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

  1. Pingback: #brogressives are why we, #UMC, can’t have nice things | Unsettled Christianity

  2. Having participated in several “dialogues” on the homosexuality issue, I agree totally with your deduction stated particularly in your last sentence. I mostly felt that no one heard me and that they were not trying to understand my position and life experience, but trying to convince me that their way was right.

  3. So well said, David. One thing that numerous interactions with Rev. Smith have shown me is this: neither he nor many progressives have any room for facts that challenge their dominant narratives. For example, I have pushed back against many things in progressive Christianity. To Rev. Smith, that makes me a conservative (perhaps he has not read the critical things I’ve written about conservative Christianity. Or maybe he’s found it best to ignore those). While many progressives eschew black and white thinking, their actions and writings reveal the rigidity they deny. Progressive Christianity, in many ways, is just another form of fundamentalism.

  4. Hello Dr. Watson, I hope this message finds you well.

    I believe time spent “working through” your argument was well spent on my end. The time frame between seeing your post and posting mine was 4 days, whereas the time frame between my post and this one was four hours. I would concede that your mind likely works faster than mine.

    Regardless, while I appreciate the engagement, here’s two areas where I don’t believe your blog post engages my argument well.

    1. “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.” Correct by consequence, but not by intention: my argument is that observers have the right to be at General Conference in the room, a right that you seek to remove for the full 10 days, not in response to protests. Further, the plight of the LGBT persons is that they are in the room alone or in small pairings with people who have voted to do them harm by excluding them from full participation in the life of the church. While that’s not an argument you are willing to engage (by your own words), the argument is that by removing observers and people whose faces they can see, it increases LGBT delegates’ sense of isolation in the UMC and does them harm in ways that people who are often in the majority culture (like me) do not often fully recognize.

    2. “[A]pparently 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.” There’s that word “apparently” again. You are indeed correct that our personal experiences shape us and we are more than the sum of our demographics. However, in claiming I have no personal experience of you, you also make the same error by assuming epistemological miracle instead of knowing my experiences. For instance, I’ve sat at GC 2004, 2008, and 2012 alongside LGBT delegates and allies through their pain and exclusion and tears. Those experiences shaped me into wanting GC to be as safe a place for LGBT persons as it can be. Excluding friends, supporters, friendly faces is contrary to my (and others’) experience of what makes a place safe. I could post again about reason, tradition, and bible if you feel that would better round out the argument and you could hear those elements more readily than one focused on experience.

    We often learn new ways of seeing through epistemological leaps or through someone telling/showing us how we are wrong. As someone who has been wrong many times before, it’s important to share when I do believe elements of our social location in the majority culture is holding us back from seeing the effects of our proposals.

    Intellectual virtue does not exist in a Kantian ivory tower: it exists alongside its effects. “How” we discuss matters as much as being cognizant of “the effects” of our discussions. I hoped to compare the LGBT experience to other situations whereby advocates and supporters are commonly accepted to draw out the reason why: safety. For a church that professes to “do no harm” I had hoped for better.

    Blessings, ~Jeremy

    • Jeremy,
      Since we are on the same side when it comes to LGBT issues (and I’m not a straight, white male) I wanted to throw in my two cents. I’ve been around church arguments on this issue for a years and I’ve always been a bit puzzled about something that you talked about in your response. I totally believe in the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the church. But, why is it that when these votes happen and don’t go our way we act as if it is the end of the world? Yes, church people can say some foul and evil things. But I feel at times that we are seeking validation from the church body. I’m not interested in having people like me, I want to be treated as an equal. If the vote doesn’t go my way, it doesn’t go my way. What kept me from leaving the church was the belief that no matter what people did, God loved me and that was the validation that kept me going.

      As to the issue at hand, while protest can be a good thing, I think what should be front and center is how can this meeting be one that honors Christ? There are times to protest, but there should also be times for listening and praying and doing the work people were sent there to do. I don’t know if closing the floor is a good idea or not, but having observed Tampa from the sidelines, there has to be a way to handle these issues and a gathering like this in Christ-like manner, something that at times seems really in short supply.

    • Jeremy,

      Your comment here is a fabulous example of your mastery of evasion and your unwillingness to take seriously the ideas of the person you are engaging.

      You begin your evasion by an irrelevant comment about the length of time that you took to write your response to Dr. Watson’s initial post and how much time went by before he responded to you. This is nothing other than a distraction. It also defeats your own point because your response to this post was less than four hours.

      Your response to Dr. Watson’s post fails to take seriously the key concern of his post: intellectual virtue. Sure, you say the phrase at the end of your comment. But your writing consistently mischaracterize the positions and motives of people that you disagree with. This is intellectual vice.

      All three people you “engaged” in your post, who come from very different places theologically, reacted to your post by insisting that you distorted what they themselves thought was at stake. This is intellectual vice.

      You also, despite their diversity of theological perspectives, lumped them in together and acted as if they were all the same because of their race, gender, and marital status. This is intellectual vice. And, I’m sure you would be outraged if your approach were applied to any other group, and rightly so. Why is it acceptable for white, heterosexual, married men?

      I wonder if you are even capable of recognizing anymore how frequently the response of someone you take on on your blog is something like: that isn’t a fair summary of what I said. This is intellectual vice.

      You are the best propagandist in the UMC. You don’t seem to care about accuracy, love for those you disagree with, or anything aside from self-righteously calling out those you see as wrong.

      Of course people that already agree with you will think your writing is awesome. If your goal is to intensify the echo-chamber on the internet and do whatever is in your limited power to create even deeper wounds to the UMC, then keep doing what you are doing.

      If you care about the truth, about intellectual virtue, and about debating actual people and what they say they believe is at stake, repent. Hear that all three people who you called out in your last post (and in many, many previous posts) do not feel that you are arguing with the positions that they are advocating. That would be a step away from intellectual vice and toward intellectual virtue.

      It is difficult to turn from bad intellectual habits to good ones. But God can do anything.


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