Assertive Spirituality http://assertivespirituality.com Because Sometimes We Stay Lost if We Stay Quiet Sun, 20 Sep 2020 13:59:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.5.1 http://assertivespirituality.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/cropped-AS-Aonly-512x512-32x32.jpg Assertive Spirituality http://assertivespirituality.com 32 32 An Open Letter Re: White Evangelicals and Moral Disgust of RBG http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/09/19/open-letter-white-evangelicals-moraldisgusts-rbg/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/09/19/open-letter-white-evangelicals-moraldisgusts-rbg/#comments Sat, 19 Sep 2020 22:36:50 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1120 NOTE: I wrote the following to process my own grief about the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg while also helping anyone else who might need to understand the dynamics of how right-leaning white Evangelicals feel about RBG from the perspective of a communication scholar who grew up that way. May RBG’s memory be a blessing, and may all of us be part of that blessing to the world. May we all fight for genuine truth and justice and the equitable...

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NOTE: I wrote the following to process my own grief about the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg while also helping anyone else who might need to understand the dynamics of how right-leaning white Evangelicals feel about RBG from the perspective of a communication scholar who grew up that way. May RBG’s memory be a blessing, and may all of us be part of that blessing to the world. May we all fight for genuine truth and justice and the equitable treatment of all, even as such ordinary efforts may cause us to be classed with the “radicals.”  As you’ll see, where I am today, I’m okay with that–but that is NOT how I was raised to be. Please stick with me as I unfold those dynamics and how they’ve shifted.

Starting at the Very Beginning: With the (Suppressed) Hate

I was taught to hate RBG.

Well, not HATE.

We Christians didn’t do THAT.

Especially not educated, moderate Christians.

Nope. We didn’t sling insults—in fact, we looked down our noses at people who did such things, on “both sides.”

(And then we excused that kind of judginess of others for their behavior with self-deprecating humor and references to the grace of God and all that about forgiveness and how it was up to God to judge, not us.)

A Toxically Christian Nice Kind of Hate

But yeah, we hated RBG–and others like her.

It came out passive aggressively, because as I’ve said before many times, we were Christian Nice.

Being Christians meant we were supposed to be the moral ones, so we denied the very idea that we could hate, because we knew we weren’t supposed to. We were thorough Bible-readers, so we knew we weren’t supposed to hate.

Some of us even prayed for RBG and others like her in the government on the “other side,” because, you know, love your enemies.

But we hated her.

Okay, Maybe Not Hate Exactly

Maybe hate is the wrong word, though, or at least an imprecise one.  

We feared RBG.

We were disgusted by her.

And we saw her as a devil term (as I’ve described many times, that’s something to be fought at all costs).

Perhaps most importantly, we found it to be a moral duty to vote against her.

Why?

Because she was a RADICAL. (We didn’t do well with those.)

Because she was “pro-abortion.”

(I mean, it was up to God to judge as to whether she was going to heaven, but ALL THOSE BABIES? We shook our heads. Clearly those progressives were to blame!)

As I can see now, years later, it was because we’d swallowed the lies.

See, I know many of my people “held their noses and voted” for the current occupant of the Oval Office specifically to get Supreme Court seats like hers for “their side.” It was barely suppressed, that implication that the point was to get them away from “evildoers like her.”  

Why My People Were (Suppressedly) Wishing for Her Death

Let’s be clear: The group who held their noses, at least, who were deeply disturbed when progressive Christians tried to hold them to Jesus’ words about taking care of the “least of these” in Matthew 25 during and after the last election? They were hoping for this woman, who had championed the least of these, would retire or, let’s be honest, die.

The first group were hoping for this because they were afraid of her.

Because she wasn’t “nice” enough.

Because she was “too liberal.”

They were hoping for this because she supported different solutions to the question of abortion than they did.

(Let’s be clear about that. When banning abortion isn’t the most effective way to lower abortions, my peops I grew up with don’t have the moral high ground on this one.)

What They Really Feared

I can see it now. They ultimately feared RBG because she wasn’t willing to sit on the fence and keep her place in the status quo, as they had been taught to do.

They feared RBG because they had been taught to associate “radical social change” with moral and political disgusts.

(This is coming out now with rhetoric that outwardly sympathizes with those grieving her death, but only as a precursor to expressing concern about “riots” that may occur connected to her death. The irony, of course, is that they fully support the American Revolution having happened.)

The Fear of Women Gaining Power and Voice

They feared her because she was a woman–and a progressive one, no less, that spoke for women’s rights–and had gained power and a voice. They feared her because she was fighting for the same for other women, and that felt wrong. Distasteful. Disgusting.

(My denomination had voted to ordain women as preachers when I was grown up, but the more rural places where I lived would still never hire a woman preacher. I’ll never forget the moral disgust I still felt as a young adult when I saw a woman not just reading Scripture or praying, but actually PREACHING from a pulpit. Ironic that that’s what I feel most comfortable with now. It’s been quite a journey, for sure, to where I am now.)

In Which I Publicly Apologize for My Former Self

All of this is to say that I get it. And I deeply apologize now on behalf of my former self.

I am thankful I was privileged to repent of my irrational moral disgusts against a champion of the deeply biblical concepts of loving justice and fighting oppression.

In Which I Call My People to Repent

The thing is, my people taught me the reading and listening skills it took for me to get where I am, so I know they’re capable of it too.

I call my people to do the same.

Repent, friends. This thing you were socialized into, this moral disgust of progressives who disagree with your political disgusts, especially vocal women, is not, and does not have to be, your identity. It need not be. It is a behavior. It CAN be changed.

Repent of your part in the unhealthy demonization of RBG and other progressives.

Please, for the love, show that repentance through responding to her death without the suppressed glee and gloating and fear-mongering about riots.

Properly mourn with those who mourn, dammit! You may not agree with her, but be humble enough to genuinely honor her life and work and pass the mic to those of us who are mourning for her.  

A Call for True Repentance

And furthermore, work to fight your own moral disgusts that say that progressive policies are soooo scary. As you tend to say, this is a “heart matter” as well as a systemic issue.

Listen to the Bible that tells you to be fair and just to others. Support policies that do better at that.

Be genuinely humble enough to recognize what a still small voice inside of you has already been telling you—that you haven’t gotten this one right.

That voting for only a particular solution re: abortion, that being defensive about that vote to where you’ve doubled down repeatedly, that listening to nationalistic propaganda, has led you deeply astray from the Christian message. Has led you into complicity with gloating over an honorable woman’s death and fear-mongering. Has led you to vote against the least of these.

All because this woman RBG’s assertive voice, and others like it, scared you.

No Need to Be Ashamed

Here’s the thing: there’s no dishonor in fear. It’s a natural stress response. But I now say to you what the Bible says to God’s people many times: Do not fear. Let love cast out fear.

It’s been four years since you held your nose and voted. Don’t be deceived again, friends.

Don’t follow the same path.  

Things You Can Do Now

And at the very least, for the love of all that is holy, PLEASE don’t wait for your time of voting to show your repentance.

As I said, stop with the fear-mongering about riots supposedly caused by progressives.

Call out those who are gloating about this wonderfully strong yet human woman’s death. Ask them to leave space to genuinely honor the death of RBG. Call them to genuine respect for the opposition.

Hold your representatives responsible for voting in healthier ways on issues up to and beyond abortion.

Refuse to let your unhealthy moral disgusts guide you, friends.

I don’t think less of you because of your past. You raised me to believe that God was a God of forgiveness.

But as Maya Angelou says, eloquently lining up with the biblical principles of repentance: once you know better, do better.

In Which I Acknowledge I Doubt You’re Listening to Me

Before I go, though, I’ll be honest: it’s been a tough four years, and it’s been rough on our relationship.

To be clear, I doubt if you’re even reading this.

And if you are, I have even less confidence that you’ll be in any way influenced by what I have to say.

Prophets in Their Hometowns or Something Like That

See, I’ve “crossed over to the other side.”

You say you’ll love me no matter what, but when you do, there’s always a subtext of those same moral and political disgusts underlying that phrase when you say it.

Addressing the Fear of Listening and Influence

I recognize it, because I once did the same. I just happened to jump ship before the worst of the religio-political bilge-pump for the Republican party was needed as badly as it is now.

I did so by learning to genuinely listen to my progressive brothers and sisters with as few barriers as possible.

And I know that’s terrifying to do.

After all, listening can lead to influence. Listening may have to lead to changes of your hearts and minds. Listening may have to require surrender of that moral high ground I can see you clinging to soooo hard.

Of Course It’s Hard!

And dear Lord, don’t I know it down to my very last piece of viscera that the other things I’ve asked you to do are hard. The loudest voices right now are bullies. (And no, the other side isn’t perfect either—we never said it was—but Democrats are NOT the loudest most bullying voices in the room right now. Both sides are NOT the same. Again, for the love of all that is holy and just, please stop straining a gnat while swallowing a camel.)

Here’s what I know to be true. What you yourself taught me from the Bible: the road to freedom is difficult and narrow.

Genuine internal change, turning away from our socialized moral disgusts, from supporting those who are hurting vulnerable populations, isn’t an easy thing to do.

You Don’t Even Have to Consider Yourself Progressive

And it doesn’t even have to mean you “join the other team,” to be honest.

You don’t have to identify as a “progressive” to speak up against the issues with what “your side” is doing, or to vote for the “other side” this year (you get to hold them accountable–they’re a thousand times better at listening than the current guy, which is maybe one of the things you may be resenting them for?).

Turn Off Your Usual Sources and Leave Your Comfort Zone

Just stop listening to your sources of information and try to listen to what the other side is genuinely concerned about.

Recognize that they may have valuable things to say.

Start by listening to what Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to say. Learn about this woman who’s been initialized as RBG and branded as “notorious.” Maybe watch the movie “On the Basis of Sex.” Honor her death and life. Sit shiva with her—not because that’s a tradition you’re comfortable with, but because honoring her means truly honoring her tradition.

Pray over it, since that’s what you do.

And then, well, we’ll see what happens. You don’t have to agree with me, but dammit, it’s not okay that you should have so much suppressed glee over this Supreme Court seat that’s opened up with RBG’s death. Move beyond this surface sympathy you’re offering into genuine mourning with those of us who mourn.

And in the process, allow for your heart to be changed. I believe, to use the words you raised me with, it’s what God is calling you to.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can, where we are with what we have toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing. May Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s memory be a blessing, and may we all be part of that blessing.

Looking for more resources toward speaking up for what’s right and dealing with the conflict that results?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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The “Holy War of Ideas” and the Demonization of Critical Race Theory: An Analysis http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/09/13/holy-war-of-ideas-demonization-critical-race-theory/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/09/13/holy-war-of-ideas-demonization-critical-race-theory/#comments Sun, 13 Sep 2020 06:45:19 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1112 I’ve been seeing and hearing about it a lot lately from those on the right, and reports from those I know who are also being assertive with unhealthy rhetoric from the right. “Beware of critical race theory,” those on the right are saying. “Don’t trust BLM—they’re Marxist.” And when conservative Christians (mostly white Evangelicals) share this stuff and try to say Christianity is deeply opposed to critical race theory as an ideology, it all takes on a “holy war of...

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I’ve been seeing and hearing about it a lot lately from those on the right, and reports from those I know who are also being assertive with unhealthy rhetoric from the right. “Beware of critical race theory,” those on the right are saying. “Don’t trust BLM—they’re Marxist.” And when conservative Christians (mostly white Evangelicals) share this stuff and try to say Christianity is deeply opposed to critical race theory as an ideology, it all takes on a “holy war of ideas” hue.

(Which, you know, couldn’t possibly hurt anyone, right? Because it’s about ideas, not people. Sigh. Sadly not at all true, as I’ll explain. If nothing else, Christian defense of and fundraising for Kyle Rittenhouse, the conservative man who drove across state lines to shoot protestors in Kenosha with an assault rifle, needs to make us pause really strongly as to where all of this is going.)  

Where Are We Headed?

Today’s article will unpack where some of this rhetoric about “critical race theory” comes from, why it is effective, and how it fits into the other god term/devil term and moral disgusts stuff we’ve previously been talking about on the blog. In the process, I’ll discuss how this extremely unhealthy talking point is being used to stoke fear and division and to encourage conservative Christians to actually fight the voices of the vulnerable and those who advocate for them—and suppress many biblical principles in the process.

Finally, I’ll give some principles about how and why to keep speaking up against this kind of unhealthy rhetoric toward a healthier world for us all. (It’s going to take a little while to get through this–thanks for hanging in there with me!)

An Unhealthy Line of Rhetoric

“BLM is Marxist.”

“I don’t know what critical race theory is, but it seems bad.”

Memes, articles, social media commentary—a wave of right-wing rhetoric has emerged, specifically since the recent anti-police brutality protests began, whose effect is to (further) demonize those protests and to dehumanize and demonize the movements that are seeking to speak up against unjust treatment of Black lives by police.

One strand of this wave uses the term “critical race theory” in a wholly negative way, as a devil term (that’s something that, as I’ve defined in a previous series starting here, is disconnected from its dictionary definition, in large part, and to be fought at all costs).

Why I’m Talking about This Topic

As an academic working in communication, a field that ranges from more “scientific types” to more humanities types, including those that study from a critical race theory lens, the fact that “critical race theory” has become specifically demonized as a talking point as part of this wave was something I thought it was important I address here, especially when I started seeing unhealthy memes that made bizarre “distinctions” between “Christianity” and critical race theory.

Some Background on Where I’m Coming From

Before I dive into that, a quick background note and acknowledgment:

As a white pastor’s kid in a moderate denomination that later got a PhD in Communication, I grew up in an educational tradition that subtly and sometimes unsubtlely trained me to fear and feel moral disgust toward “critical theory,” including critical race theory. (I talked about the neurobiological basis for moral and political disgusts in a series starting here, and about the ways my political disgusts were trained here.)

Unnecessary Wrestling

I internalized this type of training so well that in grad school and beyond, I tussled A LOT with reading some forms of critical theory when I was assigned it in classes.

I still don’t agree with every point that’s made by every critical race theorist—but I can see now that a LOT of that previous wrestling I did was based in the kinds of unhealthy understandings of the “holy war of ideas” concepts I spoke of above, and wouldn’t have truly been necessary.

Stay tuned for why that is, and also how this type of ideological crusade on behalf of a shadow form of Christianity over and against things like “critical race theory” can be just as damaging as the all-out Crusades in the middle ages that have such a bad rap for good reason.

A New Rhetorical Push—But Also Rooted in Past Concerns

Okay, so let me start out by talking about what critical (race) theory IS, and why it’s become a special target in right-wing talking points.  

Let’s be clear as well—even though this new push about it is clear, this rhetoric is not actually a new thing at all. A lot of right-wing dissing of the academic world for years has centered on fear around universities and colleges being a “hotbed of critical theory.”

Some History of Fear of Critical Theory in Universities by Conservatives

And regrettably, (white) Evangelical publishing was involved in some of the history of these views. After all, it was in 2004 that Thomas Nelson, a Christian publisher focusing on a white Evangelical audience, published the young Hollywood brat Ben Shapiro’s book Brainwashed, “expose” of “how leftist” universities “were getting.”

Shapiro, as an Orthodox Jew, combined a political and religious view in a book that seems like it did for religio-political conservatives what I Kissed Dating Goodbye by a very young Joshua Harris did for the world of white Evangelical dating culture, for those who know about that strange phenomenon. Both books, by white conservative men of college age, seem to have caused similar toxic effects—I’m honestly not sure which one has done more damage. (And I’m not linking to either here because I would not want to give either of these projects any funding. For the damage that purity culture has done, I encourage you to read the book Pure by Linda Kay Klein.)

Shapiro himself, of course, was already building on a long history of right-wing suspicion of “liberal egghead elites” egged on by devil term rhetoric by folks such as Rush Limbaugh, who was recently given the medal of honor at the last State of the Union. I talked about that here.

More recently, the right-wing organization Turning Point USA started publishing a “Professor Watch List” of professors with critical theory backgrounds around the time of the last presidential election in 2016.

As you’ll see, that focus on why universities are feared and despised by conservatives, and have been for years, is quite telling.

But What Is Critical Theory?

See, Critical theory, and critical race theory as a subset, is a shorthand term for an incredibly diverse range of theories and ideas focusing on in on how power dynamics work in our world.

These academic theories are often not content just to theorize about how people work and how power affects our social and political world, though. They would like us to resist unhealthy types of power and correct injustices in the world.

Not at All Ivory Tower Stuff

This is definitely NOT ivory tower stuff, critical theory. In fact, even in the halls of academia, critical theory is the stuff that pokes at the status quo, and speaks truth to power. Does it always get it right, when it does this? I don’t think anything is perfect, or gets it right all the time, no. But I absolutely take what a lot of these scholars say very seriously. They make some really important points that deserve a full, nuanced hearing. And, beyond that, support.  

Here’s the point: Critical theory, and its subset critical race theory, are academic areas that themselves are diverse and nuanced. These are serious scholars who jumped through a lot of hoops to get where they are. And yet, still, when push comes to shove in university funding, often it’s these departments and positions that face the chopping blocks.

That’s often, if not always, because these scholars are consistently speaking truth to power, and drawing attention to real societal issues of injustice and oppression.

Quite Biblical in Many Ways

If you were to throw a spiritual lens on these perspectives and had read your Bible carefully without the framing of conservative Christianity, you might find yourself wanting to say these are prophetic voices, crying out in the wilderness for society to repent. To repent of the ways women and people with darker skin and immigrants and the disabled and others in vulnerable populations are being treated poorly in our society.

If you’re familiar with the Bible and those actions and populations don’t remind you of Jesus praising those who took care of the “least of these” in Matthew 25, maybe you aren’t reading closely enough.

Would Jesus Hang with Critical Theorists?

Does that mean Jesus IS a critical theorist, in today’s terms? Nope, probably not. These things get complicated, and neither Jesus nor critical theory is a monolith—there’s plenty of disagreement among the critical theory camp—academia does that kind of thing well.

But it does mean Jesus has a lot more in common with today’s critical theorists than he did with, say, those kind of people he attacked who were exploiting vulnerable groups, often in the name of religion.

Would Conservative Christians Hang with Jesus?

And yet, today’s conservative and right-leaning Christians are working d*mned hard to separate themselves from these voices and instead are insisting these ideas are fully antithetical to Christianity.

Hey, I’ve Been There

As I said, I understand how this works because I’ve fought these battles inside myself. See, as I’ve discussed before, here and here, I was taught to fear the influence of ideas that were seen as antithetical to Christianity, including those on the progressive wings of both Christianity and the political spectrum.

Even though I hated having to listen to Rush Limbaugh’s rhetoric in high school, the same message, more subtly delivered from other sources, filtered in all the same—education was good, but there was always this fear of influence by “radicals” that might, well, be proved to have important points that might upset the status quo. My Christian nice upbringing, as I’ve discussed before, contained THAT message in spades.  

While I considered myself to have “gone over to the progressive side” before the 2016 election, in some cases it took me right up to the apocalypse of the 2016 election to see how my training to fear and separate myself from progressive ideas MORE than even extreme right-wing ideas was harming me but especially others.

People Get Hurt When Conservative Christians Demonize Critical Theorists

And in taking that long to realize that critical theorists had some great points, let me pull no punches here: I contributed to the hurt of vulnerable groups. That’s what’s happening when Christians work hard to separate themselves from “critical race theory” and actually contribute to its demonization: actual people in vulnerable populations get hurt. And Christians unfortunately stand by, complicit, as real people get hurt and traumatized and lose their lives, as Saul held the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen in the book of Acts.

See, if all the Christians, especially the conservative white Evangelicals who have had the loudest voices, had conversions like Saul and stopped supporting the Kyle Rittenhouses of the world and started speaking up for justice for the oppressed like the prophets in the Bible, there could be some amazing change in the world. The bullies would have less space to gain power, and the church at large would, in its own chosen terms, have a much better witness with marginalized groups. It would also have much more integrity in general.

Negative Effects of the “Holy War of Ideas”

Let’s be real: The goal of choosing to transubstantiate real flesh and blood protestors against police brutality into a “holy war against ideas we’re made uncomfortable by ” is a powerful rhetorical move, though not at all a healthy one.

See, Christians disconnecting from the real people protesting to pull back into a “holy war of ideas” has the following effects:

  1. Pulling back leads to depersonalization: This makes it wayyyy easier to depersonalize the “opposition”—Black people and those advocating for them. Depersonalization is a huge step in any genocide that’s occurred, and lots of scholars of rhetoric and history who wouldn’t necessarily identify as critical theorists would confirm that fact.
  2. Complicity with Abuse of Power: Christians who see “critical race theory” as a threat often end up allying with and defending people in power doing brutal things against vulnerable groups. (As I’ve said above, the Bible calls its readers to see that as a sin.)
  3. Striking Back at Vulnerable Groups: Since many scholars who identify themselves as critical scholars also are members of vulnerable groups (and in turn this demonization assumes that all protestors are working from the most extreme tenets of all of the concepts of critical race theory, which isn’t even remotely true), strike back against the members of vulnerable groups gaining voice and power to make change in society.
  4. Striking Back at Those Testing and Approving What Is True and Good: White Evangelical Christians that set themselves against universities without truly knowing why they do end up speaking back against a scholarly enterprise committed to testing and approving what is true and good in careful ways, even if it doesn’t always do that perfectly.
  5. Laziness about Careful Listening to Those who are Different: Pretends (if fails) to shield conservative Christians from listening to alternative views and seeing themselves as victims in a “culture war.” This blocks much recognition and repentance from their gaslighting of the vulnerable and the ways major themes in the Bible call them to take care of the “least of these.” And, as it happens, since communication research shows us that deep listening is an act of care and respect, it’s not surprising that this blockage would block the communication of care and concern to those outside white Evangelical churches.
  6. Failure to Recognize Complicity with Unhealthy Ideologies: Fails to recognize and address the ways in which conservative Christianity has eloped with white nationalism (I addressed this more here) and the ways in which toxic Christian Nice has elevated conservative and authoritarian ideologies over and above biblical principles.

That’s the Truth, Sadly

Well, there’s more, and I realize that’s not exactly throwing down some sunshine on the issue, but it’s the grim reality of how it is. I could go on for awhile, but hopefully this helps you understand why the right’s demonization of “critical race theory” as a straw man idea is a really unhealthy phenomenon.

But, in short, this way of speaking about the anti-police brutality protestors as “believers in critical race theory” and therefore to be dismissed is deeply unhealthy, and in fact, supports real ongoing harm to vulnerable populations.

An extreme example of this is when white supremacist teenager Kyle Rittenhouse drove twenty miles to shoot BLM protestors with an assault rifle, a Christian-identified fundraising site raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for him.

That’s where we are, friends. Conservative Christians supporting murderers to kill real life progressives protesting police brutality, all in the name of this holy war of “ideas.” This is not a remotely okay place to be—and it’s the dehumanization of an entire set of ideas that supports fighting real injustices that has gotten us here.

So What Can We Do Healthily to Work Against This Toxicity?

So how should we speak back to this inaccurate, unhealthy, and weaponized use of the term “critical race theory” and other related terms?

  1. Most importantly, rehumanize the situation for people on the right. Tell the stories of human beings—protestors, academics. Let’s put flesh back on the progressive left.
  2. Remind the right of facts, as you have energy, but try not to “dunk on” people as you do. The more you can draw attention to how everyone is learning in the areas of learning about and fighting injustice, including you, the better off you’ll be.
  3. Support scholars and protestors who are speaking truth to power both with our voices and tangibly as much as we’re able. Remember we don’t have to fully support everything they say to support them either. <begin sarcasm> But, you know, maybe avoid supporting that Rittenhouse fund <end sarcasm>.
  4. Continue to advocate and vote at all levels of government and society for the righting of injustices and the reapplication of reason and empathy.

More Resources!

If you’re looking for more detailed ways to understand and deal with conflict both online and off, I recommend signing up for our free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls.” To get it, sign up in the top bar of this site for our weekly email newsletter and confirm your email address. The link to the guide will come in the final welcome email. It will help you with conflict both online and off.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

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What’s in a Hashtag? #DefundThePolice and the Politics of Interpretation http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/08/22/whats-in-a-hashtag-defund-the-police/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/08/22/whats-in-a-hashtag-defund-the-police/#comments Sun, 23 Aug 2020 02:50:14 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1105 It’s been coming up a lot lately. People will ask me, as someone who specializes in communication studies, what I think about the #DefundthePolice hashtag. The implication is always that if the movement just marketed itself better people would be on board. OR people will show willful misunderstanding of the movement in their response to similar matters, as a troll on the AS FB page did earlier this week. The present article will unwrap the communication dynamics behind these kind...

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It’s been coming up a lot lately. People will ask me, as someone who specializes in communication studies, what I think about the #DefundthePolice hashtag. The implication is always that if the movement just marketed itself better people would be on board. OR people will show willful misunderstanding of the movement in their response to similar matters, as a troll on the AS FB page did earlier this week. The present article will unwrap the communication dynamics behind these kind of interpretations of #DefundThePolice for better understanding of the politics of interpretation that happen with this kind of movement. All of this will help us identify unhealthy knee-jerk responses that ultimately defend and reinforce white supremacy, and figure out how to respond better.

My Cred

So, first, as I implied above, I am THAT kind of doctor—which is to say that I have a PhD in Communication. As part of my job as THAT kind of doctor, I start teaching again soon (all online this fall, if you were wondering—incredibly thankful for that).

I’m also white, and therefore on my own journey to uncover and combat my own white supremacist socialization. Writing this blog piece is part of that–and probably not a perfect part (note I talk about how expectations for perfection tend to reinforce white supremacy toward the end of this piece). I hope my Black friends and followers will let me know if there are ways they needed their voice better heard in this piece.

The Topic at Hand

Starting a new semester always pulls me back to basics in a useful way, and so I’m taking a short “break” this week from the intense rhetoric of conspiracy series I’ve been working on (you can find it here, here, here, and here) in order to address issues I’ve seen popping up around the #DefundThePolice hashtag and its politics of interpretation.

Writing this article reminds me of writing the one on Kaep and the politics of respect, and that alone should tell you something—because fears and/or insistence about this hashtag “not being enough” all ties back to racism, as that did. Hang in there for a few minutes. I promise I’ll explain why and how.

How Communication Works

But first, let’s go to the basics of how communication works and doesn’t work, including in the case of hashtags. See, communication is always arbitrary in meaning until both the author and the audience, often in light of a broader interpretive community, have their say about what the words actually mean.

If you read (or listen to) an interesting book like Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper, you’ll discover that a careful process goes into figuring out which words and meanings end up in places like dictionaries. (I encourage you to check it out if you’re interested. It’s really well done.)

Communication Is Never Static

The point here is that the meaning of communication is never static, set in stone, put into the words and living there, ready to be unwrapped like a package at Christmas.

On the contrary, the meaning of communication is fluid and dynamic and often full of conflict and power struggle.

The Most Important Questions in Most Communication Situations

This is why communication theorist John Durham Peters says the following in his excellent book Speaking into the Air: “The question should be not Can we communicate with each other? but Can we love one another or treat each other with justice and mercy?… At best, ‘communication’ is the name for those practices that compensate for the fact that we can never be each other….We ought to be less worried about how signs arouse divergent meanings than the conditions that keep us from attending to our neighbors and other beings different from us.”

The Politics of Interpretations

All of which brings us to the politics of interpretation. From symbolic acts like kneeling (which I covered earlier) to hashtags like #DefundThePolice, the question of who gets to define what something means often becomes a political battleground in ways that don’t always make logical sense—and too often work against justice and mercy on those who are vulnerable and oppressed by viscerally defending unhealthy systems like white supremacy.

Unpacking Moral Disgusts Backing White Supremacy

How can we tell when illogical power dynamics are at play, especially ones that are seeking to reinforce white supremacy or racism?

Well, like I’ve been saying on this blog, looking for reactions that arise from moral and political disgusts is really helpful. (I had a series about this starting here.) In short, when people have a strong immediate reaction as though something is distasteful or immoral to something, there’s a good chance that they are operating out of “moral disgust” rather than logic.

NOTE: This isn’t always a bad thing, when your moral disgusts are about toxic patterns of behavior and systems. It’s unhealthy when it’s scapegoating others while defending toxicity, though. And we all get socialized into unhealthy patterns and systems, so it can take a lot of work to shift our moral disgusts in healthier directions. And sometimes we’re doing some of the right thing and still immersed in some of the toxic stuff, so it gets complicated.

What Happens When We Have Moral Disgusts

When people caught up in moral disgusts, they are too often seeing the “disgusting” object (which is often opposing their deeply held beliefs) as a threat. In other words, something to either fight or run away from. Certainly not something to stop and question and dialogue with.

This is, quite frankly, a lot of what I see happening with the #DefundThePolice hashtag, as I did with the kneeling. What often is happening behind these kinds of political disgusts is a logic of false dichotomy, specifically of the type that set up god terms to be defended at all costs in opposition to devil terms, to be fought at all costs. (I talked about the definitions of these things more in a series that starts here.)

There’s also a lot of perfectionism around “if we just could get the weight of this hashtag to perfectly stave off the bullies.” I’ll get to challenges with that in a bit.

Moral Disgusts Regarding Movements that Speak Up for Black Lives

In both the cases of people’s strong knee-jerk reactions (without research) to #DefundThePolice and to Kaep’s kneeling, we can see the same form of moral disgust and god term/devil term pairing going on under the surface.

That’s because both of these movements have been seeking to speak up for the right of black bodies to receive due legal process and healthier, less violent handling when they come into contact with police bodies.

We’ve All Been Socialized into Systemic Racism, So It Can Happen to Us

This advocacy is needed because we’ve all been socialized into systemic racism, which means our moral disgusts have been too quick to react in what I defined last week as hypervigilant ways when we see black bodies.

In short, regrettably, our knee-jerk impulses, as bias tests and other statistics have proved (look it up! There’s a lot out there about this!), tend to think of darker skin as more suspicious and more worthy of receiving immediate punishment without due process.

How We Come to Defend White Supremacy at Black Lives’ Expense

As a corollary, without careful retraining, our knee jerk impulses, when seeing a symbol like Kaep’s kneeling or a hashtag like #DefundThePolice, we tend to think of advocacy of causes surrounding black bodies as less worthy of being given a hearing.

Even those of us who are allies may think that the hashtag has to speak on its own–because surely no one will take the time to research, right? (That’s a problem, because we can and should expect better of ourselves and others, and push back against such assumptions that a legitimate policy idea ought not receive a hearing on its own terms.)

Similarly, police and their authority are often the other pole of our associations—the authorities that we too easily see as doing no wrong in our societies (and too often we think they deserve unlimited PR space with too little accountability).

Along with this, white people see themselves as “surely not racist,” because if we put “racism” as something extreme that only really bad people do than none of us can fit that definition, right? (Sigh. Definitely a problem when we start seeing ourselves as faultless god terms. Really unhealthy, that.)

Defense of the Police and Unhealthy Cordial Hypocrisy

Anyway, it should be clear to careful readers of this blog that police don’t necessarily bring good conflict management. Police brutality aside, even (and that’s a huge burden to shift to the side, even for only a few seconds!), police are historically associated with “keeping the peace,” a phrase which is dripping with cordial hypocrisy.

As I explained in my first toxic sides of Christian Nice piece on this blog, cordial hypocrisy is a situation in which things seem peaceful outwardly, but under the surface resentment is simmering and bound to burst out sooner or later specifically because things are such that one side isn’t given a hearing, for whatever reason.

Cordial hypocrisy is premised on the idea that if we all just gaslight ourselves and others long enough (in other words, ignore the facts of the problems), very real problems will somehow just disappear and we’ll never have to deal with them.

The Link Between Nice and Support for White Supremacy

As many have noted (MLK started my thinking about it, but the way Ta-Nehisi Coates talked about it in Between the World and Me brought it most home to me, personally), white supremacy’s existence is at least in part premised on this kind of gaslighting of the very real ongoing problems of racism—which is how Christian nice supports white supremacy so unfortunately well, as I discussed here, here, and here.

In the terms I’ve been discussing here, that means maintaining strong moral disgust reactions to people speaking up against injustices toward black bodies, including movements that seem to attack the status quo in this area.

What Does Support of White Supremacy Look Like in Practice?

This system of injustice is reinforced by people defending as automatically moral those authority figures that maintain the system of white supremacy by seeing black bodies as less valuable, more suspicious, and less worthy of time to prove themselves through due process (and good representation).

Anyway, so the point is that all of these visceral things are at play when many people, especially white people, see someone, especially a Black person, kneeling during the national anthem or see a hashtag like #DefundThePolice.

Unpacking these Viscerally Racist Reactions

In both cases, the person sees the word or action and too often sees the status quo being challenged by those who are often judged to be less worthy of a hearing–and feels that to be a problem. (Sees it to be aggression rather than the assertiveness it is.)

In short, in such situations a societal hierarchy based on oppression is being challenged. And those who have been trained to uphold that hierarchy—see its stability as a matter of maintaining their own status—tend to feel that, and seek to either defend that hierarchy through fight responses or defend that hierarchy through refusing to listen to the points of view that would challenge it—through flight from the issue.

How Fight and Flight Combine Toward Fighting Protest on Behalf of Black Lives

The flight from dealing with the issue often comes through refusal to do what one would normally expect to do when encountering a new idea, if one is to be just to that idea—look up more context and definitions about what that idea means more fully, and give those ideas a hearing before setting down judgments about the matter.

And—to bring us back full circle to the examples I was talking about at the very beginning, the fight mode often combines with this flight mode in either an openly aggressive or passively aggressive fashion.

In short, people, to defend the white supremacy power structure that’s embedded in our moral disgusts, people pick on the acts of protest—their wording, their respectfulness—as a way to distract from the fact that they’re defending authoritarian white supremacy.

Linguistically Aggressive Defenses of White Supremacy

See, many can’t see themselves as defending white supremacy, so they offload that onto slogans like “blue lives matter” that were created to oppose ones like “black lives matter.” (As though Blue Lives don’t already matter enough to have a lot of power and to be hidden behind intense firepower and a blue wall.)

And many can’t see themselves as defending white supremacy, so when they see policy suggestions like #DefundThePolice in hashtag form they start talking as though it’s suggesting the police be abolished rather than defunded, suggesting extreme visions of lots of lawlessness if funding is shifted away from more violent means of curbing a community that’s seen to be suspicious to gentler methods.

Sometimes It’s Subtler, Though

Sometimes it’s not that obvious, though. Sometimes it comes when others who have accepted the problem as set forth by critics (sometimes even those who would like to be allies of Black Lives!) act as though a hashtag on its own needs to be Jesus in the guise of Superman. What I mean is that these folks look to a hashtag, with no further explanation or research, to leap over centuries-old neurobiologically-embedded moral disgusts and fight/flight reactions in a single bound.

The thing I’m trying to say here is that words and language and communication, was never designed to bear that kind of burden of perfection in any situation. This is even MORE the case in situations where centuries-old socializations need to be overcome to achieve actual justice and equality in how people are treated.

But It’s Not About the Words—It’s the Justice and Mercy

To sum up, buying into the bullies’ argument that the hashtag #DefundThePolice ought to be fully able to take down all opponents with a single glare of its “The” is a support of white supremacy, however small.

Because, as Peters said above, it’s not about the efficacy of our communication, but whether we’re loving each other well. And in the case of good policy, it’s not about whether it’s perfectly sold in a hashtag, but whether it provides more justice and mercy and due process in the solution than the status quo does—in short, whether it comes closer to fixing the problem.

What to Do If You Have Lingering Questions About #DefundThePolice

So if you want to see whether #DefundThePolice is a good hashtag leaning toward good feasible policy, I strongly recommend you read up on the proposed policies and listen carefully to what’s being proposed.

You’ll know whether the it’s a good policy if it solves problems and creates more equity—and if you have knowledge that can make the ideas better based on expertise (I doubt these ideas are perfect, and they don’t really have to be), well, join on in the dialogue to create a better policy! (But listen carefully first! And take the ideas you find there seriously before you jump in.)

(Speaking of Jesus needing to look and act like Superman, it should be clear that if something is defending the authorities over and against the least of these, well, you might not be defending Jesus OR equality.)

How to Respond When People (Including You) React in Knee-Jerk Ways to Ideas

So how can we respond healthily in these kinds of situations when symbols or hashtags aren’t being given a fair shake because of white-supremacy-based visceral prejudice?

I have lots of ideas, so I’m going to recommend you sign up for the email newsletter in the top bar and read the free “Guide to Online Trolls” that comes in the final welcome email once you’ve confirmed your email address. Some people will be educable and some won’t, and the guide to trolls helps you distinguish the difference.

One Final Note: Better Together

I’ve noticed that often followers to Assertive Spirituality come expecting words, slogans, hashtags and memes to bear the weight of Superman. None of the things the site offers can remotely bear that weight.

The thing is, that’s okay–because it’s not about the single words, or single memes, or single hashtags or even a single human doing things alone. That’s not how communication or life works.

Instead, it all goes better when it’s about a bunch of words and sentences and people all working together. Moving into this difficult fall season of continuing pandemic and difficult election, let’s work to help each other remember that, shall we? We’re stronger together–and we don’t have to stand alone, even when we’re healthily isolating. 🙂

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to identify and continue to fight unhealthy systems of oppression wherever we find them toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

The post What’s in a Hashtag? #DefundThePolice and the Politics of Interpretation appeared first on Assertive Spirituality.

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QAnon Conspiracy Rhetoric, Hypervigilance, and Questions of Trust http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/08/15/qanon-conspiracy-rhetoric-hypervigilance-sex-trafficking/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/08/15/qanon-conspiracy-rhetoric-hypervigilance-sex-trafficking/#comments Sat, 15 Aug 2020 23:57:30 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1102 If you’ve been following along here, you should know that I’ve already been doing a series on the rhetoric of conspiracy for the last few weeks. I previously talked about conspiracy theories here, here and here. This week I’ve seen sex trafficking experts having to work extra hard to refute unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric around that subject (check out, for example, this post I shared recently on the Assertive Spirituality FB page). This piece is a response to that while continuing...

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If you’ve been following along here, you should know that I’ve already been doing a series on the rhetoric of conspiracy for the last few weeks. I previously talked about conspiracy theories here, here and here. This week I’ve seen sex trafficking experts having to work extra hard to refute unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric around that subject (check out, for example, this post I shared recently on the Assertive Spirituality FB page). This piece is a response to that while continuing the present series. My specific focus will be on how conspiracy rhetoric often bases its credibility in the grounds of hypervigilance rather than healthy vigilance (I’ll define those terms, I promise!). I’ll also talk about how to fight hypervigilance of various kinds to avoid encouraging the unhealthy trends behind conspiracy theory acceptance.

My Expertise, and Why Many Don’t Trust It

The sad thing is that those who believe unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric you probably won’t trust what I have to say on this subject. That’s because my academically-based expertise coming out of my PhD in Communication is in competition with what right-wing conspiracy theorists peddle. (Even if it wasn’t, the fact that I identify as “progressive” because of the evidence-based conclusions I draw from what I study along with my reading of the Bible would have put me over the edge for many of those identifying as conservatives these days, sadly!)

Who I’m Speaking To Instead

That’s why I’m speaking primarily here to you who already have a sense that conspiracy theories are unhealthy, but may not know exactly why or how they work. Today I’ll dive into some of our natural visceral fear/threat responses these rhetors are exploiting and how they play into the equation. At the end I’ll get to some ways for us to respond to these challenges, and how we can keep ourselves standing up against conspiracy rhetoric in as healthy a way as possible.  

This is a long one again, but worth taking the time; thanks for hanging in there with me!

A Quick Contextual Summary

Here’s the thing: as I’ve explained in the past, many conspiracy rhetoricians, especially in the right-wing Patriot Movement from which the current QAnon movement emerged, tend to contradictorily insist that their audiences think for themselves while also insisting that only they have the keys to interpret the world. They also tend to fear institutions and healthy collective action that they see as undermining their ability to maintain their seemingly sovereign “divine rights of citizens.”

Most recently, this kind of rhetoric has emerged in theories elevating the topic of sex trafficking, but unhealthy views about sex trafficking that oppose the things those long on the ground working on these topics have to tell us. These theories are being used to oppose (1) police reform in an age of protests against police brutality and (2) mask-wearing in the age of a public health crisis.

Unpacking Right-Wing Hypervigilance

If you look closely at what fears this rhetoric is unhealthily exploiting and what it’s working to oppose—which is one of the main goals of this article—you can see how it’s being used in defense of unhealthy authoritarian impulses rather than on behalf of protecting children. I plan to unpack that today by explaining how unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric works to defend hypervigilant authoritarian collective action while pretending to decry the same thing.

In this current article I’ll get into the roots of these right-wing hypervigilant fears, where they comes from, and how it gets spread. I’ll also unpack at least a bit more about how and why right-wing conspiracy rhetoricians see other knowledge as a threat and insist on their answers being the only ones and also get into some ways that we can avoid falling into our own forms of hypervigilance in response, no matter where we identify politically.

Reaching Toward Healthier Responses

In the process, I will also explain why it’s key, in countering conspiracy theories, to refuse to get drawn into letting these conspiracy theories explain the world for us, drawing us into black and white fear-based hypervigilance.

I will also explain why theories based in wholesale denial of any need for vigilance in the Christian community and even the hyperrational attitudes that can come with scientific process can easily express a different kind of hypervigilance, becoming unhealthily complicit in the rise of authoritarian leadership.

Defining Hypervigilance vs. Vigilance

Before I go further, let me quickly define hypervigilance, though, and explain the difference between hypervigilance, which is fearing more than is reasonable, and reasonable fear, often known as vigilance.

An Important Theological Note for Christians

Quick note: I believe that when the Bible talks about not fearing and love casting out fear, it is talking about casting out hyperviligance, not vigilance. A quick read of Jesus and the prophets or most of the rest of the Bible should make it clear that many themes in the biblical narrative and rhetoric strongly believe in being vigilant about how power and possessions and fear impulses can corrupt people.

Because of this, I don’t believe “love casts out fear” means a denial of vigilance, or rational fear and concern grounded in evidence. In fact, I believe it involves being willing to build genuine trust where we are able to, responding as assertively as possible when that is not possible, and so on.

Embracing Healthy Vigilance

The fact that some fear is actually healthy vigilance is hugely important to keep in mind as we go through this discussion. That’s because it’s easy to say, oh, conspiracy theories are fear-based, so all fear must be hypervigilant. That is ironically not at all a rational response, but itself a threat-based fear response, one that sees strong emotion in response to threat itself as a threat.

In reality, if we are to keep our heads on straight in response to hypervigilant conspiracy theories, it’s most helpful to recognize that some of the things conspiracists fear are valid concerns—and the stress responses themselves are not the problems.

Importantly, validating those reasonable fears that lead people to embrace unhealthy conspiracy theories doesn’t have to mean embracing the conspiracy theories themselves OR the hypervigilant policies and rhetoric they espouse and shore up.

Let’s Not Pretend to Be Invulnerable

I should also note that hypervigilance is a stress and trauma response that everyone is vulnerable to—but not everyone reacts to it the same way.

Often as a society we fear trauma because we fear hypervigilant responses and see them as unstable. And let’s be honest—those of us who have fully embraced Western rationality and science are also vulnerable to hypervigilance in the name of “rationality.” That kind of hypervigilance about emotion is no more stable than other forms.

In short, we all have hypervigilant responses to the world at times, but not all of us take them out on others. Let’s try to promote that latter response!

Discerning Is Sometimes Hard!

And let’s be honest—COVID precautions based in scientific findings look very much like authoritarian hypervigilance if you don’t trust science or if you’re too overwhelmed to understand their basis. And this is where I point out that hypervigilance based in evidence and on behalf of the common good, doing the best we can with what we do know, is very different from authoritarian hypervigilance. Such distinctions are crucial, but of course if you’re hypervigilant about expertise and collective action the distinction will be very unclear!

Why Distinguishing Hypervigilance from Vigilance Matters

These are important caveats, because abusers, authoritarians, and other unhealthy individuals use this information about our fear of emotion to dismiss the natural vigilance of those they wish to demonize.

Let me say that again: our systemically embedded Western patriarchal fears of emotion are grist for propping up authoritarians and abusers even while our love of data and evidence can help fight them.

In other words, fighting conspiracy rhetoric and authoritarianism isn’t so easy as embracing science and rejecting rhetoric and politics. It’s not nearly that cut and dried, and we make it so at our peril.

How to Thread the Needle

If we wish to counter those who will exploit our toxically masculine society’s fear of emotion as a devil term by casting it as hypervigilance, it’s very important to recognize this distinction and refuse to give in to either hypervigilance or hyper-rationality.

In doing so, we recognize that our fear responses often have good information to offer us, but are not always themselves fully trustworthy in everything they have to say.

In short, we need to do some detective work to sort through who and what to trust and what not to trust, both in ourselves and externally.

Conspiracy Theorists as Unreliable Narrators

The primary problem is that the conspiracists themselves are unreliable narrators about the problems they’re casting themselves as solving. They are often either hypervigilant themselves, or slick conmen, or some combination of the two.

Back to QAnon and Sex Trafficking as an Example

You can easily see this fact when it comes to QAnon and his/her/their wildly inaccurate and harmful theories about sex trafficking that are leading to the currently popular #SavetheChildren hashtag. (Sounds like a good thing, right??? Sorry, unfortunately no.)

If what QAnon—who, by the way, is anonymous, so we don’t have a way to vet them as a human, and first popped up on 4chan, an alt-right social media area—has to say about sex trafficking is accurate, we are being led to be hypervigilant about strangers snatching our children off the streets at any second.

Twisting a Very Real Issue that Requires Vigilance into Hypervigilance

This is a particularly evil contention, if you ask me, because sex trafficking and sexual abuse of all kinds are real and horrible problems. The problem with QAnon’s presentation, from what I know both of narrative and media theory and of actual on-the-ground experts on sex trafficking and sexual abuse is this: the large bulk of sex trafficking cases are not about strangers picking people off the streets.

On the contrary, they are about people unhealthily and gradually worming their ways into people’s trusts.

Much like the unhealthy conspiracy theorists themselves.

Surviving in the World in Ethical Ways Is More Complex Than That

The same is the case, by the way, with other cases of murder and violence that we tend to pin on “outsiders” in our society. The large majority of people who commit acts of violence are not strangers out there, but people presenting themselves as trustworthy.

The problem with this, of course, is that it means that healthy and ethical vigilance isn’t cut and dried any more than fighting conspiracy theorists is. On the contrary, healthy survival skills that are both effective and ethical require extra careful vetting of people, which can easily turn into hypervigilance if we’re not careful. After all, trust involves a mix of vulnerability and risk.

The truth is, because we’re all mortal, we all are vulnerable to death and pain. And because we are created to need other people, we are all in need of trusting others in various ways at some point—and we all have a need to be both vulnerable and trustworthy in order to be at our healthiest.

Back to the Question of Sex Trafficking and QAnon

Not everything’s difficult to discern, however. Take the question of sex trafficking. If you have to choose between what some unknown source says vs. that of those actually doing the work on the ground has to say, you probably need to deeply consider your life choices if you’re going with the unnamed and unvetted source.

That’s probably a sign that you’re trusting sources only because you have hypervigilance against experts and collective action—not for good reason. And in this case, there’s a very good chance that your hypervigilance is being exploited for political gain, and is ironically and disturbingly being used to build up unhealthy trust in existing systems.

How We Know #SaveTheChildren Isn’t About Love for Victims

See, the sex trafficking issue never came up via QAnon before people started using it to complain about masks and the Defund the Police movement. And that’s a strong sign, together with the gaslighting of those who have been coming up with viable solutions for the existing real problem, that QAnon isn’t performing love for sex trafficking victims but the opposite.

And this leads me to the most crazymaking part about the hypervigilance of conspiracists—it naturally seeks to gaslight such logical deductions that ground careful, evidence-based vigilance from those who would call them on such things.

How Conspiracy Theorists Try to Use the Grain of Vigilance Behind Their Theories to Gaslight

After all, as I’ve said before, unhealthy strongmen and demagogues often elevate conspiracy rhetoric as a way to disconfirm all other sources of authority other than themselves.

The fact that these conspiracy theories are actually tied into natural vigilance gives these unhealthy leaders the very grounds to pretend that opponents are being hypervigilant when they catch the unhealthily manipulations that are part of this rhetoric.

In short, the conspiracists and the leaders that unhealthily espouse conspiracy theories both claim the truth of their conspiracy theories based in a logic of hypervigilance and pretend that they are the only ones with a healthy rational response to the situation.

The assumption is that those who disagree with conspiracy theories and see how they are unreliable are the hypervigilant ones attacking for no good reason.

Why We’re Supposed to Cast Our Lots with the Conspiracy Theorists

As we’ve discussed before, this takes the conspiracy theorist/leader and puts them on the side of things to be defended at all costs (god terms) which are disconnected from reality grounded in evidence.

Instead of evidence, you are supposed to trust the conspiracist, who is painted as having the real knowledge (over and above all those experts and any other real-world facts that would contradict the conclusions the conspiracist says).

Conspiracy Rhetoric and Fighting Opposition

And of course you are supposed to disbelieve and distrust—and in fact, fight at all costs, any facts that disagree with the conspiracy rhetor’s view. This becomes an incredibly useful way to exploit people’s vulnerabilities into fighting people who actually know what they’re talking about. In many cases, as with anti-mask rhetoric (which this blog has talked about here and here), acting against their best interests as well as their own moral compasses.

Right-Leaning Christians, Conspiracy Theories, and Cognitive Dissonance

The result of people trusting this kind of rhetoric, especially if they claim to be Christians, results in a lot of cognitive dissonance. In other words, these Christians have a lot conflicting emotions, beliefs, and attitudes that often get expressed through hypervigilant policies and talking points combined with a demand to be seen as rational and reasonable and ethical in their positions.

How This Shows Up in Right-Leaning Moderates

This latter phenomenon is a lot of what I see among those from the moderate denomination I grew up in who now find themselves co-opted into a hypervigilance-based worldview. When you talk to such people you rarely hear pure conspiracy theories. They would quickly disclaim the ideas that people are implanting chips in the COVID vaccine or that BLM is part of the Illuminati.

And yet—they display a strong embrace of the demonization of collective action such right-wing conspiracy rhetoric espouses. They will disagree with the current head of the administration’s tweets and his behavior, for example, but refuse to vote for the opposition.

The Subtle Evil of This Seeming “Rational View”

This subtle effect of conspiracy rhetoric on right-leaning moderates is perhaps more evil than the effects on those who wholesale believe the theories full-scale. After all, these moderates are seeming to do what I’ve called us to do above—carefully sort through the valid and invalid parts of emotion to stick with only the vigilant parts rather than the hypervigilant parts.

And yet, by embracing the demonization of the opposition, these folks are almost as fully complicit with the hypervigilance of conspiracy rhetoric as those on the far-right.

Not completely, mind you. These conservative-leaning “moderates” probably wear a mask but vote against those who are promoting more widespread mask ordinances. Claim to be anti-racist but share misinformation about the Black Lives Matter organization being “Marxist.” Share the #SaveTheChildren hashtag but fail to listen to what actual sex trafficking organizations have to say on the matter.

The Root of the Cognitive Dissonance

This strong distinction between their own personal actions and their support of broader policies is actually itself a sign that they value conservative right-wing views that collective action is automatically scary. It is supremely ironic that in doing so, they vote for—and vocally support—collective action that actively fights the common good. As Christians, as I’ve pointed out in the past two articles, this situation amounts to hypocrisy.

I’ve talked in the past about how I grew up with this cognitive dissonance and have worked to emerge from it once I realized that’s what was happening. I take my own growth in this area is a sign that all is not lost, even if there is no silver bullet to take down the unhealthy elements of hypervigilance wrought by conspiracy theorists such as QAnon.

So What Ought We To Do in the Face of All of This?

  1. Carefully distinguish between vigilance and hypervigilance in ourselves and others. Embrace the vigilance; throw out the hypervigilance.
  2. Refuse to be drawn into the position of hyperrationality, which is itself a form of hypervigilance.
  3. Support efforts to discern and validate careful collective vigilance.
  4. Recognize that our fear impulses about things like sex trafficking are natural healthy impulses, and we confirm those in ourselves and others where we can while fighting unhealthy conclusions that don’t line up with real life experiences and data.
  5. Recognize the cognitive dissonance in many Christians drawn into supporting QAnon, and support the parts that we can while countering those we can’t.
  6. Look to evidence in the world and that gained by actual experts in fields like healthcare and sex trafficking, not for bulletproof answers or safety, but for a reasonable amount of information to help us see what of our fears are vigilant vs. hypervigilant.
  7. Keep speaking up assertively on behalf of policies and rhetoric alike based on vigilance, not hypervigilance, about the world—and healthily representing a mix of rationality and emotion.
  8. Decry the kind of rhetoric and policies that demonize expertise and evidence-based concerns about the world and their attendant solutions.
  9. Carefully vote for people who are actually working for the common good as much as you can (and these days in the US, let’s be honest—there’s one party that’s doing that wayyyy more than the other—and it’s not the party whose appeals are based in fear of healthy collective action).

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward speaking up and dealing with the conflict that results?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

The post QAnon Conspiracy Rhetoric, Hypervigilance, and Questions of Trust appeared first on Assertive Spirituality.

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“Biden Is Against God”? The Patriot Movement as Religio-Political Audience http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/08/08/biden-against-god-patriot-movement-audience-rhetoric/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/08/08/biden-against-god-patriot-movement-audience-rhetoric/#respond Sun, 09 Aug 2020 02:27:04 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1099 Two days ago it spread quickly across my timeline, much like an oil spill: the current head of the US administration had made more strange comments about religion. In this article I plan to rhetorically analyze those illuminating comments about Biden being “against God” and “against the Bible,” putting them in context of what I’ve been discussing in this space about god terms, devil terms and conspiracy rhetoric. In the process, I hope you’ll start to understand why the conspiracy...

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Two days ago it spread quickly across my timeline, much like an oil spill: the current head of the US administration had made more strange comments about religion. In this article I plan to rhetorically analyze those illuminating comments about Biden being “against God” and “against the Bible,” putting them in context of what I’ve been discussing in this space about god terms, devil terms and conspiracy rhetoric. In the process, I hope you’ll start to understand why the conspiracy theorist-laden alt-right Patriot Movement is being treated as the primary audience for many of the remarks from the current US administration, as well as why that’s unhealthy. Finally, I’ll talk about why we need to persist in working against it.

My Background

As a reminder, I’m a pastor’s kid with a PhD in Communication who studies and teaches with a focus on stress, trauma, and conflict communication. As I’ve discussed here before, I took a course in the rhetoric of conspiracy during my PhD, and have been dismayed to find how applicable it is in recent years.

“Sheeple” and the Background of This Series on Conspiracy Rhetoric

A couple of weeks ago I jumped down a fascinating and disturbing rabbit hole looking for the origins of the word “sheeple” and started the current series.

I did so when I discovered the word “sheeple” had been popularized by conspiracy theorist and Patriot Movement member William Cooper, whose broadcasting work and published book in the last part of the 20th century has had an enormous amount of influence on key people who have gone on to gain prominence in the current state of things.

In Opposition to Standard Views of Christian Faith

If you’ll remember, I talked in that first article in the series about how counter-intuitive to biblical themes a derogatory usage of the word “sheep” is.

Today’s article analyzing the remarks by the current head of the US administration will likely heighten that sense for you, highlighting the ways in which his remarks are targeting those with fringe religio-political groups and trying to get others to join in agreement with their interpretive community.

In short, rather than representing the entire country—or even trying to speak to the entire country—with his remarks, the current head of the US administration is trying to elevate the understandings of a fringe group (the Patriot Movement) by presuming they are his audience.

Deeply Disturbing that the Fringe Is the Primary Audience

Far from being a matter we ought to dismiss as “ridiculous,” or the ramblings of someone who isn’t fully conscious of what they are doing, I believe this ought to be a matter for extreme concern.

Not Espousing Religio-Political Freedom, Much Less the Rights of All Citizens

After all, it’s really not okay nor normal nor something to be dismissed that the current leader of the free world is seeing an alt-right group as his primary audience and is treating their beliefs as normative, especially because he’s doing it in a way that demonizes all other views. This is not religio-political freedom he’s espousing—it’s one group’s authoritarian views being elevated at the expense of all others.

Explaining how this works gets nuanced, as usual. Thanks for sticking with me while I explain.

The Current President’s Demonization of the Opposition

Okay, so let’s start with what the current president of the United States said on Thursday to supporters in Cleveland. The current president characterized the opposing candidate with the following words: “Take away your guns, take away your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything.” He went on to say “Hurt the Bible. Hurt God. He’s against God. He’s against guns. He’s against energy.”

Defending God, Guns, and Energy Against Progressives?

To many folks, the strong association here between guns and God (and presumably big oil) as things equally to be defended might seem nonsensical. In fact, some may dismiss it as a kind of rambling word salad.  

But it makes sense in light of what I’ve been researching, and is in fact deeply disturbing, when you consider everything we’ve been discussing in this space about god terms, devil terms, authoritarianism, and conspiracy rhetoric. And especially the strands of authoritarianism and conspiracy rhetoric associated with the alt-right loosely connected group known as the Patriot Movement.

God Terms and Devil Terms

As I’ve said before in a series starting here, god terms are concepts to be defended at all costs and devil terms are concepts to be fought at all costs. Naturally, the idea of a supreme being and the authority associated with that supreme being are often seen to be, well, sacred, and things to be defended at all costs. And things that are cast in opposition to that supreme being are seen to be devils.

Where the Patriot Movement and Conspiracy Theory Come In

As I noted in the last article, William Cooper , conspiracy theorist who claimed a strong voice for the Patriot Movement, often cast progressives as “sheeple” to be simultaneously demeaned and fought at all costs.  

William Cooper and the Demonization of Collective Action

As someone who came from the right-wing, he also really regularly associated any kind of collective action, especially that related to institutions, with totalitarian tyrrany and corruption, evoking the long-held American devil term “socialism” as being in opposition to the term “freedom.” (This should be ringing bells—I wrote about socialism as a devil term here and here and freedom in the issue of mask-wearing here.)

(Select Right-Wing In-the-Know) Citizens as Having the Divine Right of Kings?

And as Mark Jacobs outlines in his well-researched biography of Cooper (which I’m drawing on heavily here–thank you for your hard work, Mark Jacobs!), Cooper’s views on what it means to be an American citizen are very important to this picture.

See, as Jacobs reports, Cooper—along with many others in the patriot movement—believed that America’s founders, in claiming certain things to be “inalienable rights endowed by the Creator,” was not actually breaking down the divine right of kings, as so many believe they were, but transferring them to American citizens who understood that and rose up to take those rights and defend them.

Where the Second Amendment Comes In From This Perspective

Importantly, as Jacobs points out, Cooper and others in the Patriot Movement take the founders’ concern with a well-regulated militia in the second amendment to be taken literally. The fact that the Patriot Movement is often associated with armed militias like those involved at Ruby Ridge is not an accident.  

In short, to many if not most in the Patriot Movement, every citizen (most white and male) who understands this particular meaning behind the Constitution properly, and sees anyone working collectively as a potential threat, has the divine right of kings once claimed by Henry VIII and his descendants in England, and the responsibility to defend those rights with as many guns as possible.

The Patriot Movement’s Relationship to Violence

Practically, this sets up a situation in which suspicions run extremely high, and is rife for armed conflict and violence.

Patriot Conspiracist William Cooper, having fought in Vietnam, did not claim to condone violent solutions and reportedly decried the actions of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh who claimed him as an influence. And yet, along with others in the movement, he publicly claimed those who died at Ruby Ridge and Waco as faultless patriots to be honored and defended at all costs.

Meanwhile, he demonized organizations like the UN, FEMA, the FBI and the IRS, suspecting them and viewing them as enemies to be evaded and fought (with guns, if needed) at all costs. As it happens, Cooper ended up dying when a three-year standoff with federal agents came to a head—he paralyzed a deputy in the shootout.

When the Divine Rights of Citizens Clash

Interestingly, Cooper was derogatory toward Mormons for believing that men would become gods with their own planets in the afterlife. This makes sense—after all, however much he claimed that everyone should think for themselves, family and friends alike discuss how little openness he had toward people who thought differently from himself (which makes total sense if you believe you have the divine right of a king as a “select” citizen).

Back to the Current President’s Statement about His Opponent

I could go on, but hopefully this background is enough to help you understand that the current president’s string of god term and devil term associations I quoted toward the beginning of this article is not at all nonsensical. In fact, the only lens it makes sense from is when looking at the Patriot Movement as its primary audience—and the current president making theirs his rhetoric and electoral platform of sorts.

Let me break down briefly why these words would make sense from their view.

Biden as “Against God”?

After all, to the alt-right libertarian Patriot Movement, the fact that Joe Biden is an established member of the government, much less the member of the Democratic Party running on a platform of trying to take care of the common good, would mean that he symbolizes “socialist tyranny.”

The fact that Joe Biden is for a platform of reasonable gun control, viewed by this audience, would further put him on the side of the devil.

Creating God Terms to Defend

And if Joe Biden is on the side of the devil, surely he must be against God and the Bible, right? Especially since he is in the party that are for equal rights for all religions. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s Catholic either—Catholics have been seen as the incarnations of devil terms by many Protestants since the Reformation. Sigh. As a Protestant, let me take a quick moment to apologize to my Catholic friends on behalf of my people.)

How to Determine These Are God Terms and Devil Terms

Note that none of this aligns with anything related to orthodox Christian theology in any way, which is one huge sign that the terms used are being wrenched from their “dictionary definitions” to be used as god terms and devil terms.

And so William Cooper and the right’s use of the term sheeple is at odds with Matthew 25 and the comparisons of Jesus laying down his life as a lamb.

The Demonization of Biblical Tenets

In the same way, these statements from the current president demonize the very ideas that both orthodox and progressive conceptualizations of Christian theology hold most dear.

The idea that guns and God would be god terms that are yoked together in a “might makes right” away are certainly there in the Bible, but they are combated there by statements like those of Jesus, who famously asked his disciples to put away their weapons when they had the opportunity to defend them.

And while there are theologies and perspectives like those of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s to be taken seriously arguing that bringing down tyrants like Hitler are toward the greater good, such thoughtful theologies are strongly different from this assumption that any collective action is automatically the enemy.

The Patriot Movement: Really Far from Casting Out Fear

In fact, the religions whose primary tenets Jesus boiled down to “Love God” AND “love your neighbor as yourself and Paul boiled down to “love does no harm to its neighbor” and “love casts out fear” looks REALLY different from the alt-right Patriot Movement’s view of the world.

Patriot Movement as the Audience

This fact makes it further clear that the president isn’t speaking to or for progressives or even moderate Christians when he speaks about guns being so closely associated with God. No, those aren’t his audiences—on the contrary, his statements only make sense when you view the alt-right Patriot Movement as his primary audience and those he aligns with most closely in these rhetorical statements.

How My “Moderate” Folks Get Caught Supporting This

As I’ve discussed many times before on this blog, especially in this piece, I grew up in a slightly right-leaning Evangelical denomination, and have been greatly disturbed to see many of the people I grew up with now aligning themselves with this kind of rhetoric since the 2016 election.

They would be the first ones to separate themselves from the “God and guns” association, of course, and would be appalled that I would suggest that they were in any way aligning themselves with the alt-right. Many of them say they don’t like the current president’s rhetoric.

Fear of “Socialism”

And yet they argue regularly that they had no choice but to vote for him (and likely will be again) because Hillary was evil (which they believe because they’ve absorbed conspiracy rhetoric about her–conspiracy rhetoric which Mark Jacobs’ research makes clear is strongly aligned with the Patriot Movement).

And they say they have to vote for his policies now to “stave off the dangers of socialism.”

Aligning Themselves with the Far-Right

And in voting for the man whose political platform aligns with the Patriot Movement’s beliefs and view of the world, and buying into their unfounded conspiracy theories, they ARE sadly aligning themselves with the Patriot Movement and their suspicions of collective action.

How This Gets Personal for Me

As I’ve said many times before, it gives me great sadness and grief to have watched them to line up with such beliefs.

As I’ve discussed before, I wish I had the words that could make them change their minds—but, you see, as I’ve stepped over the line to identify with “the other camp,” they won’t trust my words on this subject.

None of Us Has to Overcome This Alone

So yes, I don’t have those particular magic words that can undo this ugly rhetorical strategy years and decades in the making—certainly not on my own. And the thing is, it’s okay that I don’t.

See, unlike the Patriot Movement, I don’t think it’s my job to act like a king with unlimited power and frustrated control. It’s not my job to take down anyone who disagrees with me.

Breaking Away from God Terms and Devil Terms about Collective Knowledge

And the thing is that I know mine’s the healthier way, because theology and science and social science all agree that bullying and controlling behavior aren’t the way to a healthy society. And while I think critically about all of those things as an individual, I also trust that others have expertise I don’t, and that collective action such as that wrought by science isn’t automatically untrustworthy any more than it’s automatically perfect.

My Job—and Our Jobs–Together

What IS my job is to do whatever I can where I am with what I’ve got to assertively point out the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all, knowing that a cloud of witnesses stands around me working to do the same (thanks, you lovely cloud of witnesses!).

And in doing this I’m not speaking only for myself, but stand consciously and gratefully on the shoulders of many people who devoted many hours to understanding how communication, including unhealthy communication, works.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? After all, the major fallacy in seeing collective action in all its forms as a devil term is that we all argue on the internet because of the fruits of lots and lots of collective action that created technological devices and other amazing creations.

The Deeply Unhealthy Views of the Alt-Right

Sure, as I discussed in the last article, there are absolutely unhealthy and corrupt forms of collective action, and I think we’re all about fixing those major problems.

But seeing people who are trying to solve collective problems as opposed to God because they are doing so and because they are in a different group from you frankly is strongly unchristian. And supporting a politician above those opponents because he claims to be combating collective action is just frankly unhealthy and toxic.

A Call to Healthier Action

Chances are, if you’re in this group of supporters of the current president and reading this article, let’s be honest: you’ve probably clicked away by now. But if you’re a Christian and supporting the current president after he called Biden as against God and against guns, I call you to repent. It’s really not okay that he’s speaking directly to the alt-right’s twisted, spiritually abusive view of the world and theology.

If you support him but aren’t okay with this, then call him out, friends.

A Call to Keep On Keeping On Toward a Healthier World

If you don’t support him, well, be assured that you’re–at least in this–on the side of healthier views of spirituality and the world, friends. Just be assured that this struggle isn’t going to be easy—the fact that the rhetoric is being spoken with the Patriot Movement as the primary audience ought to illustrate that in highly disturbing ways.

I’m not suggesting that you hold back—now, on the contrary, is the time to continue speaking up as much as we can to try to help others understand and pull back from the worst consequences of this path we’re going down.

Get Out the Vote!

And by all means, vote and fight to get out the vote as much as is possible in this crazy pandemic world. Let’s keep striving to elect healthier leaders—and remember, the midterm elections showed us that while this isn’t an easy task, change for the better is still achievable.  

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to work against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward speaking up and dealing with the conflict that results?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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Who’s a “Sheeple,” Really? COVID-19, Conspiracy Rhetoric and Fear of Groupthink http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/07/25/sheeple-conspiracy-rhetoric-covid-fear-groupthink/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/07/25/sheeple-conspiracy-rhetoric-covid-fear-groupthink/#comments Sat, 25 Jul 2020 23:07:46 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1092 Last week a friend said on their FB wall that they were tired of being called a “sheep” for thinking it was important to wear masks. I instantly knew I needed to look into where it came from, especially in its longer form of “sheeple.” Today you get the beginnings of a series on the highlights of my dive down the deep, dark rabbit hole where the word “sheeple” comes from, and especially how it came to be popularized and...

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Last week a friend said on their FB wall that they were tired of being called a “sheep” for thinking it was important to wear masks. I instantly knew I needed to look into where it came from, especially in its longer form of “sheeple.” Today you get the beginnings of a series on the highlights of my dive down the deep, dark rabbit hole where the word “sheeple” comes from, and especially how it came to be popularized and used by right-wing conspiracy theorists as a devil-term denoting complex fears about authority and collective action.

Stay tuned as I unwrap this more, both in this blog post and those to follow.

My Background and Expertise

As a reminder, I’m not THAT kind of doctor, but I do have a PhD in Communication with an emphasis in media, narrative, and society and a current research focus on stress, trauma, and conflict communication.

As I’ve written about in my previous article on COVID and conspiracy rhetoric, I took a grad course on the rhetoric of conspiracy just over a decade ago, and am deeply disturbed at how much of it is applying to my daily life these days. 

Since it is, though, I am trying to help relieve some of my stress and hopefully also yours during this religio-political apocalypse by sharing some of what I know with you so you can better understand and respond to the landscape we’re dealing with.

My Focus Today: Sheeple

So in my last piece on COVID conspiracy rhetoric, my focus was on COVID conspiracy rhetoric such as that Plandemic video—I started that piece from conspiracy rhetoric to explain how that works. (You might want to look back at that piece, by the way—as fact-checking media have reported, some local TV news programs in the US owned by Sinclair were planning to support and share that dreck before they got appropriate pushback.)

Today my focus started with a (derogatory) devil term—sheep, or in its long form, sheeple. It was only in my research about the term’s evolving usage in recent history that I realized the term has been popularized in much of its current usage and meaning through libertarian/right-wing conspiracy theorists in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including broadcaster William Cooper, who I’ll be talking about in a bit.

It All Keeps Coming Back to Conspiracy Rhetoric

In other words, no matter what I seem to research in terms of right-wing rhetoric lately, especially when it comes to expressions trying to put down collective action based on expert guidance, I keep coming back to the rhetoric of conspiracy.

This shouldn’t be too surprising considering the current head of the administration came to the country’s attention by spreading birther conspiracies, and has brought many other kinds of conspiracy thinking into the mainstream. The result? Widespread conspiracy rhetoric where we previously would have only looked for it on the fringes of society.

Today I’m going to briefly outline the history of the term, but then really dive into what I think is going on with these usages—because not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t think it’s at all an accident that I keep winding up in this same spot (after all, good careful academic research can actually lead you to keep finding similar data that lead to healthy conclusions).

Previous Blog Posts I’ll Be Building On

In the process of this journey I’ll be building on that previous article I wrote about COVID conspiracy theories, so I encourage you to take a few minutes to go back and read or re-read that article. I’ll also be building on my series on god terms and devil terms, which starts here, and my series on moral disgusts that starts here.

Without Further Ado…

So let’s dive in, shall we? I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible, but these things get complex, so I hope you’ll hang in there with me for a few minutes and join me in the near future for more.  

Starting with the Positive and Negative Biblical Resonances of Sheep

Here’s the thing: the term “sheep” has been used in both positive and negative ways for ages, including in the Bible. Interestingly, the sheep and the goats passage in Matthew 25 that among other things undergirds much of this project’s desire to look out for the “least of these” in society looks at sheep very positively, as opposed to goats, who are viewed negatively.

Even the Bible doesn’t look at sheep all positively, though—from those times up to the present, sheep have been looked at as timid and weak and, well, non-assertive—creatures that follow the herd and the shepherd, sometimes at their own and others’ expense.

Both usages have followed us down through the centuries, but only the latter has been coopted recently by right-wing conspiracy theorists and hipsters alike as a derogatory slur to put down those they see as engaged in groupthink—and, as you’ll see, also in other ways as well.

Jesus as a “Lamb”

This latter resonance showing fear of groupthink is fascinating when considering all the biblical imagery alongside Jesus going to his death as a “lamb to be slain”—but only as part of his resistance of the religious and political authorities of his time.

I’ll just put that here to ponder, especially since a lot of biblically inspired sheep and goats and Jesus as lamb usage has strongly influenced rhetoric through the centuries alongside this sheep as timid followers usage.

“Sheep(le) as a Devil Term”

So yeah, if you look deeply, the historical meanings around the word “sheep” aren’t nearly as simple or as entirely negative as it may seem from the current use of “sheeple.” Which is a great sign that someone’s trying to oversimplify something into a devil term if the term is used in only derogatory oversimplified ways.

As a reminder, a devil term is a term used entirely negatively, apart from the full scope of most of its dictionary usages, as something to be fought at all costs.

As it happens, the devil term version of sheep—sheeple in its long form—was actually added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2017, which is simply a sign that this devil term has been used frequently enough in society to be recorded in that particular dictionary. It doesn’t mean it’s not a devil term–things get complicated sometimes, and the dictionary describes rather than prescribes. <shrug emoji>

A Short History of the Word Sheeple

In fact, the first print use of sheeple, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and Wikipedia, was in 1945 in a column of a publication about the music industry. At the tail end of WWII, a critic of the government-organized BBC’s impact on music culture called its fans “sheeple.”

In this way the first usage evoked both threads of the term’s ultimate usage—(1) groupthink in response to powerful authorities exerting influence over the public; (2) giving in to popular culture trends.

In this series of blog posts, I’ll be mostly focusing on the first usage, especially the way conspiracy theorist William (Bill) Cooper popularized it in the 1980s and 1990s—because that’s the origin story of the devil-term way “sheep” was used on my friend’s wall, and has been one major way it’s been used largely by right-wing folks in recent years up to the present to dismiss those who disagree with them (I’ll get to the other ways it’s been used by the right in a bit).

How You Came to Be a Sheeple if You Wish People to Social Distance and Wear Masks

Specifically, in recent weeks and months the most recent right-wing usage along these lines has been applied to people who listen to epidemiologists’ advice about COVID-19, especially those who listen to such advice coming through governmental and international agencies.

In short, this usage illustrates a strong fear of collective action guided by institutions and experts, equating all of such action with the negative group phenomena known as groupthink.

Now, as someone who teaches small group communication and leadership every semester, I’ll be honest—this makes me cringe hard. This usage is a devil term because it offers very little to no distinction between what is healthy group decision-making and what is unhealthy group decision-making. On the contrary, it starts with a suspicion of collective action, and works backwards to come up with its own self-fulfilling prophecy that collective action is always wrong if the government or other institutions you don’t trust tell you to do something.

We can see here the roots of why this term has gotten soooo political in the current climate: see, that same fear of collective action ties back to the fear of that classic devil term socialism I talked about at the beginning of my devil terms series and defense of that god term freedom I talked about when I recently talked about COVID and mask rhetoric. It also ties into the fear of tyranny I talked about in the devil terms series.  

The Current Usage

The term in its current usage is used as a bludgeon, as a hoped-for conversation stopper. I said before during my last article on COVID and conspiracy rhetoric, it starts with the interpretation that decisions toward the common good, based in collective decision-making, is automatically untrustworthy, and then selects its evidence to back up that interpretation.

This is rather different than the healthier way of doing things, which works to remain open to the idea that collective action and expertise can either be healthy or unhealthy, efficient or inefficient, depending on the situation, the methodology, and a variety of other factors.

Learning About Bill Cooper

This made a lot more sense to me after I brushed up on the history of this term, especially as popularized by Bill Cooper—though learning about his usage also complicated my understanding of the term quite a bit.

Just in case you know as little about Bill Cooper as I did a week ago, William Cooper was a strongly libertarian Vietnam vet who briefly worked in Naval Intelligence (and capitalized on that wayyy beyond what he could have known in that role), conspiracy theory lecturer, ufologist, “patriot movement” participant, and short wave radio broadcaster who died in 2001 after an armed interaction with the authorities. Perhaps not coincidentally, his life was filled with unhealthy family relationships as well, including many incidents of domestic violence.

This man’s book and broadcasts may not have reached a huge audience in his time, but they have had a huge influence through some of the people he did influence, from the writers of X-Files to Timothy McVeigh, to a bunch of rappers from Harlem, 9/11 truthers, and our most recent conspiracy theorist QAnon, according to the well-researched 2018 biography Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America by journalist Mark Jacobs.  

Bill Cooper’s Usage of the Word Sheeple

Interestingly, Bill Cooper’s usage of the words “sheep” and “sheeple” definitely betrayed his fear of authorities and collective action, but it also betrayed a fear of the opposite, in a way—that is to say, Cooper often used the words sheep or sheeple (occasionally cattle, or the disturbing word cockroaches) for each of the following things:

  1. Social Loafers. People “on his own side of the fence” who he saw as not pulling their weight in rising up against the authorities he found to be consistently untrustworthy. In the study of small group communication, we call these folks who don’t contribute their share in a group social loafers.

    In short, Bill Cooper both distrusted collective action by those other than him with authority, and wished for collective action by those who trusted him. This is an incredibly authoritarian perspective—the ideological roots of which I’ll get into in a later blog post in this series.

    At the same time, complexly, he encouraged all his viewers to think for themselves (but only by following his trustworthy methodology, of course—as he had the only trustworthy “keys” to events!).
  2. His Competitors. Bill Cooper’s authoritarianism further comes out when it comes to how he treated his conservative competitors, including, later in his career, the now-infamous Alex Jones. They and their followers were sheeple. He had a few partners in conspiracy over the years, but ran afoul of many over time, often because of his reported behavior as a bully.

    That said, sometimes Cooper seemed to have had good reason to suspect others on his side of the fence, and had genuinely reasonable disagreements with them. His fear of collaboration and desire to be higher up on the hierarchy than others often tripped him up, though, as did his fear of authorities in general.  
  3. Progressives, or Really Anyone who Agreed with Any Authority He Questioned. This is more the traditional usage of the term, and includes of course people on the “other side of the (political) fence” as well as those on his side. And this is the usage that has become directed outward these days toward all manner of moderates and progressives.

    It should be noted that Cooper often paired the devil term “socialist” with “totalitarian” in his phrasing, externalizing and making explicit the shorthand I described in my early devil terms blog posts that yokes those two things together. In many ways, this kind of pairing made by him and other such rhetoricians likely reinforced and maintained the current usage of socialism as a devil term that automatically implies totalitarianism in an unhealthy way.

A Summary and a Look Ahead

At any rate, hopefully you have a better glimpse into the origins and development of the word “sheep” and “sheeple” as popularized by right-wing conspiracy theorists now. In coming weeks, I hope to unwrap other things I’ve learned through looking at Bill Cooper and his influence on conspiracy theory that are extremely relevant to understanding the current rhetoric.

I hope this series will help you understand why especially Cooper’s third usage of “sheep” I outlined above has come to be associated with this strong fear of expertise and authority—the better to continue to do what you can to respond healthily to it. I’ll also be looking at a wide range of related topics such as the connection between conspiracy theory and biblical rhetoric.

There’s a lot going on here—I hope you’ll stick around for the rest of the series. See below if you want first notification of new blog posts via our newsletter, which will also offer you a free gift, the “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls.”

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to understand and speak up against the toxic rhetoric toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward speaking up and dealing with the conflict that results?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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Creating a Healthier Serenity Prayer for Stressful Times http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/07/11/healthier-serenity-prayer-stressful-times/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/07/11/healthier-serenity-prayer-stressful-times/#comments Sat, 11 Jul 2020 22:49:16 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1088 I’ve long loved the Serenity Prayer in its classic version. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” When this prayer is paired with a rich understanding of the emotions and stress response processing that has to go with it, it’s great. The problem, of course, is that when it is separated from those things and only viewed cognitively, this prayer can...

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I’ve long loved the Serenity Prayer in its classic version. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” When this prayer is paired with a rich understanding of the emotions and stress response processing that has to go with it, it’s great. The problem, of course, is that when it is separated from those things and only viewed cognitively, this prayer can become a tool for an unhealthy form of spirituality called spiritual bypassing. In this article I’ll be explaining how all this works and revising the classic prayer to create a literally healthier form that’s less prone to abuse.

My Personal Context

As a reminder, I’m a communication scholar and a pastor’s kid whose primary research area is stress, trauma, and conflict communication. I’ve talked a lot about stress and its relationship to conflict the free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” that’s free to email subscribers (I’ll offer instructions for how to get that at the end of this article). Here on the blog I’ve also talked about how “Christian Nice” can actually make us sick.

The Broader Context

The truth is that we’re living in very stressful, contentious, and emotionally overwhelming times. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, an election year, grappling with centuries of racial injustice. And that doesn’t even get into the murder hornets!

In these times our bodies are processing a LOT of stress. And as I’ve explained before, a lot of stress tends to give rise to a lot of interpersonal and group conflict.

The Temptation toward Spiritual Bypassing

In times such as these, there’s a strong temptation for those who are spiritual to fall into a form of spirituality known as spiritual bypassing. Buddhist teacher John Welwood coined this term in the 1980s to describe ways in which people use spirituality to avoid engaging with their emotions and psychological wounds—which as he describes it, is the opposite of what spirituality is meant to do.

(NOTE: Subsequent neurobiological research shows this practice is pretty terrible for us physiologically as well.)

Last week’s guest post by Rachel Contos gave a nod to this unhealthy form of spirituality when she talked about God’s will, the pandemic, and why it’s important not to frame not wearing a mask as a form of “faith.”

This week I will explain the benefits of the serenity prayer, but also how it could be weaponized to enable spiritual bypassing if turned into a purely cognitive exercise. I will suggest a revised version as well. (I had introduced this concept in my very first COVID-19 article, but that feels like several decades ago now in pandemic time, so it’s high time I flesh these ideas out better!)

The Benefits of the Classic Serenity Prayer

First, let’s just acknowledge that the serenity prayer, when understood in a context of emotion- and stress-response engagement, has a lot of strengths. Taken within this context, it actually fits in pretty well with stress research.

If you’ve forgotten, stress is the body’s physiological response to felt threat or challenge. This  means it’s energy that’s designed to help us rise to the occasion—but its responses can of course be taken too far in some circumstances. And sometimes we react strongly to things that carry perceived threat but won’t really hurt us.

Overcoming Some Emotional Fallacies

Our stress responses, like our emotions, can be really useful as signs that something might be wrong. They aren’t infallible signs that something necessarily is wrong. And depending on how we respond to overwhelming stress, we may either fall into the fallacy of perfection or the fallacy of helplessness I discussed earlier this year, and both of those are unhealthy.

Taken within an understanding that our body’s responses are natural, the classic serenity prayer helps to work as a corrective to both of those tendencies—to an extent.

By encouraging us to think through what we ought to accept what we CAN’T affect, it helps us deal with the fallacy of perfection.

By encouraging us to think through what we CAN do, it corrects the fallacy of helplessness.

And by encouraging us to recognize that it takes wisdom to decide between the two, it proposes a healthily situational model of spirituality, suggesting that discernment is needed in order to determine whether to change things or accept them.

The Limits of the Classic Serenity Prayer

Here’s where my stress research nerves begin to jangle with the classic version of the serenity prayer, though: There are more options than changing what we can and (especially mildly) accepting what we can’t.

See, coming from a culture of toxic “Christian Nice” which suppressed the “negative” emotions, the original serenity prayer—again, with THAT context in mind, rather than the stress research context, leads me to feel like we’re just supposed to swallow our feels if we can’t change things. (I talked about how “Christian Nice” gets mean about emotions here.)

And all of the research shows avoiding emotions is incredibly, literally unhealthy. As John Welwood pointed out when he identified the problem of spiritual bypassing, it also becomes a way of avoiding some of the most real spiritual work there is to do. It’s also just really impractical from a stress research standpoint.

The Leftover Stress Energy Problem

See, physiologically, you may change what you can, try to accept what you can’t, and you still may have a lot of stress energy swirling around in your body affecting you. In order to maintain health and wellbeing, you need to do something to healthily work through, as Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski helpfully point out in their book on Burnout. You can’t just will it away.

The classic serenity prayer may imply to those with healthy emotion practices that there’s a need to work out the emotions and stress responses that come with changing what we can and accepting what we can’t. It’s great when that happens. But when it doesn’t, it can too easily be weaponized into a tool toward spiritual bypassing.

My Proposed Revision

To avoid this problem, I propose the following version of this prayer, which helps emphasize the context of stress and trauma research. Granted, it rolls off the tongue a bit less fluidly than the original version, but it doesn’t really have all that many more components.

I’ve also adjusted it so that it can work for those with non-theistic spiritualities.

Overall, this version of the prayer lends itself much less to spiritual bypassing, as the wording shows the need to work through all that emotional stress energy that we naturally deal with during stressful times.

Here it is: The Healthier Stress Research-Based Serenity Prayer

“May I have the ability to grieve the things I can’t affect, to (channel my stress energy into) influencing what I can, to reduce and burn off the remaining stress (through healthy modes), and have the wisdom to cycle through these techniques as needed.”

The major changes and additions are as follows:

  1. In the first part, instead of the word accept—which is commonly held to be at the end of the complicated grieving process—I’ve substituted the word grieve. This acknowledges space to deal with all the many stages of grief about things we cannot change.
  2. In the second part, I’ve highlighted the fact that changing things doesn’t require outside energy to do, just taking existing stress energy and channeling it to influence what we can.
  3. In the second part, I also shifted the word change into influence to help further with that whole fallacy of perfection problem. Changing can sooo easily slide into that control category, whereas influence requires more mutuality between parties.
  4. I’ve added a third part about burning off or reducing excess stress through healthy modes. This can include exercise but also meditation/prayer or other physiological and spiritual practices that help burn off and reduce stress energy that can’t be managed through the grieving process or through working to influence the world.
  5. In the final part, I’ve kept the word wisdom, but moved beyond implying that it’s a relatively simple choice between two options into suggesting that we often need to cycle through these techniques to work through the emotions and stress responses that come with facing challenges.

So there you have it, friends! Whether you choose to use the classic serenity prayer or the adjusted version, or some variant between the two going forward, I hope you’ll do so with the full awareness of the need to work through your emotions and stress energies as you do so.

Why It’s Key to Keep All of This in Mind

As so much good scientific and spiritual research implies, it’s not a healthy option to ignore this emotions and stress dimension of moving through challenges long term.

Certainly, as we continue to cope with this remarkably strange and stressful period in history, I hope for all of you the ability to grieve what you need to, to influence what you can, to burn off that excess energy, and the wisdom to work through what you need to in order to keep doing what you can.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to work through our emotions and stress responses in order to keep doing what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward speaking up and dealing with the conflict that results?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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Not Wearing a Mask as “Faith”? A Theological Exploration of God’s will and Mask-Wearing http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/07/04/mask-wearing-theology-gods-will/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/07/04/mask-wearing-theology-gods-will/#comments Sat, 04 Jul 2020 22:08:30 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1080 Guest post by Rachel Contos In the spirit of “Independence” Day in the US (in quotes because we know not everyone was free that day in 1776), I’d like to take some time to examine freedom from a theological perspective and how God’s will and our own free will fit together in order to address questions of unhealthy theology around mask-wearing. As many people finally begin to peek out from their quarantines for the first time and consider whether to...

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Guest post by Rachel Contos

In the spirit of “Independence” Day in the US (in quotes because we know not everyone was free that day in 1776), I’d like to take some time to examine freedom from a theological perspective and how God’s will and our own free will fit together in order to address questions of unhealthy theology around mask-wearing. As many people finally begin to peek out from their quarantines for the first time and consider whether to host a BBQ or other celebration in their backyards, it’s important to talk about how healthy theologies address wearing masks and keeping our communities safe.

This post is going to examine the ways in which different theological understandings of God’s will can excuse our lack of collective action to stop the spread of COVID-19. Particularly, we’ll explore the use of God’s will as a reason not to wear a mask, while also understanding how free will and God’s will together can move us toward working collectively. If you haven’t read the most recent Assertive Spirituality post, I highly recommend you do so, because this article builds on what D.S. Leiter said last week.

Quick Introduction:

So, let’s address the elephant in the room here—who am I? The short answer is that I’m an Orthodox Christian who is working on my MA in theology at Marquette University. Before we begin, I want to make it clear that this post is written as a theological exploration from my Orthodox Christian experience and study, and because of that I use “God and us” language that is meant to express my theological understanding in the way I best know how. However, I know people experience spirituality differently from me but I hope we can still explore the toxic theology I dismantle here together, even if you dismantle it in a different way! 

Frankly, I’m concerned about the rhetoric being used by conservative leaning Christians to justify not wearing masks, and their desire not to put the collective needs of society above their personal freedom to stop the spread of a deadly, novel virus. The last AS post discussed a lot of conservative Christian rhetoric in depth, but I’m hoping I can add to the conversation from an Orthodox Christian theological point of view. (OK, seriously, read the AS post first, it’s here.)

What is theologically at stake here from a Christian theistic frame?

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts and memes lately that say something to this effect: “I’m not wearing a mask because whether I get COVID or not is God’s will.” There’s a lot at stake in this understanding of God’s will:

  • Does God will people to get diseases?
  • Does God want people to spread the disease to others?
  • Is God’s will the same as what happens to people?
  • Do people have free will?

This comment, “If I get COVID, it’s God’s will, so I won’t wear a mask,” is theologically saying, “I don’t need to take preventative actions because if God wills me to get this disease and spread it to others, I can’t do anything about that.” But we know we have free will—so what’s going on here?

Now, a note that for some Christian denominations this is the theology subscribed to, where God’s will is absolute even above free will. However, for many Protestant Christian denominations and the Catholic and Orthodox theological Traditions, this isn’t the case. Free will is an important part of these Traditions, and God’s will is understood both personally, and as defining characteristic of our communal history. However, like I said before, even if you are from one of the aforementioned Traditions who see God’s will as absolute over free will, I urge you to stick this one out because I think a lot of what I have to say still applies.

Let’s start at the beginning:

In the beginning, God created the earth, stars, universe, doggos, humans—everything! Importantly, God says “Let us make humans in Our image, after Our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). In the early Church, the theologians believed that this image and likeness were two different things.** The image related to how we operated in a more static sense—how we looked, our ability to reason, our capacity for free will and choice. Those things were innate in us because of the image of God.

On the other hand, the likeness aspect relates to our process of becoming more like God, or becoming holy by loving God, following God’s will, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. This means we have the capacity to make choices and reason because we are made in the image of God, and a deep calling from the time of our creation to fulfill the likeness of God—in other words, to enact behaviors that are similar to God’s character and to collaborate with God in doing good.

Okay, but isn’t this post about God’s will?

I wanted to start with an examination of our free will because it sets the stage for our freedom and capacity for reasoning. But yes, this post is about God’s will, so let’s get to that!

First, God’s will isn’t mentioned a whole lot in the Bible—and when it is, unfortunately, there’s not a whole section about wearing masks or spreading deadly viruses. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a couple examples of its usage:

  • Matt 6:10 “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (This is part of the Lord’s prayer.)
  • Mark 3:35 “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (This is a statement by Jesus.)

In the Lord’s Prayer the person reciting is asking that the community (i.e.: our Father, not my Father) can manifest the will of God on earth, just as God’s will is manifested in heaven. In Mark, Jesus explicitly clarifies that God’s will is something one does, and that in doing God’s will we are brought into family with God.

We see here a pattern of God’s will being a companion to human free will. They are two sides of the same coin. However, most importantly, the relationship goes in one direction. God gives God’s will, and humans choose or do not choose to follow. It doesn’t work in the opposite direction, where a person makes a bad decision, and because it turned out OK in the end, it’s a sign the bad decision was God’s will. It only works starting at God.

Clues to discerning God’s will for us:

Now, I’m not going to tell you what God’s will is for you. I can’t even discern what it is for me a lot of the time. That’s part of the process of fulfilling our likeness, right? Working to understand God’s will in our life–and freely submitting to it.

However, there are some clues that can help us understand generally what God wants in our lives personally and as a community. In three of the gospels Jesus, either in his own voice or by asking someone to answer about the law makes it clear that the greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s important to hear Jesus calling these the greatest commandments in light of our earlier exploration of Mark 3:35, where Christ invites us to be part of God’s family by choosing to act on God’s will.

Another clue comes in John 3:16, when the author says “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Christ became incarnate so that we could fulfill our image and likeness and have eternal life. While this passage could seem like an excuse to say “YOLO, going to live again anyway! #COVIDPARTY,” I think it’s better read as an example of the lengths God would go for us. Specifically, it sets a path for us toward life through God’s own sacrificial love towards us. It is an example that we should follow, that preserving life is an important part of God’s will towards the entire human race. It’s an example of how God’s will is not just personal, but communal. How can we so love the world that we work towards, not death, but life? Ultimately, following God’s will on this path is an action we choose.

What’s this got to do with masks?

Let’s recap a little about what has already been purported by right-leaning Christians about God’s will—they don’t need to wear a mask because it’s God’s will if they get COVID or not, if they spread it or not, and if they die or not, and that nothing can be done about that.

I hope it’s clear from my sampling above of the theological concepts of image and likeness, free will, and God’s will that this is a really messed up way of interpreting theology. Let’s remember the directionality I talked about earlier:

  • God’s gives us God’s will–>We want to live up to image and likeness–>we use our freedom to follow God’s will.

What’s happening with the mask conversation is the opposite.

  • I have freedom at all costs–>I want to feel like I’m living up to my image and likeness of God–>So I’m going to say that everything that happens is God’s will and out of my control.

People who say that it’s God’s will for them to get COVID or not, and therefore they don’t need to wear a mask are making faulty assumptions about what God is willing us to do and using God as a scapegoat for their “freedom at all costs” mentality.

God wills us to action, not diseases to infect us. God is not going into a bunch of COVID-19 droplets and saying who they should and shouldn’t infect. Diseases happen, natural disasters happen, technical failures happen, people go against God’s will and it hurts us—but we need to remember not everything that ever happens to us is God’s will. In my Tradition, we believe that in the case of the natural events they happen because we live in a fallen world. In the case of someone going against God’s will, that’s choice.

But sometimes these two things interact. Nature has given us a deadly novel virus. We don’t need to compound that by not using our God-given capacity for reason, and by ignoring God’s emphatic pronouncements that we are to strive for life and for love of God and neighbor.

God’s will, our will, and masks:

So, what do we know and how can we use our free will with that knowledge?

  • We know that in healthy Christian theology, God’s will is about what we should do, not about what the virus does.
  • We know from scientific research that wearing a mask can protect us and our communities.
  • We know God wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
  • Lastly, we know that this virus continuing to spread or not is based on our free choice to take preventative steps or not.

To me, that means Christians have the obligation to wear a mask to protect our communities from the spread of COVID-19. We need to use our God-given image to use our reason to see the fact, to love as God did and sacrifice (even if it’s just our own comfort), and we need to use our free will to choose this.

Following God’s will in this case leads us to freedom because if we all did this we wouldn’t need anyone to tell us to! We would be theologically, ethically, and epidemiologically in the right. Starting with God and using our image towards manifesting our likeness leads us to a loving act of communal action.

When someone says “getting COVID is God’s will, so I don’t need a mask,” they are putting their personal freedom first–above their ability to reason, above God’s directive to love our neighbors, above their own ability to manifest God’s likeness. Most importantly, by saying it’s God’s will, they are doing nothing more than taking their free will out of the equation to feel better.

Wrapping up:

It isn’t always easy to discern God’s will, and I’m not trying to make it seem like it is. There are truly difficult choices in this world where options of love, mercy, and life get confusing or messy. There are tragic situations where personal, familial, and communal needs become confused. God’s will is difficult to discern in these cases.

So please, don’t make wearing a mask one of those decisions. We know God wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves, we know that masks work as a form of communal love by stopping the spread of COVID-19, and we can make a choice to wear one or not.

Please, for the love of God and neighbor, wear a mask.

**See John of Damascus “An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith: Book II” and Origen “De Principiis” as examples. Both can be found at https://www.newadvent.org/

Rachel Contos is a life-long Orthodox Christian living in Milwaukee, WI. She is currently a Trinity Fellow at Marquette University where she is working towards an MA in Theology, with an emphasis on theology and society. Before starting her MA, Rachel worked on ending homelessness at a systemic level. She received her received her BA in Religious Studies from Hellenic College in 2015.

Like this #AssertiveSpirituality and Want to Speak Up Yourself, and Deal with the Conflict that Often Results?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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Mask-wearing as “Liberal?”: Christian Nice and Partisan Divides over Public Health http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/06/27/mask-wearing-christian-nice-partisan-divides-health/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/06/27/mask-wearing-christian-nice-partisan-divides-health/#comments Sat, 27 Jun 2020 19:30:08 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1077 I remember those wide-eyed days of Early Pandemic, when people were assuming that the reality of the virus would overcome partisan divides and bring us all together. Even then, while I hoped it would be the case, as a communication and rhetorical scholar focusing on stress, trauma, and conflict communication, my instincts and training both told me it would likely not. I blogged about my concerns about partisanship and anti-expertise rhetoric here, even in the earliest days of COVID-19. In...

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I remember those wide-eyed days of Early Pandemic, when people were assuming that the reality of the virus would overcome partisan divides and bring us all together. Even then, while I hoped it would be the case, as a communication and rhetorical scholar focusing on stress, trauma, and conflict communication, my instincts and training both told me it would likely not. I blogged about my concerns about partisanship and anti-expertise rhetoric here, even in the earliest days of COVID-19. In the present article I’ll discuss the ways in which subsequent events have unfortunately justified those concerns I had back then, specifically in the case of mask-wearing–which has been recently branded as “liberal.” At the end I’ll address what we can do in the face of unhealthy rhetoric in this area.

My Specific Focus

I’ll especially try to unwrap the ways in which mask-wearing has been targeted as a “liberal” thing, and how conservative Christians enacting “Christian Nice” have ended up advocating against love of neighbor as themselves via mask-wearing.

In doing so, I’ll extend some of the other things I’ve been talking about elsewhere, getting into how the current administration’s rhetoric has built on existing foundations of conservative rhetoric that see both expertise and care for others as devil terms to be fought at all costs.

In the process I’ll talk a bit about how this creates cognitive dissonance for politically conservative-leaning Christians in the US that often leads them to minimize the effects of government action on COVID-19 in order to maintain their conservative ideologies.

Thanks for hanging in there with me! This article’s on the long side–because even reactive and unjust rhetorics have nuance and context to their usage and reception.

Let’s Get Started

Okay, so let’s talk about mask-wearing and how it came to be such anathema to large swaths of those who support conservative ideologies and the current administration, and an optional extra to others.

This is no overgeneralization, by the way. Several recent polls have shown a strongly partisan divide between those who wear a mask and those who don’t.

In addition to the polling data, I’ve seen this in my experience as well as hearing it from others who know a lot of people across partisan lines.

A Really Sharp Divide

Even as someone who studies this stuff and mostly-expected it, the starkness of how this has emerged down partisan lines has somewhat taken my breath away.

How the Demonization of the Common Good Comes In

But it makes sense when I think about the political rhetoric. See, mask-wearing, in most cases, according to the research, is like vaccines—in most cases, it requires others as well as yourself to do it for it to work for all parties well.

In light of this, those who seek their own autonomy in terms of not wearing a mask in public spaces, especially indoors, are doing so at the expense of others and often themselves as well, according to the research.

The Discomforts of Mask-Wearing

Now, naturally mask-wearing isn’t a perfect solution: it can be uncomfortable. It can be sweaty. It can be difficult during hard-breathing activities sometimes, such as workouts. But other than a small percentage of people who have medical issues such as asthma that make mask-wearing particularly dangerous, most people have no major risks associated with mask-wearing.

How People Started Literally Dying Over Asking Others to Wear Masks

This is all according to the research put forth by the medical world, though—and it’s natural that those who have suspicions of such advice as coming from “liberal elites,” or the “lamestream media” delivering the information would doubt that.

It’s to the point where people who are conscientious about mask-wearing are specifically being called names by some conservatives for wearing a mask—and that’s not even getting into the service workers that are being shot for enforcing mask-wearing policies, and visible public health officials resigning their posts because of death threats.

How This Ties into the Election

Election rhetoric regarding the pandemic is also split down the middle, with the current administration’s rhetoric directly denying that the pandemic is an ongoing problem and Democrats making it part of their stump speech that they think we should listen to doctors.

Just Really Sharp Dividing Lines Here

Again, even to people like me who study this stuff, the lines seem REALLY sharply drawn right now. One party largely minimizes the pandemic, flat out defies its existence, and/or makes up conspiracies about it, while the other largely says it exists and that we need to do what we can to mitigate it and listen to public health officials’ advice.

So how did it happen that things got this starkly divided?

Socialism as a Devil Term—Again and Still

Well, as I’ve described before, for at least a century the US, the term “socialism” has become detached from its dictionary definition and defined as something to be fought at all costs. This, as I’ve described before, is what it means when a term gets taken and used as a “devil term.”

Those Pesky Dictionary Definitions

As I’ve discussed before, the dictionary definition of socialism involves looking out for the common good, which is why regimes such as the Third Reich that start off claiming the term socialist for themselves (false though that was from the beginning) actually jump ship on living out the dictionary definition when they become totalitarian dictatorships and kakistocracies instead. If you’ll remember, that latter term refers to being governed by the worst people.

Planting and Exploiting Fear

So leaders that use socialism as a devil term (as opposed to recognizing most healthy forms of government are a mix of capitalism and socialism) are actually implanting fear of being governed by the worst people when they use the term. And in consequence, they’re planting fear that people who are actually trying to work toward the common good, and asking others to do so as well, are the enemy.

Fear of Win-win Conflict Styles

Ironically, they’re painting those who see the highest form of conflict management as collaboration—working toward the good of all, including ourselves where possible, as much as possible—as those to be fought at all costs.

Sure, collaboration isn’t always the best conflict style, especially when you’re one-on-one, and it doesn’t work for all situations, but generally, research shows it to be the most effective style where it’s feasible. (Obviously, there’s no point in collaborating with bullies who refuse to look out for the good of the other person or group—which is why I recommend speaking up against them for the good of the audience and to record a countervoice rather than to expect to have an influence.)

Quick Note

This doesn’t mean this is people themselves in their attitudes divide so evenly between caring for others or working together with others or not. But the interesting thing about mask-wearing is that it has strongly divided them in mask-wearing practice, at least to a strong extent. So even though devil terms are disconnected from real dictionary definitions, they lead to real consequences for real people in terms of viral spread.

What I would guess happens in the case of those 35% of mask-wearing conservatives, from what I know of conservative ideologies, is you have a group of people who see caring for others only as a private enterprise, not to be mandated by or enacted by the government in any form, over and against a group that sees caring for others as, well, a collaborative enterprise that should happen at all levels as much as is feasible.

Mask-Wearing and Morality

This dynamic is particularly interesting when it comes to mask-wearing, as it creates this rhetoric in which people either choose to wear masks and justify it as their own personal choice, and feel all moral about it, but fight for others to be able to choose something different, even if it hurts others.

But because the positive effects of mask-wearing in group settings only works if the large majority are wearing them, by standing up for autonomy over and against the common good, these people end up advocating for collective harm. They do so in the name of individual freedom.

Now, to be fair, sometimes individual autonomy is more important than collective action. But in a situation in which humans are hopefully working to defeat a strongly organized virus, trying to stand up for individual freedom is, well, really unwise.

“Freedom” as a “God Term”

In this view, “freedom” is the god term to be defended at all costs, and divorced from the large majority of its dictionary meaning.

The History of Freedom as God Term in the US

So, a little history: Freedom as a god term has at least as long a history in the US as socialism as a devil term does. It’s telling that there’s a long history of these two things being opposed in American political rhetoric.

In fact, this century or more of history with these terms has laid the groundwork for today’s current events, and that’s important. The way the usage has shifted, though, is important as well.

Liberation from Oppression? Maybe Not.

Interestingly, the closest dictionary definition of freedom that seems to fit with the usage of the term in these recent stay-at-home order protests is that of “liberation from oppression.”

As I’ve discussed before, the fear of tyranny from above has been an issue since at least the Revolutionary War, so this would make sense if put in that context, and if enacted by people who were actually being oppressed.

Yup, the Founders Were about Collaboration and Such Within the US System

Unfortunately, the current strain of conservative politics has strayed far from the Founders’ initial solution to the problem, which involved a series of constraining checks and balances so that no one person or party should be allowed to gain too much power.

That’s right: the Founders’ vision involved people having to work with others: to collaborate and compromise and accommodate as needed—a mix of the different conflict styles.

Unfortunately, this particular view of “freedom” as a “god term,” especially paired with those who are representing it in the public eye holding “don’t tread on me” signs and machine guns, suggests the conflict style of competition/domination, and not the kind for the common good—which, again, was the Founders’ vision for the country, actually.

A Zero-sum Worldview Strikes Again

In fact, the current conservative ideology, in painting “liberation from oppression” as the enemy of the dictionary term for seeking the common good, has associated the term “freedom” with a zero-sum view of the world in which some people (only those aggressive bullies with the loudest voices, sadly) shouldn’t actually have to do anything they don’t want to, even if it hurts them or others.

Freedom for Whom?

In short, these are not calls for freedom for all, but only for those who are holding the guns to get their own way—and for whoever happens to fall in line behind them, provided they’re the “right kind of people.”

Enter “Christian Nice”

Whoever is willing to fall in line behind them is where “Christian nice” comes in (I’ve written a whole series on Christian nice starting here and talked about how it enables authoritarianism and covert abuse here). After all, as I’ve said before, Christian nice sees accommodation as the highest form of spirituality, and conservative versions of that have also absorbed fears of collective collaborative action.

After all, if you want to hang around people who want to win at others’ expense, keeping them happy through accommodation is necessary. Aggressive competitors really are not up for negotiation or collaborative solutions.

How Christian Nice Folks End Up Being Hypocritical

What you get is this weird situation where Christians who have sublimated their fight instincts end up getting to avoid doing what those on the side of “the enemy” tell them to do—and they get to avoid it by placating the bullies in their midst.

They do NOT actually end up accommodating to their perceived political enemies, as Jesus told them to. In fact, they end up participating in their own domination and that of others while symbolically feeling like they get to stand on the side of “freedom.”

In short, these conservative-leaning Christians who have absorbed the spirituality of “nice” end up following those bullies and oppressors who champion “freedom” at the expense of those who are fighting for love of neighbor as self.

Again, they may, individually choose to wear masks, so they can feel individually virtuous and protected. But ultimately they join the side of those fighting the efforts to listen to those learning about what’s needed for the common good. They may do so in a variety of ways, but ultimately it comes to the same result.

No Absolute Morality—Knowledge of the Disease Is Still Evolving

It’s a tangled web here—and there are no easy answers, as knowledge of this disease are still evolving.

But with an emerging consensus that mask-wearing paired with as much social distancing and other reasonable precautions such as remote work and curbside where possible are our best chances of as much collective survival as possible, the ethics of mask-wearing when possible and reasonable in public are pretty clear-cut for the time being. I hope this explanation has helped you understand why conservatives, especially conservative Christians, might be against mask-wearing while claiming to love their neighbor as themselves (which is admittedly a confusing position).

What Assertive Folks Can Do

What can we assertive folks do in the face of this? For starters, we can:

  1. Wear a mask if in public around people, of course, and take other reasonable precautions recommended by epidemiologists whether or not the government is mandating them.
  2. Advocate for policies that uphold reasonable precautions wherever you can, from the people you meet to local organizations to government.
  3. Stand up against any bullying against mask-wearing.
  4. Speak up to our government representatives about working toward the common good, and hold them to policies that reach toward that.
  5. Work to elect those who are in favor of evidence-based practices and policies that help people as much as possible.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality!  Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against unhealthy rhetoric and practices toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward diagnosing and speaking up against unhealthy rhetoric?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. Sometime this summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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Loving Day, Christian Nice, and Political Disgusts Enabling Racism http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/06/13/loving-day-christian-nice-political-disgusts-enabling-racism/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/06/13/loving-day-christian-nice-political-disgusts-enabling-racism/#respond Sat, 13 Jun 2020 23:09:41 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1070 As I write this, yesterday (June 12) is Loving Day—the anniversary of when interracial marriage became legal in the whole US in 1967. Today I will talk about this anniversary from my standpoint as a (white) communication scholar, discussing what my personal reaction to the recency of anti-interracial marriage sentiment in the US tells us about the continuing problems of racism and white supremacy going forward among right-leaning moderate populations, as well as how we can stand up against them....

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As I write this, yesterday (June 12) is Loving Day—the anniversary of when interracial marriage became legal in the whole US in 1967. Today I will talk about this anniversary from my standpoint as a (white) communication scholar, discussing what my personal reaction to the recency of anti-interracial marriage sentiment in the US tells us about the continuing problems of racism and white supremacy going forward among right-leaning moderate populations, as well as how we can stand up against them.

In explaining from my own experience of encountering this history several years before the 2016 election (but after I got my PhD, mind you!), I’m hoping to understand how today’s highly polarized religio-political dynamics had their roots in earlier more subtle dynamics most of us white people were socialized into. I’m also hoping this kind of analysis can help us understand how to unpack and fight the more overt dynamics going on today, as well as the more subtle forms of racism we find in ourselves and others.  

Disclaimer: I’m not trying to speak for all white people or all forms of racism here by any means. While I’m hoping this piece will unwrap some dynamics that can be generalized to other areas, I don’t expect these findings to be one-size-fits-all. This article is written from my standpoint—I don’t expect it to be automatically representative. But I hope it, like last week’s piece, will contribute to the ongoing dialogue on race in the US, and that it can play a small part in fighting individual and systemic racism toward the greater good for all, especially the oppressed and vulnerable.

The Work I’m Continuing: Moral and Political Disgusts

As a reminder, this piece is continuing the subtle and visceral work I’ve been unwrapping on the nature of what I’m calling “political disgusts.” In a series starting here, I talked about how our brains have our sensors surrounding morality in the same place as our senses of taste, meaning that our moral distastes and disgusts are just that: visceral gut reactions about what is right or wrong.

Often, as I described here, my upbringing as a pastor’s kid in a moderate Protestant denomination which leaned just a little conservative offered competing disgusts and subtle ways for us to maintain our senses of being “righteous good people” despite our preaching of Jesus as one who tried to take down unhealthy “works righteousness” worldviews among the religious systems of his day.  

Since America tends to unhealthily view racism as an “individual sin” issue, my Midwest Protestant community didn’t see ourselves as racists—in fact, as you’ll see, we identified ourselves with historical and distanced examples of anti-racist and anti-white supremacy work.

And yet our “Christian Nice” ideology (I talked about this most recently last week) encouraged us to try to silence those who would protest here and now about continuing racist actions. This week’s installment unwraps my own reaction to learning about Loving Day and other continuing white attitudes about interracial marriage a few years back and analyzes how my Midwest Christian Nice upbringing kept current protest at bay.

A Little (Much Too Recent) History: The Loving Case

If you don’t know what that is (I only learned a few years ago myself, which I’ll be talking about), Loving Day is the day that the interracial couple whose last name was Loving won their case against the state of Virginia in the Supreme Court in 1967. This ruling, that it was okay for an interracial couple in Virginia to be married and live together in the state, effectively threw out all interracial marriage bans in all US states.

I write about this because it was much too recently that I learned about this history, and its subsequent chapters. And when I learned about it, it was a gut punch.

See, not to date myself, but my parents got married three years before the Loving decision came down from the Supreme Court. In other words, my white parents were able to marry at least three years before many many interracial couples legally had a right to be married in many states, especially those in the South.  

Even More Recent History: Continuing Resistance to Interracial Marriage

What’s worse, I was already out of undergrad by the time Alabama finally voted, with much too thin a majority, to be the last state to take the long-defunct interracial marriage law off their books, finally—in 2000.

And I was almost out of college in 1997 when a Gallup poll stated that 27% of Americans still thought there should be a law against interracial marriage.

The recency of this history probably shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but it was. I’ll unwrap how that came to be, and how the people I grew up around, created and maintained distance from these ongoing issues in the remainder of this article.

My Standpoint in Learning about This History

So yes, learning about all of this, and the recency of it, was quite the gut punch for me as a white person. See, I’d grown up in the northern Midwest, largely either in states where such interracial marriage bans had never been passed or in states where they’d been taken off the books before 1887.

I had grown up reading books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Harriet Tubman. I was aware of racial injustice, but also had been subtly taught that the bulk of that was in the past.

I mean, not in South Africa, where Apartheid was finally rejected during my youth after hard-fought resistance. But we weren’t in South Africa—we were in the Midwest US (and, well, from my memory we had some visceral “white discomfort” fears about protest that even came out about the anti-Apartheid resistance).

The thing was I rarely met any Black people as a child. I’d been taught to be on the side of civil rights, but, as I discussed earlier, had also been trained not to speak up TOO much politically on behalf of Black people or anyone else, except for the “unborn.” (That was what those “bleeding heart liberals” had been trained to do, and I’d been subtly trained to view them with a side-eye, as I wrote about here.)  

Interracial Marriage and Political Disgusts about Suing the Government

Thinking about it now, I’m not too surprised I didn’t learn about the Loving decision earlier—after all, there was also a lot of talk among the people I grew up with about the evils of litigiousness.

It was one thing to praise the Christians that hid the Jews or those who participated in the Underground Railroad in the distant past, or even Nelson Mandela overseas in the present.

It was another to praise this recent couple for suing their way to the Supreme Court to earn rights for people to marry across racial lines without retribution.

Enumerating the Subtle Political Disgusts that Kept Us from Anti-Racist Work

In other words, my Northern Midwest White People (Theologically Moderate) Christian Nice background managed to distance itself from the responsibility to stand up in the present in regard to social justice issues through multiple means:

  1. Outsourcing the “evils of racism” to the Southern US
  2. Outsourcing both the “evils of racism” and the need to stand up against it to the past
  3. Feeling moral disgust against those who would raise ongoing issues in political protest, especially in the court system
  4. Outsourcing to other locations: On top of this, we in our churches DID see Black people in mission trips or service trips or mission presentations sometimes—but they were usually in other locations (either in the “inner city” or other states or other countries) and poor. (We talked about the poorness, but not really about redlining or systemic policies and history that created the poorness.)

Racism=”Not Our Sin”?

I see in retrospect these were a combination of ignorance and self-protection at the expense of Black Americans. It wasn’t so much that we were actively being racist. It was more that our moral and political disgusts wished us to feel “pure” of the sin of racism, and so we pushed it away, trying to make it someone else’s problem.

Unfortunately, these factors plus our elevation of the conflict style of avoidance (which I talked about last week), together with our embrace of single-issue voting on the subject of abortion, meant that we also were consciously pushing away any political policies that actively supported being anti-racist and supporting Black Americans in the ways most Black Americans were asking to be supported.

Unfortunately, in order to maintain our comfort as well as our abilities to manage issues that we saw as closer to home and closer to our “moral responsibilities,” we pushed away listening to these voices. And in the process we definitely managed to support and enable systemic racism.

The Shift from Subtle Enablement of Racism to Active Support of White Supremacy

These actions made it easier for us to cope with the burdens we already had, sure, but didn’t actually solve the shared systemic problem of ongoing racism in the US.

In fact, it made us a lot like the “white moderates” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote about in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” who were impeding his progress—I wrote about how his words inspired me to change here.

And I talked about how his words helped me to understand how some of my people have gone on to support an actively white supremacist current administration here.

A Final Charge

I hope this article has helped contribute at least some understanding of how my corner of Christian Nice white culture, in distancing itself from the ongoing problems of racism, including continuing unhealthy attitudes about interracial marriage, became a stumbling block to anti-racist efforts. I was a part of this for many years, having been socialized into these same patterns.

I was a part of this for many years, having been socialized into these same patterns. Now that I’ve become aware of them, I’m seeking to fight these patterns in myself and in the world where I find them. I hope you’ll do the same, regardless of where you are on your anti-racist journey. The fight is uncomfortable and difficult, but highly worthwhile to keep at it.

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap wherever we find it, including inside ourselves, and work toward a better world for us all, especially the vulnerable and oppressed. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward diagnosing and speaking up against unhealthy rhetoric?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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When Christian Nice Gets Mean in Minimizing Racism http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/06/06/christian-nice-mean-minimizing-racism/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/06/06/christian-nice-mean-minimizing-racism/#comments Sat, 06 Jun 2020 23:01:48 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1066 All week I’ve been mulling over how to approach writing about the important matters of racism that are prevalent matters of discussion in this particular stage of the religio-political apocalypse. And then a friend sent me an unhealthy meme about racial injustice that one of their friends had posted, and I knew it was time to talk about how exactly Christian Nice, toxic positivity, and the enactment and enablement of racism intersect to suppress and admonish those who stand up...

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All week I’ve been mulling over how to approach writing about the important matters of racism that are prevalent matters of discussion in this particular stage of the religio-political apocalypse. And then a friend sent me an unhealthy meme about racial injustice that one of their friends had posted, and I knew it was time to talk about how exactly Christian Nice, toxic positivity, and the enactment and enablement of racism intersect to suppress and admonish those who stand up against injustice toward a healthier world for us all.

My Standpoint

As always, I’ll be approaching this topic from my standpoint as a communication scholar studying stress, trauma, and conflict communication. I’ve previously written a whole series on the toxic sides of Christian nice starting here. I’ve previously discussed how it connects to racism here, here and here. I’ve discussed how it enables covert abuse and authoritarianism here.  

This article addresses how a specific meme highlights and extends our understanding of how Christian nice enables and in fact enacts racism via socialized gaslighting. (I talked about socialized gaslighting in connection with sexism here.)

Specifically, my goal in this article is to show why black people and their allies are likely to see the last line of the message claiming to have “nothing but love for all” as incongruous disconfirming communication that minimizes problems that cost black lives in order to preserve the meme author’s sense of righteousness (i.e., making it a racist statement). Because the argument abuses the language of spirituality, this meme also qualifies as spiritual abuse. This analysis is offered in hopes of helping people understand, avoid and speak up against these kinds of unhealthy rhetoric.

Goals and Disclaimers:

I don’t expect what I say here to be perfect, but it is grounded in what I know along those lines—most of which I have learned from others (that’s how expertise works!). As a white person, what I’m saying here is meant to continue the conversation about race at a time when the meme I’m discussing is seeking to tamp it down. I’m in no way expecting what I say here to be comprehensive. I AM hoping that you will stick with me through a difficult topic.

So let’s get into it.

The Text of the (Extremely Toxic) Meme

Here’s the text of the meme I received (I’ll unwrap the nature of the toxicity in the rest of the article):

“This is America….

“We have a virus…but 99% of those who contract it will survive.

“We have some racists…but 99.95% of the people you meet are color blind and don’t have a racial bone in their body.

“We have some bad cops…but 99.995% of the law enforcement personnel you encounter would risk their lives to save yours.

“If you choose to see evil, then evil is all you’ll see.

“As for me…I choose to see the good in people…my heart is full…

“I’ve got nothing but love for all of you….”

Unwrapping the “Christian Nice” Toxicity of this Statement

Okay, so to start, I’m not sure for sure whether the person who shared this would have identified as a Christian, but this meme fits really well with a lot of the dynamics I’d been raised with in Christian (White People) Nice.

To be fair, my people weren’t quite THIS toxically positive about the world (and currently are not either). And yet, this is only a more extreme version of what I’d been raised with.

Getting Into the Layers of Toxicity

So what do I see, as a scholar of rhetoric and stress, trauma, and conflict communication, when I look at this statement?

  1. The Glorification of Conflict Avoidance and Toxic Positivity as “Love”: I see, for one, a very specific view of love as conflict avoidance being presented as the only moral form of spirituality—at least insofar as this meme is concerned.

    How do I get there? These words: “If you choose to see evil, then evil is all you’ll see. As for me, I choose to see the good in people…my heart is full… I’ve got nothing but love for all of you…”

    In other words, the meme equates looking away from “evil” (which is incredibly vaguely defined) with the highest form of good—in the words of the meme, “love.” And, specifically, it also associates it specifically with being “color blind”—as though that were a good thing.

    Why is this literally unhealthy for people, as per communication studies concepts? Well, conflict studies tend to classify avoidance as a “lose-lose” form of conflict management when it comes to relationship building, and for good reason.

    That’s because if you stuff down problems, people tend to build up resentments that lead to an erosion of trust. As I’ve discussed before, this leads to a situation called “cordial hypocrisy,” in which trust is simulated but not real.

    Stress and trauma research shows us that stuffed down problems can work on our bodies just like gangrene, causing us and/or others ill-health. If “Love does no harm to its neighbor,” as the Bible tells us, those who follow the Bible or just don’t want to hurt people in general should beware of messages that tell us that avoidance of conflict is somehow the best thing.

    THIS is why toxic positivity is called toxic—because it leads to cordial hypocrisy, that leads to genuine harms, either for the person practicing it, for others, or for both. Assuming that the person that posted this was white, the harm is really likely more for others than for this person—but the person could still be harming themselves as well, if they know deep down that they are in conflict with their values in spouting such dreck.

    The problem with “colorblindness,” of course, is an extension of the same problems conflict avoidance in relationships on a systemic racism level. In short, colorblindness pretends there are no existing systemic inequities among those with different skin colors, and that those inequities don’t create pain and trauma for the disadvantaged people. Ignoring this problem is like leaving gangrene untreated.

    If you keep ignoring these things as a white person, it may possibly be a win for you—but is definitely a loss for African Americans and other black people. And it’s only a win for you if you don’t actually care about that. (Sarcasm alert: I’ll be honest—when I write that, I’m not exactly feeling the love in that description somehow.)
  2. Painting Confronting Injustice as a Devil Term: As I’ve discussed in previous articles, this glorification of avoidance as the greatest good equates those who point out and fight injustice as a devil term, or something to be fought at all costs.

    In an era where “crackdowns against racism protests” are frequent phrases in news articles, this kind of rhetoric both enables and enacts racism and authoritarianism. (I talked about the contours of this problem more here, here and here.)
  3. Sacrificing (Mostly Black) Humans at the Altar of Avoidance: Interestingly, this meme does not mount the prevalent “all lives matter” defense, which is particularly interesting considering the meme author claims to have “love” in their heart for all.

    On the contrary, this meme author, by reducing lives lost to statistics (and small statistics—never mind that they are largely wrong statistics), both minimizes the death and dysfunction caused to real humans and simultaneously presents them as a sort of necessary sacrifice, presumably in order for the person to maintain her illusion that he or she is somehow righteous and loving.   

    And by starting out by minimizing the numbers of those dying from COVID-19, particularly, black lives and pain are minimized. As this is a disease that has been affecting black Americans at a much higher rate than white Americans, this seemingly “unracial” opening statistic is anything but.

    And the fact that the statistics build to increasingly minimize the valid concerns black people have about racism and police brutality in this country ought to be concerning.

    Again, none of that unpacking makes me trust that the meme author genuinely has love in their heart for all, or even remotely grieves these deaths that are so glibly spoken of.
  4. The Idea that “Good People” Can’t Be Racist: The phrase “not a racial bone in their body” particularly stands out in this regard.

    The bone metaphor is particularly striking to me, because it equates “being a racist” with an identity marker that can’t be changed—a part of one’s body.

    If racism would have to be such a deep-seated thing that it would require major surgery in order to change it, then surely it is unkind (and, in fact, evil) to ask someone to change it, right?

    This meme, then, assumes that evil such as racism or injustice is rare, identity-based, and not a behavior that could be changed. It also assumes it is assigned to particular individuals rather than systems.

    The idea that someone could be both well-meaning and enable and enact racist behaviors and systems is really opposite of the idea here—which is strikingly similar to Hitler’s concept that particular bloodlines were “pure” whereas others were “impure.” (That’s right—this meme is coming awfully close to enacting Nazi ideology here. Great job, eh?)

    The problem, of course, is that even unhealthy ideologies can creep their way into our identities to the point where we can feel shame if we are confronted with the facts that we are unjust to others in how our words, attitudes, and behaviors stem from them.

    I talked about how I had so far internalized “family values” rhetoric that I felt shame when I needed to get divorced here. That same kind of thing can happen with socialized racism, sexism, xenophobia, and all sorts of other toxic things we unconsciously internalize—things that hurt ourselves and others, but especially others.

    But unlike being born with a particularly dark skin, racist attitudes and behaviors are not something we are born with. They are not an inherent part of identity. Like my beliefs about divorce, they can be changed. It may feel painful to go through the process, but again, I was taught that the best kind of love involves not harming others—and that changed attitudes and behavior was something we were called to do when we sought to communicate love to others (most in the Judeo-Christian traditions call that repentance).  
  5. The Assumption that Good Police Officers’ Intentions Mean They Won’t Do Bad Things: That whole line about how police officers would lay down their lives for you evokes this idea for me. The implication there is that people who would risk their lives to save yours, and that those same people surely wouldn’t hurt others under any circumstance.

    The thing with this is that there’s a whole famous series of psychology experiments that were done after WWII and the Holocaust to try and understand why and how the Holocaust happened. They found that people will do all sorts of nasty things when put into positions of power, or when they are asked to do unethical things to hurt others, or to follow the crowd. You can look them up if you like—but the point is that prison guards down to police officers down to ordinary people have been universally shown to do terrible things really really easily.

    In other words, people can easily fall into behaviors that are highly unethical, including those we would societally consider evil. While some people are extreme narcissists who don’t feel bad when they hurt others to help themselves, ordinary people can also be easily prone to these things, especially when socialized into cultures that unhealthily encourage attitudes that people—and especially some groups of people more than others—need to be punished.

    It’s clear that whether or not police officers individually are “good people,” they are vulnerable to hurting people. The same is true with those who perceive themselves as “not having a racial bone in their body.”

Just Scratching the Surface of the Unhealthy Rhetoric Here

I could go on and on—there’s a ton that could be unpacked here. The point, though, is that this meme, in its hyperbole, exposes the unhealthy ways that toxic positivity and Christian nice, in glorifying the minimization of real problems, may both enable and enact racist behaviors.

After all, if you’re a white person telling black people that what we’re seeing regarding police misconduct is largely impossible because you as a white person believe it to be impossible, then that’s not just unloving but racist.

How the Meme Goes Against Jesus’ Message

Furthermore, from the perspective of one who was raised with Jesus’ parables about how it was worth spending time to find a single lost sheep or coin or whatever, these arguments about how the majority of things are “just fine” so we should act as though there are no problems simply isn’t theologically consistent with the message of Jesus.

Bad Logic + Bad Ethics=Not Actually Loving

The whole meme is just terrible logic, and terrible ethics in addition to putting forth false statistics. In short, the message here is not remotely one that communicates love. It communicates what I’ve said before we communication scholars call incongruous disconfirming communication to those who were born with dark-toned skin and those who stick up for them. (In other words, communication that says one thing but undermines that message at the same time.)

This Meme Actively Causes Harm

By taking the side of toxic positivity and minimizing the concerns of those who are pointing at existing real problems, this kind of rhetoric causes great harm. I hope this article has given you the tools to understand and work against such rhetoric when confronted with it, whether out there in the world or within yourselves.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap, including racism wherever we find it, toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward diagnosing and speaking up against unhealthy rhetoric?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

The post When Christian Nice Gets Mean in Minimizing Racism appeared first on Assertive Spirituality.

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Church Buildings as “Essential” and COVID-19: A Rhetorical Analysis http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/05/23/church-as-essential-covid-19-rhetorical-analysis/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/05/23/church-as-essential-covid-19-rhetorical-analysis/#comments Sat, 23 May 2020 23:43:28 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1062 Yesterday the current head of the executive branch of the US government made an announcement advocating for the immediate reopening of churches and other houses of worship as “essential” as quickly as this weekend. That announcement understandably set off a firestorm in the spiritually-focused groups I’m a part of. In this blog post, as a result, I will be looking at the concept of “houses of worship as essential” and the rhetoric around it. In doing so, I will also...

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Yesterday the current head of the executive branch of the US government made an announcement advocating for the immediate reopening of churches and other houses of worship as “essential” as quickly as this weekend. That announcement understandably set off a firestorm in the spiritually-focused groups I’m a part of. In this blog post, as a result, I will be looking at the concept of “houses of worship as essential” and the rhetoric around it. In doing so, I will also be continuing several other threads from other blog series in this space, especially the series on “god terms” and “devil terms” that starts here and the political disgusts series that starts here.

In the process I will especially be focusing on how the announcement’s framing is designed to divisively appeal to a Christian base that’s conservative both theologically and politically, sets up false dichotomies around these Christians being unjustly treated during this time, and seeks to erase wide swaths of spiritual work that have been creatively working to love neighbors from a distance during the closures both in and out of religious organizations.

NOTE: This is a long article—thanks for hanging in there with me through the analysis toward the final pointers to help us all keep working toward the common good.

Some Churchy Background

So I’m going to dive into a rhetorical analysis of this church reopening as “essential” thing using what I know as a communication scholar as a lens.

But first, just as a reminder, I grew up as a pastor’s kid in a moderate Protestant denomination in the Midwest US. This denomination was just on the Evangelical side of the conservative/progressive divide that cuts through so much these days, including religion and spirituality. (And as I’ve discussed before, I’ve seen people from my denomination fall on both sides of that religio-political divide since 2016, which has been a great sorrow to me.)

I went to church twice every Sunday. We naturally did all the churchy things when they met on other days as well. We lived in a house next to the church most of the time. I went to Sunday school, and Christian school. I considered the church library an extension of my own.

In short, when I was a kid, if there had been a “stay at home” order because of a pandemic, I would have struggled to understand why the church building wouldn’t be a permissible part of that order. The church was home to me in a very real way.

This is important context going into my analysis: I completely get it when people say that they feel deeply connected to church buildings and their reopening.

“The Church Is the People”

Here’s the irony of that upbringing: Many many times I heard it preached and affirmed from the pulpit in those physical churches that the church was NOT about a building.

I even had a little rhyme with accompanying hand movements I was taught to say. Ironically, I would often play with it when I was bored in church services: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is the people!”

And we were sooooo often physically present in church buildings when we heard these messages.

“Do Not Give Up Meeting Together”

We also invoked a single verse out of context (ignoring the fact that church buildings did not yet exist when it was originally written) for how much we met in those buildings and elsewhere.

I’ve lost track of how many times “Do not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25 NIV) was intoned, especially in support of someone physically attending worship.

Sure, we got that there were “shut-ins,” that the pastor physically visited. But, you know, those people were medically ill, so they had a “good excuse.”  

Churches as “God Terms”

In other words, despite our seemingly reasonable exceptions for medical reasons not to attend church, houses of worship themselves (and even more, gathering together in large groups to worship!) sort of seeped their way into our bones. It’s only natural that we started to see our presence there as something that was part of our identities, and even something that made us more righteous than others. Something to be defended at all costs, even—which in rhetoric, if you’ll remember from previous articles starting here, you should know we call a “god term.”  

Ironic, seeing as how we were using our church meetings to steep ourselves in all sorts of biblical stories about how the “People of the Book” had survived the destruction of their houses of worship. How God told David that God having a house was less important than other things.

And how Jesus told everyone not to be so public in their prayer and instead go into their closets to pray to God. (As I’ve said before, these traditions are rich in cognitive dissonance alongside nuanced ways of dealing with it.)

Enter “Churches as Essential”

Fast forward to 2020. There’s a pandemic on, and everyone’s been asked to stay home (more or less) for about 2-2.5 months in the US. People have been asked to step away from many activities, including gathering in churches in large groups, for what boil down to medical reasons.

In short, all of us have become what my church would have called “shut-ins” because so much of the viral spread happens asymptomatically. The thing is that people are getting itchy to get back to “normalcy.” I mean, surely those who are young and healthy shouldn’t have to act like shut-ins when they’re not really sick, right?  

The problem, of course, is that the medical threat isn’t gone. The curve of the pandemic spread has not been flattened, but things are starting to reopen anyway.

Churches as “Essential”? The Announcement

So this is the situation into which the current head of the US administration makes this past Friday afternoon’s firestorm announcement. Here are some sentences from it to be found in many news pieces: “Some governors have deemed the liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential…In America, we need more prayer not less.”

This is not the first time the current head of the administration has made a contentious announcement about opening churches, but it is the strongest to date: that they should be open immediately, for Memorial Day weekend.

The arguments I’ve seen swirling around from my peops arguing for the conservative point of view are right there embedded in his announcement. Let me explain.

A Matter of Injustice?

As I dig into the guts of this announcement, let’s be clear: This rhetoric only plays well with an audience that thinks the existing order of things is slighting religious organizations.

In this view, if women’s clinics that perform a wide variety of women’s health services that happen to include abortions are allowed to have their buildings remain open, and liquor stores, then it is “unfair” that churches are being asked to avoid large gatherings.

As a reminder, any reference to abortion, in most conservative Christian worldviews, automatically puts us into “devil term” category here—that is, things that conservative viewpoints will interpret as things associated with death, to be fought at all costs.

Same with liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries, the latter of which have not specifically been mentioned here but are being circulated in the religiously and politically conservative crowds as organizations that have been “unfairly” allowed to remain “essential” over and above religious houses of worship.

In invoking this rhetoric and specifically these comparisons, the current head of the administration seeks to shift the playing field from seeing the virus and its attendant loss of life as the biggest threat, and enters into another realm entirely: this question of defending houses of worship as essential to the health and wellbeing of Americans over and against these seemingly immoral organizations.

Houses of Worship Vs. Abortion Clinics: A Cage Match?

Of course, the head of the administration, in invoking these particular threats, reveals that he doesn’t really care at all about progressive religious leaders’ points of view—because only particularly conservative religious leaders would see abortion clinics or liquor stores as “threats” to be fought, much less take the bait to thinking they would be such important threats that services ought to open up immediately.

Interestingly, as I’ve discussed before, abortion is not a topic directly raised in the Bible, and Jesus turned water into wine, sooooo….he doesn’t seem to be against alcohol. As I stated above, the Bible is as much against houses of worship as for them, and Jesus himself was for praying alone in one’s room.

So Let’s Be Clear:

This cage fight the current head of the administration is setting up is not about getting his conservative Christian followers to defend the biblically grounded parts of Christianity.

This is one way we can tell he’s setting up “churches as essential” as a “god term”—his call to defend church reopening is not actually grounded in biblical analysis about gathering together being good, much less taking care of the poor and the “least of these.”

On the contrary, it’s being grounded in opposition to things that conservatives find morally disgusting apart from clear theological principles: abortions and liquor. As we’ll see, the example of abortions is particularly rhetorically loaded.

“Baby Killers” Vs. Deaths in Adults?

Here’s the thing: if you see your church as a source of all righteousness and others outside its walls, especially progressives, as the source of all evil (I talked about how I absorbed the mild version of this kind of belief here), then you’re bound to be feeling ungrounded if you yourself find yourself attending church meetings only over Zoom.

That cognitive dissonance is bound to eat away at you.

Furthermore, if you are trained to conflate everything women’s health clinics do with death, and your church as associated with God and life, then surely you’re bound to feel pretty depressed and simultaneously envious if laws pop up because of this pesky virus thing that seems to favor those enacting death while you are kept away from your source of life.

Moving the Goalposts Away from the Epidemiological Truth

The problem with this framing is that it is flat out dangerous because it moves us away from the realities of the situation. As this article states, religious services, especially ones involving singing and/or communion, are really risky to spread the virus—as high as eating out in a restaurant, which in some traditions is a practice that traditionally follows worship services.

Picking up alcohol from a liquor store is not a practice with a high viral load. And while women’s health appointments contain a threat of viral load, women’s health clinics perform many services that save lives and prevent all kinds of disease. These are the epidemiological arguments for these things being open while church buildings are kept largely closed to large meetings.

Religious Services as a Source of Health?

The most interesting argument I’ve seen for why religious services should be legally allowed to open from this population is that going to church is a source of mental and physical health.

This, of course, is true for some people who find the church life-giving for them. It is the opposite of the truth for those who have experienced spiritual abuse and trauma.

And of course this is the point at which the conservative debater would demur. “Well, we’re not saying we’re the only solution. Just that we too are an essential component of mental and physical health for a lot of people.”

Attacking the Messengers for the Nature of the Virus

As I’ve already pointed out, this argument is one that tries to set aside epidemiological realities for questions of fairness in ways that actually could spread the virus significantly, hurting lots of people.

The biggest problem with the current head of the administration’s framing of this issue is that it attacks the people creating policies and scapegoats them for making decisions that are actually constraints brought on by the nature of the virus and how it spreads rather than questions of morality or the lack thereof.

Empathizing with the Desire to Gather and Sing in Groups

None of this is to say that I don’t empathize with the valid needs those who wish to gather for church services are experiencing. I just don’t think those who are used to gathering for worship services are the only ones missing these things, and I believe we need to grieve those things out rather than putting them on others.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the hardest parts of this pandemic is that not only our systems, but also our own neurobiology often leads us to help the virus spread. We desire in-person connection. We dislike being cooped up. It’s natural to feel attacked when we’re told that our particular coping mechanisms—many of which really ARE healthy in normal times—aren’t wise right now.

From a perspective of stress and trauma research, singing together as one often does in houses of worship does indeed have a mental health benefit for many, absolutely. And many outside of churches as well as within them are grieving how difficult collective singing is right now.

Same goes for gathering in large groups for any number of reasons. As many have noted, meeting together in large groups for rituals of grief and rejoicing are things that bring a huge mental health benefit, absolutely. Many are mourning the present constraints around these things.

Diminishing the Work of Spirituality Outside of Houses of Worship

From my perspective, this is what’s really insulting about the call to reopen church services immediately: by conflating prayer and spirituality with large meetings in church buildings, it seeks to diminish all the spiritual work that’s been continuing outside of physical houses of worship, both during the closures and before that.

In other words, equating houses of worship reopening to reopening the institution of religion assumes that shutting them down has actually shut down spirituality and the work of caring and concern that goes along with it.

And THAT is the most tone-deaf part of this framing of the question. See, the truth is that that little rhyme I was taught as a child is correct, and not just for Christian contexts. People—whether in or outside of religion—who connect and take care of each other and the greater good haven’t gone away just because houses of worship aren’t holding big services.

Not Just Those in Formal Religions, Either

One thing my deconversion from “family values” rhetoric (I wrote about this here) has taught me is that people who I had been taught were less “righteous” than those of us in the church are part of that picture, and are not less important than those in the church.

In fact, I now believe that anyone anywhere who is seeking to love their neighbor is “doing church,” whether they would frame it that way or not. (I can see how that view would be seen as a threat by conservative Christians seeking to defend the idea that their way of serving others is the only life-giving approach.)

But Nope, Works of Spirituality and Mercy Haven’t Stopped Because the Buildings Are Shuttered

But yeah, this has been going on within formal religion as well. Many people and teachers have been struggling to overcome their own and others’ learning curves regarding technology to do what they can to heroically adapt to the virus’ constraints by working from home as well as possible.

This, despite often overwhelming challenges that working from home has represented, not because of stay at home orders, but because of the actual viral threat.

And both clergy and laypeople have been continuing to be and do “church things” from home in much the same way. Because of this, suggesting that church buildings must reopen in order to encourage the practices of prayer (implying that only opening the church buildings would make that possible) is the most tone-deaf and insulting part of the announcement.

And in much the same way that many are rightfully wavering on whether to hold in-person classes in schools and universities in the near future, many many reasonable clergy and laypeople are suggesting it would be unethical and unwise to open church buildings for standard large meetings anytime soon.

Let’s Focus on Ethics, Not Pure Legality

In fact, as we professors are doing for our work in continuing to teach the best we can under the virus’s constraints, and ethical businesses continuing to adapt as best they can to the best practices laid out for us by the epidemiologists, even during reopening, I would argue that ethical clergy and laypeople are continuing to work the best they can within the constraints they are given.

This is happening not just for reasons of legality, as I’ve seen among my more conservative peops, or even to keep themselves from getting the virus, but to care for the least of these by seeking to lessen the viral spread as best as they can.

(And indeed, if conservative Christianity wants to argue that abortion clinics and liquor stores are “getting a leg up on them” in offering solutions to people, ought not they be better off working to winsomely do the same rather than trying to bully experts and political leaders into letting them have their way to prematurely reopen their doors?)

#AssertiveSpirituality Doesn’t Give In to False Dichotomies

This, I would argue, is the true work of #AssertiveSpirituality in light of the ongoing pandemic situation: Continuing to work to decrease deaths from the virus as well as we can at the same time that we work to try to advocate for and work for a healthier world for us all in a lot of ways.

What Does This Look Like?

The shape of that will look different for different populations in different locations, but ought overall to try to decrease exposures to the riskiest situations regarding viral spread as much as possible except with really good reasons. I see this process taking the viral threat seriously and seeking creative ways to continue working toward a better world while taking care of ourselves and each other as much as possible.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s refuse to give in to unhealthy “god-term”/”devil term” framings that draw us into fighting and defending the wrong things rather than fighting for the common good and the best for all. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward diagnosing and speaking up against unhealthy rhetoric?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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Understanding the Rhetoric of COVID Conspiracy Theories—and How to Respond Healthily http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/05/09/responding-covid-conspiracy-theory-rhetoric/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/05/09/responding-covid-conspiracy-theory-rhetoric/#comments Sat, 09 May 2020 23:09:03 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1057 I was going to write about something else this week. I had a great thing all cued up. But then my personal FB newsfeed blew up with my Facebook friends dealing with people, most of whom identify as some form of more conservative brand of Christian, hawking conspiracy theories. Most of the rhetoric surrounded this “Plandemic” video, which has since been removed from both YouTube and Facebook because of its misinformation. Once this gained critical mass, I know I needed...

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I was going to write about something else this week. I had a great thing all cued up. But then my personal FB newsfeed blew up with my Facebook friends dealing with people, most of whom identify as some form of more conservative brand of Christian, hawking conspiracy theories. Most of the rhetoric surrounded this “Plandemic” video, which has since been removed from both YouTube and Facebook because of its misinformation. Once this gained critical mass, I know I needed to unwrap COVID conspiracy theory rhetoric and its complicated reception in today’s blog post. (So that’s what I’m doing.)

A Few Disclaimers Before I Start

As I’ve explained before, I am not THAT kind of doctor. I’m also not here to respond directly here to the claims in the YouTube video (you can find excellent responses along those lines in lots of places). Nor am I trying to judge or shame those who have shared the link to this misinformation. We’ve all been there where we’ve shared links to things we’ve later found out was false. It’s easy to do. But how we respond when someone helps us get more context and understanding–well, that’s a totally different thing.

One other quick note that I’m not trying to duplicate the fine work Christianity Today did this week (I posted that over on the Assertive Spirituality FB page this week) in drawing attention to the way that gullibility is not a Christian virtue. I’m also not trying to analyze this from a Christian theological perspective—this article does a great job comparing conspiracy rhetoric to Gnosticism, which orthodox Christianity has long considered to be a heresy.

Also, this stuff gets a little complicated, so thanks for hanging in there with me on the length. The detail is important!

Why I’m Writing and Such

Anyway, let’s get into it. What I AM trying to do is to help you to understand a little bit about the history and nature of conspiracy rhetoric and how it happens that people, many of which are kind and generous in nature, may end up buying into unfounded conspiracy rhetoric, and to offer some tips to help you respond.

My Background and Credentials and Such

I am doing this as someone with a PhD in Communication who studies and teaches about stress, trauma, and conflict communication and was fortunate to take a grad course in the rhetoric of conspiracy during my PhD.

I’m also doing this as someone who grew up as a pastor’s kid in a moderate denomination and understands from the inside out how this kind of stuff works.

Why I Too Was Uncomfortable When Learning about Conspiracy Rhetoric

To be honest, when I took that course in the rhetoric of conspiracy, I was deeply uncomfortable with the fact that at least one of the articles we read dealt with Christians participating in anti-science conspiracy theories. Between that and seeing how conspiracy rhetoric has been rightfully identified as a factor in both the Reformation and in the American Revolution, it was a rather uncomfortable semester for me.

Because, let’s face it, it’s not comfortable seeing how “our people” have long, even in legitimate movements that have a lot of good in them, have often also gone off the deep end.

It’s wayyyy more comfortable to distance ourselves from those coping mechanisms both we and our ancestors share that we deem irrational.

The Rhetoric of Conspiracy and Moral/Political Disgusts

The thing is that that very impulse we all share—the desire to morally and physically distance ourselves from those things we have moral and political disgusts for—is what drives people to accept and participate in conspiracy rhetoric. I have previously discussed the neurobiology of moral and political disgusts in a long series starting here.

The thing is that it’s very easy, as I’ve also discussed before, to put “us,” whoever “us” is, in the “moral” category, and “those other folks” in the “immoral” category for whatever reason. Unfortunately, unscrupulous leaders know this, and often use the extreme language of “god terms” and “devil terms” (which I’ve also written a series on, beginning here) to get us to applaud some people who are “on our side” and to form moral disgusts about other people who are “on the other side.”

Moderate Evangelical-Centrism and Moral Disgusts

As I’ve said before, growing up in a moderate denomination that highly valued education and full engagement with the world, I’ve seen this impulse from an intriguing (if also disturbing) vantage point. (I’ve talked about this and how it connects to what I call “white Evangelical-centrism here.)

On one hand, I’ve seen my peops engaging in moral disgusts to separate ourselves from being associated with televangelists and other fundamentalist Christians we found extreme, including those who saw engagement with science and expertise as threats.

On the other hand, my denomination highly valued Christian education over “secular education”—and however thoughtful I can see us being about it, at base I can see now that at base this impulse wasn’t only about rational thoughtfulness but also at least partly about moral disgusts and a desire to associate mostly with “our own kind.”

How “Bubble Thinking” Left Us Vulnerable

To be fair, there were some really good things about our own kind and some unhealthy things outside our “bubble.” But that impulse wasn’t really fully “pure” or “rational” either.

I can see now that at root, what I’ve talked about earlier is true—we were possibly just as morally disgusted by the “liberal elites” as we were by the more fundamentalist Christians.

And looking at it now, it makes sense that because of that, in the current climate, some of the people I know, even seeming “moderates” who are quite well educated, would be falling prey to conspiracy rhetoric about COVID as well as other unhealthy tendencies spurred on by the current political climate.

What Unhealthy Conspiracy Theories Thrive On

After all, unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric thrives in conditions in which people see at least some forms of expertise as “other” and morally disgusting.

It also thrives in situations where people feel a lot of shame about experts knowing more than they do. (And since most people, including those with advanced degrees have often felt “put down” by others in academia, most people are vulnerable to this kind of feeling “less than” shame.)

And last but not least, conspiracy rhetoric thrives in conditions in which people feel a lot of uncertainty about what’s ahead. As I’ve discussed before, with a lot of stress in this global crisis, people are looking for stable leaders who know a lot—and let’s face it, the scientific process moves slow, and no one has all the answers here. This is a great article that gets into this.

Unwrapping the Marks of Conspiracy Rhetoric

I don’t want to make this too long (thanks for hanging in there!), but here’s what conspiracy rhetoric usually does: it tells a story that sounds like secret knowledge, that seems plausible, and that often appeals to people with suspicions of uncertainty and of at least some of those in charge.

And let’s be clear: sometimes there are provable conspiracies. People sometimes work together in nefarious and corrupt ways to try to exploit and take advantage of people. (For instance, paid trolls in other countries actually have been trying to influence political systems in the last few years. This is a provable type of conspiracy—entire troll farms have been caught at this.)

Discerning Between Detecting Real Conspiracies and Unhealthy Conspiracy Theory

The difference between actual conspiracies and so much of the time-worn conspiracy theory rhetoric, though, is that actual conspiracies can, with time and effort and luck, be factually proven.

Defining First-Order Realities and Second-Order Realities

In the study of perceptions, we talk about the difference between first-order realities (i.e., observable facts or data) and second-order realities (i.e., interpretations of that data).

The Difference Between Detection and Unhealthy Conspiracy Theories

Actual conspiracies can be proven through first-order realities to create logical second-order realities, whereas unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric, if you confront it with first-order realities that would ordinarily mess with its interpretations, will tell you that those things are lies and further evidence that their second-order realities are the “actual truth.”

See, here’s the thing: detection of actual conspiracies tends to consider the source and definitely identifies things as lies as needed, but works hard not to disconfirm first-order realities, whatever their source.

Unheathy conspiracy theory rhetoric, on the other hand, will tell you that first-order realities are to be dismissed if the source is seen to be suspicious, whereas all second order realities from people “on their side” need to be accepted, regardless of what the first-order realities may be.

The Difference Is in the Open-Mindedness to New Evidence

Note the difference here: Healthy conspiracy detection often comes in with suspicion and often takes a side, and sometimes dismisses information if it comes from untrustworthy sources, but also tries to keep an open enough mind to be willing to change their mind if the evidence warrants it.

Unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric exploits pre-existing fears, prejudices, coping mechanisms, and us vs. them logic to make people feel better about themselves and their group at the expense of another group, regardless of whether that other group is actually a problem.

Unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric pretends to care about justice and truth, but actually prefers certainty and feeling potentially superior about knowing to justice and truth.

The Connection Between Unhealthy Conspiracy Theories and Authoritarianism/Covert Abuse

Because of this, unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric is very close to the logic of authoritarianism and of covert abuse—I wrote about how Christians and Christian nice have been enabling these things here.

It’s also really closely related to fascistic rhetoric, for good reason—these folks often abuse conspiracy rhetoric and sow misinformation to discredit potential opponents to their second-reality views in order to gain and maintain power at the expense of others (standard targets are often “the media” who fact-check their sources and educators/experts, if that rings a bell–I talked about this more here).

COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories Are Hurting People

And let’s be absolutely clear: Specifically in the case of this COVID-19 public health emergency, this conspiracy theory misinformation is damaging real people. Conmen and hucksters and other unreliable people purporting to be “real experts” trying to raise their profiles on YouTube are putting out false information. And that’s hurting people.

Who These Conspiracy Theories Are Hurting

In the time of COVID-19, misinformation, including conspiracy theory rhetoric that demonizes even the valid parts of the scientific and medical models, is causing further stress to the actual doctors on the front lines, as this article relates. The same article talks about how it’s causing more deaths to those who believe the conspiracy rhetoric as well.

In this case, if those who believe the conspiracy rhetoric fail to take good precautions, it also puts other vulnerable populations also at risk and increases deaths in non-conspiracy-believing parts of the population.

Not Saying the Medical Model or Science Is Perfect

Now, let’s be clear here: I don’t think the medical model or the scientific method, is perfect, nor do I think its practitioners are perfect. They are deeply human. That’s really the whole point of science—and if you hang out with scientists, especially the kind that don’t have arrogant temperaments, you would see a kind of deep humility in them.

Being in academia I get to see both types—and particularly as someone who studies trauma, which science has started to realize undermines a lot of previous dichotomies between fields, I really get to see both the advantages and the disadvantages of our current scientifically-based systems.

Science and the medical model are not perfect in part because we’re still deeply vulnerable as a society to that which we don’t fully know or understand.

It’s a New Virus, So Of Course No One Will Know Everything

And because this virus is new, even though a bunch of smart people are working on it, there’s going to be a lot of shifts in what we know, and that’s going to feel unstable to a lot of us.

 It’s also, to make it really safe, going to be a long process, most likely, and impatient people, especially those feeling dependent on things “getting back to normal” quickly, are more vulnerable to conspiracy rhetoric that claims to understand and to be able to control that uncertainty.

No Shortcuts to Knowledge, Sadly

All of this is deeply uncomfortable to deal with, and unfortunately, there are no easy shortcuts to figuring out this virus.

Standing Up Against This Stuff Helps Public Health

Here’s what I know to be true in all of this: Having unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric out there unchallenged literally hurts people. I am incredibly thankful that at least some social media sites have responded relatively quickly to remove at least some of it from their sites.

And I am incredibly thankful for those of my friends who have been working to challenge it when they see it. (And completely understand those who have had to conserve their energies by blocking and unfriending people.)

Some Tips on Speaking Up Against Conspiracy Rhetoric Effectively

If you are among those who have the energy to keep speaking up, please do! Here’s a few short tips on how to confront the rhetoric most effectively:

  1. Validate the fears and uncertainty that lie behind the embrace of unhealthy conspiracy theories (without agreeing with the unhealthy conclusions).
  2. Acknowledge that the medical model and scientific methods aren’t fully perfect (while standing firm on what they do right).
  3. AND, and this is possibly the most important, draw attention to the harm this kind of rhetoric does and the further stress and deaths it causes. Rehumanize yourself and others. In the context of this, talk about your own concerns for the lives of those in vulnerable populations and on the front lines, and also for the speaker’s health.

Why Do We Need to Stand Up When We Can

Here’s why we need to keep working against unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric as we’re able to, when we have the energy: the person who posts these things is unlikely to agree with you. They may not like you much for speaking up.

BUT someone else in the audience may be secretly on the fence about the question and CAN be persuaded.

AND it’s possible that your opposition may be what’s needed to get the person to take down the harmful information.

Either or both of these things are wins in the fight for the common good and public health. (Which doesn’t mean that if you’re engaged in other things, or burned out, you have to keep going without rest. Take the rest as you need to! Just come back when you can! It’s a relay marathon!)

One Final Disclaimer

Note that none of this means you have to fully embrace everything that public health experts are telling you—it just means that we should all be balancing trust in expertise with healthy detection around first- and second-order realities. And let’s be honest—there are times when the information is so quickly changing, diffuse, and dense that it’s going to be hard for ALL of us to keep up.

It’s not a perfect situation, friends. Many parts of it suck. But I know this much is true: unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric hurts people.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s keep doing what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric and other unhealthy crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward diagnosing and speaking up against unhealthy rhetoric?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates.

This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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Striving for Healthy Dissent (in Today’s Progressive Politics) http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/05/02/toward-healthy-dissent-progressive-politics/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/05/02/toward-healthy-dissent-progressive-politics/#comments Sat, 02 May 2020 22:16:02 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1053 Hello friends! Lately I’ve been thinking about—and encountering—a lot of both healthy dissent and also the unhealthy varieties, especially when it comes to the 2020 election among my left-leaning and progressive friends. So today I want to unwrap some of those facets of the differences between healthy and unhealthy dissent, and encourage us all to diagnose the difference in ourselves and others so we can achieve our shared goals without too much unhealthy detraction. And let’s be honest: this is...

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Hello friends! Lately I’ve been thinking about—and encountering—a lot of both healthy dissent and also the unhealthy varieties, especially when it comes to the 2020 election among my left-leaning and progressive friends. So today I want to unwrap some of those facets of the differences between healthy and unhealthy dissent, and encourage us all to diagnose the difference in ourselves and others so we can achieve our shared goals without too much unhealthy detraction.

And let’s be honest: this is going to require some of us who are engaged in strong stress and burnout stages to occasionally step back from the dialogue and effort if we find ourselves unable to contribute in a facilitative, constructive way toward making something new.

Some Background to This Whole Healthy Dissent Question in the 2020 Election

I wrote about this a bit before—about the grief that came for many progressive voters with losing some of the more progressive candidates off the current Democratic ticket.

This decision led to a situation in which many people had strong differing preferences for candidates in the same party.

Fear and Concern on, Well, All Sides

In such circumstances you get a situation with a LOT of fear for all of the people in the anti-current administration camp: (1) fear from those who strongly support Biden that everyone who disagrees with him will “poison the well” and refuse to vote for him, and/or encourage others to do the same; and (2) fear from those who supported the more progressive candidates that Biden and the DNC won’t listen to their concerns and take their needs seriously going forward.

Agreeing with What We Can

Here’s the thing: both of these sides have valid points, and both could and ought to join together in thoughtful dialogue about how to work together in a loose coalition without unduly tripping one another up or expecting us all to agree.

Not Surprised to See Unhealthy Dissent Popping Up

But just now, in the midst of the stress and trauma of a global pandemic? I’m grieved, but not surprised, that I’m seeing a lot of unhealthy dissent instead. Stay tuned, and I’ll unwrap a particular incident and tell you a bit of how I try to diagnose the difference and how I decide who to ask to step down and take a break from the dialogue in a given situation.

And after all, the stakes really ARE high for this election, and every little action and bit of rhetoric can help or hurt in helping us reach our goals. With such a strong threat from current heads of the opposition party, we don’t all need to think the same right now, but we DO need to work fast to manage our emotions to work toward a loose coalition in healthy ways.

An Online Incident that Led Me to Address This Topic

So here’s the inciting incident: Last week on my personal Facebook feed, two “web friends” I know and follow, but don’t know each other (I talk with both through messaging) got into a wrangle. These are both people I respect and like, even while there are points on which I disagree with from both of them (as is the case with many people!).

I knew both are on the same side in terms of fearing the reelection of the current administration.

I also knew they were both planning to vote the same way because of that fear.

The Roots of the Conflict

And YET there was quite the hubbub between them—because they had widely differing views on the subject.

Here’s what happened: One was in the Biden camp, and the other was planning to vote Biden but reluctantly. The first person didn’t know or ask about the latter point, though, and was assuming the latter person was digging their heels in.

<Enter Disclaimer Here>

(Note: I’ve also seen this go the other way, when the person distrusting Biden was totally burnt out and the person supporting Biden was the one voicing thoughtful dissent. I don’t see this happening in supporters of the current administration in healthy ways—so as you know if you’ve been following me for awhile, I’ve been strongly against the “bothsidesism” fallacy as used in the fascistic rhetoric coming from the current administration, but within current factions on the left, it’s happening that there really are people engaging in healthy disagreement, and unhealthily burned out people lashing out, on “both sides”—and it takes a deep breath and some careful diagnosis to see the difference.)

Back to the Story

Anyway, back to the incident. In this case, it was clear that the person supporting Biden was showing burnout in that situation. This was clear because they didn’t take the time to notice that the other person was expressing concerns without imposing them on others.

(If you want to know more about how to diagnose these things, I get into this topic more in the free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” that comes with a subscription to our online newsletter—I’ll give instructions on how to do that at the end of this article.)

Again, the fact that this particular Biden supporter, in this particular moment in time, was jumping immediately to “unite with us or else” actually was harmful rhetoric in that particular situation. That person was so concerned with the urgency of the outcome that they were trying to coerce agreement in unhealthy ways.

How I Chose to React When I Felt I’d Diagnosed the Issue

I could see this, so I invited them to step away and cool down and come back later while reinforcing the validity of the other person’s thoughtful dissent and drawing attention to their credibility as being on the same side ultimately.

So, yeah, once it wasn’t going to be productive and it was clear, at least from my viewpoint as one who knew both people and study this stuff, who was making more assumptions, I asked the person who was challenged more in the moment to step away momentarily.

Because, again, I know both parties well enough, I knew enough to know neither of them was a troll, and that helped with the situation quite a bit. As I discuss in the “Guide to Online Trolls,” I would have dealt with it differently if that was different.

What You Can Do

Surely you’ve seen this happen at some point if you’re active on social media at all and engaged in trying to be assertive about religio-political topics these days. Maybe you’ve even be one of these parties.

The more we can emphasize the common ground we have without invalidating each other’s concerns, and step back to calm down when we’re not in a healthy place to hear one another’s valid points, the easier it will be to form healthily loose coalitions toward the common good to take care of the vulnerable.

An Important Note

I’ve found myself engaged with this same argument from the other side as well—drawing attention to the need to channel healthy dissent where possible and not just rant concerns about Biden as an expression of burnout.

Recognizing How I’ve Grown as “Mediator” of Such Disputes

When the initial incident happened last week, there was an interesting sense of déjà vu for me, because I suddenly felt like I was back in the friend group I was in when I was twelve, trying to mediate among those in my friend group who were upset at one another.

Here’s the difference in how I mediated situations back then and how I mediate them now, though:

Back in the day, my goal would have been (and was) to try to get each other to like one another again in order to suppress the conflict and make everyone pretend to like each other. Today, my goal is to promote a loose coalition that works toward shared goals without requiring flattening of differences.

We All Have a Lot of Stress in Common

What it comes down to is this: we’re all under a huge amount of stress, and that means we’re all perceiving an awful lot of threat right now, and many of our bodies and psyches are naturally reacting to that strongly with fight, flight, and freeze stress responses.

Much of that threat perception is valid. But that doesn’t mean all of our stress responses are healthy or helpful. Learning to channel our stress in healthy ways, and call each other to rest when we can’t, is what I see as the most productive thing we can do right now to all work together as well as possible.

Using the Revelations of This Time to Work Toward Better Systems

But if we don’t have time to pause and diagnose the threats we perceive, we’re in danger of creating negative self-fulfilling prophecies that keep us from making new possibilities in the midst of this time that’s revealing so many flaws in our current systems.

As a reminder, the Greek root of the word apocalypse means “to make clear.” And it is clear that there are many flaws in our current systems that have led to great problems.

Don’t Be Discouraged, Friends!

The danger is spending all our time telling ourselves and others that the flaws in our systems can’t be fixed because they are so obvious. The danger is also insisting that if we don’t fix them perfectly in the first go that it’s not worth making the effort.

And the danger is assuming that we can’t find ways to work together cohesively without flattening differences on one hand or de-emphasizing what we have in common in ways that hurt reaching the end goal on the other.

What Is Natural Can Be—But Is Not Always–Healthy

it’s natural to presume that we all need to think the same. It’s also natural to think we all have nothing in common, despite common goals.

It’s also natural, from the midst of the trauma we’re all going through, to go into freeze mode and presume nothing is ever going to get better.

The Healthy Response

But here’s the thing. It’s also natural and possible to use those stress energies our bodies are so efficiently producing for us right now to try to helpfully tend and befriend, however loosely, to fight toward our common goals.

And it’s also natural and possible to work toward resting from political discourses when we find ourselves unable to take part in that.

Let’s Keep Striving for the Common Good!

These are reasonable and achievable things that we can do to reach for the common good, friends! Let’s work toward diagnosing carefully who is and who isn’t at burnout stage, and ask them (including ourselves) to temporarily step back from the dialogue until they can rest more and rejoin us in constructive dialogue.

And let’s distinguish those folks who are burned out from from the true bullies (which is what the “Guide to Trolls”is designed to help you with—instructions in a bit if you want that resource!).

And let’s learn to see it as a helpful thing for us to reach toward healthy dissent in the process of all of this, while still emphasizing common goals.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality!  May we all continue to reach toward the common good as we’re able where we are with what we’ve got, and may we rest as needed to come back and help in the relay marathon. We can do this thing.

Finally! A(nother) Free Helpful Resource!

Here It Is! The instructions to get the “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for free. Just sign up for the weekly email newsletter by entering your email address in the top bar of this page or by checking the box when you comment on this article. Once you’ve confirmed your email address you’ll get the link to the Guide in the final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but I hope you’ll stick around. If you do, you’ll get links to weekly blog posts first, as well as first notification of new online courses and other supportive resources I hope to make available as soon as this summer.

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COVID-19, Religious Organizations, and Spiritual Trauma: A Rhetorical Analysis http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/04/19/covid-religious-trauma/ http://assertivespirituality.com/2020/04/19/covid-religious-trauma/#comments Sun, 19 Apr 2020 07:54:38 +0000 http://assertivespirituality.com/?p=1049 It happened so quickly, didn’t it? On March 1 in my first article about COVID-19 on this site, I was apologizing for calling the current pandemic “only a cold,” and recommending preparations. About that time I was also recommending that my university students absolutely not shake hands with each other when they did their in-class interviews. Since then, we in the US have all been metaphorically hit by a freight train—okay, a virus—forcing us to rethink how we do connection...

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It happened so quickly, didn’t it? On March 1 in my first article about COVID-19 on this site, I was apologizing for calling the current pandemic “only a cold,” and recommending preparations. About that time I was also recommending that my university students absolutely not shake hands with each other when they did their in-class interviews.

Since then, we in the US have all been metaphorically hit by a freight train—okay, a virus—forcing us to rethink how we do connection and caring. And seeing how some religious organizations have unfortunately treated the topic has reminded me of a major flaw in how religious organizations have too often addressed their audiences.

Let’s Get Down to It

Some people are rising to the occasion well, and some are not. This includes religious and spiritual organizations. Today’s article will unpack a bit of how those who aren’t adapting well are exposing their congregants to danger—and why, as I just said, there has long been a major flaw in how religious organizations have too often addressed their audiences.

As always, I’ll be unpacking this analysis from my lens as a pastor’s kid who got a doctorate in communication and studies, teaches, and writes about stress, trauma, and communication.

Okay, I Do Get It

Before I dive too far into the problem, I want to be honest and offer some empathy: I understand why those religious organizations who haven’t adapted haven’t adapted to both this COVID-19 thing and the pre-existing systemic problems it’s exposed.

This pandemic has been really whiplash-y and overwhelming for most of us, including those who already saw connection as a threat for valid reasons (I’ve previously talked about this here and here). While the social distancing protocols may have not changed some of these people’s lives all that much, the overall stress and strain on everything has really taken a toll on so many, up to and including fears of death for self and loved ones, fears of lost sustenance and lodgings, and so on. (I’ve talked about this before, and the ways it’s exposed the ways we are all an ecosystem.)

This is all to say that social distancing is by no means the only cause of stress in this pandemic.

The Heart of the Matter

But now that I’ve said that, though, let me dive into that particular part of the problem and how it’s exposing existing problems in the way too many religious organizations have been perceiving care and concern.

See, the desire to associate proximity and touch with care and concern is something that’s pretty normal to the stress response unless your body and brain have been taught that touch and proximity are unsafe.

The Pre-existing Condition COVID-19 Is Exposing

And let’s face it—too many religious and spiritual organizations have already had a hard time recognizing and offering care for those who find proximity unsafe.

That’s why they’ve needed calling out in movements like #churchtoo.

That’s also why religious and spiritual organizations have had a hard time caring for those who have been traumatized, especially spiritually traumatized, whether by abuse scandals or something else.

Religious Organizations Have Limits, Sure, But Also…

Naturally, spiritual and religious organizations have limits—having grown up as a pastor’s kid, I’m aware of that as much, if not more, than most other people. I get those constraints.

But too often, those in churches have used their constraints and “what we’ve always done” as reasons to only reach out to those who see connection in terms of proximity—and not those who find it a threat.

When Victims/Dissenters Are Seen as a Threat

Let’s face it: too often those in religious organizations have seen those who left after abuse as a threat.

And too often those in leadership in these organizations have too often protected those in charge at the expense of those who are hurting, scapegoating those who feel uncomfortable with worship services after things like abuse scandals.

Scapegoating the Leavers with Valid Reasons

Too often, rather than owning up and taking accountability for the problems, religious organizations have too often interpreted the leaving of often-hurting individuals as them being overly emotional or weak/broken. Many in these organizations have made them a source of gossip rather than showing them love and empathy.  

When Religious Organizations Aren’t Shame Resilient

In other words, these organizations and their leaders have too often seen those who have chosen to isolate themselves from them and their worship services as a source of shame (in other words, a sign that the organization must not be enough) and taken it out on the victims. They have, in fact, overly emphasized types of spirituality that involve collective activity

This is really too bad, as they could instead look to their own guilt (the mistakes they can, well, repent of and do better—thanks to Brene Brown for these definitions, as always!) and also realize that they’re not responsible to fully fix everything in this messed up world as well.

Sometimes It Takes a Global Crisis, It Seems…

Instead, though, it’s taken a global crisis in which we’ve been told to see interpersonal meetings as a threat for them to realize they need to shift their one-size-fits-all approaches.  

It is only under these circumstances that many of these organizations have finally adapted their approaches, to the point where those who have not are starting to stick out like gangrenous thumbs (and in some cases, are starting to die from the virus).

I mean, as I said in an earlier piece, while you can cause a lot of damage with unhealthy rhetoric around a virus, you can’t actually gaslight the virus itself. (Any more than you can undo the damage done by abuse and gaslighting of victims.)

Viruses Don’t Care about People’s Levels or Types of Spirituality

See, in a world where viruses aren’t trying to occupy human flesh (and don’t care whose flesh they hang out in), heady concepts about clustered community being the only or most holy thing don’t really cut it.

The Problem with the Unhealthy Logic

The truth is, the virus isn’t wandering around with some sort of magical “spirituality detector,” turning back if people just really care about one another, or just “love God enough.”

As opposed to, of course, those people in ICE detention facilities?

Or low-income neighborhoods with mostly black and brown people in them?

Or concentrations of nuns (https://cruxnow.com/church-in-europe/2020/03/nearly-60-nuns-test-positive-for-covid-19-at-two-convents-outside-rome/)?( Oh, wait…maybe, if that’s the case, maybe than it really isn’t about spirituality who gets the virus?!?)

Looking to Jesus’ Point Back in the Day

Maybe the virus does not discriminate between those who have faith and those who do not. Maybe, as Jesus said so long ago when he healed someone, it’s not a marker of either goodness or evil if someone gets sick.

And maybe it’s not a marker of goodness or evil if you stay well.

Maybe This Point Extends Out to the Spiritually Traumatized Too

And maybe—just maybe—it’s not a marker of those people’s goodness or evil if people have been socially distancing themselves from religious organizations because of trauma, either now or long before this.

Maybe it’s just a sign that the organizations, members, and leaders of these organizations who make distinctions among righteousness or a lack thereof based only or mostly on who’s gathered in the building are causing damage by those assumptions.

And maybe those inside such organizations who refuse to listen to the feedback of those on the outside are missing out on majorly helpful information that could help them.

A Call to Assertive Speaking Out (Of Course!)

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for those who see unhealthy patterns such as these to speak up assertively about these types of issues, as well as they can.

And maybe—just maybe—it’s time when at least some who have blocked their ears against such messages (likely the healthier ones) may have ears open to listen to these sorts of messages.

May those who have ears, let them hear.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

More Supportive Resources

Looking to speak up and need some help dealing with the conflict that results? We have a free resource for you—the “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls.” To get it, sign up for the email newsletter in the top bar of this site or by checking the box when commenting on this article. Once you’ve confirmed your email address in the resulting email, the link to the Guide will be sent in the final welcome email and will help with conflict both online and off. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around.

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