We recently talked about the way Christians try to control how everyone around them celebrates Christmas. That fight is only one small part of another, much bigger fight. Indeed, authoritarian Christians try hard to police how people share information. Today, I’ll show you why they keep trying to police how others communicate.
(BTW: At the bottom of the post, you’ll find an announcement about a planned LSP topic on 1/28 that I hope you’ll enjoy!)
Words Have Power.
Way back when, when I was a wee little Pentecostal lass, I found the story in Genesis 1 fascinating for many reasons. But one of the most fascinating elements of the story concerned the method by which my god had created the universe:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
He spoke the universe into existence, then named what he had created.
In the second Creation myth, in Genesis 2, we see another instance of the magic power of language. This god bestowed upon his new pet human the privilege of giving names to all the animals he had created.
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.
I perceived these myths as a sort of as above, so below example. Words had great power. Only someone who owned something could decide what it should be called. Nobody else had the right or the authority to change that label later on.
To them, control over a definition represents power over everyone else who values what the definition describes.
A Reminder of the Passing of Years.
The saying goes, for better or for worse, History is written by the victors.
But history folks debate that notion. Whatever the case, language doesn’t follow that same rule.
Language functions as an evolving force in culture. As more and more people adopt a word or a spelling, or a definition or a label for something, it spreads further and further. More and more people hear it and adopt it. Even a word that begins as a niche concept, like tea being a word for a hidden truth or excellent gossip in drag circles, can achieve widespread usage if it catches on with just the right people.
Really, really educated linguistics folks study how these niche cultures create and use language for themselves. For example, Oxford people study “the language of Buffy Speak.” English in particular has depended upon this playfulness with language from the get-go.
I got a crash-course in that exact truth recently. I follow a few Gen Z social-media accounts. One recent entry on one of them was absolutely incomprehensible to me at first. There, teens used words like commit and wig in ways that I had never encountered before.
Thank goodness for Urban Dictionary!
Stuff Authoritarians Like: Policing Language.
My wistful first thought upon seeing that social media post: Man, I am getting SO OLD.
And my awestruck second: Yes. The generational baton changes hands once again.
Here is the first big difference between me and a fundagelical: I thought that whole process–observing my age, observing the cultural shift in who creates, uses, and perpetuates new linguistic trends–was fascinating. A fundagelical would have the same perceptions, but would consider them evidence that “this generation is falling away.”
And here is the second big difference: I’d sit back and enjoy the view from afar. Meanwhile, the fundagelical would try to regain control of the word or concept.
They’ve been doing it just forever. The entire squabble around “English First” in fundagelicalism tracks with their current culture war against immigration, yes. But it also tracks with their fear of losing dominance over communication.
What Gatekeeping and Policing Are.
Gatekeeping (in the communication theory field) is the process by which someone–a gatekeeper–decides what information will and won’t move from a source to a destination. The mechanism of control itself is the gate.
Some gatekeeping is fine, obviously. Parents must gatekeep to keep away information that is above their kids’ age and maturity levels. Magazine and site editors decide what information they will feature for their readers and what they will reject. But authoritarians take that idea into really unhealthy territory, especially when they try to assume a parental or editorial role that they didn’t earn and don’t deserve.
The more authoritarian the would-be gatekeeper is, the more blunt-force the gate is, and the more brutal the repression of information flow will be–as well as the more vicious the retaliation will be if dissenters spread that information anyway.
Policing language means about what you probably imagine it does: trying to control how people communicate, what words and phrases and ideas they share, and how events and concepts will be discussed.
Fundagelicals exert control over communication in the most bizarrely hamfisted ways imaginable. From sabotaging their kids’ educations to clutching their pearls over billboards announcing that atheists exist, these authoritarians take language control to whole new levels.
I’ve lost count of how often Christians of all stripes, not just evangelicals, have tried to demand changes in other people talk about their religion–what terminology they use, what disclaimers they offer, and the tone they adopt.
Any time they perceive challenges to dominance, like Wikipedia pages that indicate that their numbers and percentages worldwide are falling, they leap to action to obscure that information. Or they make up misinformation to feed the flocks to soothe their fears.
Why Christians Try to Control Communication.
Policing language functions firstly as a potent manifestation of interpersonal power. When a Christian forces others to amend their language or change how they talk about Christianity and Christians, this behavior alters the flow of information between sources and audiences. It also reminds that Christian that yes, ahh yes, they still enjoy a position of dominance in society. They can still make demands that others obey.
And the information flow created through these demands reflects an exalted place of honor for Christianity. Dissenting views get silenced; controversial criticisms might as well not exist. Little wonder that before the advent of the consumer internet, I thought I was literally the only person who had ever discovered that Christianity’s claims were false!
For other Christians, this kind of gatekeeping fulfills a second function. It preserves their cherished–but false–beliefs. It pains them to see so many hypocrites. Sharing a label with such people makes them cringe. Blatant, widespread hypocrisy contradicts all kinds of marketing hype about the religion, as well. And those contradictions affect recruitment as well as retention.
But they don’t engage with what that hypocrisy means. No no no! Nor do they take their fight to the hypocrites themselves. Instead, they seek to control those who so boorishly keep bringing up that complete disconnect between marketing hype and reality.
(These are also the Christians who freak out worse over a profane word than about the situation causing that profane word to be deployed. They value niceness over goodness, for a reason.)
Without the authority to officially stop the flow of information, those desiring control of it utilize cultural coercion as their gate.
This is how we end up with Christians pretending that they are the entire world’s Designated Adults. Much like the way that party-goers appoint one person to be their Designated Driver for the evening, these Christians act like someone appointed them to be the official authority figure for the entire group to heed and obey.
In that capacity, authoritarian Christians demand that we not mention the faith of a Christian criminal who preys upon children. Or the gatekeepers demand that we use respectful language when talking about their magical invisible wizard friend. Maybe they try to shame people out of sharing or even liking stories that criticize Christianity. Or they whine and pout if a meaniepie blogger refuses to use tons of disclaimers to distance them from all the “Bad Christians” who make their religion look bad.
Or they quietly shuffle child-raping ministers around from church to church without warning parents, kill news articles exposing all the child-raping and cover-ups they do, and retaliate against those complaining about all the child-raping and cover-ups going on.
The Mini-Jesuses Attack!
Normally when a Christian makes this kind of control-grab, a skeptical and ornery person might retort “Uh, who died and made you (God-)Emperor of Mankind?”
But these same Christians insist that Jesus himself died and made them mini-Jesuses. They easily rationalize their behavior. It frustrates them enormously to see that others do not consider their claims of divinely-granted authority to be, well, authoritative, but not enough to stop doing it.
That’s how authoritarians are. They got into the religion to flex and wield power over others. They’re not going to willingly drop one of the permission slips they use to do it. In a very real emotional sense, their paychecks depend on them maintaining belief that they totally get to act just like Jesus. So if he judged the (literal?) hell out of the woman at the well and demanded she change her behavior, they totally get to do that too.
The problem is, Christians of all doctrinal stripes lack an actual Jesus behind the religion. This deity that authoritarians think grants them their authority does not exist.
And even if he did, well, as someone else once said, “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!”
The Consent of the Governed (Ain’t There).
Christianity, as a religion, cannot survive without coercion. Literally. It only survived this long because its members and leaders had supreme coercive powers–to the point of life or death! Having lost those powers, Christians relied instead for many years on more informal coercive measures like shunning and retaliatory gossip campaigns–and savage racism and sexism, of course.
And now, having lost much of those powers as well, they have nothing whatsoever left. That lovey-dovey stuff wasn’t working in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and it sure doesn’t work well or reliably now.
Authoritarian Christians don’t care about lovey-dovey stuff anyway. Love ain’t why they’re Christians! Imagine if someone could guarantee them, 100%, that tactics based only on love, compassion, and consent would totally work to reverse their declines. They would refuse to do it. Well, maybe they would as a long con. Long cons work on a lot of people. That’s why conjobs do them. On a far smaller scale, that is exactly how Biff convinced me to marry him, after all.
In a very real way, authoritarians’ attempt to control how others use language and share information may well function as a gauge of how much cultural power they still have. As long as they still have power to flex there, they can breathe a little easier. But increasingly, they see people sharing information in ways they absolutely would stop if they only could.
Incidentally, A Caution.
Authoritarians’ eternal desire to control at all costs reminds us of another potent truth.
We cannot ever give in to their demands. Ever. Not once, not even a little.
Authoritarians share many characteristics with the movie-franchise Terminators. They cannot be bargained with or reasoned with. Authoritarians don’t feel pity, or remorse. Yes, they do feel fear, but that fear means that they will not stop, ever, till they possess the power that they seek. So if we’re not giving them that power over us, then they will keep pushing till they get it. Nothing else matters to them; no half-measures can satisfy them.
When an authoritarian grabs for control over how information gets shared, or over what form that information takes, we must vehemently reject those overtures.
And then we must continue to reject those grabs until that authoritarian’s power base has dwindled into pure irrelevance.
(Indeed, as we’ll see on Tuesday, mockery is the response to authoritarian control-grabs that flusters and angers them more than any other form of rejection. I’ll show you why, too. Oh my friends, we’re just getting started here.)
NEXT UP: Authoritarian Christians fight the very most about definition of the label of “Christian.” We’ll look at why they do it, how that control-grab works, and all the ways it backfires spectacularly on them. See you next time!
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LORD SNOW PRESIDES ANNOUNCEMENT: On January 28, we’ll be reviewing How the Great Pan Died by Edmond Bordeaux. It’s an interesting book about the possible origins of Christianity. The book’s massively out of print, so if you can’t score a used copy somewhere (like here), someone’s found a copy on Scribd that appears to be the right one. Also here: Link. These copies seem to be the same book as I’ve got. Page numbers aren’t exact matches and the chapter sections I have are in Roman numerals, not Arabic numbers, but we can deal, right?