Punching Down

By now you have probably read loudly (or openly, whatever modifier you want) Christian commentator Kevin D. Williamson’s National Review piece entitled “Laverne Cox is Not a Woman.” The thesis is pretty much right there. Williamson believes we’re using language in a magical fashion to try to shape reality:

The obsession with policing language on the theory that language mystically shapes reality is itself ancient — see the Old Testament — and sympathetic magic proceeds along similar lines, using imitation and related techniques as a means of controlling reality. The most famous example of this is the voodoo doll. If an effigy can be made sufficiently like the reality it is intended to represent, then it becomes, for the mystical purposes at hand, a reality in its own right. The infinite malleability of the postmodern idea of “gender,” as opposed to the stubborn concreteness of sex, is precisely the reason the concept was invented. For all of the high-academic theory attached to the question, it is simply a mystical exercise in rearranging words to rearrange reality.

Language does notably shape some realities. Specifically, it shapes the contours of what we find ‘real’ — this is the hypothesis that language can on some level create the parameters of experience and thought, which seems pretty credible. But it’s also the case that our language shapes us in terms of virtue. That is, in the act of producing discourse, we’re undertaking a behavior with ethical ramifications, and we can either do so to the best of our ability or the worst. Consider Bakhtin:

“Internally persuasive discourse – as opposed to one that is externally authoritative – is, as it is affirmed through assimilation, tightly interwoven with “one’s own word”. In the everyday rounds of our consciousness, the internally persuasive word is half-ours and half-someone else’s. Its creativity and productiveness consist precisely in the fact that such a word awakens new and independent words … is applied to new material, new conditions; it enters into interanimating relationships with new contexts. More than that, it enters into an intense interaction, a struggle with other internally persuasive discourses…”

The rhetoric you choose to engage with forms your internally persuasive discourse, or the internal structures we rely on for guidance when it comes to all sorts of things, ethics included. When you develop some ethical position enough to express it, you then re-engage with it as others challenge it, and its polarized forms can either come to define you or can be discarded. So it’s silly to think that the things we say and the way we say them don’t impact us; they do, in a decidedly virtue-ethical way.

But furthermore, the way you decide to conduct discourse is, as I said, an ethical choice. I have said this before. In this case, Williamson seems to be violating what I have come to see as a kind of cardinal rule of public Christian ethical meditation: don’t punch down.

That is, it appears unethical for a couple of reasons to level the kind of dismissive, intentionally needling, inconsiderate argument he has here. Firstly, as he notes, transgender people as a community are at special risk for particular harms, like suicide. They’re not operating from a position of cultural authority here — their word is not as strong in the public sphere as the word of a person like Williamson. So the conflict is lopsided, and by attacking the credibility of transgender people as a whole (describing their thinking as ‘magical’ in the kind of spooky ancient near eastern sense) is yet another tactic to slant that balance further in his favor. This means any possibility of, say, authentic encounter is pretty unlikely: the relationship is vertical and hostile.

The second reason it’s a problem in terms of public Christian ethical discourse is that it works to convince marginalized people that the Christian community can’t be trusted to take seriously the very real pain and danger they experience. Williamson lingers for a moment on the idea of “indulging” Cox by using female pronouns, but ultimately decides it’s not worth his time despite the pain he acknowledges he’s causing. If the Christian community is visibly hostile to marginalized groups in the face of legitimate harm, we’ve screwed up our whole mission; if the only people we can be seen as walking with consistently are just like us, we’re no better than our pagan ancestors:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

This is foundational stuff. It is the very fabric of Christ’s ministry. If we as a community of thinkers and doers can’t be trusted to stick with this ethic, then we lose the ability to join in solidarity the very people Christ commands us to.

None of this is to say a public Christian writer can never offer correctives. Williamson has now claimed the sexual liberation fascists on the left have tried to silence him, but that’s not my arena or my intent here. Rather my point is to suggest that language is not finally superfluous and symbolic, but that it has ethical impacts, and that punching down — creating strains of argument that don’t seek to remedy, heal, or authentically encounter the people they’re aimed at — is contrary to the Christian ethical project. This is not a religion of punching down, and tough love is not required of us because it is not what’s given to us.