Sanctimony Wars

Sanctimony Wars April 11, 2017


Mary Pezzulo over at Steel Magnificat has written an excellent piece about the problem with name-calling, contentiousness, and point-scoring in the name of “apologetics.” I agree completely with what she says, and I recommend reading her post.

I also want to offer a few thoughts from the other side of the aisle, as it were. If you spend a lot of time in ideologically motivated communities, you’re going to encounter a lot of sanctimony and self-righteousness. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a member of 300 different Catholic FaceBook groups, or you are deeply involved in the vegan community, or you made the mistake of going to a mom’s group in an upscale neighbourhood; the basic practices are the same.

A group of people gather together and someone makes an assertion that is basically intended to signal how virtuous, well-informed, intelligent, hip, woke, or generally awesome they are. Others jump in. Some just ante-up by agreeing with the original statement and affirming it’s sagacity. Others up the stakes by making a claim that builds on the original assertion, showing that they not only equal the first speaker but actually exceed them. And so it goes around the table until suddenly somebody calls.

This could take the form of a direct call-out – accusing one of the speakers of hypocrisy or bad behaviour, or showing that actually they’re exaggerating their accomplishments or commitments. It could involve pointing out a contradiction in one of the statements. It could be a flat denial of some dubious truth claim. Or it might be a pointed ‘Socratic’ question designed to expose the flaws in someone’s thinking without openly telling them that they’re an idiot.

At this point, the game becomes tense. The person who has been called has to show their hand. So, for example, the challenger might say, “I don’t know if what you’re saying about traditional indigenous spirituality is really true. I mean, so much of what you read is really just a made-up product of cultural appropriation, and that sounds kind of like it could have been invented by a white kindergarten teacher.”

Now, maybe the first person really has the goods, “Huh. Well I find that offensive, because actually I am a person of indigenous descent and I spent four years living in the Arctic practicing the traditional lifeways of my people, and this is something I was told directly by an elder of our tribe.” BOOM. Mittful of aces. The victor gathers up their social winnings, and the person who called them out goes home in shame (unless they’re really, really drunk, in which case they might try to argue that in their version of Texas Hold-em, two-pairs secretly beats a royal flush.)

More commonly, though, it turns out that a certain amount of bluffing was involved. And this is where things have the capacity to get ugly, because in social situations there aren’t the same kind of clear hierarchies as in poker: there’s not a rule-book that you can appeal to determine whether hearing Jesus speaking to you in your heart carries more, or less, weight than having discussed the question in a private audience with the Archbishop.

So it descends into bickering, and depending on how high the stakes are the arguments can go on for hours, or days, or months… or years… or decades. If institutional bodies get involved, a good squabble can last for centuries. The pretext is always the same: both sides insist that they are actually concerned with truth, or justice, the correction of error, or the protection of the weak. But to any onlooker with even a shred of objectivity, it’s clear that actually what’s at stake is the need to win back whatever social currency was put on the table. People’s pride, prestige, honour or reputations are at stake and so they feel that they can’t just walk away.

The more hurtful the situation becomes, the more invested people are. So they’ll stay, even if they are being bullied, name-called, shamed, or directly threatened – because all of these things cause the stakes to go further up, and up, and up. Backing down means walking away and leaving your winnings behind (you always think of the winnings as yours, even if it’s far from clear that they rightfully belong to you).

Okay, so it’s very easy to point and laugh at people who are behaving this way – and I’m not even going to argue that it’s wrong to do so. Part of the social process by which we learn that ridiculous behaviours are ridiculous is by finding that we have become an object of ridicule. When you’ve been wounded in some com-box dust-up, and instead of rushing around to sympathize, people laugh and start singing “Let it Go!” it’s unpleasant for sure…but in retrospect, these are often the moments when we learn humility.

Besides, if everybody behaved as if these absurd exchanges were actually legitimate contests being fought for important reasons, we would end up like the nobility of the 17th century: monumentally stupid slights would result in actual bloodshed, and there would be real debates over questions like whether a monk’s “right” to defend his honour justified his participation in duels.

However, it’s important to lace our laughter with at least a touch of self-derision. Whether your response is to roll your eyes and scroll past, or grab a bag of popcorn and sit back to watch the fur fly, maybe also take a moment to say a little mea culpa. Because in one way or another, this is something we all do.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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