Persuasion Is for Amateurs

Why a focus on adjectives, rather than nouns, might be the salve our political culture needs.
August 31st, 2017

Earlier this year David Wasserman wrote for FiveThirtyEight that "November's election was an exclamation point—or perhaps a flashing danger sign." He wrote this not because of Trump's election, but because of the deep geographical and ideological schisms that this election demonstrated among the electorate. "America's political fabric, geographically, is tearing apart," he said.

Many communities are doubling down on partisan ties: in over a third of the nation's counties, one candidate or the other won by an "extreme landslide" among voters, a margin defined as exceeding fifty percentage points. Meanwhile, the shock with which Trump's win was heralded by national media signalled a disconnect, and distrust, that has continued to permeate our political and cultural environment. Works like J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy hinted at a world of separation and blindness that divides an elite class of intellectuals and politicians from the rural folk in West Virginia, Appalachia, or Georgia.

To be an amateur is to be a lover of something for its own sake: to act out of passion and principle.

It doesn't seem that these divides can (or should) be simply labelled: they might, on the face of it, be Democratic versus Republican, rural versus urban, or elitist versus populist. But these are just names, labels to issues that also have a human face.

Our society loves to simplify and quantify. If we just properly label ourselves and our issues, then perhaps we can figure out how best to get along. But this reductionist view of the human person is antithetical to true dialogue, and will never help us emerge from the polarization we're currently experiencing. Ironically enough, in order to bring back a more ideologically diverse and thoughtful society, I believe we must stop looking at red and blue America entirely.

I started thinking about this issue a couple years ago as I was interviewing Wendell Berry for a magazine feature in the American Conservative. A native Kentuckian, Berry is a farmer and philosopher, essayist and poet, environmental activist and localist. I sent him a list of questions, many of which considered how his various literary characters or ideas in his non-fiction intersected or were at variance with conservatism. When I asked him whether his protagonist Jayber Crow, for instance, was a conservative, he responded thus: "Jayber's membership is not in a party or a public movement, but in Port William. He is a man of unsteady faith in love with a place, a perishing little town, a community, a woman—with all that is redemptive and good—struggling to be worthy."

Berry then added, "I prefer to get along without political labels. They don't help thought, or my version of thought. Since I'm self-employed and not running for office, I'm free to notice that those political names don't mean much of anything, and so am free to do without them. I'm free, in short, to be an amateur."

The word "amateur," of course, comes from the Latin word for love. To be an amateur is to be a lover of something for its own sake: to act out of passion and principle, not for financial or professional gain.

I was blessed and lucky enough to keep up my correspondence with Wendell Berry. After welcoming a daughter into the world, I shared with Wendell Berry an essay I wrote on family, belonging, and place—one that captured both my homesickness for my Idaho roots and my deep love for the new home and community my husband and I were building.

Christian public intellectuals should become amateurs who keep the adjectives, and who evade the nouns.

He responded thus: "So far, you are conservative—you know of some things worth conserving, and you want to help conserve them—but you are not, I think, a conservative. I hope you can keep the adjective and evade the noun."

At the risk of sounding reductive, I want to suggest that Christian public intellectuals should become amateurs who keep the adjectives, and who evade the nouns.

The world of Washington, DC, where I work, loves to put labels on things. People are either neocons or isolationists, progressives or reactionaries, populist or cosmopolitan. It's a world full of dysphemism for the people you don't like, and sugarcoated terms for the folks you do.

Amid this world of labels, perhaps the most powerful and thoughtful work Christian public intellectuals can do is to eschew such labels, and to instead look at the particular people hiding behind them.

Of course, terms and labels help us to understand various viewpoints. They give us perspective and background. I wouldn't argue for evading nouns and labels in a classroom setting, for instance. We have to talk about communism, socialism, populism. We have to define fundamentalism, and label fundamentalists.

However, I think the way in which we do this can still be thoughtful and precise—and it can transcend scapegoating and name-calling. This is something, sadly, that both Left and Right are often reluctant to do. I've known Christian college students who condemned Nietzsche's nihilism without having ever read anything he wrote. They'd been trained to be reactive and combative, not thoughtful channels of peace. Sadly, many Americans within and without academia have fallen prey to this reactive attitude.

The most powerful and thoughtful work Christian public intellectuals can do is to eschew such labels, and to instead look at the particular people hiding behind them.

An acquaintance of mine who used to work at ThinkProgress used to write a column every week titled "Three Things Conservatives Wrote This Week That Everyone Should Read." He's more of an economic populist, and his politics are decidedly Bernie Sanders–inclined. Yet he occasionally linked to my decidedly more conservative writing. He disagreed with me heartily, and always had interesting critiques or rebuttals. But he was open, thoughtful, and eager to dialogue on these issues.

Amateurs who are focused on adjectives can see the faces behind the stereotypes, the deeds behind the statistics, and the virtues alongside the vices. They can listen before condemning.

This demeanour also frees us up to exercise an important sort of hospitality in our writing, speaking, and public lives. Hospitality is a rooted and place-centric idea. But it also can be, I believe, an intellectual and vocational virtue. The author who writes winsomely and gracefully opens a door into his or her world, and enables the wary and the weary to come in. The hospitable Christian is willing to offer intellectual room to the "other," even when that hospitality is not returned. This intellectual hospitality enables others to feel welcome, even when and where they might disagree with us.

When we are not obsessed with labels, we can focus on the particular people God brings into our lives. And we can dialogue with them, understanding that each person is beloved and unique, created in the image of God.

Of course hospitality is first, and most importantly, a physical work. And I think here, the private life of the intellectual beautifully and vitally intersects with his or her public work. There are many who will not be immediately eager to hear more about our Christian faith, the beauty of the gospel, the promises of God. But when we open our homes to them, offer them bread and wine, and give them a place at our table, they may find a peace and solace they struggle to find elsewhere. In that love, in that specific care, they may open their hearts to ideas and values that they'd otherwise discard without thought.

After the November 2016 election, many friends and family members on Facebook expressed shock, dismay, and frustration in the days afterward. Long statuses reflected a deep emotional struggle—on both left and right. But the online world is ill-suited to comfort. So eventually, I posted my own status: letting people know that any who needed to vent or talk were welcome at our house, anytime. We'd make some pizza, have some wine, and converse together. It was a small gesture, but it was meant to remove the virtual barriers to peace, and instead encourage all comers to find solace in fellowship and the breaking of bread.

Thus, I'm finding that persuasion in the polis—at least, in my polis—is more about quiet neighbourliness and physical outreach, done in particular settings with particular people, than it is about the sharpest arguments and wittiest comebacks in the public sphere. It's about making people look twice at ideas they've long ignored or scoffed. It's about marrying Christian ideas with Christian virtues. I hope that, in days to come, Christians public intellectuals can embrace this deeply rooted and particular work, and use it to love—and perhaps even persuade—the people in their communities.

 

Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.

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