Trigger warning: specifically Christian reflections ahead.
The reason I want to say something about the two recent Twitter tsunamis is that they seem to have some significant, but little-noted, elements in common.
I’m going to start with something that I’ve hesitated whether to say, but here goes: I think my lack of enthusiasm for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay on reparations is largely a function of, ahem, age. The people in my Twitter feed who were most enthusiastic about Coates’s essay — and the enthusiasm got pretty extreme — tended to be much younger than I am, which is to say, tended to be people who don’t remember the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath. Or, to put it yet another and more precisely relevant way, people who don’t remember when a regular topic of American journalism was the crushing poverty imposed on black Americans by a history of pervasive racism.
Conversely, I spent much of my adolescence and early adulthood trying to understand what was going on in my home state (Alabama) and home town (Birmingham) by reading Marshall Frady and Howell Raines and, a little later, Stanley Crouch and Brent Staples, and above all — far above all — James Baldwin, whose “A Stranger in the Village” and The Fire Next Time tore holes in my mental and emotional world. There’s nothing in Coates’s essay that, in my view, wasn’t done far earlier and far better by these writers.
Which doesn’t mean, I’ve come to see, that anyone who loved Coates’s essay was wrong to do so. It seemed like old news to me, but that’s because I’m old. Samuel Johnson said that people need to be reminded far more often than they need to be instructed, and it is perhaps time for a widely-read reminder of the ongoing and grievous consequences of racism in America.
But I do think the strong response to Coates’s essay indicates that the American left has to a considerable extent lost the thread when it comes to race and poverty. (I do not mention the American right in this context because my fellow conservatives have been lastingly and culpably blind to the ongoing cruelty of racism, and have often thoughtlessly participated in that cruelty.) For that left, perhaps Coates’s essay can be a salutary reminder that there are millions of people in America whose problems are far worse than websites’ or public restrooms’ failures to recognize their preferred gender identity — which is the sort of thing I’m more likely to see blog posts and tweets about these days.
Which leads me to the second tsumani, the response to the shootings in Santa Barbara. I was interested in how this extremely rare event — of a kind that’s probably not getting more common — led to the more useful and meaningful discussion of common dangers for women, as exemplified by the #YesAllWomen hashtag. Even though I think “hashtag activism” is an absurd parody of the real thing, I thought the rise of that particular hashtag marked a welcome shift from the internet’s typical hyperattentiveness to the Big Rare Event towards the genuine problems of everyday life.
But even as some good things were happening, I also saw the all-too-typical — in social media and in life more generally — lining up into familiar camps. It’s as true as ever that These Tragic Events Only Prove My Politics — even though that site hasn’t been updated in a long time — so I was treated to a whole bunch of tweets casually affirming that mass murder is the natural and inevitable result of “heteronormativity” and “traditional masculinity.” And I saw far more comments from people attacking the #YesAllWomen hashtag as “typical feminist BS” and … well, and a lot worse.
No surprises there. But I was both somewhat surprised and deeply disappointed to see how many of the men attacking users of the #YesAllWomen hashtag — users that in every single case I saw the attackers were not following, which means that they were going out of their way to look for women who were hurt and upset by the shootings so they could belittle those concerns — used their Twitter bios to identify themselves as Christians. (One of the most self-righteously sneering guys I saw has a bio saying he wants to “code like Jesus.”)
And if you don’t see the problem with that, I would suggest that you read some of the “one another” verses in the Bible, like Romans 12:16: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” Or this passage from Ephesians 4: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” And if you’re a Christian and think those rules only apply to your interactions with your fellow Christians, well, maybe there’s something in the Bible about how you should treat your enemies. As Russell Moore has just written, “Rage itself is no sign of authority, prophetic or otherwise.”
There are women all over the world who live in daily fear of verbal harassment at best, and often much, much worse. They are our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, our wives — or just our friends. How can we fail to be compassionate towards them, or to sympathize with their fear and hurt? How can we see their fear as a cause for our self-righteous self-defense? To think of some supposed insult to our dignity in such circumstances seems to me to drift very far indeed from the spirit, as well as the commandments, of Christ.
I began this post by saying that the two recent tsunamis have something in common, and this, I think, is it: hurt and anger at the failure of powerful human beings to treat other and less powerful people as fully human. This has been a theme in my writing for a long time, but is the heart and soul of my history of the doctrine of original sin, which I’m going to quote now. This is a passage about the revulsion towards black people the great nineteenth-century Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz felt when he came to America for the first time:
Agassiz’s reaction to the black servants at his Philadelphia hotel provides us the opportunity to discuss an issue which has been floating just beneath the surface of this narrative for a long time. One of the arguments that I have been keen to make throughout this book is that a belief in original sin serves as a kind of binding agent, a mark of “the confraternity of the human type,” an enlistment of us all in what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called the “universal democracy of sinners.” But why should original sin alone, among core Christian doctrines, have the power to do that? What about that other powerful idea in Genesis, that we are all made in the image of God? Doesn’t that serve equally well, or even better, to bind us as members of a single family?
The answer is that it should do so, but usually does not. Working against the force of that doctrine is the force of familiarity, of prevalent cultural norms of behavior and even appearance. A genuine commitment to the belief the we are all created equally in the image of God requires a certain imagination — imagination which Agassiz, try as he might, could not summon: “it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us.” Instinctive revulsion against the alien will trump doctrinal commitments almost every time. Black people did not feel human to him, and this feeling he had no power to resist; eventually (as we shall see) his scientific writings fell into line with his feelings.
By contrast, the doctrine of original sin works with the feeling that most of us have, at least some of the time, of being divided against ourselves, falling short of the mark, inexplicably screwing up when we ought to know better. It takes relatively little imagination to look at another person and think that, though he is not all he might be, neither am I. It is true that not everyone can do this: the Duchess of Buckingham couldn’t. (“It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.”) But in general it is easier for most of us to condescend, in the etymological sense of the word — to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others — than to lift up people whom our culturally-formed instincts tell us are decidedly inferior to ourselves. If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation. That the doctrine of a common creation in the image of God doesn’t do more to help build human community and fellow-feeling could be read as yet more evidence for the reality of original sin.
So you can see that my own response to the problems I’ve been seeing discussed on Twitter is a Christian one, more specifically one grounded in a theological anthropology that sees all of us as creatures made in the image of God who have (again, all of us) defaced that image. And it is in the recognition of our shared humanity — both in its glories and its failings but often starting with its failings — that we build our case against abuse and exploitation.
But to have a politics grounded in this Christian humanism is also to be at odds with most of the rhetoric I see on Twitter about the recent controversies. I mentioned earlier the “lining up into familiar camps,” and those camps are always exclusive and oppositional. The message of identity politics, as practiced in America anyway, is not only that “my experience is unlike yours” — which is often true — but “my experience can never be like yours, between us there will always be a great gulf fixed” — which is a tragic mistake. That way of thinking leads to absurdities like the claim that men like Elliot Rodger are the victims of feminism, and, from other camps, the complete failure to acknowledge that five of the seven people Rodger killed were men. It also leads, I think, and here I want to tread softly, that it’s going to be relatively simple to figure out who should receive reparations and who should pay them.
It’s not wrong to have camps, to belong to certain groups, but it’s disastrous to be unable to see beyond them, and impossible to build healthy communities if we can’t see ourselves as belonging to one another.
So why does identity politics so frequently, and so completely, trump a belief in our shared humanity? I’m not sure, but the book I’m currently writing takes up this question. It deals with a group of Christian intellectuals who suspect, as many others in the middle of the twentieth century also suspected, that democracy is not philosophically self-sustaining — that it needs some deeper moral or metaphysical commitments to make it plausible. And for T. S. Eliot and Jacques Maritain and Henri de Lubac and Simone Weil and C. S. Lewis and W. H. Auden, only the Christian account of “the confraternity of the human type” was sufficiently strong to bind us together. Otherwise, why should I treat someone as equal to me simply because he or she belongs to the same species?