The Rhetoric of Joking

Verbal fun has its place yet often we use it to hide our own thoughts. In the context of conflict, such fun can create problems, particularly when if goes into ridicule.

In a follow-up to the previous post, What and How We Say It, Alstair Roberts comments

Pastor Wilson has a sort of playful detachment from the whole conflict, a detachment that his opponents do not. He is not really peddling serious outrage in his post, but ridicule. While the outraged individuals are intense and serious in their exaggerations, Pastor Wilson is just purposefully getting a rise out of people. It isn’t about serious arguments for him, because he doesn’t seem to think that his opponents are making serious arguments.
The question of the jocular style and ridicule has several dimensions.
On the contrast between the Rev. Wilson and the feminists: it is simply easier to be jocular, “playful” when one has relatively little skin in the game. Part of the emotional heat can be attributed to a discrepancy in age and life setting. The questions of negotiating relationships are far more serious for a 25- or 30-year old than for a grandfather nearing 60; add to this the setting in a major urban area, as opposed to Idaho.
As to the jocular, playful style — I would offer five observations on such ridicule:

  1. We use the style as a form of group identity. The mutual playfulness and ridicule is part of our belonging. You can see this with sports fans and their happy trash-talking of the other side;
  2. A playful style is often the stuff of long relationships, such as between spouses or debating partners. Again, we enter into the jocular style because of a mutuality;
  3. When directed outward, when the playfulness is focused unilaterally on another as ridicule, it functions as an assertion of social position, status, or “lording it over” the other in biblical terms. Benignly as parent to a child’s tantrum, but the same mocking voice also becomes the word of put-down as any high schooler will tell you. The assertion of ‘fun’ — “I was just joking” — becomes the excuse we tell ourselves. When expressed towards the weak, such fun easily wounds. This use of ridicule in particular lies in substantial tension with the call to servanthood;
  4. The jocular, ridiculing tone in blogging/arguments strikes me as especially gendered; it’s something guys do. See point one in the sports bar; and
  5. This jocular,  scornful style is something for the young. And that’s fairly reasonable: the jibe is easier to execute than the analysis. Our humor moves from the superficial and external to the humane, Mel Brooks, perhaps, excepted.

Taken together, the jocular style is a way of holding people at a distance rather than engaging — I suspect this is one reason by Benedict’s Rule counseled against laughter. Or, to return the question to the Rev. Wilson: having spoken “playfully”, has he spoken wisely?


What and how we say it

Over at Alstair Roberts’ Alstair Adversaria there continues to be a long discussion on the post first of Jared Wilson (see ), and then this latest follow up from Doug Wilson.

The language is troubling. But then again it’s not the first I’ve encountered this postured Valiant-for-Truth rhetorical style.

Perhaps because I deal with rhetoric a fair amount, in school and in marketing, that I found a certain irony in the Rev. Wilson’s response. It strikes me as a wee bit odd to decry the feminists as bed wetters with their manufactured offense — a matter of rhetorical persona as it were — while delivering it in a style that is itself more than a little rhetorically overblown. It’s easy once having assumed a highly manner style to fall into the necessity of continuing that same style. We become prisoner to our own outrage. In short, the Rev. Wilson did not strike me as particularly helping his own cause, or the broader one of faithful living.

Roberts adds this comment:

We must go to whatever lengths we can to protect the vulnerable and the weak from genuine spiritual or psychological harm, while seeking to present those employing the human shield to tyrannize their opponents and get their way in the debate for what they are. This demands far more careful, measured, and guarded rhetorical approaches than Pastor Wilson is giving us.

He said that?

I’m scarcely able to comment on this, but Paul VanderKlay points to a very large controversy underway, with added links to comments from a number of sources. The great hubbub turns on this post by Jared Wilson, quoting from a 1999 book by the Rev. Doug Wilson, the enfante terrible of conservative somewhat-Reformed theology.  A strong view of male authority in which aggressiveness is politely a perverted form of biblical norms. The quote is fairly lurid in its way:

we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual “bondage and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies. Men dream of being rapists, and women find themselves wistfully reading novels in which someone ravishes the “soon to be made willing” heroine.

As you can guess, the comments fly.

Now I confess, I just don’t get much into the sexual politics of evangelicaldom.

I would say that a large part of the flare-up arises from how words come freighted with all sorts of meaning.  If anything, I would simply note that the original Doug Wilson citation is also a piece of its culture. This, more than anything else is what is so hard about doing our ethics: we cannot escape. There is no City of God here where our sexual politics can be seen as “pure” or unpolluted. We are always attempting to live out the Gospel by filling cracked vessels with something of Gospel and biblical truth. This is a messy job, not least because our vessels leak all over the place.

What this means is that ever teaching comes clogged — clogged — with culture. This is the language we speak, we breathe. So Jared Wilson goes out and quotes a 1999 book, designed for “men only”. The late 90s and early 00s were a time where male assertion was common first in parts of the general culture (e.g. Robert Bly) and then also showing up as an Evangelical shadow, so to speak. For instance, this is the high season for Promise Keepers movement; in 2001 John Eldredge came out with Wild at Heart. My take was that this male assertiveness was a sort of push back to the ironic attitudes of the late 90s and the seeming inability to speak straight (this is rhetorical shadow of political correctness). Such a setting does not excuse the impact of the words; I find them to be biblically at odds with wise speech, as well as being spiritually unhelpful.