The Slow Death of Intellectual Virtue

How we argue matters. I can’t emphasize this enough. The way in which we engage one another, the motives we attribute to one another, and the rigor with which we engage one another’s arguments–these all matter. We cannot make intellectual or moral progress simply by arguing with one another. Rather, such progress requires that we argue with one another in the right way.

I often disagree with posts I come across in the blogosphere, but I generally refrain from engaging with them unless I have the time to take their arguments seriously and provide a well-reasoned and fair response. I appreciate when others engage my arguments in the same way. Disagreement does not bother me. Both Kevin Carnahan and Joel Watts, for example, have disagreed with me in public regarding pieces I have written, but they have taken what I have to say seriously. Since I don’t make arguments flippantly or casually, I appreciate their taking the time to work through what I’m arguing, even in the midst of our disagreement.

Unfortunately, not all bloggers are so responsible. At times, our “dialogue” devolves into name-calling and rhetoric. I try not to engage these blogs because it is generally unproductive. I feel compelled at this point, however, to respond to Rev. Jeremy Smith, who has made public accusations about me on more than one occasion, from fomenting schism to attempting to funnel $12 million imaginary dollars to United and Asbury. In a recent post he has done this again, though now I’m in the fine company of some of the better bloggers in the Methoblogging world.

You see, I had the audacity to claim that we should limit in-person attendance of the General Conference to delegates, bishops, and other essential personnel, restricting other observation to live-streaming. My reasoning is that there are many important matters that we discuss at GC, and to have these disrupted or altogether halted by LGBT protesters is not in the best interest of the whole church. As I expected, some people agreed while others did not. Among those who agreed was Joel Watts, who is in favor of ordination and marriage of LGBT persons. The Via Media Methodists were also in agreement, but, according to Smith, they simply understand nothing of progressive Christianity.

In the “argument” that he develops, Smith claims that, because the VMMs, Joel Watts, and I are all straight, white, married males, we are unable to perceive the plight of LGBT people. Perhaps he is right about this. I’m not going to dispute the point. Our proposals, however, were not about the right to advocate for, argue for, or call for ordination and marriage of LGBT people. They were about the way in which we conduct our business at General Conference. Apparently for Smith, part of the solution to the plight of LGBT people includes the right to distract and disrupt the work of GC delegates.

This type of argument has become fairly commonplace. The idea is that social location comes to bear on our perspectives in important ways that we don’t always perceive. No doubt, this is true. I want to emphasize, though, that as people we are more than our social location. We are shaped, influenced, and informed by a broad array of personal and social experiences. Someone who simply identifies me by race, gender, sexual orientation, and marital status is essentially claiming that the individual experiences that have shaped me as a person simply don’t matter. Smith and I have never had a personal conversation. We have communicated online a couple of times, but nothing more. I can’t imagine how he would know anything about me except for what I have written for public consumption, and he has misrepresented even that on more than one occasion. This lack of personal interaction and knowledge, however, hasn’t stopped him from making assumptions about my motives, opinions, and character.

Now, here is the really odd part of his argument: apparently through some epistemological miracle, Smith has been able to see beyond his own privilege as a straight, white, married male, and as such, he is able to see into the true, pernicious nature of people such as the Via Media Methodists, Joel Watts, and yours truly. That is apparently why he is willing to argue in favor of a scenario in which LGBT protesters can interrupt the work of the General Conference, work that might relate, say, to the international church, ministry with people with disabilities, work with people in poverty, etc. Apparently, as an enlightened straight, white, married male, he is able to see how the interests of one group in the UMC should supersede the work of all other groups. I confess my ignorance in this regard.

Now, how has Smith made this epistemological leap whereas others of us have not? Is it because of his theological education? Gosh… I have a theological education, too. I attended Perkins School of Theology. And can theological education transcend the limitations of social location? If that is the case, why did his education have this effect while ours did not? Is it because he is a better reasoner than we are? If reason can trump social location in his case, why does he not extend the same assumption to us? Is it because certain life experiences have affected his perspective, even beyond the limitations of his social location? If so, then why does he seem to feel that social location is an epistemological trump card? There is a name for this kind of argumentation: self-referential incoherence. But who needs coherence when you have rhetoric?

If our dialogue is going to be characterized largely by intellectual vice, it is hard to see a productive way forward. Argument by innuendo, name-calling, intentional misrepresentation, and false accusation can only result in eventual division. If the UMC divides, it won’t be because we don’t agree with one another over homosexuality. It will be because we have lost the ability to talk to one another in meaningful, responsible ways.

15 thoughts on “The Slow Death of Intellectual Virtue

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