Gracious debate, tone arguments and silencing

Sunday, 13 November 2011

It started with a couple of tweets from me, aimed at my Christian friends and fellow bloggers.

"To what extent do you think talk of "being gracious" is used to silence and shut down debate, particularly when it comes to issues involving women and the church?"

I asked this because, to put it bluntly, I am sick to the back teeth of seeing comment threads on blogs overtaken not by discussion of the issues at hand, but by discussion of whether or not the post and the tone used by the blogger was "gracious" enough, or "negative", or "bitter", or "Christlike". I believe we are called to Christlike debate. But I also feel that this obsession with tone is a classic derailing and silencing tactic, which at best comes across as patronizing - and at worst, incredibly unpleasant and shaming.

For those of you active in the feminist blogosphere, the term "tone argument" will probably be a familiar one. It's the argument a reader will make when telling the writer that "If you just expressed your feelings in a nice, polite way, others might listen to what you're saying". It's also the line that a reader will use when telling a blogger "Thank you for expressing your feelings in such a measured and rational way - so different to all those angry, aggressive bloggers". We Christians have our own equivalent of this. But the Christian tone argument favours a particular word - one which is fast becoming one of my least favourite words ever.

That word is "gracious". What I'm seeing, on an increasingly regular basis, is an obsession that blog posts on "difficult" or "controversial" issues must be "gracious". If they are not considered "gracious" enough by those reading, everything the blogger has expressed becomes invalid. This seems to mean different things for different people. As someone on Twitter said to me, sometimes people use the word when they mean "being kind". Sometimes they use it when they mean "agreeing with me". Sometimes they use it when they mean "taking others' opinions into account". Much of the time, the extent to which someone is believed to be "gracious" is dependent on how little they seek to "rock the boat".

There was a controversial post about the role of men and women in relationships on a very popular blog a few weeks ago. The post, written by a man, generated hundreds of comments, blog posts in response - and it's fair to say, plenty of drama. What really stood out among the hundreds of comments on the post, for me, was the number of comments by fans of the blog directed towards those who had disagreed with the post, telling them how bitter, emotional and ungracious they were. Bitter, emotional and ungracious - why? Because they'd dared to disagree with a prominent name in the blogosphere? Because they'd told their own stories of how the opinions expressed in the post had caused a great deal of hurt to them over the years?

I'm pulling no punches about this: it has to stop.

I see the tone argument pulled on men, too, when they express dissent. But when it comes to being shamed for expressing disagreement, anger or conviction, women are always first in line. It's an effective way of shutting us up, you see. Tell us we're "ungracious" or "un-Christlike". No-one wants to be seen as the person Jesus would disapprove of in an argument. It's also an effective way of rewarding us, giving us a cookie for playing the good girl and not rocking the boat. When I posted those tweets a few days ago, I was thinking of a particular post written by a woman whose blog I read, a woman I greatly admire and respect. Recently she'd written a post that I could tell had been difficult to write and had stirred up a lot of feelings in her. The post received a lot of comments. Most of them at the time I was reading seemed to be focused on how "gracious" her post was. "Thank you for being so gracious in the way you have written this". You know how it goes.

I was annoyed for her. Were people engaging with the issue she wanted to discuss? No, they were patronizing her for being good enough to write the post without getting "angry" or sounding "bitter". I didn't say anything about it to her, until we were discussing all this on Twitter on Thursday night.

"I hate it when [readers] pat my head and congratulate me for being gracious..." she said.

I told her which post I knew she was thinking of. She was. And she had felt patronized. She wanted people to engage with her opinions, not tell her how gracious she had been, when as she said, "I try to be respectful in hopes that they will hear my point instead of get defensive because I was too forceful". I think that this can be a good thing to do in the Christian blogosphere. There is, sadly, a great reluctance to see someone's view as valid if they are forceful in the way they write it. And so some people choose to adapt. And of course, there is no good reason to be vitriolic towards people, or act like a bully. But you can't talk about controversial issues without some sort of disagreement happening and we shouldn't try to stamp it out when it does.

When I see another post where the comments are more focused on tone than actually debating issues, where women are repeatedly criticised for having a strong opinion, feeling angry about something or disagreeing with someone (particularly a "big name" male blogger or preacher), my heart sinks. When this criticism comes from a place of male privilege, or from the perspective of women who are reinforcing the status quo, it reinforces the position that many Christian women see themselves in constantly - that they are ignored when they speak out and that no-one shares their concerns. We all need to listen to each other and understand that there is nothing wrong with righteous anger, or feeling emotional about a particular subject. There is nothing wrong with dissenting opinion. There is absolutely no reason to congratulate someone just for being nice and making sure they don't upset anyone, if this does not achieve anything. If Jesus's ministry had not caused dissent and controversy, where would we be today?

This post is part one of two. In part two I hope to discuss how this relates directly to discussion and understanding of gender equality and the feminist movement within Christian circles. 

The image at the top of the post, from here was the first thing that showed up when I typed "gracious living" into Google Images. I thought it was quite fitting, considering the subject matter. 


Vicky Beeching said...

Fantastic stuff my friend! Loving how honest you are here.

It's so true that in discussions the 'graciousness' card seems to get pulled surprisingly quickly. It seems to prevent genuine discussion from happening.

I'm not pro any kind of mean debate, only pro good healthy discussions which are a key part of life and figuring out truth. But many of the good, healthy ones I've been part of, have been slammed with the 'graciousness card' and more or less shut down by it.

Keep up the great content. Was really good to meet you in London.

Tim said...

Presumably a "Christ-like" debating style would involve whips of cords and referring to your opponents as snakes, until they get so angry they have you killed.

Honestly, I do wonder what Bible people read sometimes... is there a special alternative version where Jesus is actually really cuddly?

Findo said...

I'll admit, I did call someone out for being gracious, a little while back - but in my defense, I also pointed to why what she said was right, and why another who I also agreed with was simply too snarky and passive-aggressive for my liking.

While I agree that 'tone' shouldn't be used to deflect from the issue under discussion, it is important, and I'd be wary of creating a false dichotomy, or over-correction where we ignore the importance of good communication that is speaking truth in love. I don't think that rules out passion, indeed, even anger ( the line between anger and bitterness etc. may be hard to find at times!) but we do still need to be aware of it. I do wonder how much online, with it's lack of non-verbal cues, discussion changes things? I think it was Rachel Held Evans who wrote recently - it's easy to not have a flame-war with someone you disagree with when you're eating chicken wings with them.

suzannah | the smitten word said...

absolutely. rachel held evans got it in a nasty way at WORLD magazine--and i thought she was beyond gracious in her criticism.

jon acuff posted an ugly gender post this week, and commenters attacked women who found it offensive. i was careful in my comments but lambasted for being angry and told to apologize for having a dissenting opinion.

the sexism is flagrant, and the goal is silencing. thanks for writing this.

Dianna said...

I shared this on facebook with the comment "THIS THIS THIS THIS AND DID I MENTION, THIS?"

I already told you stories about the ways people have tried to silence me for striking the wrong "tone," so no need to rehash. But I'll add this: "Tone" is very, very often in the eye of the beholder, especially when all you're getting is text. Many have commented that this is all the more reason to be "gracious" in one's tone, which is something I disagree with. There are people who will read a certain tone into my writing no matter which way I write it - I have tried, in the past, to strike more irenic and "calm" tones only to be told that I'm still being "shrill."

I'm not changing the writing style that is most comfortable and works best for me just to make you happy, reader who disagrees with me on everything anyway.

I hate the tone argument with a fiery passion.

The Goldfish said...

This was a message that kept coming up in the comments below all the posts and articles about on-line misogyny last week - nobody used the phrase "unChristlike" (that I saw) but there was certainly a sense that women journalists and bloggers who had experienced on-line abuse - up to and including death threats - had brought it on themselves by being too stroppy.

I wrote about this on Friday, together with the accompanying advice that the women needed to toughen up; Be Nice & Grow a Thicker Skin

Anonymous said...

Great post. I agree with you. People seem to be so freaked out if, as a woman, you dare to speak out firmly, directly and with an opinion! There seems an irony that some people are happy to 'observe' and put up with feminism especially in principle, but if you model being a strong, articulate woman in practice you are acting aggressively. I think so many Christians still have very set ideas of how women should write and respond and try to reinforce that through commenting on 'being gracious' - ie don't rock the boat- be passive, demure and inoffensive.
I love the way you write- you are an inspiration- thank you!

kristen said...

Male preachers can yell and bang on the pulpit because they are speaking out of "righteous anger", but when a women is passionate about anything, it's hysterics, it's too much, it's bitchy. Being Christlike is important, but in our culture it seems men and women are supposed to adopt only certain aspects of Jesus' character that are appropriate for their gender roles; women can be kind and nurturing, men can have righteous anger.

yojot said...

I hear you! My first experience of this came at Bible college during a discussion on women and leadership. The only women in the group, I got called out for being to emotional and told to "calm down, it's just a debate". I tried to explain, that to them it may feel like "just a debate" but actually they were discussing, and dismissing my gifts, my calling and my life. Despite the fact that I was the only one there who this discussion directly impacted (if we can ignore for the moment the massive missiological implications of telling half the population they're less than and only allowing half the church to use their gifts fully and completely), my input was entirely disregarded because I was "too emotional." The fact that a high profile Christian with 10's of thousands of followers can cause as much offense with their 140 characters or fb status as they like, yet the some think same forum and tone shouldn't be used to call them on it causes me not a small amount if web rage. Thanks for articulating this so honestly and forcefully.

Eve Maria said...

This is such an important post. I see the 'tone argument' being used all the time and only ever directed at women! I think it's so important to battle this because you can see a varient of it in youth culture. Basically, the attitude that women shouldn't be angry, or their anger is only valid if it is gentle and ladylike (as opposed to women-like) is really damaging the younger generation- look how angry girls are in schools nowadays. You see girls in physical fights, spitting at their teachers, pulling each other's hair out on a much larger scale than you did even when I was at school (not that long ago). I think this is a real problem because, actually, girls should be angry- there is a lot of prejudice out there that we should be angry about- but the world and media isn't giving these girls an environment where they can release it effectively, so their anger is coming out in all the wrong places, and even directed towards themselves.

I think the way I feel about the phrase 'rock the boat' is the same as how you feel about 'gracious'. I loathe it because my mother used to use it when she was basically scared to stand up for what was right- i.e. cases of bulling and sexism.

Hannah Mudge said...

Vicky, it was so good to meet you too. Must do it again if we are ever in each others' neck of the woods in the future! I agree with you; the 'graciousness card' NEVER helps debate and healthy debate is a key part of figuring things out.

Findo, this is an important point. Online it's so hard to figure out what motives people have sometimes and what they really mean by the way they word something. I know it frustrates me when people take something I write/say on Twitter etc in a different way to how I meant it.

Suzannah, Rachel's writing is a prime example of the negative attention women receive for being opinionated. Although it seems like no woman can criticize Driscoll without incurring the wrath of his fans!

Totally agree with you Dianna. I know that to those who obsess over tone, I probably come across as quite abrasive sometimes and certainly also as snarky. But this is me; this is the way I write and to change it in response would mean it wasn't really a true reflection of who I am. My writing doesn't bully people; I call out crap when I see it, and if I have said something 'out of line' I will admit it. Apart from that, I'm not about to change.

That's an important point, Eve Maria - and when people are stopped from expressing emotion it can cause so much damage.

Thank you for all your input, everyone :)

NickM said...

Col 4:6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Just a thought!


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