Modern society pushes everyone to normalize behavior that is not biblical, but why does it seem increasingly difficult to have a courteous debate on these topics?
In December, J.K. Rowling posted on social media about her support “for Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who’d lost her job for what were deemed ‘transphobic’ tweets. She took her case to an employment tribunal, asking the judge to rule on whether a philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology is protected in law. Judge Tayler ruled that it wasn’t.”
A few months later, Rowling compounded her ‘social justice crimes’ by following Magdalen Burns, a feminist who was outspoken about the importance of biological sex.
Rowling recently wrote a long and thoughtful article about her stance on gender issues and about the contemptuous, caustic responses she received.
“I must have been on my fourth or fifth cancellation by then. I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate…and, of course, for my books to be burned, although one particularly abusive man told me he’d composted them.”
When she returned to social media some months later, she found the vitriol had not subsided. “Immediately, activists who clearly believe themselves to be good, kind and progressive people swarmed back into my timeline, assuming a right to police my speech, accuse me of hatred, call me misogynistic slurs and, above all – as every woman involved in this debate will know – TERF.
“If you didn’t already know – and why should you? – ‘TERF’ is an acronym coined by trans activists, which stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.”
While J.K. Rowling unfortunately supports a number of unbiblical views beneath her rejection of the transgender political movement, she does rightfully call attention to a deeply disturbing trend in our post-modern world and conversational circles. Is it still possible in this modern age to have a disagreement without ad hominem attacks? Are we able to debate with civility that respects the intellectual capacity and personal experiences of another individual?
At the Root of Our Personhood
Scientific American explained ad hominem as “A doctor tells her patient to lose weight, and the patient thinks: ‘If my doctor really believed that, she wouldn’t be so fat.’ A movie aficionado pans the latest Tom Cruise flick because Cruise is a Scientologist. A homeowner ignores a neighbor’s advice on lawn care because the neighbor is a ... you name it: Democrat, Republican, Christian or atheist.
“These examples illustrate classic uses of ad hominem attacks, in which an argument is rejected, or advanced, based on a personal characteristic of an individual rather than on reasons for or against the claim itself.”
These personal attacks seem to have become a staple of debate as the post-modern, Western world worships more and more at the feet of identity.
Who and what do you identify as? What experiences do you have that are part of that identity? What is your identity-community? You must now swear allegiance to the orthodoxy of these identity politics which come hand-in-hand with the group where you have now allied yourself. These omnipotent categories permit no questions, no doubts. You will be castigated for your qualms. Once properly chastened, you may return to the fold but out of the limelight and always under the shadow of suspicion.
You may not speak into the experience of anyone with whom you do not share this identity. Their experiences have been different, and therefore you have nothing useful to contribute. Thus we are locked away from one another in our silos of silence.
Anyone who dares to break any of their identity-group’s tenets, like J.K. Rowling, is immediately set upon with a smear of personal slurs.
“We face not just a future of ever-greater atomization, rage, and violence,” Douglas Murray, author of The Madness of Crowds, writes, “but a future in which the possibility of a backlash against all rights advances — including the good ones — grows more likely.”
Our identity cannot be the root of our personhood. God should be. God must be.
The Essential Diversity of Church and Life
Paul gives this command to the early church: “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:17-18, ESV).
This peace should not ever come at the cost of compromising truth or, necessarily, personal convictions. It does, however, recognize the weighty value of people who were made in the image of God, even if we disagree on various ideological topics.
A person’s experiences shouldn’t be obstacles for us to overcome so much as one way for us to approach them graciously, just as the Holy Spirit doesn’t use impersonal methods to address our hearts and minds. Never losing sight of who this person in front of you is before God will help us ‘live peaceably with all’ even if we don’t always agree.
This applies equally within the church as without. Believers are described as parts of a body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) for a reason. “We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink” (v.13).
One can only imagine Paul asking, “What if your whole body was an eye?” with a splendid dose of sarcasm, but he makes his point well. We were never meant to be surrounded by people who look and think and experience life just like us.
This consideration and peaceful nature should naturally extend beyond the church walls. “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:5-6).
Amy Orr-Ewing, UK director for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, wrote about an agnostic friend who had passed away, emphasizes the importance of believers engaging in well-informed, cordial debate, “In calling his worthy tome The Good Book, [A.C.] Grayling, perhaps unwittingly, references the story about a rich young ruler found in the Gospel of Mark. The man approaches Jesus and addresses him as ‘Good teacher.’
“‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answers. ‘No one is good except God alone.’ Jesus preempts centuries of philosophical debate about the nature of morality, and locates goodness as a beginning and an end in the being of God. We are challenged to question: Without God, what is goodness? My friends have been intrigued by the question of how Grayling can know his godless Bible to be a benchmark of ‘goodness.’
“As I remember my university friend who died tragically young, I am encouraged to keep going with uncomfortable conversations. I hope to continue to be surprised that God is at work in my friends even when they seem to me to be a million miles away.”
To Those Who Have Been Wounded
Inevitably, we come across others who are bound and determined to live out the very antithesis of peacefulness. Even if we have the self-restraint and wisdom not to respond in kind, we still might feel like we limped away to lick our wounds.
As relational creatures, we feel those kinds of experiences most sharply; and they will only fester if they’re left unattended to in our hearts.
David Wilkerson pointedly wrote on this very subject, “You may be able to testify that you have won a great victory in Christ. You have successfully resisted all temptations and evil desires, all lusts and materialism, all loves of this world. But at the same time, you may be devoured by an ongoing struggle with someone who has risen up against you, manifesting envy and bitterness; misrepresenting your actions and motives; smearing your reputation; opposing you at every turn; seeking to thwart God’s purpose in your life.
“If this describes you — you’re enduring a trial brought on by a human adversary — this personal attack may have robbed you of all peace. When you read Jesus’ words to love one another, you may protest, ‘Lord, I’ll serve you with a whole heart but don’t expect me to lay down this hurt. I just can’t do it.’ Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies … do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44).
“We bring glory to our heavenly Father whenever we overlook hurts and forgive the sins done to us. To do so builds character in us — and the Holy Spirit brings us into a revelation of favor and blessing we’ve never known.”
To stem a vitriolic attack, someone has to offer a humble response. In most cases, only God’s strength can get us to be that person. In all cases, God’s forgiveness extended to us will be all that keeps us from holding a grudge.
We are meant to sit and speak with others who may disagree us, to listen to their hearts, to learn from them and maybe to love them through gentle correction.
We are called to speak calmly into the cacophony of an angry, hurting world.