages.)

Given these ambiguities, is there any solution? One would be to emphasize the sentiment in Genesis that “it is not good for the human to be alone,” and allow gay lovers to marry.

This quotation does not flatter Kristof’s healthcare column. It exposes a mercenary use of Scripture and a disingenuous instinct toward religious belief. Those who warn against theocracy and the apostle Paul when talking about marriage are not entitled to appeal to the lordship of Christ when the topic turns to healthcare. As C.S. Lewis said, Christ did not leave us the luxury of dismissing him as merely a good moral teacher. He is a liar, a lunatic, or a lord–and the right choice doesn’t depend on which party has a majority.

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The lessons of George Bell

“You can die in such anonymity in New York.”

This lengthy story in The New York Times is a haunting, heartbreaking narrative that depicts a reality that many of us might be embarrassed to admit is one of our greatest fears: Dying utterly alone. “The Lonely Death of George Bell” is a fine piece of investigative journalism by N.R. Kleinfield, but more than that, it is a grievous commentary on the ability of lives to disappear–both by individual choice and by societal obliviousness.

Here’s an excerpt:

Neighbors had last seen him six days earlier, a Sunday. On Thursday, there was a break in his routine. The car he always kept out front and moved from one side of the street to the other to obey parking rules sat on the wrong side. A ticket was wedged beneath the wiper. The woman next door called Mr. Bell. His phone rang and rang.

Then the smell of death and the police and the sobering reason that George Bell did not move his car.

Each year around 50,000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to graze a new low, with people living healthier and longer. A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learn of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral. A reverent death notice appears. Sympathy cards accumulate. When the celebrated die or there is some heart-rending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep.

A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.

Who was George Bell? Kleinfield’s inquiry into this anonymous New Yorker’s life yields very little. There are photographs of a teenage George sitting beside his father at Christmas, looking content and happy (“He was especially attached to his parents,” Kleinfield writes). As the years progress, the photos begin to depict a man with large appetites but little joy. He spent the last 20 years of his life collecting disability payments, a union pension, and, as a “hoarder,” just about anything else he could get. But he never had people over, never went out with friends. He existed, and obtained. That was the extent of George Bell’s life.

Why did this article affect me so much? I think it may be because, in a way, I identify with George Bell. Why was he the way that he was? What stopped  him every time the thought occurred to him that he should maybe, just maybe, go out with a friend, or write a letter, or call somebody? What was it that he believed about himself or about others that made a rotting, shrinking apartment more comfortable and more appealing than a week’s vacation?

The truth is I don’t know. And that’s why I identify with him. This kind of habitual solitude, this kind of perpetual retreat into one’s own decaying lifestyle, defies logic and reason, and yet, its appeal is undeniable. To never be at the mercy of someone’s probing questions. To never have to explain why it’s been so long. To never have to promise someone to get help, or to see a doctor, or to make that visit. Anonymity is the currency of autonomy. The best way to have control over my life is to make sure to keep others out.

Is that what happened with George Bell? I’m not sure. Perhaps, as the article suggests, there were psychological factors at work. But what about us? It’s easy to look at the unrestrained chaos of a New York hoarder’s apartment and scorn, but should we? We are, after all, the lonely generation. We are the lonely generation that marvels at our social networks and our mobile connectedness, collecting “Friends” and “Likes” and “Followers” much the same way that George Bell collected trinkets. Are our digital villages much better than the locked apartments of anonymous New York pensioners?

We such a desperately lonely people. Whether we read about the sad life of a George Bell, or about the angry isolation of a school shooter, we can’t deny this. We are lonely, and in most cases, we don’t even know it.

Perhaps it would be a mistake to try to draw out a simple “lesson” from the death of George Bell. Perhaps it would be too crass, an inadvertent participation in the dismissal of life that seemed to define his last two decades. But it seems right to me to reflect for a moment on the tragedy of a life spent and finished in obscurity. It doesn’t have to be like that. It was never meant to be like that. Our God is the God who puts the lonely in families, and not just families that share DNA but families that share adoption in Christ. The church is where loneliness meets its match.

Did anyone ever tell George Bell?