General Board of Silly Walks, Pt. 3— May 31, 2012
Growing up is hard to do.
The UMC’s General Conference wrapped up earlier this month, leaving in its wake endless items for discussion, opining and bloviating. Not content to stay home while a very interesting train wreck is occurring, I followed the Twitter feeds and even watched quite a few of the live-streams. (The one where the rules were discussed was riveting.)
Anyway, every week or so I pop over to the General Board of Church and Society’s web site in the rapt expectation of either being amused or collecting copious samples for a textbook on logical fallacies. I am almost never disappointed.
Like the Ministry of Silly Walks of Monty Python fame, this agency seems to have no meaningful purpose and thus ends up engaging in a lot of silliness. I took a look at some of this silliness here and here.
This week I happened upon an article by Bishop Carcaño in the Living the Connection section entitled Let’s deal with our woundedness. I am unaware if she is affiliated with the GBCS is any official capacity, but since the article appeared in the GBCS’ Faith in Action newsletter, it is fair game as far as I am concerned. At the very least it has its share of silly things.
(*To be fair, there are also some good points, mostly at the beginning and end. But in the interests of arresting the already bloated size of this post, I have limited my critique to the bold-italicized statements below.)
But here is where I saw our woundedness. We bared our woundedness through our fear of failure, our racism and sexism, our homophobia and our U.S.-centric attitude.
Ah, far-sweeping generalizations. Let’s see where this goes.
What I saw in the effort to pass the Call to Action and Interim Operating Team recommendations felt to me like a manipulation of the process and of the rules of decision making that govern our General Conference. We are in decline in our U.S. ministry, a decline that concerns all of us, but if we allow a fear of failure to so dominate our thinking and our work that we are willing to lose our integrity in order to pass a piece of legislation, then we have lost already; lost our way, lost our purpose and mission, lost our faithfulness.
One might question how appropriate the term manipulation is when applied to the effort to pass CTA and IOT recommendations. Manipulation denotes a deliberate intent to bring about something in a deceitful or insidious manner. Given that both CTA and IOT have had information available outlining their objectives, plans and recommendations for quite a long time, that seems like a pretty poor way to go about manipulating something, as it was ultimately rejected anyway. An entire night’s session was devoted to laying down the rules by which legislation would proceed, again a questionable way to manipulate something.
One can certainly disagree with its conclusions and proposals- there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. One might even think it’s the worst idea ever. So be it. However, the use of terms such as manipulative betoken an insidious intent on the part of those backing its adoption, an intent to which only God is privy.
Thus the question is raised: Why must such outlandish rhetoric be used? What does it accomplish besides casting slights upon the motives of those with whom one disagrees? Feelings are an extremely poor judge of these types of things- what one feels to be manipulative could just as easily be provoked by an ideological opposition, lack of sleep or a bad burrito.
Could there have been manipulation? Sure. But since we cannot know others’ motives, there needs to be more than a feeling. Perhaps some specific examples of this manipulation? What particular aspects of the process were manipulative? What procedural rules were broken or manipulated? Manipulated is a pretty serious word- one might be forgiven to hope for evidence of its appropriateness. Or must feelings in the midst of already heated proceedings be the litmus test of the good faith of others?
Our renewed racism and sexism was captured in the words of a delegate in an effort to eliminate our Commissions on Religion & Race and Status & Role of Women. She rose and stated that as a pastor she received the flyers of training events of these commissions. She said they weren’t helpful to her one bit.
How precisely is it necessarily either racist or sexist to want to eliminate a particular commission or to not find a particular piece of literature or the events they promote to be helpful? Could the intent behind it be sexist or racist? Sure. Is it necessarily so? Hardly. Bishop Carcaño employs some rather fallacious reasoning here, namely the fallacy of the excluded middle. Consider her argument:
A. X delegate wants to eliminate Y and/or does not find Y’s material or events helpful
B. X delegate is therefore racist and sexist.
The obvious reason for this non sequitur is that there are any number of reasons that X could hold such a position that are not racist nor sexist. Concerning wanting to eliminate the Commission on Religion & Race and Status of Women:
1. X may think Y is unnecessary because the problems it seeks to solve do not exist
2. X may think activities of Y could be better accomplished in another manner
3. X may think Y is more harmful than helpful in its activities.
Concerning the unhelpfulness of the Commission’s literature or events:
4. X may think the literature is amateurish from a marketing standpoint
5. X may think the events are not well run
6. X may think Y’s events have no relevance for X personally.
We could then plug one of these in and form a syllogism:
A. X delegate wants to eliminate Y and/or does not find Y’s material or events helpful
B. It is the case that 2. (X may think activities of Y could be better accomplished in another manner)
C. X delegate is therefore racist and sexist.
One will immediately notice that any of these arguments would completely invalidate the syllogism since it simply doesn’t follow from 1-6 that any racism or sexism is in fact involved.
Note also that 1-6 need not even be true. They may be false. However, if X delegate’s reasoning is predicated upon any of them, X may be mistaken or even ignorant, but that does not immediately entail X is either racist or sexist. Unfortunately, this sort of overblown rhetoric is far too common today, making intellectual engagement and critique an increasingly difficult thing to achieve.
Her language was derogatory of the work of these commissions that have long labored to help us be faithful to our commitments to overcome our racism and sexism, obstacles to our fully being the body of Christ Jesus.
I am not privy to anything else the delegate said, so I cannot meaningfully comment on anything truly derogatory that might have been said. However, if the reported comments in this article are ushered under the label of derogatory, Bishop Carcaño once again engages in a non sequitur.
It is a reality that bureaucracies can outlive their usefulness. That they do does not necessarily invalidate any of the good things done through the course of their existence. I do not know if this is the case or not. Nevertheless, simply stating that a particular Commission should be eliminated or that one does not find their activities helpful is hardly derogatory. It may be accurate, it may not be. But let’s save language like derogatory for things that truly imbue its essence.
Our homophobia was blatant as we heard delegates compare homosexuality to bestiality, and voice other dehumanizing expressions against our LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) brothers and sisters.
Once again Carcaño engages in using overblown rhetoric. She may object to the attempt at comparison, but it simply doesn’t follow that such a comparison is necessarily dehumanizing. Carcaño evidently feels that bestiality (or at least the term) is dehumanizing to some extent (so is it ok to use this dehumanizing expression at all?) since comparing other things to it entails a measure of dehumanization.
But must this comparison be necessarily dehumanizing? Hardly. It is entirely possible for someone to be opposed to a practice and not suppose those who engage in it to be somehow less than human. In this case, it is entirely possible the comparison was not meant to entail a complete equivalence, (which would be absurd anyway) but rather that the two had some sort of characteristic in common. I am somewhat inclined to see this particular argument as a variation of Godwin’s law. Consider:
A. Homosexuality is comparable to bestiality
B. Bestiality is widely understood to be immoral
C. Therefore homosexuality is immoral
In its present form this argument is ultimately fallacious since it doesn’t actually describe the conditions for the comparison. It more or less attempts to argue for guilt by association.
However, since we aren’t supplied with the conditions for comparison, it is difficult to determine the intent of the comparison. The speaker could have (1) a robust and nuanced reason(s) for such a comparison that was(were) not articulated, (either by the speaker or the article) or (2) may simply be arguing for guilt by association. Other reasons could be possible.
In any regard, it is hardly self-evident that homophobia is necessarily involved. Could it be? Sure. Is it? There is too little information to make a good judgment.
It is crucial to be able to maintain distinctions between the mention of a word and the use of a word. In the former instance (mention) a speaker is using a word descriptively, to give information about something or to offer up the characteristics of a thing for consideration, etc. This can be done even of words considered offensive since the mere mention of a word in a certain context is not identical to using it offensively. In the latter case (use) a speaker uses a word for a particular purpose with a certain meaning and intent behind it. Use of word in this manner can be intended to dehumanize someone, but even in this instance both a subjective intent and an at least minimally objectionable connotation for the word itself need to exist. (e.g., mentioning that someone uttered a certain racial slur is distinct from someone using with such an intent.)
In this case, it is hardly necessary that the term bestiality is in and of itself dehumanizing. To be sure, the primary definition of the word is to describe the condition or status of a lower animal, but in this instance the word almost certainly refers to sexual relations between a human and a non-human animal. (I would hazard a guess that in our present culture this is the connotation meant in at least 90%+ of the cases of its use.) In the case of the comparison of it to homosexuality, (homosex might be a more apropos term since it specifically describes an act) one might construe it as dehumanizing in that both of the persons in the act are humans, whereas the comparison to bestiality could imply that one is less than human. (Again, an equivalence argument is ultimately fallacious since in this view if the homosex act rendered one un-human there is no reason to suppose it would not apply to both equally.)
As such, it is feasible that the person who made such a comparison did not intend to imply that homosexuality (or homosex, depending on what was actually meant) was dehumanizing, but rather that it shares some sort of characteristic with bestiality. Nor would it be difficult to proffer varying reasons that such a comparison could be made. Take for example, the statement sex between humans of the same sex is comparable to bestiality in so far as both acts cannot produce human offspring. Notice that this comparison is accurate without making any sort of statement regarding the humanness of the individuals in question. Does such a comparison therefore necessarily imply homophobia?
Again, might the person who made this statement have intended it in a dehumanizing manner? Of course. Is this necessarily the case? From the mere fact that a comparison was offered, (if this in fact the case…) no. Notwithstanding the particular instance of this case. the wider issue is that without these sorts of careful distinctions, a word such as homophobia can be stretched beyond its semantic limit, which can have (at least) a three-fold effect:
1. By broadening out the definition of homophobia, (or racism or sexism or whatever) true instances of this sort of behavior tend get lost amidst the seemingly widespread occurrences that can be applied to opinions, objections and the like which are in actuality not indicative of it
2. Alternate viewpoints are automatically marginalized since they can be immediately construed as such-and-such. This can have a rather chilling effect on intellectual engagement of the issue as those who hold contrary viewpoints in good faith are forced to weigh the costs of being branded as something they are not.
3. Civility in discussion becomes lost in the noise of presuming the worst of those whose view does not line up. No ideology, religion or philosophy is immune from this, as a cursory examination of any news article, blog or journal will immediately demonstrate. It is far easier to cast forth epithets than to engage arguments.
Delegates from Africa once again proclaimed that their anti-homosexual stand was what U.S. missionaries taught them. I sat there wondering when our African delegates will grow up.
Let’s grant that U.S. missionaries taught them this. It hardly follows that adherence to that is necessarily misplaced or indicative of intellectual infancy, adolescence or whatever. It could just as easily be the case that their adherence to such a stance (let’s leave aside Carcaño’s attempt at framing the issue by the use of ‘anti-homosexual’) is indicative of being grown-up. Would Carcaño rather they have the exact same stance for a different reason? Would they be grown-ups if they (as many others) have done the requisite intellectual work and decided that Bishop Carcaño is mistaken in this regard?
One might even be led to be open to the possibility that such a statement was meant to be indicative of fidelity to the tradition and doctrine of United Methodism in the best possible sense. Maybe, just maybe, they intended it in the same vein that St. Paul speaks of: “what I received I passed on to you.” Is this necessarily so? No. Is it possible? Certainly. We’ll excuse for now that growing-up implies holding opinions similar to Bishop Carcaño. We’ll also leave aside the obvious rejoinder that being beholden to the values of any particular viewpoint, belief or ideology could just as easily be construed as intellectual infancy.
It might also be worth pointing out that simply because this argument was offered (which I happen to think is not a very effective one) does not entail that this represents the totality of the delegates’ thinking in this regard. One argument or statement in the midst of an already heated discussion surely cannot be presumed by anyone approaching this discussion in good faith to be exhaustive of someone’s position.
It has been 200 years since U.S. Methodist missionaries began their work of evangelization on the continent of Africa: long enough for African Methodists to do their own thinking about this concern and others.
So the argument is that it is high time African delegates stopped thinking like the white missionaries who evangelized them and start thinking like the over 94% white denomination that apparently thinks differently?
Left out is the possibility that they have actually thought about it and yet somehow, some way manage to disagree with Bishop Carcaño on this and other issues. It’s a crazy thought, I know.
Our conservative U.S. United Methodists continue to depend on the conservative vote of African and Filipino delegates to maintain our exclusionary position on homosexuality, a position I believe would be changed for the inclusion of our LGBT sisters and brothers if a U.S. vote for a U.S. context were taken.
Given that Bishop Carcaño has already decried the U.S.-centric nature of the denomination, this kind of statement is simply baffling. It essentially (if not intentionally) marginalizes the African and Filipino delegates to second-class status simply because they vote in a way that runs counter to Carcaño’s views. It seems the argument being advanced is that we might be able to make an adult decision if the intellectually adolescent African and Filipino delegates weren’t in the picture.
Notice also how in the framework of this argument these same delegates are treated as if they are merely a trump card for the conservatives in the U.S.- even though the Africans and Filipinos comprise 40% or more of the denomination. I am still wondering how someone lambasting the UMC for being so U.S.-centric could brook such a hypothetical, let alone advance it. The hypothetical that Carcaño floats implies these delegates (and their congregations by extension) are a nuisance, an obstacle to be overcome, even if only hypothetically.
If we are to move past our egregious U.S.-centrism, (in which we bare our wounded-ness…) perhaps treating 40% of the denomination as if they didn’t exist for the sake of hypothesizing about primarily (94% white) U.S.-centric concerns isn’t a good first step. Does this 40% of the church therefore have nothing meaningful to say to the church about homosexuality?
Oh yes, I forgot. they need to grow up.
How’s that connectionalism working out for ya?
The manner in which we deal with the concern of homosexuality affects all of our ministry in the U.S. We are the poorer for it. It is time for us to let go of our wrong position and be the church of Christ Jesus, a church that excludes no one.
And we finally come down to it. The African delegates (and by extension those they represent?) are not merely not thinking for themselves, (since they need to grow up) but they are decidedly wrong. Not simply obstacles to be overcome (or bypassed hypothetically) but portions of the connectional system who are a moral hindrance to the (currently) bigger church in the U.S. and its (currently death-spiraling) ministry.
Bishop Carcaño doesn’t seem to be willing (at least in this article) to engage in empathy in this situation and consider how letting go of that ‘wrong’ decision might be a hindrance to the (growing) churches and ministries in Africa. They might find such a move to be wrong, but then again- they need to grow up.