Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes fame was sometimes targeted for abuse by a bully, Moe. Unfortunately, Calvin’s clever retorts usually came to him hours after Moe’s initial taunts.
I’ve got a parallel situation: a minor instance of woke bullying was directed at me a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t answer as I wished because the bullying happened in a forum I’m not really free to speak in as I might wish—and the best answers didn’t occur to me immediately.
I was posting my announcement of a new Christian podcast, something I and a team of multiple people spent many months producing, and Moe commented in a public forum,
I assume 80% of the episodes will have only white guys around the table, like every other Christian theology podcast?
I’ve seen this sort of thing ten thousand times. But this time, it was personal. I needed to process my thoughts and make an at least internal reply.
Here’s the reply I wish I could have made.
Let me state this forthrightly: you are playing a lazy, cynical, hectoring game in which everybody loses, most of all the people the game was ostensibly designed to help. And I won’t play. Even a number of prominent white liberals have publicly tired of this game (Mark Lilla, Camille Paglia; see also Ross Douthat’s brilliant line about black lesbian sufis). This is a game C.S. Lewis named decades ago as “Bulverism”; that is, finding in someone’s social location or other interests a hidden motivation that supposedly invalidates all their reasoning. In this case: clearly, you had only white guys on your podcast because you are trying to promote the interests of white guys against others’ interests.
Bulverism is as easy as taking gluten-free candy from a Millennial. And it’s hard to answer. A person of good will who has an encounter with a Bulverite feels like he’s just been asked in public, “Have you beaten your wife today?” The question itself is offensive, because it hides inside it an ad hominem charge.
You include a figure in your comment: “80%.” Something objective like that number almost makes it sound like we might be able to find a recognized standard by which to judge appropriate representation of people-who-aren’t-white-males on a theology podcast. But, in fact, I can’t seem to find Bulverites who will produce such a standard. Bulverism, in all my experience, is never satisfied. Those who resort to it have never given me any evidence that they think their opponents can be won over, only derided, defeated, and destroyed. In fact, resorting to Bulverism is itself a declaration that efforts at persuasion have been judged useless or unnecessary. Rhetorical bludgeoning is the only tool left.
So again, Moe, I refuse to play the game. Your comment is wrong; it is sin. This kind of response is an acid that maliciously eats away at the good others try to do without building anything good in its place. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29 ESV) This simple apostolic instruction you have disobeyed.
Let me also make a consequentialist argument—by giving an example of how white liberal fascination with identity politics has hurt the people it was intended (and, I’m willing to say, often sincerely intended) to help. I make this argument precisely because I want to help my neighbor, too! A friend of mine who teaches PhD students in sub-Saharan Africa was complaining to me the other day that when they send their best African students off to the US for training, they’re immediately hired on to teach in US schools because of those schools’ diversity initiatives. Now Africa goes without some of its best and brightest, further cementing advantages already enjoyed by Western Europeans; and certain faculty members enter their teaching careers carrying an extra burden on top of the impostor syndrome that is common across all academia (the feeling many of us have that if our colleagues only knew how ignorant we really were they would laugh us out of the room): they have to labor to rid themselves and others of the idea that they were hired not for their abilities and knowledge but only to pad a melanin-count tally.
What could you do instead of armchair acid-spraying, Moe?
- You could give money to support one PhD student in biblical studies or theology from Africa in Africa (or from Asia in Asia or from Latin America in Latin America, etc.). I have a friend who teaches in the former Soviet bloc. He can hook you up, I’m pretty sure.
- Better than giving money, you could give yourself. Join an inner-city evangelistic mercy ministry and get firsthand knowledge of how difficult it is to overcome the community-wide problems there. Invest in enough individuals, as I have, to have your heart broken at least once over their choices.
- Write a kind comment saying, “Thank you for your work on this podcast! Have you ever seen the work of X Person Whose Work I Admire [And Who I Think Could Do To Get More Airtime]? I’d love to hear him/her.” A person of good will, such as I take myself to be, will certainly hear this appeal.
Perhaps you’ve done some of these things, Moe. Perhaps I am misjudging you. Perhaps your comment was made in a moment of wokeness, and you’re not usually like this. Perhaps you had a bad experience today with persons of ill will who jaded you and made you want to lash out (been there, experienced that; my solution? Get off Twitter). Next time we meet in the internet hallway, by the lockers, I urge you to give me a sincere question rather than a shove.