Authority, Empathy, and Power

A while ago I attempted to wade through some of the differences I noticed between Cultural or Civilization Conservatives, and Fundamentalist Social Conservatives, perhaps because I was worried that too often members of both groups were being labeled erroneously as part of the political Religious Right and wanted to better show how not all religious conservatives are fundamentalists or part of the politically driven “Christianist” movement.

In my initial post I discussed Civilization Conservatives (which I use as synonymously with Cultural Conservatives) who took into account a larger historical and spiritual cultural reality, and Fundamentalists (for my initial purposes, interchangeable with Social Conservatives)  who did not.

Initially, Helen Rittelmeyer took issue with this distinction, claiming that I was painting the wrong picture of many Fundamentalists, many of whom were actually far from the strict, unyielding Christians that I sketched them as, and that there is a certain liberation involved in adhering to dogma, claiming that “this fealty supersedes…private opinions and judgments, and thank God for that; deliver me from the prison of my own subjectivity!”

Now, initially, I glossed over this term – dogma – in my response to Helen.  In that piece I realized my initial argument had fallen victim to gross generalizations, but I didn’t really get to the heart, I think, of the question of dogma vs fundamentalism, perhaps the fatal flaw in my initial argument.  In other words, perhaps my concern with fundamentalism wasn’t misplaced, but rather my use of the term dogma to explain it.

Enter Larison:

The key characteristic of a genuinely fundamentalist mentality is its hostility to complexity, historical context and the possibility of a text being multivalent; fundamentalists are to some extent the terrible simplifiers of rich dogmatic traditions. I assume Kain uses dogmatic here to mean inflexible or uncompromising, but this does not take into account the inherent flexibility and minimalism of dogma. Dogmas are minimal statements that provide correct guidance regarding religious matters, most of which are ultimately mysterious and not fully comprehensible. Given the nature of their subject, they cannot always be exhaustive, but they can nonetheless provide the right guidance and serve as sign-posts to the proper destination of the believer. A fundamentalist is like someone who tries to navigate using a map without ever looking at his surroundings. Someone instructed in a dogmatic tradition will pay attention to those surroundings and understand how to relate the map to those surroundings.

Now, Larison is correct, I used dogma rather flippantly to mean “inflexible or uncompromising” but immediately in Helen’s response (I think) one can see how this lack of specificity, this careless diction, can cause unintended disputes.  It certainly doesn’t further a conversation.  This fits in fairly well with my recent discussion of generalizations, but I think goes a bit further.  First of all, it belies a certain lack of knowledge on my own part regarding religious terminology, which can only call to question my relevance as a commentator on religious questions.

Similarly, when we hear the talking heads and political types upbraiding liberals or chastening Obama for wanting to spread the wealth around one wonders to what degree do they actually understand the economy?  It’s one thing, after all, to point to specific aspects of the bailout, or of a spending policy, or a tax policy, and say, “This is why such and such policy will have a bad outcome” and quite another to merely pull at the heartstrings with words like socialist or terrorist or Christianist even.  Inevitably someone more knowledgeable than the speaker will be able to cast aside this gross generalization for what it is: either an honest mistake born out of a lack of knowledge, or a rhetorical tactic used to instill fear or anger or some other reaction in its intended audience.

So here’s my tie-in with partisanship.  If one has a great deal of knowledge about a subject, if one has listened and learned, and studied as Larison has on the subject of dogma and tradition and fundamentalism and literalism, then they can speak with authority on that subject.  They can utilize a certain level of specificity, evidence, and reason in their discussion of a topic, rather then resorting to rhetorical knives or the sort of highly-emotive generalizations we see in much of our public commentary these days.  In other words, they can remain cool-headed and confident in their partisanship, with no need to stoop to the level of demagogue.  Is there another word for this sort of zen-partisanship, this cool ideological confidence?  Partisanship has such negative connotations, and yet being on the right side of a debate, at least to your own mind, is sometimes simply as inevitable as the lay of the land.

Perhaps it is the difference between authority and power, as Sullivan recently contemplated regarding Obama:

If Bush was about the presidency as power, Obama is about the presidency as authority. It’s fascinating to watch this deep difference in understanding slowly but unmistakably realize itself in public actions.

Sullivan is not implying that somehow Obama has reached a post-partisan level of political mastery by any means, and I think what strikes me about our new President is not so much his ideological vision, but rather his modus operandi in bringing that vision to life.  Obama is careful to speak too much on subjects he knows very little.  He is guarded, thoughtful, and speaks with a sense of authority only when he feels confident of the subject at hand, a balance which lends itself very much to this illusion of post-partisanship.  But even if it is an illusion, it has given us an example of how the dialogue can be elevated beyond the cage-match, and that’s a good thing, regardless of which side of whatever debate that might be.

Mark Thompson refers to something he calls “the rule of construction” in partisanship:

So my point in arguing for a “rule of construction” view of one’s own ideology is that it avoids this trap, and attempts to keep one’s mind open to evidentiary or logical arguments against a particular position while simultaneously allowing one to maintain their hold on their core principles.  Simply put, it seeks common ground between two seemingly opposing viewpoints by keeping in mind that even though one may prefer to err on the side of a particular core principle, one still accepts the legitimacy of other core principles.

So here we see the confluence of authority and empathy, and I think this is what truly separates the vapid parisanship we see today from Obama or Larison or other commentators and politicians who seem to transcend it.  True power is not achieved through a dedication to defeating one’s opponent, but in a willingness to compromise and to broker out a peace.  The only way to truly achieve this is through an empathetic approach.  This does not mean playing nice.  This does not mean one must temper their critique with apologies and niceties.  What it does require is a good deal more work than rhetorical jousting entails, but in the end, this brand of partisanship will do more to advance our dialogue than any diatribe will ever hope to accomplish.

NOTE:  In the comments, Cascadian writes:

I very much enjoyed Larison’s piece. However, I’m not sure that everyone, including the Catholic hierarchy, conceive of them as such easily interpreted/malleable sign posts. Do a bit more reading before you capitulate. I’ve got to get going now. I’ll try to provide you with some citations later tonight.  [empthasis mine]

Now, I do not mean to capitulate with this post, though I do admit to the limitations within my original argument.  I’m not meaning this as an apology for the term dogmatic being used in the manner it was, since it is a valid use of that term in modern conversations, and what I meant by it still stands.  However within the larger framework of this discussion of specificity in language, I think I had no choice but to point out my own failing in this.  In terms of dogma and fundamentalism, obviously the two can be found in the same person, in fact they oftentimes are…

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7 thoughts on “Authority, Empathy, and Power

  1. I very much enjoyed Larison’s piece. However, I’m not sure that everyone, including the Catholic hierarchy, conceive of them as such easily interpreted/malleable sign posts. Do a bit more reading before you capitulate. I’ve got to get going now. I’ll try to provide you with some citations later tonight.

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  2. Well I do think that there are fundamentalists within the Catholic or Orthodox Church as well who adhere much too strictly to the dogma and act in a more fundamentalist manner.

    This is why we have such different visions for the Catholic Church between John Paul and Benedict, two men with obvious differences in their approach to dogma. But thanks, and I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on the matter…

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  3. Perhaps the simplest way to clear up the interpretation would be to consider the term: Fund – a – mental. In other words: Fund the associated cost of implementing the idea. This can be done in a number of ways, both physical and metaphysical, but will always include some form of bondage to the proposed ideation or concept. When payment to this bond is refused, the ‘mental’ matrix considers it’s ‘self’ under some form of threat- as if survival of the ideation is reliant upon outside support… Fundamentalist thinking is generally a rather weak and insipid matrix, as it is reliant upon some mutual effect, which may not include a generalized or wholly inclusive concept.

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  4. “This is why we have such different visions for the Catholic Church between John Paul and Benedict, two men with obvious differences in their approach to dogma.”

    That should give you enough right there. Wikipedia, Merriam-Webster, and a number of other dictionary sources agree that it’s basically a tenet forwarded as true that has little evidence backing it up.

    I personally, like Larison’s take on it, but as you have stated yourself, this is hardly a universal understanding of the term. I think what Larison misses is that you allowed for religious folk to be, in your terms, cultural conservatives. Larrison’s piece puts himself well in this camp. He’s religious but he’s not without an understanding of broader contexts and history. He can only say that dogma, under one reading, can be included in this camp. That’s fine and interesting but doesn’t really detract from your initial post/point.

    Helen is a completely different kettle of fish.

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  5. Good point. As someone else remarked to me on the subject, I used dogma as a sort of colloquialism which spoke to a broader audience, whereas Larison responded with a lecture in theology. So this begs the question, at what point are generalizations actually necessary to communicate without bogging down one’s argument with too much specificity? I argue above for more specificity to avoid generalizations, but at the same time, such simplification can be essential in communication to avoid the pitfall of simply too much information, or too much depth, that it becomes lost on those who you may need to communicate with. Striking rhetorical balance can be a trick, no doubt about it…

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  6. Cascadian is exactly right. In your selection from Larison he says, “I assume Kain uses dogmatic here to mean inflexible or uncompromising, but this does not take into account the inherent flexibility and minimalism of dogma.”

    Well that definition, “inflexable” and “uncompromiing” is standard American usage of the word. It is not shocking that you would the word as understood.

    The only reason to quote that passage is to refute it, but you fall into the Larison can do no wrong trap so common on the web. Larison is not infallible.

    And this, immediately preceding, grates, “…fundamentalists are to some extent the terrible simplifiers of rich dogmatic traditions.” I could almost buy this thought if his construction was somewhat different, maybe this, “…fundamentalists are to some extent terrible simplifiers of the rich traditions found in dogma.” When he writes “rich dogmatic traditions” the only conceivable definition of “rich” is laughable. That’s rich Mr. Larison!

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  7. Pingback: Capitulation and Retreat | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

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