Tone Policing the Culture Wars

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Originally published at Deeper Story

Like every other major, the Political Science students had a Senior Seminar course to wrap up their degrees. It was supposed to be a group-centric, student-led thing, allowing the professor a few more coffee breaks and us young learners to teach each other. It was supposed to be grace-filled and civil, but really, who were we kidding- we were Poly-Sci. Our natural state was reactive, our instinct- to go for the jugular.

I was infamously liberal, which didn’t do me any favors at this school. It was a very Baptist College, so the only way I could get a word in edgewise was to brawl and roar, tearing up every opposing argument with a smirk, with a laugh, with the whole class seething by the time I finally shut up.

My class and I never would agree on gay marriage or taxes, the drug war or the Iraq war, and we called each other stupid and naïve and dogmatic. But, as one right-winging friend said to me after an almost unforgivable fight, “There is no need to apologize, Ben. This is what we do.”

And perhaps that’s why we were all such good friends.

We could go to toe to toe, verbally joust, and it didn’t even crack the firm foundation of our relationships. The shared warmth we held for each other was based on common concerns, justice, love, mercy. We bonded over our joint concern for the world, a concern that seemed so absent from our me-generation peers.

In many ways, we were Culture Warriors in training, fated to fight it out until the end, but in the most important ways, we were like iron sharpening iron. We were like explorers, plunging our shovels into the earth, scrapping to uncover the elusive truth that we could only find together. 

And the only agreement that was required was that we never stop searching, arguing, or challenging.

 

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A few months after the school year ended, I created a blog and stumbled into a world not too different from my old classroom warfare.

People were discussing the big issues: LGBT folks in society/church, modesty rules, gender equality, privilege, racism, violence and others. And it was a conversation I wanted to join, I wanted to have a loud voice in it.

Much of it was the same as the old classroom days. Someone shouts (a blog), another shouts back (a response), and then the commenters flooded in. Faceless folks would pool their thoughts at the bottom of a post, creating a kind of anthology of ideas. A beautiful, exciting way of challenging structures and arguments and issues.

But much of the online chatter was different from my old class days, too.

The biggest thing, I noticed, was how important tone was made to be.

It might’ve been an effort to avoid offending anyone but bloggers steadily assigned blame for this issue and that issue on the shoulders of everyone. Regardless of issue. Regardless of position. Being a participant put you on a side and both sides were always to blame. When a controversial event blew up, they tagged their posts with the roundly hated “Culture Wars” and wrote out ambiguous thoughts that felt like a long sigh. Like a sad look of disappointment. Like, why can’t ya’ll just get along?

In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. fleshed out his feelings about those policing his tone, and at the time, it was the White Moderate:

 

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom;”

 

It is very human and well-intentioned to long for easy, sweet sounding dialog, and of course, that is the best form of dialog there is. But to stand at the side of these conversations, criticizing tone, calling for better manners, is a privilege many of us are not allowed.

I think back to that class and our heated fights and the lessons we learned from one another. Tone was rather secondary. A virtue, but not essential. To us, the most important thing was always justice. Finding what is right and what is wrong. Building a future on equality and fairness and shalom. Looking for that elusive truth in the eyes of those we disagreed with most.

I don’t recall us ever calling these issues “Culture Wars”, instead, we called them issues and we studied them. We listened to each other. We committed ourselves to humbly constructing and reconstructing our opinions with new information, new insight, and an ear to prayer.

Tone and grace are important, yes, but they shouldn’t steal attention from the fact that I am still barred from donating blood. And I still can be fired on the basis of my sexual orientation. And in most of the country, I can’t marry.

I think civility matters, sure, but not as much as the fact that women are still being blamed for rape, still condemned for using birth control, and still living beneath the patriarchal structures of both society and the Church.

Giving courtesy and the benefit of the doubt are critical to dialog, but when it comes to racial minorities, I am more invested in eradicating institutional racism, closing the education gap, and changing the society that says a hoodie makes a black teenager armed and dangerous.

Yes, I do think we can do better. I think we can work to right the wrongs of the world with grace-filled words and I think we can learn to love well despite deep disagreements. But I also believe we have such important work to do and a long road left to pave. And if we keep shutting down progress on an account of attitude, we will never, ever get there.

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