‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’ (Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass, ch. 6)
A rather ugly storm in the blogosphere has broken out over the last couple of days over a recent post on the Gospel Coalition website. I don’t want to adjudicate who is right and who is wrong (like anyone involved might listen to me…), so much as to reflect on the misunderstanding – and the anger – to understand a bit more about what we do when we blog, or write in other contexts, and what our proper ethical responsibilities might be when addressing a sensitive subject.
The post, by Jared Wilson, was an attempt to account for the popularity of E.L. James’s Shades of Grey trilogy. This is a worthwhile aim: we understand our culture better by understanding those parts of it that become popular, and so understanding why a piece of – by all accounts – very poorly written pornography has suddenly achieved enormous mainstream success is an relevant task for the church. Jared Wilson quoted several paragraphs from a book by Doug Wilson which applied the ‘complementarian’ understanding of gender relations to the act of intercourse in the context of marriage; Jared Wilson then suggested that this was God’s intention for human sexuality, and that male rape fantasies and female submission fantasies – such as those reflected in Shades of Grey – arose because of our cultural refusal to practice proper male headship/female submission. Our culture’s embracing of gender equality leads directly to the popularity of the books.
Now, I I have not read the book quoted, or – to the best of my recollection – anything else Doug Wilson has written, but, insofar as I can understand it from the post and the ensuing discussion, I do not find his account of the marriage relationship to be convincing when tested against Scripture. Even if it is granted for the sake of argument, Jared Wilson’s analysis of 50 Shades at least needs a great deal of expansion to be plausible (he accepts without comment Freud’s bombastic claims about the universality of rape fantasies, which have surely been comprehensively demolished by the last century of psychological work in this area; I can begin to imagine how an attempt might be made to extend the argument to reflect such data, but that attempt is wholly absent from the post…)
Disagreement with the claims made does not make a blog post offensive, inappropriate, or otherwise worthy of the opprobrium heaped on this one, however. After all, only by disagreeing, and teasing out our disagreements, can we hope to make progress in understanding. Yes, I find the casual assumption that Freud’s bizarre theories of a century ago are right very difficult – particularly coming from a site that professes a commitment to Biblical authority – and I confess to serious concern over the apparent lack of any awareness of the extensive work that has been done in understanding the real causes of rape and domestic abuse that has been done since then (which would point in very different directions to those proposed in the post). All this, however, is a cause for engagement and (hopefully) mutual edification, not for a call for removal.
So is there any reason to regret the fact that the post was published? Yes – because the post contains language which will inevitably be heard by some as promoting or justifying domestic abuse, and we have an extremely serious pastoral responsibility not to use such language. This has been repeatedly pointed out, but both Jared Wilson and Doug Wilson have attempted to defend the language used. The defence is summed up in a second post by Jared Wilson, and seems to consist of two, rather contradictory, lines – one of which has some validity as an argument, but does not lead to the conclusion pressed.
The first line can be summed up in a quotation from a comment by Doug Wilson, quoted in Jared Wilson’s second post:
Anyone who believes that my writing disrespects women either has not read enough of my writing on the subject to say anything whatever about it or, if they still have that view after reading enough pages, they really need to retake their ESL class.
The defence here is that the offending language is being read out of context, and so misunderstood. As I say, I have certainly not read enough of Doug Wilson’s writing to judge, but the claim has at least prima facie plausibility: any of us who write have been quoted out of context from time to time, in ways that obscured or subverted our intended meaning. But when it has happened to me I have never seen my role as defending the one who quoted me so badly as to obscure my meaning; rather I have been anxious to correct the misapprehension. So if the defence is really that, on reflection, the quoted paragraphs give a misleading impression of what Doug Wilson wants to say, I am prepared to accept it (if only on trust until I should happen to read his book) – but then the post should be taken down, or edited to give a better account of his meaning, as an act of courtesy to him and of service to the blog’s readers.
The second defence is that the critics are wilfully misunderstanding the words. Jared Wilson writes:
The phrase that most critics seemed to hone in on was this one:
A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.
Unable to connect these descriptions to “serve and protect” or the surrounding context against force/manipulation/kink, many decontextualized them and maintained it doesn’t matter what was meant, only what was said, and therefore what was thought to be said was assumed to be meant.
I am not prepared to accept that defence. At root this is for a boring logical reason: it appears to assume the existence of a dichotomy, which dichotomy is false. This bit of dry logic is, however, of enormous importance: trivially, in any piece of writing both ‘what was said’ and ‘what was meant’ matter; when subjects as painful and sensitive as rape and domestic abuse are being referenced, then ‘what is said’ matters at least as much as ‘what is meant’. The reader may – perhaps, in cases of importance or sensitivity, should – criticise the piece along the lines of ‘whatever was meant, the words used were sufficiently ill-chosen (or sufficiently removed from context) that they either were actively misleading, or were susceptible to being badly misunderstood.’
Now, this is no doubt true of a great many pieces of writing/speaking. But there are certain responsibilities we have concerning protecting meaning, because of the serious consequences of any potential misunderstanding. Safety instructions for using a dangerous machine, for example, must be extremely resistant to misunderstanding. Accounts of the core claims and benefits of Christ offered to those who are, by the gracious work of the Spirit, ready to hear the gospel must not only be true, but must be sufficiently transparently true that we can be confident a supposedly-Christian life is not built on foundations of sand. The same is true in the case of discussion of the causes of domestic violence. If we presume to refer to rape and/or domestic abuse, we have an overwhelming moral responsibility to frame our thoughts in ways that not only do not encourage or condone rape/abuse but also could never be misunderstood in such a way that someone might infer that we are encouraging/condoning rape and/or abuse. So my comment above: ‘the post contains language which will inevitably be heard by some as promoting or justifying domestic abuse, and we have a pastoral responsibility not to use such language.’
‘Inevitably’ here might seem strong; I simply note that anyone with any significant pastoral experience will know both that domestic abuse – including marital rape – is endemic in our churches, and that Biblical/theological language of male authority and female submission is routinely misused by male perpetrators to justify the abuse, and by women living with abuse to try to minimise the reality of what they are experiencing. For someone who lacks pastoral experience, the stories are not difficult to find and to read. Given these pastoral realities, if we presume to comment on these subjects in public, we have an overwhelming ethical and pastoral duty to choose language carefully, so that we cannot be misheard or misinterpreted.
An analogous example comes to mind from my own experience: ten or so years ago, I was part of a writing group for a Christian charity; we met in the present home of a religious community in London; we were told of the history of the community, which stretched back over nine centuries (!) and included several noble examples of its being a place of refuge for Jewish people in the face of medieval antisemitic riots or laws. As a result of all this, it was explained to us, there were various quirky traditions in the life of the community which we were respectfully asked to conform to; one of these was that the leader of the community was to be referred to at all times as ‘Master’.
I was sitting next to a Black woman who, it is fair to say, exploded spectacularly at this point. She was an academic, with much interest in Black history. She was not about to be told to call any white man ‘master’!
She was, of course, right. This title in this context in fact had nothing to do with the history of transatlantic slavery, but that is completely beside the point: you cannot ask a Black person to call a white person ‘master’ without the weight of that history surrounding and overwhelming the request, and all the community story, all the explanation, all the tradition, and even all the proud record of standing against antisemitic forms of racism, could not change that.
Maybe it is possible, by contrast, to talk about female submission and rape in the same sentence without giving any sort of ammunition to those who would seek to justify rape – I confess that it is not a sentence I would want to try to write – but at the very least, the – pastoral, ethical, Christian – need to be acutely conscious of excluding any remote possibility of being misheard is extraordinarily strong.
Of course, all of us writers fail – I failed in a related area a few weeks ago on this very blog, using a phrase to describe male-on-male sexual violence which I had thought was the standard term in academic literature but which, it was pointed out to me, in fact carried a set of extremely unhelpful connotations. I apologised in the comments section, and edited the blog post. It was not the first apology I’ve made here, and I’ve had cause to make at least one other since. I have published thirteen books, and probably about a hundred articles or other shorter pieces; I do not know how many sermons I’ve preached, or lectures I’ve given – well into the thousands, certainly. I know that there is not one of those books which I wouldn’t change in some way or another this afternoon if I could, and, if I could remember them all, I suppose the same would be true of the shorter pieces, and of the sermons and lectures. We all fail when we write, but there are some ways of failure that are potentially sufficiently damaging that we need to put our hands up and acknowledge that something that, although never intended by us, is nonetheless utterly horrific could be read into our words, and so it is better that our words be withdrawn or amended than allowed to stand.
When we presume to write (or speak) what people understand by our words becomes our responsibility, at least to some extent. Of course, some people can read us wrong – but most people will not (or else we are such bad writers that we should put away the keyboard). The first time I am challenged with a misinterpretation of something I have written, I tend to say ‘I didn’t say that!’; the second, I might say, ‘but that’s not what I meant…’; come the third, I am likely to say ‘can I buy you a drink, and ask you to tell me in detail why you thought that is what I was saying…’ If enough people have misunderstood me, the fault is mine, not theirs.
Lewis Carroll put another false dichotomy into Humpty Dumpty’s mouth – as he well knew. Words are not either simply our servants or purely our masters; rather, when we send them on their way, they have a personality and a life of their own, which as writers we do our best to rein in, to conform them to our intentions. Carroll could make words dance to his command better than almost anyone else; for a lesser craftsman like me, or most writers, we need to be constantly vigilant of the unruly servants that we let loose on the world.