Late last week I had an experience that’s both completely normal and fundamentally absurd. It was this–I spent a ridiculous amount of time agonizing over the wording of a simple Twitter thread. I struggled to use exactly the right words to express what should be a completely normal and reasonable point.
As some readers may know, after competing for three years as a male swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania (and earning all-Ivy honors) as a male, a transgender swimmer named Lia Thomas is now competing as a female, and dominating the competition. Thomas’s physical advantage is blatantly obvious. Yes, there are NCAA guidelines mandating testosterone suppressant, but testosterone suppressants don’t repeal puberty.
Despite the hormone suppressants she has taken, in accordance with NCAA guidelines, Thomas’ male-puberty advantage has not been rolled back an adequate amount. The fact is, for nearly 20 years, she built muscle and benefited from the testosterone naturally produced by her body. That strength does not disappear overnight, nor with a year’s worth of suppressants. Consequently, Thomas dives into the water with an inherent advantage over those on the surrounding blocks.
So, what was my point and what was my struggle? My point was that it is not invidious discrimination to prohibit a biological male from competing in female sports. Indeed, drawing rational distinctions between biological males and biological females might be necessary to protect equal opportunities for women to enjoy access to athletic opportunities.
As I’ve written before, the phrase “invidious discrimination” is a legal term of art that refers to “a classification which is arbitrary, irrational and not reasonably related to a legitimate purpose.” Bans on invidious discrimination are legally proper and often necessary. Racial classifications, for example, are virtually always invidious. Sex-based classifications can be invidious as well, but sometimes they’re benign. Sometimes they’re even necessary.
To take an obvious example, segregating bathrooms or showers by race is invidious. By contrast, segregating bathrooms and showers by sex isn’t just rational, it’s prudent.
There’s absolutely such a thing as invidious discrimination against transgender Americans–imagine if teachers marked down trans students simply because they were trans, or if employers fired productive employees simply because they were trans. But drawing biological sex-based distinctions in sports not only isn’t invidious, it protects women from unfairness.
What was my struggle? I wasn’t afraid of cancellation. The Twitter world is full of broadsides against Thomas and the NCAA, and there are legions of right-wing voices who relish taking on this issue, and doing so as contemptuously and snarkily as possible and bask in thunderous applause of their tribe. Besides, thanks to my readers, I’m pretty tough to cancel anyway.
No my struggle was simply this: How do I make my point in a way that skeptical and hostile readers will hear it and consider it, rather than simply dismissing it out of hand as the bigoted rantings of a hateful Evangelical? After all, I don’t just want to be heard. I want to persuade. I believe what I’m saying is true, and I want readers to at least consider my words.
Take transgender rights—or virtually any contentious issue–and you’ll find that there are million different ways that people will not just reject your reasoning but refuse to engage with you at all.
You’re the “wrong” speaker (who wants to hear from a cishet Evangelical?) You chose the “wrong” words (did he use the acceptable pronouns? Was his language offensive in any other way?) You have the “wrong” priorities (American democracy is in peril, and we’re talking about a single trans swimmer at a single school?)
At any rate, this was my short thread. You can determine whether I made my points in a way that skeptics at least might listen:
Despite that long introduction, this isn’t a newsletter about transgender athletes. It’s about something much deeper and more consequential. It’s about one of the most common and pernicious ways in which we lose the ability to hear the truth. In many ways, it’s about how we defend ourselves from the truth. Let me introduce you to the “process foul.”
A process foul is any perceived breach of trust or decorum in the delivery of the message that distracts from the substance of the message. To be crystal clear, I’m not remotely arguing that process doesn’t matter. Indeed, if you’re about to have a tough conversation (say, for example, an intervention) with a person you love, you often obsess about the process, almost to the exclusion of substance.
Do you talk on the phone or gather in person? If in person, where? Who should be in the room? Who should speak first? Who shouldn’t speak at all? Indeed, taking exquisite care in the process of communicating difficult truths is an act of love. We’re talking to human beings, after all, not factbots who can simply hear a hard word (“Dude, you drink too much”) and respond accordingly.
Process is so important to persuasion that the persuasion industry is consumed by concepts like manner and method. When I litigated, I didn’t just try to master the facts and law of the case, but I practiced my delivery to the judge and the jury. I worried about my ties. I talked to my client about his demeanor on the stand and even while simply sitting at the counsel’s table.
Why do southern trial lawyers have the most impressive accents in the South? Process, not substance. It’s an almost unconscious affectation that says to the jury, “I’m real. I’m you.”
The problem, however, should be obvious. Our concerns about process can overwhelm our concerns about truth, and our sense of entitlement about process can completely wall us off from hearing–much less believing–difficult truths. And once you see the process objections in American politics, you can’t unsee them. They dominate our discourse.
In my experience, here are the four most common “wrongs” that prevent us from hearing and understanding what’s right.
Wrong messenger. This is perhaps the easiest and most popular method of discounting uncomfortable information. Once you categorize someone as “Never Trump” or a “warmonger” or “fake news” or then you’ve put on the bulletproof vest. Nothing that comes out of his or her mouth will penetrate your armor.
Wrong motives. Arguments over, for example, the so-called “Evangelical elite” often center around motive. We place a condition on truth that says, “I will listen to true things only when spoken for the right reasons.” After all, why should anyone listen to a “grifter”? And I definitely shouldn’t listen to anyone who’s simply trying to “curry favor with the left” or “wants to be accepted by the elite.”
And who makes the judgment about motive? How do we have confidence that we can peer into a man or woman’s heart and know their motivations. I appreciated these words from Thomas Sowell:
Wrong manner. In our populist age, there are few more deadly accusations than condescension or elitism. There are cases where even the assertion of any kind of expertise is virtually self-discrediting.
In far-left spaces, ever-shifting and intolerant language norms can mean that ordinary people can find themselves struggling to even find the right words to discuss contentious topics. Even words like “racism” are subject to different, evolving meanings, and certain terms of art, like “land acknowledgment” or “BIPOC” separate individuals into separate classes of understanding.
Wrong target. This is perhaps the most subtle and versatile of the process fouls. It’s how you can still be wrong even when you’re right. It encompasses concepts like “punching down” (people with larger platforms shouldn’t take on those with less influence), misplaced priorities (you’re squeezing out the gnat and swallowing the camel), and whataboutism (Donald Trump has abused women? What about Bill Clinton? Donald Trump hasn’t accepted the results of his election? What about Stacey Abrams?)
The process of communication is laden with reciprocal responsibilities. As a communicator, my job is to do my best to know my audience, to understand them, and to speak in words that I believe they’ll hear. In other words, my job isn’t to fly over the target, dump my truth bombs like I’m a B-52 over Hanoi, and then log off congratulating myself for a job well done.
I especially shouldn’t congratulate myself for my “bravery” when the response is exactly the flak I was told to expect–or even perhaps hoped to receive.
As a listener, however, I have my own responsibilities. I should do my best to shun the calling of process fouls and listen hard to substance. This is not easy. Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned have come from the most unlikely teachers. Some of the harshest words spoken to me have turned out to be the most true.
One way that truth dies is that when we place such exacting preconditions on its delivery into our lives that there is virtually no messenger or message that can penetrate our hearts.
Let’s make this lesson a bit personal. Just before Christmas a pastor in my denomination named Kevin DeYoung wrote a piece in a Christian magazine called World called “The Temptation of the Jeremiad” that gained some traction in my little corner of the world. It was aimed mainly at me and the way in which I’ve mounted various critiques of white Evangelical politics and cultural engagement in the age of Trump.
I don’t know Kevin, but I have many friends who do. I respect his work a great deal, and so I listen to his critiques carefully. While he agrees with some things I say, these two paragraphs contain his core complaint:
And this is my biggest complaint with the white evangelical jeremiad. It has the same head-shaking “you people” vibe that prompted the “deplorables” to embrace Trump in the first place. It’s one thing to object to an idea or to a set of propositions. It’s another to object to a class of people. Even if French is right, and evangelicals should not have supported (voted for?) Trump and evangelicals should not be skeptical about many of the Covid protocols, there is little sympathy for trying to understand why evangelicals might have behaved in these ways. There is no persuasion, only pique and annoyance.
At the risk of seeming biased toward my own profession, I can’t help but notice that the leading voices decrying the moral bankruptcy of white evangelicalism are not pastors but professional writers, academics, and full-time commentators. Given the nature of these vocations—valuable, honorable vocations—it is easier to produce frequent jeremiads against the church than to produce a positive vision for the church. If your natural rhythm is not the whole counsel of God Sunday after Sunday, but another critique of the church in your inbox on Sunday morning, that should tell you something. The Lord knows there is much to criticize in the church, but I doubt that relentless, unsympathetic, exasperated censure against one specific people is the best way to convince them of your criticisms, let alone build them up in Christ.
These are textbook process fouls. I’m the wrong messenger–not a pastor–delivering the message in the wrong way (with a “head-shaking ‘you people’ vibe’). He says that even if I’m right there is “little sympathy for trying to understand why evangelicals might have behaved in these ways.” I write “only” with “pique and annoyance.”
But this doesn’t mean I should disregard what DeYoung says. If I’m trying to communicate things that I believe to be both true and gravely important, and a thoughtful man says I’m communicating through “pique and annoyance” then I need to think very hard about how I write.
In fact, I need to repent of my initial response to this essay. Since I believe he mischaracterized much of my work, my initial response was purely reactionary. I defended myself. But I should have reflected more. I should still reflect. As a communicator, am I failing in my responsibilities? Am I communicating a message that I do not intend?
At the same time, this sentence from DeYoung troubled me greatly: “It [my work] has the same head-shaking ‘you people’ vibe that prompted the ‘deplorables’ to embrace Trump in the first place.”
This is the dark place that an emphasis on process over substance can take you. A distaste for a person’s tone should never “prompt” anyone to “embrace” a man like Trump. After all, even granting that my tone can be better, is that a reason to embrace a person whose tone is inarguably much worse and whose grasp on the truth is inarguably far more tenuous? Are people placing so many preconditions on critique that they’ve effectively walled themselves off from hard truths?
When we’re communicating, we should care about people, and that means caring about process and truth. We should do our best as fallen and imperfect people to say true things in a careful, compassionate, and persuasive way. But we cannot ever allow often-shifting and sometimes-escalating demands about process to silence the truth.
When we’re listening, by contrast, we should resist the urge to filter truth through process. Strange messenger? Fine. Heck, even one of Jesus’s disciples once tried to reject him by asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Obscure or tough delivery? That can work. Jesus often spoke in parables that few understood, and his own speech could be incredibly blunt and direct. And what about the prophets? Could they rake a man over the coals? Google the etymology of the word “jeremiad,” and you’ll find that answer fast.
Wrong motives? Who cares? And besides, how can I presume to know a person’s true motivations?
In a recent Atlantic essay I wrote about our incredibly difficult task. In an age of cruelty, how do we open ourselves to legitimate critique? Here’s my answer: “The best folks I know have achieved the near impossible. They’ve constructed a thick skin while preserving an open heart. Their defense mechanisms are porous enough to allow fair critiques to penetrate while keeping the bad-faith actors at arm’s length.”
Any other approach and our own heart and mind risk becoming the places where truth goes to die.
One more thing …
In the lastest Good Faith podcast, Curtis and I talk about how January 6 helped both of us understand that it was time to grow up. We have to be adults now.
What does that mean? Please listen to the pod to find out.
A personal update …
I apologize for the lack of a Tuesday newsletter last week. COVID came to our house, and I caught a breakthrough infection, along with three other members of the family. As the old guy of the bunch, I fared the worst, but it was still never worse than a moderate flu (though with quirky and shifting symptoms!), and we all were on the mend by the end of the week.
I’m grateful for the vaccine, and I’m grateful to have recovered so quickly. Millions have faced much greater challenges.
One last thing …
This is a marvelous hymn and feels right for the first days of a new year that already can feel full of more uncertainty than promise: