The tangentially related part I, mostly about Bible interpretation, can be found here.

Damsels-in-Distress_alt“Words are wind,” the great George R.R. Martin wrote, and he was partly right. Words have meaning insofar as they are anchored in a lived context, so long as speech and feeling are closely knit. But words may lose power too, becoming desiccated with overuse and, more to the point, over-mobilization. Which is to say that the more someone invokes a powerful word in the service of an agenda, the more the word’s original meaning gets covered over.

In the Church, think of phrases like “speaking the truth in love,” “redemption,” “transformative,” or more recently, “engaging the culture.” They sound lofty, but their power is sapped by irresponsible use, to the point where defining them precisely becomes impossible. It often happens to the most important words, because they may lend the most power to an agenda. A friend, for instance, sat in numerous graduate classes in which the idea of personal “rights” was pivotal – but when he asked what a “right” is, everyone had a different definition.

The modern world, with its lightning-fast pace of technological innovation and emphasis on individualism, has eroded many of the lived contexts which once gave our words meaning. T.S. Eliot saw this early with his diagnosis of a “dissociation of sensibility,” later interpreted to mean that thought (read: words) had become divorced from feeling. And feeling has little place in the modern world: neither the producing man of capitalism, the rational man of neoclassical economics, nor the Pavlovian subject of our laws have much room for emotion, apart from the mere pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain.

Since the individual, rather than town or family or guild or club or union, has become the defining social unit, any act of speech is presumed to be universal: not speech designed to draw on deep, particular social contexts, but speech instead meant to address everyone equally everywhere. Because speech to the universal man glosses over particularity, it ironically makes dialogue more difficult. There must be one consensus, equally true for everyone everywhere.

This renders opposing viewpoints intolerable and dialogue impossible. Consider again the language of rights in the most politically hot issues today. Someone trapped in the cycle of poverty certainly has the right to food, clothing, shelter, and gainful employment – but a brilliant CEO certainly has the right to keep her earnings for herself. A policeman in Ferguson, MO had the right to defend himself when he felt threatened, and the man he shot had the right to continue living.

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The common vocabulary and universality of ‘rights’ destroys dialogue in these cases, because there are no longer two viewpoints, from different groups of society, that are legitimate up to a point. Instead, there are two competing claims each of which claims to be universally, absolutely true for everyone, everywhere, in every situation. Someone with the erudition of John Milbank or Charles Taylor could probably trace this problem back to heresies within premodern Christianity, but here it is enough to note that trying to harmonize these absolute truth-claims would be as futile as trying to harmonize the Synoptics’ Passion chronology and that of John. The disembodied concept of ‘rights’ hovers over all political dialogue, never quite touching this context or that in a perfect way, but with everyone appealing to it, sapping it of meaning. The problem of modernity is not relativism so much as competing absolutisms.

For help in studying how words escape context, we could turn to William Wilson and Vigen Guroian’s insightful article on college hookup culture, specifically the University of Virginia’s, brought to national attention by a Rolling Stone article focusing on fraternity and sorority life. People in universities now are free to hook up with whomever they please, starting with throwing eighteen-year-olds who have never lived away from home into mixed dorms (under the supervision of a distracted twenty-year-old RA) and continuing onward from there, removing convention’s every barrier to self-determination. The one restraint is an abstract manual for regulation, quoted in the article:

Perusing the new college “sex manuals” is like studying instructions for the operation of machinery. In this hyper-bureaucratic vision, mind and will are described to exist in a macabre, disembodied state: a Cartesian dualism gone positively mad. The University of Virginia document on sexual violence reads as follows: “A person who has given Effective Consent to engage in Sexual Contact or Sexual Intercourse may withdraw Effective Consent at any time. It is the responsibility of the person withdrawing Effective Consent to communicate, through clear words or actions, that he or she no longer wishes to engage in the sexual activity.” Sexual contact is “any intentional sexual touching, however slight, with any object, performed by a person upon another person.” Now who believes that sex happens this way, where persons rule over their bodies like technicians operating a robot?

The anthropology is sky-high: everyone is presumed free to heed this or that regulation, make this or that choice as self-possessed agents. And institutionalized individualism has only grown. To continue using the UVA fraternity/sorority scene as an example, sororities have been banned from hosting parties on their own turf; pledging, at its best a means for fraternities to self-regulate and teach responsibility, has been systemically extirpated; and  group mixers have been banned, leading to a more atomized, and thus less restrained, social life. The bureaucratic, monolithic panopticon regulates thousands of individuals, but group activities – not to mention group values and lived group contexts – are fading.

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Part of what makes the above regulation of sexual conduct so abstract is that universal rules are, by nature, impersonal. That which is binding for all persons at all times must be self-contained (i.e., not vary with context),not vary with person, and be easily followable – a technique itself. In short, it must be shorn of its reference to the depths and complexities of lived experience. In the wake of allegations of a heinous act at a fraternity, the administration did not examine cultural factors underlying the problem, as Wilson and Guroian point out. Instead, they came up with new regulations, fine-tuning the rules and procedures by which this sort of thing is ‘handled.’ Yet almost no students I spoke with during my time in undergraduate study could have articulated the code for Effective Consent; that abstract rule operates far above the plane of student life, ensconced in its own little world of reputation-management, damage control, plausible administrative deniability, and lawsuit protection.

We are surrendering more and more to this abstract world of bare procedure, the adjudication of my claims against yours, what I’m entitled to versus what you’re entitled to, and they have become substitutes for genuine social processes.

There are major problems with this insidious, pervasive reliance on abstract demand, in our parlance, ‘law,’ which continues to creep into new areas of human experience.

First, it tempts us to take the same tack as UVA in the Rolling Stone debacle and fine-tune rules and procedures, pretending in the process that we are addressing deep, complex cultural problems.

Second, it tempts us to ignore the guilt in ourselves so long as we follow the rules: no one I know has ever engaged in ‘Sexual Contact’ without first obtaining ‘Effective Consent,’ but there are plenty of people who experience hurt, guilt, regret, or strained friendships as a result of (technically consenting) hookups. Such nuance, however, is now lost. Students are almost encouraged to hook up with others so long as the rules are followed, but become monsters the second they’ve deviated from the Regulations. Surely most of us live somewhere in the middle.

Third, it kills meaningful dialogue. An international student attending an American business school vented to one of my friends, saying that America cannot talk about topics like race and gender meaningfully; instead, there are speech-codes to learn (you’re a terrible person if you ever say ‘disabled’), reactionaries to identify and condemn, and heretics to censor.

As long as we are fixated on rules and speech-codes which can divide us from others, righteous from unrighteous, sinners from saints, we will have great difficulty in constructive dialogue or in recognizing the sins in ourselves, much less discerning critical cultural issues and learning how to navigate them. These disembodied imperatives fail as surely as have other attempts to engineer human goodness, and may even stifle constructive energies and thought. The recession of the prominence of lived group contexts for ethics – extended families, ethnic affiliations, hometowns, churches, or trade organizations – has led us to fill the void with regulations and procedures, like the technical manual on consent above.

That does not in itself make this recession a bad thing: those structures could sometimes be stifling in their own ways, and we have now a greater scope for spontaneity and new perspectives than ever before. If we pressed pause on the litany of righteous, universal arrogations all around us, we might hear these perspectives, as the trending phrase ‘grass-roots’  feebly indicates. It is tempting to play the game of thrones, my rights against yours, each outlook vying to reign supreme or die trying. It is always tempting to speak our way into righteousness, to create ethical codes and follow them, telling ourselves we’re all good. Those things have their places, but any true moral progress can come only in the mundane particularity of specific people, in specific communities, making spontaneous acts of love. Something not from the abstract world of ‘should,’ but the concrete world of ‘is.’ Maybe what we need isn’t another, yet more finely tuned regulation or manual, but help in the form of love.