Browsing The Northern Cross

Kyle Eller: Lost to mockery — the art of the persuasive argument

The other day I caught a couple of minutes of a pro-life talk I hadn’t heard before. The content was good — well-reasoned and sound, and friendly, too. The speaker was addressing her audience in a way she obviously hoped would equip them to go out into the world and have conversations with their friends and family not already convinced of the pro-life view in hopes of bringing them around.

Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

The talk sounded like it was maybe five or ten years old. For instance she used an analogy relying on a technology that would be unfamiliar to many people under 20 or 25 today.

But as I listened, it struck me how “outdated” it felt in a deeper sense — in its assumption that there was a sizable audience interested in reasoning such a matter out. Ours is not an age of conclusions validly derived from true premises. It is an age of identities and “feels” and weaponized tolerance. (Has there in the past 100 years been a single phrase more prophetic than Pope Benedict XVI’s “dictatorship of relativism”?)

Though perhaps no more than a few years old, this talk sounded like something out of a time capsule, a relic from some distant age we can no longer fully understand. This was not despite its virtues — its reasonableness, its persuasive tone, its earnestness. It was because of them.

A great sadness came over me as I thought how incomprehensible, unhearable, even hateful this has become to many people.

If what was ordinary discourse a few years ago has become alien and contemptible today, the reverse is also true: Our daily fare of headlines and conversations now would have sounded then as if they sprang from some dystopian novel or from the fantasies of a radical professor at some far-out university.

I try to avoid waxing apocalyptic, but I can’t help thinking of the lines of W.B. Yeats, written nearly century ago, after the horrors of World War I had fundamentally transformed European society in a sea of death, destruction and cynicism:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It feels like in the past decade, something has fundamentally broken in our society, although it is hard to pinpoint an exact cause or a particular moment when it happened.

One of the signs, in my estimation, is a kind of supercharged cynicism. I said that we now “dialogue” not with our minds but with our feelings and identities and our relativism. But I omitted the main means by which that dialogue, such as it is, takes place — through mockery.

This comes from a whole host of places, Internet culture being one of the chief ones. Now, I’m a huge computer geek, and I love the Internet, almost certainly more than I should. I have been a “citizen of the Internet” since the mid-1990s, so basically since it was possible to be one. I am the veteran of many of thousands of Internet comment boxes and forum and social media threads. I’m no technology hater.

Internet culture has, since nearly the beginning, carried with it this tone of sarcasm and snark and mockery. The witty takedown is not the only coin of the Internet realm, but it’s certainly one of the main ones.

I don’t want to overstate things, but perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the last decade also marks the rise of social media and the mobile devices to access it, when Internet culture became not just mainstream but practically universal.

Maybe that’s part of where this new kind of discourse comes from, and why the way we talked just a blink of an eye ago seems like a distant memory.

But this is no way to do things. A witty meme or a vicious takedown with 10,000 likes on Facebook may look and feel like a refutation, but it is a poor substitute for an actual argument. Argument is humble — it puts us in the position of having to engage people who disagree with us as persons of presumptive good will, and it implicitly entails the possibility of being wrong or at least of learning something. One only mocks what one holds in utter contempt.

Perhaps that’s why our culture now treats innocence and earnestness in much the way a pride of lions treats a baby zebra separated from the herd.

When our posture toward everything is one of potential mockery, we make ourselves the measure of all things instead of allowing ourselves to be measured against higher things. Small wonder that so many people have such difficulty making long-term commitments.

Scripture is full of references to mockers and scoffers — none of them favorable. The Old Testament wisdom literature frequently connects this approach to life with the deadly sin of pride and the destruction that comes with it. Both St. Peter and St. Jude warn than in the “last days” scoffers will come, intent only on living according to their own desires.

Perhaps the worst thing about this supercharged cynicism is that, born of pride, it eradicates its opposite, humility, which is the only posture in which we can truly come into relationship with God.

Learning to evangelize a culture in such a crisis is one problem, one that many in the church are grappling with.

But another problem, one we overlook to our peril, is what living in this culture can do to us. If we are going to be disciples of Jesus Christ, if we are going to love God and our neighbor, we cannot be mockers and scoffers, not even when those weapons are turned against us — as they are going to be, more and more, in the coming days.

Perhaps that is where the two problems come together. This crisis can only be solved by saints. And if not you and me, then who?

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at keller@ dioceseduluth.org.