Friday, January 9, 2015

Satire, Sarcasm, Mockery, and Ridicule: What if we saw these as an invitation to pursue clearer communication and closer relationships?

If he can see an invitation in THIS communication...
In a recent post to the blog “Uncommon God; Common Good,” entitled “Tis the Season All Year Round: ‘Collective Atheism’ and the Collective Good” (It can be found here: xxxxx, along with links to journalistic reports of the event.), John W. Morehead and Paul Louis Metzger review the “irreligious invocation” delivered, by invitation of the Lake Worth, Florida city commission, by an “atheist activist,” Preston Smith. In doing so, they offer suggestions to both the atheist and Evangelical “collectives” regarding a more diplomatic engagement as each, and many other sides express themselves “in the public square.” Primarily, in seeking the common good of the broader communities in which we serve, Morehead and Metzger recommend against the tendency toward confrontation. I was left, however, without a clear sense of the positive direction we are to pursue instead. What follows is my attempt to supply just such a remedy for, and alternative to, those confrontations.

...and even silence opens opportunity here...
As demonstrated in Preston Smith’s “invocation” before the Lake Worth, Florida city commission (see above for links to that discussion), what one may intend as satire can easily slide south past sarcasm into mere mockery or even reviling ridicule. Unfortunately, a similar patter afflicts Christians of my acquaintance, whom I would hold to a higher standard, based on their claim to be influenced by the indwelling Holy Spirit of God. And yet, too often, variations in our perceptions, even those resulting in only minor differences of perspective on a given issue, lead us beyond disagreement into divisive derision. The same holds true among my non-Christian friends as well. The lists of “forbidden subjects” can quickly extend far beyond religion and politics. In many important areas, we leave no room for authentic dialogue, much less reasoned discourse.

But those who claim to follow Christ are called to something better. If we are to collectively pursue the common good (and I believe community service ministry is an indispensable component of the Christian faith, and even more so when we can cooperate with those already engaged in specific areas of need), then we would do well as Christians to start by developing a better process for opening dialogue with one another. Perhaps then this pattern might assist us in communicating with those outside our faith communities as well. But my first, greatest hope for employing a more diplomatic means of discussion is for a greater unity in the whole of the Church, the body of Christ. This is the unity for which Christ prayed in John 17:20-23 as being indispensable to the clarity and authenticity of the proclamation and practice of the gospel.

...then it shouldn't surprise us that Matalin & Carville...
When conversation does reveal conflicting viewpoints, why do we so quickly disengage, withdrawing from both the topic, changing the subject, and—where the topic is of significance to us, withdrawing from those whose perceptions and perspectives differ from our own? Social Psychologist Christena Cleveland would ascribe the root cause to our desire to be cognitive misers. In short, we would rather not complicate our lives and use valuable mental energy when we could just as easily resort to stereotypes, prejudices, and behavior patterns that keep us from having to reconsider our previously established positions on any given issue.

...or Begin and Sadat find common ground together.
I would ascribe our motivation to a more base emotion, though. Fear. We fear the possibility that our limited perspective (whether we admit that it is limited or not) may have resulted in an incomplete perception on which we have drawn conclusions, made decisions, formed relationships, joined organizations, and perhaps even applied bumper stickers. Our fear demands that we fight or flee. So, we withdraw. Or, we address our conflicting perceptions competitively, choosing confrontation rather than conversation. Better to flee than fight, some would imagine. But if we can train ourselves to recognize the invitation to dialogue inherent in such confrontations, we may find opportunities to engage one another as persons, rather than positions.

To do so, we must remember that confrontation is always reductionistic in at least two ways. First, the point of conflict is reduced to a mere caricature denying that we might have any overlapping complexities in our perceptions or common ground beneath our perspective. We demonstrate, and even exaggerate our otherness in order to clearly define our “distinct viewpoint” from another’s “mistaken assumptions.” Second, confrontation also reduces those holding an opposing perspective on any issue to a mere caricature of personhood. Instead of the complexities and nuances we routinely allow ourselves, we identify others my whatever label popularly represents their position, as though that one position on that one issue defines their character, background, potential and value.

Conflicting viewpoints need not result in confrontation. But even when they do, when others may resort to satire, sarcasm, mockery, or ridicule (and especially when we are the ones who have done so), it represents an opportunity to pursue the issue in question as an invitation. The methodology is simple.

Of course, sometimes you have to let others in on an inside joke.
Try to politely clarify what you understand the other person to have said. I believe it’s appropriate to begin with, “I understand you’re employing a keen sense of irony and the absurd” (which is a kinder way of noting their tone as being sarcastic or worse). But whether including that observation or not, we seek to communicate that “what I’m understanding from that is….” Even when the response is rude, harsh, dismissive, or otherwise difficult to view as an invitation to further dialogue, I have found it helpful to respond to even the worst statements with, “How do you mean?”

There’s more, of course. I believe that the Matthew 18 Protocol (Matthew 18:15-18) can be applied to non-Christians as well as Christians. The New Testament, especially, offers a number of strategies for addressing those who were not just disagreeing with the Apostles, but who openly opposed them at times. But my point here is to emphasize that the decision by others to address a particular issue, even in satire, sarcasm, mockery, and/or ridicule, should be responded to as an invitation to dialogue in which broader understanding can bring the topic of conflict into sharper focus and, even in the absence of agreement on the particular issue, lead us to recognize the concerns, character, and complexities that often overlap and even coincide with our own.

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