Well, If That's the Way You Feel
Victimhood is a fascinating, if heartbreaking, social trend. There is a difference between victimhood and being a victim, of course. There are real victims, people who have been oppressed, taken advantage of, abused, harassed, marginalized, and treated in ways that are beneath human dignity. The problem is, it’s becoming harder to tell who these people are.
It’s sad to say this is the case. The reason it’s true is because other people, not victims, use victims for their social agendas. Then it becomes difficult to tell who’s telling the truth and who’s virtue signaling. But let’s push back on that for a second. What actually makes someone a victim?
In The Coddling of the American Mind, the authors point out that the second untruth of our culture is: Always trust your feelings. One of the things I appreciated in their analysis of this trend is the nuance to differentiate between healthy and harmful emotion. One of the fortunate trends in our culture is the increasing interest in emotion, and the power of emotional discipline, EQ, etc. We’re creating space for people to bring more of themselves into the public square.
Problems arise when emotion is weaponized in the form of social control. Take microaggressions as an example. The difference between an aggression and a microaggression is that an aggression is typically understood as intentional whereas a microaggression is not. This is the difference between a microaggression and dog-whistling. While dog-whistling implies that there is a small group of people the speaker communicates to subtly by using encoded words and phrases, triggering a group of people or committing a microaggression is completely independent of the author’s intent.
Here's the interesting thing – by definition, microaggressions do not have to be intentional; a speaker can unknowingly say something that is interpreted as a microaggression. That person is then treated as though they not only intentionally offended a specific person, but they’re regarded as someone who has intentionally threatened, harmed, or committed an act of violence toward an entire group of people. The term aggression itself should be an indication that this is a deeply flawed social paradigm. What it reveals is that microaggressions have little to do with aggression and everything to do with power.
Here we have an important difference between victimhood and truly being a victim.
Power flows from the speaker to the listener when the listeners claim that speakers’ words can do damage regardless of their intent. When this is used to threaten and silence speakers of opposing viewpoints, this becomes a form of social terrorism. It’s not surprising that those who claim to be afraid often fight fear with fear, intimidating and shaming their opponents into silence rather than refuting them. If you pay attention, this is the same group of people who don’t apologize for doing something wrong, they apologize for how their words were taken or misunderstood.
What Lukianoff and Haidt call the shift from intent to impact is one of the most important social trends in history. When people become convinced that their perception of what is said—regardless of whether it matches the speakers’ intent—is determinative over the meaning of language, the possibility of constructive conversation breaks down, and that’s what we’re seeing.
The Christian world is no exception. Think about the Christian blogging industry. The most popular “Christian” sites have little to do with theology, worldview, education, or the Bible and everything to do with feelings, lived experience, life stories, and positive thinking. They’ve essentially taken this idea of intent versus impact and applied it to their spiritual lives. It’s no longer what the authors of the Bible intended to say, not to mention the Holy Spirit, but what I feel when I read the verse that matters. My experience becomes completely determinative over the impact of the text, not the author’s intent, the history of reception, or the traditional interpretation.
This isn’t to say that there’s no room for these sites or that these authors aren’t doing valuable work in the kingdom – there are some who do. What’s most striking about Christian content in general is the undeniable truth that most people would rather be entertained than taught.
Entertainment engages your emotions differently than education. When you’re being entertained, you virtually shut down your critical thinking and discernment. The crisis of discernment in the Christian church is often blamed on biblical illiteracy, which is certainly one of the cause, but the root is even worse. Too many Christians have been entertained to the point that their ability to discern has completely atrophied.
The result is that Christians often participate in the cult of victimhood when they’re exposed to teaching they don’t like. Having trained themselves to be entertained, many Christians fault preachers for how sermons make them feel, and often the content isn’t the problem.
Emotions have become king. Critical thinkers beware. Lukianoff and Haidt explain the way our emotions and critical thinking work together. Imagine an elephant and a rider. The rider is nominally in charge and he shouts commands that the elephant generally follows, until the elephant decides he doesn’t want to anymore. When it comes down to it, the elephant can do whatever he wants, and when he wants to do something the rider has virtually no control. This is like the relationship between the unconscious emotional mind and the conscious rational mind. What’s worse, “the rider generally functions more like the elephant’s servant than its master, in that the rider is extremely skilled at producing post-hoc justifications for whatever the elephant does or believes.”
A wave of recent research is showing that human beings are far more impulsive than we want to think. In James K. A. Smith’s verbiage, we lead with our guts, not our brains. In doses, this is a timely response to an overly cognitive model of human behavior. For all of us who have struggled with sin, this comes as an important reminder that we often do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we’re not sure why we do them. But the answer isn’t to do away with critical thinking. We don’t simply give the elephant the reigns and hope for the best.
This is the Christian blogging industry I mentioned. It’s important to talk about the way we feel. It’s also important not to allow our feelings to dictate what we will and won’t believe about what God has revealed. Holiness is nowhere to be seen in many American Christian churches because we’ve filled our heads with so many excuses, exceptions, and extenuating circumstances. There’s a set of bloggers I always refer to as “Give Yourself a Break” Christians. They’re the ones who tell you it’s ok that you don’t live up to everyone’s expectations, don’t go to church but love God, love Jesus but cuss a little, drink a little, fornicate a little… and generally disobey all of his commands.
The reason this is such a dangerous message is it’s partially true. There are many Christians who struggle with unreasonable expectations, and many who are trying to earn their salvation. To the extent that these authors have taught us about the true nature of grace, I’m extremely thankful. But beyond that, they’ve supplied the sugar for a generation saddled with spiritual diabetes. Instead of encouraging the rider to tame the elephant, they’ve goaded the elephant to throw of the rider.
The authors include a statistic I found jarring; “In 2017, 58% of college students said it is ‘important to be part of a campus community where I am not exposed to intolerant and offensive ideas.’” We know something these authors don’t. Tolerance can have an intellectual root. I believe there are some people who really believe in ideological pluralism, but not many.
Discomfort is not necessarily danger; it may be your salvation. We have another word for the healthy versions of intellectual and emotional conviction: conviction. As Christians, we cannot believe that we should always trust our emotions because they also must be submitted to God and brought into submission to Christ. We believe that contradictory, threatening, and puzzling ideas, emotions, and trends can be helpful. We shouldn’t fear thinking through any thought because we believe that all truth is God’s truth. Conviction – coming to grips with the fact that we are wrong – is something we need to embrace as Christians, not something we try to avoid.
Christians, of all people, have what it takes to stand up for victims and defend them against aggressors, to meet the disenfranchised with love and mercy, and at the same time, we have the spine to stand up to a culture of victimhood, knowing that other ideas and perspectives can be used to convict us and draw us back to Christ.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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