Reader Alix and I disagreed last week in a comment thread about the role of things like personal attacks in argument with those with whom you disagree. As you may know, my comment policy makes certain requirements of those who comment here. This is my blog, and as such I set the rules. Alix and I still disagree on a few particulars, but I offered er the chance to write a guest post on the topic. Here it is.
Let me tell you a story.
Way back, years ago (before I had the tools to fully realize I was genderqueer, back in a different life when I was still just a good little girl), I was a dutiful Catholic. I attended Catholic school. I attended Mass twice weekly (once for school on Wednesday, once on Sunday). I was a dutiful Catholic—one who questioned, but only to understand, and who never had er faith rocked—until we moved away when I was ten. We moved in the middle of the school year. The new local Catholic school was full up, so I was enrolled in public school. The new local church we attended once, then never again, because Mom didn’t like it. But I was still, in my heart, a good little Catholic girl. Just a lapsed one.
I considered myself a lapsed Catholic or a half-Catholic for years (even, oddly, after I began incorporating pagan beliefs into my religion). I even attended Mass regularly—daily, actually—long after I started actively identifying as Pagan, because I’m a magpie of a universalist, and the Mass still spoke to me. If I’m honest, it still does.
I knew some people hated the Catholic church. I thought they were all full of shit.
The Church was a force for good, in my view. Sure, like any large organization, they had problems. Sometimes big ones—criminal ones. Vile ones. Yeah, like anyone’s blameless. I didn’t oppose birth control or abortion, I didn’t support the pedophile priests, I was all for gay rights and women’s rights. The homophobic, misogynistic people in the Church didn’t speak for me. I didn’t participate in covering up abuse and saving face for the pedophile priests.
Except I did.
People told me this, repeatedly. How do you think I knew about the many problems of the Church in the first place? People, many, many people, patiently explained to me, calmly and politely, just why they felt I was wrong, why they felt I was enabling the Church, how I played the role of the silent supporter.
And I smiled, and I nodded politely, and I said, now wait, I listened to you – you need to do that for me. And I went through and demolished their arguments to my own satisfaction, explaining how yes, but I had never said those things, done this, done that, stopped tithing, etc. About forgiveness, and human failing, and how nobody’s perfect, and so what, do they expect me to shun all human society? About why I attended Mass, what the Church meant for me, why I stayed.
Then, one day, I ran into someone on a pagan website. This person was ranting about the Catholic church—no, about Catholics. There was none of that distancing “the Catholic church” language. None of the civility, the politeness, the gentleness, the calm logic. Just a raw, artless, raging rant about how Catholics were all vile enablers of pedophiles, all complicit in abuse, all misogynistic, homophobic scum, all out to bring back the Inquisition.
It pissed me off. I was blindingly angry—so utterly enraged that it blanked out my memory of the rest of that afternoon. The latter half of that whole day is lost to me in a sea of white fury.
I recall yelling at him. (Well, writing very angrily at him.) Ranting back. Digging in my heels, letting him have it with both barrels. I’m not like that! I’m not one of those Catholics! How dare you! Get off your sanctimonious high horse and stop being a bigoted asshole.
I signed off, shaking in fury, and spent over an hour trying to calm myself down, I was that pissed off. I never went back. (I don’t even remember where this was, anymore.)
But I couldn’t get that rant out of my head.
Unlike all the calm, collected arguments I’d faced over the years, I couldn’t get that raging, insulting, over-the-top, offensive rant out of my head. I couldn’t set it aside as over and done. I couldn’t just retort and move on, content in the superiority of my own argument. My own worldview.
I signed off shaking because I was shaken. Badly. That rant was under my skin like a greenbrier thorn – a tiny, aggravating blip in the course of my day, but one that dug in and hurt, one I had trouble grasping to pull out. Saying it niggled at me is putting it mildly – it was pricking at me, like a borrowed conscience.
What infuriated me most was I couldn’t shut him up. None of my arguments were good enough to meet and match that artless rage, so I furiously tried to find new ones, new evidence, new something.
That rant had stripped away all my pretensions and rationalizations. It had taken an aspect of my own dark side and shoved it in my face and held it there, forcing me to see it, forcing me to confront it, however little I wanted to. That dark side—that’s not the me I see in the mirror. That’s not the me I thought I was (think I am). Being characterized by it—that offended me. It outraged me. And it forced me to own it.
Cool, calm, polite logic never did.
I don’t attend Mass anymore. I certainly don’t send any money to or patronize Catholic groups if I can possibly avoid it. I don’t defend the Catholic church – how can I? That ranter and all those people before him were absolutely right; doing anything short of rejecting, as loudly and definitively as I could, the actions and attitudes of the Church just enabled them. (For me, it took walking away. Some others manage to loudly stay, which I can’t really say doesn’t work for them. This isn’t really about one true way to deal with the Catholic church.)
Civility has its place, but its place isn’t every place. Calm rational arguments are a great tactic, but all tactics fail sometimes, are useless in some circumstances, have their downsides.
Sometimes, what’s needed is a sharp shock. A jolt to the system, out of one’s complacent bubble. Having harsh reality shoved right. in. one’s. face. Being forced to own one’s own shit—with nowhere to run, because the finger’s centered squarely (painfully, offensively, but deservedly) on you.
Sometimes, what’s needed is raw pain. Raw rage. (Raw humanity.)
There’s this common idea in progressive circles that civility and (especially) rationality are the most important—indeed, only—tools to use. Because being confrontational, calling out the people and not just the arguments, is sinking to their level. Because people when angry sometimes dig in their heels.
But you don’t know what they think about when they go home, when the anger stops – or when it doesn’t, and they have to face that. If rationality and civility were the miracle tools they’re claimed to be, they’d work in all the situations they’re said to.
They don’t. They didn’t on me.
This is my story, and it is a true one: all the logic in the world never shook me. It took being accused, being hit with raw rage, to realize that I was complicit in causing people pain. It took confrontation to get me to change.
Don’t throw out a tool just because you don’t like it. Give it to someone else to use.