Against the Urge to Win

There was a time – when I was younger and had more free time – when I argued with people on the internet. A post or article or comment would touch a nerve and I would spend hours or days in an unproductive back-and-forth with friends, family members, and complete strangers.

Then, eventually, I stopped doing that. Things still touch a nerve, but more often than not I pause and think about whether that particular thing is worth spending time on. Sometimes it is, and I respond. Most of the time, though, it isn’t. I know that I won’t change the other person’s mind; I know they won’t change mine. And there’s no reason to start a conversation that isn’t going to end in a better relationship… and that will probably end in a worse one.

And I was wondering why it is that so many of conversations are so unfulfilling. Why is it difficult – for me as much as anyone – to have civil and transformative conversations… especially in online forums?

Here’s my sketch of a theory. In big conversations – conversations about important, complex topics – there are three things we want to be able to do: listen to other positions, articulate our own positions, and make a compelling case for our own positions.

Sometimes, we can do all of these things in a positive loop. We can listen to another person’s ideas and learn from them. We can articulate our own positions accurately. We can put forth a strong case for our positions and point out flaws in other positions. Then, we can repeat the loop, listening to another person’s critique of our positions and incorporating that critique into our own thinking.

In other words, we can revise and rework our own thinking in ways that make our positions stronger.

But in far too many conversations – especially when we’re able to publish instantly and passions flare – we focus on winning the debate over understanding what other people are saying or clearly articulating our own positions.

We start ascribing to others positions that they don’t actually hold, because they’re easier to argue against.

We start ascribing to ourselves positions that we don’t actually hold, because they’re easier to defend.

And, in the end, no one is convinced. No one changes.

So let’s suppress the urge to debate. Instead, let’s listen carefully to what others are saying and help them strengthen those arguments. Let’s carefully articulate what we believe and pay attention to criticism. Instead of trying to win, let’s try to understand together.

Acts 2:1-13 (For Pentecost)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

People I Read: Fred Clark

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is Fred Clark from Slacktivist.

I came to Slacktivist because of the amazing reading of the Left Behind series that Fred’s been doing since 2003. It’s a long slog – he’s currently on the third book in the series – but each post is illuminating, funny, and biblically and theologically informed. Fred knows his business, and that knowledge shines through in posts on a wide variety of subjects. From politics to economics to biblical interpretation, Fred offers a deeply Christian understanding of the world.

Fundamental Errors

One of my favorite psychological concepts is the fundamental attribution error. The basic idea is that we tend to attribute the actions of others to their character rather than their circumstances. When we see someone speeding and weaving in and out of traffic, for example, we tend to think that their reckless rather than thinking that they’re trying to get the emergency room.

It doesn’t say anything about our own behaviors and how we interpret ourselves. It simply says that we tend to interpret the actions of others as reflections of their character.

And that’s a problem. It’s a problem because we decontextualize other people. It’s a problem because other people make decisions based on their circumstances. It’s a problem because it makes us want to fix other people’s character instead of their circumstances.

I don’t know that there’s anywhere that this is more obvious than how we address poverty.

Poverty, as I’ve written before, means not having enough money. Low-income people might face a lot of other problems, but those are other problems. Some of them contribute to poverty. Some of them are caused by poverty. But poverty is simply the condition of not having enough money.

And poverty is absolutely not a question of character.

But far too often, our attempts to address poverty are focused on character. We focus on changing family systems. We demand accountability to standards we set. We urge low-income individuals to become self-sufficient. We strive to convert low-income families to ‘middle-class culture.’ All of these strategies and more are about changing the person, not their circumstances.

And yet we know that changing the circumstances would help more. We know that changing the circumstances gives people the freedom to behave differently. We know that changing the circumstances lets people be themselves.

Changing the circumstances lets people be who they are instead of being driven by scarcity.

Believing that poverty is a problem of character is the fundamental error that makes addressing poverty so difficult. Once we imagine that poverty is a set of circumstances that can be changed – instead of a problem of character – we’ll have a much easier time ending it.

Racist Rhetoric and the Case Against Charity

Mock NAACP ApplicationRecently, I sat down with someone who was involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He had a huge collection of material from that era, including a fake NAACP membership application that the White Citizens Council created as a publication piece. You can see the application on the right and click through for a larger version.

What struck me about it wasn’t just the vulgar rhetoric of white supremacy of the propaganda piece. We’re all used to the idea that Mississippi at that time was virulently racist. Those of us who have some familiarity with the place and the time know what to expect when we’re looking at documents like these.

What struck me more was that I see similar rhetoric all the time. But when I see it, it’s not directed openly at African Americans; it’s directed at low-income communities.

Family Structure

Take family structure, for example. The fake application takes several shots at a stereotypical ‘informal’ family structure among African Americans. Here are some of the questions it asks:

  • Number of Legitimate Children (if any)
  • Number of Children Fathered (if known)
  • Marital Status (check): Shacked Up, Making Out, Worn Out, Trying

The implications are obvious: African Americans have loose family structures characterized by illegitimacy, infidelity, and informality.

Now take a look at this quote from Ruby Payne’s Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities:

In generational poverty, on the other hand, many marital arrangements are common-law. Marriage and divorce in a legal court are only important if there is property to distribute or custody of children…

…[The mother] may have multiple sexual relationships. Many of her children also will have multiple relationships, which may or may not produce children. The basic pattern is the mother at the heart of things, with nearly everyone having multiple relationships, some legal and some not. Eventually the relationships become intertwined. It wouldn’t be out of the question for your sister’s third husband to become your brother’s ex-wife’s live-in boyfriend. Also in this pattern are babies born out of wedlock to children in their early teens; these youngsters are often raised by the grandmother as her own children. For example, the oldest daughter has a child at 14. This infant becomes the youngest child in the existing family. The oldest daughter, who is actually the mother of the child, is referred to as her sister— and the relationship is a sibling one, not a mother-daughter one.1Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, and Terie Dreussi-Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, Kindle Edition (Highlands: aha! Process, Inc., 2009), Kindle Locations 804-823

Payne doesn’t cite sources, so I don’t know where she gets the information that informs this ‘pattern’ from (other than her personal observations). But notice how easily it lines up to the racist rhetoric from the fake NAACP application. In this quote, low-income families are characterized by illegitimacy, infidelity, and informality. People have multiple sexual relationships and complex webs of intertwined relationships, there is a pattern of young teenagers having babies out of wedlock, legal marriage and divorce are unnecessary legal formalities (and, therefore, the legitimacy of many children is dubious), and so on.

Dishonesty and Theft

Elsewhere, the mock NAACP application implies that African Americans are fundamentally dishonest, especially when seeking welfare assistance. It asks these two questions:

  • Number of Children Claimed for Relief Check
  • Give Approximate Estimate of Income: From Theft, From Relief, From Unemployment, If you have any income from any other sources explain

Again, the implications are obvious: African Americans are willing to lie on applications for welfare and to steal in order to make their living.

So let’s take a look at Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It):

Four months passed. Then the Christmas season came. Janice still hadn’t landed a job, but a couple of interviews looked promising. Ann’s friends were eager to collect gifts for the family to make their Christmas as bright as possible. The relationship between Ann and Janice, however, began to fray. Details about Janice’s past, about her friends who were in and out of her apartment, just didn’t line up… Christmastime revealed, unexpectedly, other pieces of Janice’s story – details that she carefully concealed. When some of Ann’s friends delivered their gifts, they encountered a houseful of other “angels” loaded down with wonderful, expensive presents for the girls. Hardly the scene of a struggling single-parent family just weeks out of a homeless shelter.2Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It) (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 59-60

Or there’s this sentiment that Lupton attributes to Andy Bales, the executive director at Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles:

Most panhandlers are not really homeless at all. Most are scammers who may collect $300 a day from kindhearted passersby and at the end of the day walk a block to their cars and drive home.3Lupton, Toxic Charity, 45

Like Payne, Lupton doesn’t cite sources so much as identify ‘patterns’ in his personal observations. But notice again how well this version of poverty lines up with the racist rhetoric from the fake NAACP application. Low-income families – not all of them, of course, but enough that a pattern is formed – are more than willing to con and scam others out of their hard-earned money. If anything, they depend on the goodwill and compassion of strangers to keep their lifestyles going. Lupton isn’t alone in this opinion. This false narrative has become a popular one in American images of poverty.

Dependency, Entitlement, and Work Ethic

The final piece I want to look at is the idea that idea of a lack of work ethic and a sense of entitlement. The fake NAACP application states outright that the purpose of the NAACP is to transfer wealth from white people to African Americans. Besides the question about how much ‘applicants’ receive from relief and unemployment, there’s this sentence in the pledge at the bottom: “I believe that white folks should pay more taxes than us [n******] so we can get more welfare [and] bigger checks.”

I shouldn’t have to point out that it’s a common myth that charity and welfare foster dependency, create a sense of entitlement, and erode the work ethic of recipients. Here is Lupton again:

Decades of free aid from well-meaning benefactors has produced an entitlement mentality and eroded a spirit of entrepreneurship. The outpouring of more aid, though necessary to preserve life in a time of disaster, is ultimately worsening the underlying problem… [G]iving our resources hurts the poor as often as (or even more often than) it helps.4Lupton, Toxic Charity, 36-37

Much of the case against charity seems to be based in a deep seated anxiety that once people start receiving assistance, they’ll never be in a position to stop; there will be a constant transfer of wealth from the ‘makers’ to the ‘takers’. One might suspect that there was a similar anxiety among the white supremacists who produced the fake NAACP application. To them, equality for African Americans meant lifting the African American community up and, therefore, pushing the white community down.

Race and Poverty

I’m not trying to suggest that Payne, Lupton, or any of the other people making the case against charity are themselves white supremacists. I suspect that they would insist that this rhetoric is obviously wrong  – both factually and morally – when directed at another race. But I am struck by the similarity of the rhetoric. It is as though the stereotypes of African American and low-income communities are interchangeable.

It’s not surprising that race and poverty are deeply intertwined in the American imagination. While there are more low-income people who are white than who are members of any other single race, poverty rates are higher – often much higher – among other racial groups. But there’s a something deeper going on here: blackness and poverty – especially ‘irresponsible’ poverty – are linked in the American imagination.

This link is what makes it so easy to transfer – consciously or not – rhetoric about African Americans (who are already imagined as poor) to low-income people (who are often already imagined as African American).

I would hope that if we saw this rhetoric being applied to African American communities, families, and individuals, we would immediately recognize it for what it is: racist, hateful, and ugly.

And I would hope that when we see it applied to low-income communities, families, and individuals, we would react in the same way. At the very least, its similarity to white supremacist rhetoric should cause us to respond with some skepticism.

Footnotes   [ + ]

People I Read: James McGrath

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. So here’s a new series titled People I Read. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is James McGrath from Exploring Our Matrix.

I’ve been reading Exploring Our Matrix for a long time, which makes sense since James – the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis – has been writing there since February 2007 (when he started it as a ‘sequel’ to a previous blog). Professionally, he writes on early Christianity, Mandaeanism, and religion and science fiction. While those are all interesting subjects, I read him mostly for his work on mythicism.

Mythicism is the idea – popular in some corners of the internet – that Jesus never existed as a real, actual human being. Mythicists argue that Jesus was originally a mythic figure like Hercules or Perseus who was later imagined as a historical figure. James writes passionately and compellingly against this position. He also does an excellent job of linking to other authors making a similar case. If you’re interested in the case for the historical Jesus, Exploring Our Matrix is a great place to start.

On the Division between Charity and Justice

You’ve heard this one before:

Once upon a time there was a village that sat just past the bend in a river. One day, the villagers noted a few people floating past the bend and pulled them out of the water. Some were dead and the village buried them. Others were sick and the village nursed them back to health.

A few days later, more people came floating down the river. Then more people, and more, and more. And every time, the villagers responded the same way. They pulled the people out of the river, buried the dead, and restored the living to health. The work of tending to the people floating around the bend in the river became never-ending.

One day, an intrepid young woman went up the river to discover where these people were coming from. She found another village where the villagers were throwing their people into the river. She returned to her home village and organized her people, leading them against the village upriver. After a fierce battle, she and her people were victorious against the village upriver. There were no longer people being thrown into the river. Life in her home village returned to normal.

The first response by the village is charity. It solves an immediate problem without addressing the root causes. The problem is never solved, and charity becomes a constant, never-ending practice.

The second response is organizing for justice. It works to solve the cause of the problem and end the suffering.

Or so the story goes.

All parables simplify. This one simplifies in a way that creates a convenient distinction between charity and justice and obscures the deep connection between the two. And it does this by pretending that people fall into neat categories: the people being thrown in the river, the people throwing people in the river, and the people fishing folks out of the river; the oppressed, the oppressors, and the charitable.

The reality is that almost no one is in just one of those categories. Many of us, in one way or another, are in all three. We live in a world where we suffer from injustice. We live in a world where we benefit from injustice. We live in a world where we fight against the effects of injustice (and sometimes against injustice itself).

That reality is why I find the division between justice and charity… lacking.

When we favor justice over charity, we so often think that we are reforming the systems that those people – the oppressors – benefit from. We don’t always recognize that we are the ones who need to be reformed. Through justice, we hope to change systems.

When we favor charity over justice, we are reforming ourselves. Through charity, we hope to change our hearts. And with changed hearts, perhaps we’ll stop throwing people in the river. Perhaps we’ll refuse to benefit from systems that throw people in the river. And, of course, we’ll keep helping the people who are thrown in the river.

But maybe charity and justice aren’t in opposition. Maybe there isn’t a division between them. Maybe the attitude of charity – the deep love for every person as a precious child of a loving God – leads us both to help the people in the river and to stop throwing them in. Maybe a just world is one where our natural response to need is a charitable one: to meet that need.

Maybe justice and charity – once they’re realized – look the same.

People I Read: Addie Zierman

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. So here’s a new series titled People I Read. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is Addie Zierman from addiezierman.com.

I’m not sure when I started reading Addie’s blog, but it was in the days when she was still writing about ‘how to talk evangelical.’ Every post would be about a word or phrase from evangelical culture, providing a short definition and a reflection that was often marked by both a nostalgia for that culture and an awareness of its absurdities. Since then, she’s broadened her topics, started writing an advice column, and published a couple of books. And all of it’s very, very good… I assume… I haven’t read the books.

What I like most about Addie’s writing is that she pulls me in. Her writing makes the reader feel like he can call her ‘Addie’. It makes the reader feel like he’s part of a conversation. In other words, it’s not just good subject matter or good ideas; it’s good writing. And that’s important: it’s the kind of writing that writers should read.

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