Tone-policing and the need for rhetoric


As some of you have noticed, I’ve adopted a policy of dealing harshly with some commenters both here and on social media. Understandably, this makes some of you who are less experienced in debating uncomfortable: I’ve had a few readers interpret my responses as “reflexive” and “defensive,” and suggest I take a more gentle approach. This is what we refer to in the biz as “tone-policing,” and I’ll explain to you why it’s misguided at best.

As I recently pointed out to a reader who was uncomfortable with my rhetorical approach, it’s neither reflexive nor defensive, it’s a deliberate policy of using harsh appeals to emotion to deal with people who can only be reached this way. Christians who have never done any practical ministry of their own tend to hold the naïve opinion that atheists are honest truth-seekers who just haven’t yet found the truth because of bad luck. If that were the case, then my responses would indeed be needlessly harsh, and gentle reason would be the right approach. However, the assumption of honest truth-seeking is often wrong. Yes, there are honest truth-seeking atheists, and I’ll willingly engage them in civil dialogue; however, experience has sadly shown that such people are in the minority in blog comments and on social media. I’ve engaged in countless debates on serious topics for the last fifteen years, and in that time have become skilled at recognizing when people are not arguing in good faith, but rather are using deceptive techniques to lead people astray, to delude themselves, or to just stir the pot for their own amusement. Others are simply unable to argue on the facts and evidence, because they are driven almost entirely by emotion. It’s a waste of time to attempt to engage any of these people using gentle reason; they will only respond to appeals to emotions, which often necessitates being harsh and caustic.

It’s unfortunate, because I don’t particularly like rhetoric or being harsh. I would much prefer to engage in civil dialectic, but as Aristotle pointed out thousands of years ago, there is a certain type of person who is immune to anything but appeals to emotion. Trying to use gentle reason with such a person is about as effective as trying to explain something in Korean to someone who only understands French.

Now, as to the discomfort some of you feel when you see me responding to critics with harsh rhetoric, it would be instructive to go back to scripture and examine the way in which Jesus and Paul responded to deceivers and manipulators. As some of my friends are fond of pointing out, Jesus was not above overturning tables when it was called for. Western Christians in particular seem to have forgotten this, and have instead become fixated on niceness at all costs. For those of you who insist that niceness is the only way to persuade people of the truth, consider that if this were true, mainline churches in the West wouldn’t be hemorrhaging members. I encourage you to study Paul’s commentaries in the original Greek—he uses language that is far harsher and saltier than anything you will ever likely see from me. And it’s worth considering that Church growth was explosive during times when Christians were far more likely to be harsh defenders of the truth than Ned Flandersesque disciples of niceness.

Defending truth is uncomfortable business. If my responses to certain people make you uncomfortable and you notice a lot of flak flying around, that’s a good indicator that I’m right over the target. Rejoice, because this is an opportunity for the truth–even just a little bit–to find its way in.

3 thoughts on “Tone-policing and the need for rhetoric

  1. Churches wouldn’t be hemorrhaging members if they taught that scripture was true—and 100% accurate—from Gen. 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 and stop trying to compromise God’s clear teaching, with the false interpretations and fictitious explanations—”science falsely-so-called”—of atheists and unbelievers. If Genesis is simply allegory, then so could be ANY other verse in the Bible. And if that’s so, how can ANY part of it be trusted when ANY part of it is marginalized by unnecessary compromise with the world? Such compromise removes all authority from scripture.
    “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” —1 Corinthians 14:8

  2. Good to see you post here.
    Most atheists I’ve spoken with know very little about the science in which they place their blind faith. Many would have a tough time passing a 4th grade science test and they won’t consider the truth until they see how little they really know about the science they so blindly trust. Often, because of arrogance and pride, the empty headed nature of their science religion needs to be put to them bluntly and forcefully or their pride keeps them from listening. I think you are fine.

  3. It’s true, many wouldn’t recognize genuine science if they were tweaked on the nose by it. It’s really just a science fetish.

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