I’ve noticed something lately. Pointing out that someone is being inconsistent in their logic, or is applying a standard to X that they don’t apply to Y, has become a pointless observation. I could have dreamt it, but I seem to remember a time not too long ago when a demonstration of inconsistency was considered a compelling rhetorical move, one that shifted the burden onto the inconsistent party to explain how their beliefs could be taken seriously if they weren’t consistent. It’s different now. Inconsistency abounds more than ever, but people’s reaction to it has all but extinguished.
You can point out to a certain kind of Republican-voting evangelical that their political worldview makes a big deal out of the ethical character of some politicians, but not others. I’ve been doing this in various capacities for the better part of four years. You know what I have to show for it? Zero. The inconsistency is there, and it’s irrefutable—often displayed vividly by exact quotes uttered just minutes apart. But the charge of inconsistency never lands. It’s met with a shrug, or a protest of “So you’re OK when the other side does this, but not ours?” The same thing happens when you show a left-leaning evangelical that their politics of abortion—”a tragic reality we cannot fix by legislating morality”—don’t square with their politics of healthcare or immigration. It’s not that they can’t see the inconsistency. It’s that they don’t see why they should care.
In my everyday life most of the times I see the death of inconsistency, the stakes are arguably low: political discourse, tribal language, the stuff of which takes are made. But I’m currently reading Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, and the inconsistency she documents is not only egregious, but (quite literally) violent. One of the common sentiments among trans-affirming psychologists and physicians whom Shrier interviews is that a teen’s self-reported feelings of gender dysphoria *must* be accepted as true, regardless of outside evidence. Shrier, along with the dissident medical professionals she writes about, points out that this “whatever the patient says about herself is true” mentality cannot lead anywhere good in medicine. Just as the opioid crisis was empowered by easy access to drugs via over-deferential prescriptions, the teen transgender craze depends on medical professionals who refuse to dig deeper than a patient’s expressed desires and intuitions.
As Shrier reports, however, there’s no use in pointing this out to the counselors and therapists who shepherd teen girls toward puberty blockers and surgery. It’s not that they don’t see the problem; Shrier gets one trans-affirming doctor to admit that teens don’t really know what they want or who they are. This doctor would not be compelled by his trans-affirming worldview to prescribe Vicodin to a hungry-eyed 14 year old who insisted, between sniggers, that he was clinically depressed because of a mid-life crisis. The doctor recognize what was going on. So why doesn’t he try to stop teen girls from binding down their breasts and chemically sterilizing themselves?
The answer is that, well, he just doesn’t. Inconsistency is not the moral and philosophical alarm that it once was. The “values voter” storms the Capitol. Why? He just does. The humane cosmopolitan laughs at the poverty and disease of those whose politics he abhors. Why? He just does. And if no amount of pointing this out can move the conscience, we must infer that the problem is not lack of awareness, but a settled reconciliation. The inconsistency is not invisible. It’s just been made at home.
Maybe we can learn something from this. To the degree that we expect revealing inconsistency to be a catalyst for repentance or change, perhaps we have been working under a deficient anthropology. As I’ve said repeatedly, traditional evangelical “worldview” education has its place and many strengths, but one of its massive problems is its effort to philosophically systematize human nature. When you are taught that people can not live differently than their religious or philosophical beliefs dictate, you simply have no possible response when you find out that, actually, those people DO live differently than their beliefs. They live beneath them—the Christian theologian commits adultery or fraud—and over them—the materialist recognizes injustice.
Pointing out inconsistency would be sufficiently effective if people’s ideas and behavior were neatly packaged together in self-evidently mappable forms. But that’s not how human nature works. The theologian did not commit adultery because of his deficient understanding of sex or marriage, he committed it because he wanted to, and his desires did not consult his intellectual commitments for permission, because desires do not do that.
Our emerging public square is an arena of competing desires. As bad as fake news and tribalism are, they are symptoms rather than causes. Tests of intellectual coherence and consistency are valuable but they are no match for visions of the good life that are shaped by dysfunctional or inordinate desires. Confronting the spirituality of expressive individualism with intellectual gotchas, keeping a chart of secular society’s hypocrisies and special pleading—we can do it all day to the same negligible effect.
Perhaps the gospel needs to permeate our intellectual discourse more than it has. Instead of holding up inconsistency as a worldview defeater, then writing blog posts about how hypocritical the media is, perhaps the more constructive way is to constantly interrogate American society: “What do you want here? Why does this matter to you? If what you believe in didn’t keep its promises, what would you do?” Perhaps we should engage culture as if ideas come from desires moreso than syllogisms.