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.