When Persuasion Dies

Eighty years ago, as World War II was erupting, the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, made a speech which sounds like it could have been given today.

He leads with a strong assertion. “Democracy is not merely a good form of government; it is the best.” His reason for this is interesting. “It is,” he said, “the only form of government that can combine three characteristics: law, equality, and justice.”

But, Hutchins asks, how can we know these three make a valid foundation? Because, he says, this basis for democracy is moral. “Its end is the good for man. Only democracy has this basis. Only democracy has this end. If we do not believe in this basis or this end, we do not believe in democracy. These are the principles which we must defend if we are to defend democracy.”

Here we come upon a problem, however. How can we know these characteristics are moral? How can we know anything is moral? It’s a problem because “for forty years and more” (and again, he was speaking in 1940) “our intellectual leaders have been telling us they are not true. They have been telling us in fact that nothing is true which cannot be subjected to experimental verification. In the whole realm of social thought there can therefore be nothing but opinion. . . . There is no difference between good and bad; there is only the difference between expediency and inexpediency. We cannot even talk about good and bad states or good and bad men. There are no morals; there are only the folkways. The test of action is its success, and even success is a matter of opinion. . . .”

Who is to say what is moral and what isn’t? If everyone is doing it, why not me or you? Who’s to say who is a moral person and who isn’t? I can justify anything I do as long as I can avoid the consequences of the law.

But an even more sinister consequence of this line of thinking awaits. If everyone’s opinion is equal, if there is no real way to convince someone that I am right and you are wrong, then we are left with yelling at each other. And if yelling doesn’t resolve disputes, the only option remaining is coercion. As Hutchins said, “If everything is a matter of opinion, . . . force becomes the only way of settling differences of opinion.”

What can we do in the face of all this? This is a huge question which requires a multifaceted response. Allow me, however, to mention just one simple step we can all take.

We can stop listening to people who yell, and start listening to people who are trying to make a rational argument. We can stop listening to those who are trying to manipulate, name call, or overwhelm us with hot rhetoric. As I’ve noted in my chapters on persuasion in Write Better, instead we should listen to those trying to persuade fairly, speak calmly, and appeal to the common good. We can also choose to listen to these who present different sides of an issue (not just one) while exercising this sort of principled persuasion.

Listening to or reading such persuasive arguments is harder than it may seem because it takes effort to follow such reasoning. It is also hard because doing so opens us up to the possibility of finding out we are wrong. And we don’t like to hear reasons or information that disagrees with conclusions we’ve already come to.

Being open and willing to learn is difficult but necessary because if we won’t practice principled persuasion or allow ourselves to be persuaded, force is all we have left.

Image credits: Dr. Robert Hutchins becomes Chancellor of University of Chicago, 1945. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/91481464/; Faces–Pixabay, Clipart-Vectors

Disrupting Distraction

When we talk about our faith, we may be thinking of beliefs, ethics, and worship. But what others hear, says Alan Noble, is our preferences. They see these as lifestyle choices we use to craft an identity—like jerseys of our favorite sports team, our vegetarian diet, or volunteering to tutor.

What makes engaging others about religion even more difficult is our culture of distraction. Social media, entertainment, busy schedules and more all keep us from reflecting on ideas, on substantive issues, on our own lives. Both people of faith and people of no faith rarely stop long enough to wonder about our path in life. Yes, I too reflexively take a dose of social media even in the bathroom.

In Alan Noble’s transforming book Disruptive Witness, he unpacks these two forces—identity formed by preferences and endless distraction—based on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. With gentle but persistent insight, Noble considers how our culture makes faith a challenge for all of us, in ways we may be largely unaware of.

The second part of the book looks at practices we can engage in to break or disrupt these forces—personally, as a church, and as we interact with culture. These are not suggestions for evangelism as we might typically think of them. They are more like spiritual disciplines to reorient our own lives before (or as) we engage with those outside God’s family. I could wish for more here, but Noble gives us a necessary beginning.

This important book deserves a wide reading for understanding ourselves, our neighbors, and our world—and for living more closely attuned to the reality of God.

photo credit: Pixabay LoboStudioHamburg

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher. My opinions are my own.

The Popularity of Teen Dystopias

How many times can bestselling dystopias have plots about a dictatorial, caste-like society in which a group of teens are forced into a contained area where they must fight and kill each other as a prelude to overthrowing the harsh regime? Apparently a lot. Most similar to The Hunger Games, Pierce Brown’s Red Rising also shares major plot arcs with The Maze Runner, Divergent, and the grandmother of the them all, The Giver.

Continue reading “The Popularity of Teen Dystopias”

An American Ideal, An American Myth

Ken Wytsma was talking with a young man running his own landscaping firm who was proud of how he’d started from zero and succeeded by virtue of hard work, with no benefit from privilege. So Ken asked where he got most of his business (the suburbs) and where they worked on jobs (in backyards) and when (during the day) and how he got business (putting flyers on doors and knocking at houses).

Then Ken asked, “If you were a young black man proposing to work in the backyards of those suburbanites during the day when they’re not home, is it possible some of your client might show a degree of suspicion or bias? If you were Hispanic, talked with an accent, or looked like you were from a culture unfamiliar to the suburban communities where people can afford backyard ponds and fountains, do you think it might–even if ever so slightly–affect how successful you are when you knock on doors?” The white friend understood.

While equality is an American ideal, Ken Wytsma tells us, it is also an American myth. State-sponsored racist policies did not end with the abolishment of slavery. They have continued in various forms ever since.

As Wytsma recounts in The Myth of Equality, voting restrictions in the post-Reconstruction era reduced Alabama’s black voter turnout from 180,000 to 3,000. It fell to zero in Virginia and North Carolina. Today efforts continue to hinder voter registration.

Astonishingly, forced labor was widely reinstituted around the turn of the twentieth century with thousands of blacks arrested on minor charges and then leased back by the state to business owners. In fact, in Mississippi, “25 percent of convicts leased out for forced labor were children.”

Regarding housing, redlining in the North during most of the twentieth century reduced the value of minority real estate holdings, with contractual options to take their property away from them for missing one payment–something white buyers did not have to endure. The effects of this systematic impoverishment are with us still.

In the last fifty years, the war on drugs has targeted minority populations creating an incarceration-industrial complex. Things are beginning to change, but Wytsma finds it ironic that in Oregon, where marijuana is now legal, “white corporate businessmen now stand to make millions of dollars by selling a product that millions of men, predominantly of color, are currently incarcerated for possessing in miniscule amounts.”

Does all this have anything to do with the gospel? Wytsma quotes Timothy Keller: “Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of the vulnerable is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice.” Biblical justice is not just punishing evil doers but restoring what was bent or broken. The cross doesn’t just allow sins to be forgiven but restores relationships. It reconciles us to God and us to each other.

Compassion for individuals is good and right, but it is only a component of justice which also looks to remedy underlying causes for such needs. Compassion, contends Wytsma, can also feed our hero complex. We encourage a more holistic justice when we use our influence and authority to give our responsibilities, opportunities, and power to those who have not had it equally.

Through a clear retelling of American history, a well-rounded discussion of biblical justice, and concrete ways we can move ahead individually and corporately, Wytsma provides an important book on an important topic.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Social Animal

“We are not who we think we are.”

In The Social Animal, David Brooks tells the story of a composite American couple Erica and Harold, from their first moments of life to their last. Weaving in and out of this tale of their early childhood, high school years, career highs and lows, and the opportunities and challenges of aging, Brooks offers insights from recent research in a variety of fields which provide a new understanding ourselves.
Continue reading “The Social Animal”

The Man in the High Castle

What would it be like for white Americans to be second-class citizens in their own country? What if we had to accommodate ourselves to a dominant culture that wasn’t native to us? What if we had to negotiate different values, different customs, different ways of speaking, and a lower economic status than we are used to–all with the vague fog of inferiority hanging over us constantly as we and others compare us to a superior race? What would it be like? How would it feel?
Continue reading “The Man in the High Castle”

Fighting Hatred in an Unexpected Way

One evening in June 1991, Michael Weisser and his wife, Julie, were unpacking boxes in their new home in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he had become the new Jewish Cantor at a Jewish congregation. The phone rang, and they answered it. “You’ll be sorry you ever moved in, Jew boy,” the caller said and hung up.
Continue reading “Fighting Hatred in an Unexpected Way”