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Hurt me 15 degrees less: On cruelty, fear, justice, order, and challenging the conservative white evangelical worldview

Yes, indeed, for white evangelicals in the US today, the catchphrase the cruelty is indeed the point, John Stoehr wrote in August 2019. They act this way simply because when they hurt "people deserving cruelty," it "feels good" to them, and they put effort into coming up with other rationalizations for their actions. (On this point, Stoehr cites Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country.) And they are not so much afraid of their victims (making words such as "homophobia" misnomers) as they are afraid that they will go to Hell if they are more tolerant of others who they are told are going to Hell (i.e. others who are deserving of cruelty). This system makes them unwilling to listen to anyone who does not also subscribe to their evangelical group and concept of divine reward and punishment. This leaves them unable "to reason their way out of fear" and "is not a moral compass at all."

Daniel Schultz replied affirmatively to Stoehr, quoting the Atlantic's recent interview with conservative evangelical Ben Howe, in which Howe said:

"Trump became their hero, because he hated the establishment, and he beat up on the media, and he was fighting back against all these forces. The more he fights, the more they feel justified, like, He’s our hero because we needed someone to do this for us.

Trump’s appeal is not judges. It’s not policies. It’s that he’s a shit-talker and a fighter and tells it like it is. That’s what they like. They love the meanest parts of him."

Conservative white evangelicals, Schultz claims, believe in "justice and order." "Order" means that "God has ordained certain ways of being and doing in the world...Daddies are leaders, then mommies, then kids," and many also believe in a "racial hierarchy." (For many, "their whiteness outweighs their Christianness.") In this belief system, "God tells you not just the way you should be, but the way you actually are, and if you accept that, you will be blessed." "Justice" means that those who "violate or subvert" this social order are "threats to innocents" and "inherently deserving punishment." Someone who challenges a significant part of this system is basically suggesting that the conservative evangelical should "rewire their entire sense of reality," and indeed, "nobody really wants to give up on their world view. But the result of this stiff-necked epistemology is a tremendously brittle faith, one unable to tolerate the challenge of multiple perspectives." Schultz adds that "the refusal to be challenged also becomes perverse — a wrong choice for no good reason — because the social domination it protects is easily conflated with being the instrument of God’s righteous punishment. Sadists always have to justify themselves."

/ begin digression

On the topic of justice within evangelical thinking, I also found:

1. Owen Amos wrote for the BBC on 5 January 2018 that many evangelicals, including those who identify as "Premillenialists," believe there will be a great war (the "Tribulation" or "End Times") that will result in one thousand years of peace. Christopher Rollston, a professor at George Washington University, says: "Anything that's supportive of the modern state of Israel, for them is a good thing," because they believe that the Bible foretold the existence of the State of Israel. David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, says that "they believe they are powerless to change the date of End Times" so it cannot be true that their support of Israel is motivated by a desire to hasten the End Times.

2. "There is no framework for restorative justice within evangelical thinking," Tori Williams Douglass wrote on May 8, 2018. Instead: "Punishment is a central theme in evangelical theology. They sincerely believe punishment works, and the data shows they are favorable to the harshest forms of punishment which are socially acceptable in any given situation." They tend to believe in spanking children "to punish them for any infraction, no matter how minor"; in penalizing poor people, which they prefer to frame as "teaching personal responsibility, employing the use of bootstraps, and encouraging hard work"; and in harsh punishment for crime, including the death penalty ("White evangelical protestants also have the highest group support of the death penalty, which is disproportionately used against people of color"). As someone employed in a neuroscience research lab, she says: "We know that hitting children doesn’t work, and we know what does work instead. We know that poverty and imprisoning people are traumatic events."

/ end digression

Returning to Schultz, who continues insightfully:

"Faith deployed in service of social hierarchy is also easily conflated with authoritarian power structures, even those led by [cough cough] corrupt awful human beings. Conservative white evangelicals respond to Trump not as a perfect or even good person, but as an imperfect instrument of God’s work to maintain the sacred order of the world. The cruelty is indeed the point because the cruelty manifests the justice that maintains the proper order."

Since a counterargument from "reason," "values," or "identity" won't succeed in this situation, it's probably more effective

"to point out the failures. How do you get a conservative evangelical to stop thinking the entire Queer community is evil? Show them not just a 'good' gay, but how anti-gay ideology has failed to protect them. How do you get them to turn against Trump? Show them how Trump has failed to carry out his promises. Not easy with a rabid culture warrior like Mike Pence in the #2 role. But probably the best evidence for somebody like this would be the ICE raids in Mississippi last week. Here’s Trump the authoritarian carrying out his promise to keep them safe — and the result is a terrorized, deflated community. People notice that kind of thing, especially when their church is called on to assist the victims."

I must personally note that such a line of argument may be emotionally difficult for someone to make. A gay person (me, for example) may note that anti-gay ideology has all kinds of negative social effects, but for me also to note that the social hierarchy hasn't worked out the way you hoped it would may be seen to imply that the way you hoped it would had any moral validity in the first place. If the (mysterious) way you hoped it would turn out was based on the idea that it feels good to you to hurt me because who you believe I inherently deserve to be hurt, that is alarming to me, and the fact that your bullying behavior toward me did not turn out to your own advantage is something I don't feel the need to help you with. I am not sure what magical beanie 'thinking cap' I'd need to don to be willing to have that head-spinner conversation.

On the other hand, it may be easier to have such a conversation based on a shared identity. A white American (me, for example) may note that anti-immigrant ideology has all kinds of negative social effects that hurt everyone-which-yes-includes-white-people. e.g. "However good you might feel hurting those other people and whatever you thought you were trying to accomplish, could you take a look at whether you've helped yourself and helped me? No? You have helped neither of us? Then could you please stop?" That is potentially a more coherent conversation if I am at least provisionally seen as belonging to the in-group and can make a request that at least appears to be on my own behalf. But if I'm seen as belonging to the out-group and if indeed the cruelty is the point, the conversation is a no-go.

I suppose maybe this is an example of pointing out a way in which Trump has failed. "We" wanted a negotiator; "we" didn't get that.

One right-wing organizer of Trump supporters, worrying about the "ugly, corrosive," violent "radicalization" of young men who "conclude there’s no space for them or their voice in the political process," commented anonymously to a writer: "the way to help these people is not to turn them 180 degrees, but to turn them 15 degrees.” This incrementalism may be the way the world really works. It may be the most effective strategy. But if we are observing the feelings of the hypothetical disaffected young men, we should also observe the feelings of their hypothetical shepherds who are put in a position of saying, "Could you please hurt me 15 degrees less?"

Sometimes trade-offs are made. New York City reversed its two-year-old ban on so-called "conversion therapy" (programs aiming to change sexual orientation) because it feared that it would lose a Supreme Court case over the matter which would cause permanent damage to LGBTQ rights. "The move is a gambit designed to neutralize a federal lawsuit filed against the city by a conservative Christian legal organization," the New York Times explained.

Loretta Ross wrote an August 2019 opinion in the New York Times about "call-out culture" which presents food for thought. (A "call-out" is a public criticism of someone's prejudice, often leading to a social media pile-on of thousands of negative comments. The prejudice in question is usually unexamined prior to the call-out, since, if the person already knew they were prejudiced and was being deliberately hurtful, there would be little point in "calling out" their behavior.) Ross acknowledges the importance of giving and receiving criticism. However, she suggests the reframe of a "call-in": "a call-out done with love." By this, she says, she doesn't mean that the critic should monitor their words for the purpose of "tone policing, protecting white fragility or covering up abuse." Rather, the critic should be attentive to whether their call-out will actually be effective. Complaints hurled as "personal therapy" are naturally ineffective. Complaints lodged by "self-appointed guardians of political purity" are also ineffective, she says, a point that may also be true, though it is a little harder to swallow. It gets at the difficult question, not only of how the critic knows that they're right (let's assume for the moment that the critic is indeed in the right), but how the critic knows what is a baseline level of righteousness that they can reasonably demand from others and what is an exacting level of purity that they'll never realistically achieve and that is counterproductive to request. In other words, to illustrate: What is the 15-degree turn in the preferred direction that the critic must demand, and what is the 180-degree turn that would be beautiful to see but which, unfortunately, if requested directly, will only result in a hostile 15-degree turn in the opposite direction. The general concept of negotiation and compromise is clear. It is just that it is difficult in any given situation, when we are dealing with words, feelings, and values (not numbers), to assess what's an appropriate level of "tough love" to dish out and which of our own words, feelings, and values we're prepared to compromise away.

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