… for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control.
(2 Timothy 1:7)
Most of us of a certain age can recall our mother’s admonition, “If you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything at all.” This advice remains valid in most cases today. However, there is a tactic too often used in recent years to leverage that advice to illegitimately obtain success in a debate. The tactic is to put your opponent in a position where they have to either respond to intimidating accusations or remain silent. In many cases, rather than “dignifying” false accusations with a response, the person under assault chooses to remain silent.
That’s a problem in today’s culture. It’s a problem because, for too many individuals in our society, silence in the face of accusation is interpreted as implicit agreement with and submission to the assault. That is, the victim relies on an assumption of fair play and common morality that simply no longer exists in a large segment of the population. Thus, to remain silent under these conditions is too often a losing strategy.
Do I appear to be a bit over the top on this? It turns out that fair-minded members of the progressive left are also noting the same problem, for example, Kirsten Powers’ new book The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech.
Lifelong liberal Kirsten Powers blasts the Left’s forced march towards conformity in an exposé of the illiberal war on free speech. No longer champions of tolerance and free speech, the “illiberal Left” now viciously attacks and silences anyone with alternative points of view. Powers asks, “What ever happened to free speech in America?”
All of which leads to my second point on fighting back.
2. Silence in the face of intimidation is interpreted as submission, so speak up
Over the past 20 years or so I have witnessed increasingly frequent verbal assault as a means of debate, even among members of the PCUSA. I have been personally accused of terrible things for supporting orthodox Christian norms. I have seen whole communities being accused of “hatred” for the actions of one troubled individual, or for an event of completely unknown origin.
Early on I too refused to dignify this behavior with a response. However, as the individuals and groups that utilize this tactic became more virulent, I had to reconsider my response. Clearly, were this behavior counterproductive they would have reduced as opposed to increased its use.
I have decided that it’s imperative to speak up in defense of yourself and others in the face of this cruel, cynical tactic. My preferred response is to point out in no uncertain terms the nature of those who choose to use such tactics. That is, I refuse to respond directly to the accusation, but rather point out the cruelty and intellectual bankruptcy of this line of argument. However, there are times when the accusation itself must be directly addressed.
What I have found is that, when met with this type of opposition the accusers most often retreat. They retreat because the accusation is often literally all that they have. Once it’s clear that, if the argument is going to proceed at all, it will be done so on the merits, their enthusiasm lessens considerably.
Certainly there are cases where the discussion does continue on the merits. And, sometimes a good point is made that requires reflection, and sometimes adjustments to my thinking and conclusions. This is, after all, the goal of constructive dialogue between people with differing views. It’s just a shame that the preliminary engagement is too often laced with such destructive behavior.
We Christians shouldn’t be looking for a fight. However, when someone brings a fight to us, one in which they seek to win through intimidation, we must learn how to fight back. Otherwise, too many observers will conclude that we are silent due to a guilty conscience, or, that we simply don’t care enough about the issue to make a stand. And, the perpetrators of this tactic will continue to be encouraged by its apparent success.
Let’s listen anew to the Larger Catechism’s commentary on the Ninth Commandment, which discusses our responsibility not simply to avoid untruth, but also to not enable falsehood by our silence:
“The sins forbidden in the Ninth Commandment are … concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others …” [7.255]
To God be all the glory!