Crossing the Rhetorical Rubicon: A Defense of Acerbity

Commenter Winston Scrooge deplores the tone of this blog, and more especially this author (here).  His point is serious, his argument thoughtful, and his tone altogether free of the bilious acerbity that, he says, too often taints my posts.  His argument has theological aspects that I will not tackle here, although the direction I would take is suggested in the comment I left at his site (and to which he has responded with his accustomed liberality and generosity of spirit).  Here I limit myself to what he says and suggests about the proper limits of Christian rhetoric, and set for myself the task of defending acerbity.

Citing important lines from the fifth chapter of Galatians, Scrooge suggests that that they imply a necessary sweetness in the “fruits of the spirit,” and that from this a mild and mellow rhetorical style will necessarily follow.  To this I would say that St. Paul does not impress me as an author who is mild or mellow, and that this want of rhetorical polish is something of which he himself is aware.  He occasionally rises to poetic passages of blissful beauty, but just as often swoops down with philippics that verily drip with acerbity.

The sword of acerbity is not, apparently, denied to the Christian apologist.  This does not mean that every apologist must wade into battle slashing away with the Blade of Bile, only that to do so is no dishonor to the cause of Christ.  Indeed, the seemingly widespread feeling that we cannot wield the Blade of Bile strikes me as a very sore and altogether needless handicap that we have imposed upon ourselves.  (Here you may mutter “Boromir,” if you like.)

As I have made clear in several earlier posts, I have crossed the rhetorical Rubicon with the army of the so-called alt-right.  This means that I agree with their assessment that conservatives and Christians of the recent past have been what Sam Francis called “beautiful losers,” men whose highest hope was to see the epitaph “Gentlemen” carved on their tombstones.  I admire many of these men to this day, but see very clearly that they lost a bar-fight because they were determined to fight by Queensbury Rules.  (Here you may mutter “Judas,” if you like.)

I am very far from dead to this accusation of being Judas/Boromir, but am not yet convinced that acerbity is the Ring of Power.  It is, I submit, something more like the army of the Dead who lived under the Dwimorberg.  It is a power of which we may make use, although we would do well to beware of falling under its spell and let it use us.

To cross the rhetorical Rubicon, you must take in the significance of Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that “the medium is the message” (1).  His immediate focus was, of course, new communication technologies such as television, but his more general observation was that the “content” of a message is largely controlled by the “medium” or mode of communication.  This word “medium” is by no means limited to the things we most immediately think of when we hear the words “communication technologies”—things like printing presses, radios, or the internet.  As anyone who has read Plato’s Phaedrus knows, rhetoric is a communication technology.

“Oratory,” Socrates says, “is the art of enchanting the soul, and therefore he who would be an orator has to learn the differences of human souls.” In this knowledge he will then “proceed to divide speeches into their different classes.”  If he is to be a successful orator, he will know “when he should make use of pithy sayings, pathetic appeals, aggravated effects, and all the other figures of speech,” and it is only when he possesses this knowledge of “the times and seasons of all these things” that he can be called “a consummate master of his art” (2).

I am, needless to say, very far from being a consummate master of anything at all; but I take to heart Plato’s notion that every figure of speech has its time and season.  Moreover, I assert that, so far as traditional Christians are concerned, the time and season of acerbity is now!  If ever there were a time when the Blade of Bile should be drawn, that time is now!

My models in this enterprise are Alice Thomas Ellis, Maurice Cowling, and Evelyn Waugh.  As Richard Ingram wrote in the introduction to a collection of Ellis’s columns, she did not “present a smiling face,” and yet in spite of this was “unfailingly cheerful and amusing.”  She was sour, but not soured, if you see what I mean.  I lack Ellis’s wit and flair, but would not refuse “Sour but Unsoured” as my literary motto.  To my mind, this mix of acerbity and cheerful detachment is at the very heart of Christian irony.

Cowling described his approach to writing as “a mixture of politeness and negative bloodiness which is the antidote to liberal virtue” (3).  One must read Cowling to fully apprehend what this means, but he writes that this mix, so similar to that of Ellis, is the figure of speech with which to “manifest resentment,” express “cultural distaste,” and “blow up the consensus” (4).  It is not, in other words, the mild and mellow language of “beautiful losers” who aspire to have the epitaph “Gentlemen” engraved on their tombstones.  It is the acerbic language of a wily fighter who aspires to read the epitaph “Good Riddance” engraved on the tombstone of his rivals.

From Waugh, I learned the Christian uses of the grotesque, the sordid, the outlandish, and the not-altogether-fair.  I learned that Christian portraiture does not make use of the airbrush, and is not above penciling in the occasional mustache.

Reading Winston Scrooge’s post, I at first though he was simply accusing me, and the Orthosphere generally, of being too gloomy—of being Puddleglums, if you like.  What he actually argues is more serious than that, but the character of Puddleglum is relevant to what I am trying to say here.  Readers of the Silver Chair will recall the scene in Underland where the Witch uses the smoke from a green powder and the thrumming of a lute to enchant Prince Rilian, Puddleglum, Scrub, and Jill (chapter 12).

“The Prince and the two children were standing with their heads hung down, their cheeks flushed, their eyes half closed; the strength all gone from them; the enchantment almost complete.”

At this desperate moment, Puddleglum, “desperately gathering his strength,” walks over to the fire and snuffs it out with his foot.  The “sweet heavy smell” of the smoldering powder at once begins to dissipate, replaced by the smell of “burnt Marshwiggle,” which we are told “is not at all an enchanting smell.”

Nasty fellow, you might say.  Rather rude, in fact.

But I would answer that in using his foot, Puddleglum shows that he understood “the times and seasons of all things.”  He understood that the time and season of courtesy had passed.

He did not say, “This fair Green Lady is regrettably a Witch who makes use of stupefying drugs and mesmerizing music, but I am a beautiful looser who will one day rest beneath a tombstone in the graveyard of Undertown, on which others will read the epitaph ‘Gentleman.’”

When he stomped out that vile fire, Puddleglum crossed the rhetorical Rubicon; and in doing so he of course emboldened Prince Rilian to draw his avenging Blade of Bile.

(1) Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964)

(2) Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato, four vols. (1911), vol. 1, p. 577.

(3) Maurice Colwing, Mill and Liberalism, second edition (1990), p. xli.

(4) Maurice Cowling, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, three vols. (1980, 1985, 2001), vol. 2, p. xix; Mill, pp. xv, xxi.

36 thoughts on “Crossing the Rhetorical Rubicon: A Defense of Acerbity

  1. Pingback: Crossing the Rhetorical Rubicon: A Defense of Acerbity | @the_arv

  2. I stopped reading his blog once it became clear that he was no longer interested in actually addressing substantive conflicting ideas, and began focusing his writing on passive-aggressively setting himself up as arbiter of the spiritual health of the bloggers and commenters both here and at my place, projecting (ironically from my point of view) egotism and all sorts of other vices on my commenters, etc. He is welcome to rejoin the discussion once he gets over himself, of course.

    If passive aggressive rhetoric is virtuous then I’m a donut.

    • With all due respect zippy you accuse liberals of the most horrible things. When you receive a little push back in your mind it cannot be a reasoned position. It must be passive aggressive egotism. I think you need to take a step back and open your mind a bit.

      • winstonscrooge:

        My criticism of liberalism is criticism of a false and destructive doctrine: one which I long ago thought represented the good in politics myself. Anyone in the grip of a false doctrine is better off coming to see its falsity and reject it: all the more so when that doctrine has produced mass murder and spiritual corruption on the scale of liberalism.

        Your attempts to personalize and deflect are obvious passive aggressive ad hominem, as apparently a next step after motte and bailey. I’m frankly surprised JMSmith took your recent posts seriously.

      • As currently used, “check your privilege” is an obnoxious phrase. The current usage assumes that one is enjoying an unjust privilege, and commands one to “check”–by which they mean deactivate–that privilege. Of course the power to issue this command is the real privilege, which is why the phrase is obnoxious

        But everyone should periodically “check” themselves, in the sense of self-examination. Here I mean check in the sense that I “check” my hair when I wash my hands in the lavatory. I took WS’s post as a reminder to check myself in this sense, and then wrote this post to explain why I an O.K. with what I saw in the mirror.

        This sort of checking is generally a good idea when one writes as a controversialist, since it is all too easy for a controversialist to get “carried away.” As stated in this post, I do not feel obliged to be perfectly fair to my opponents, but there are large zones of unfairness I do not wish to enter. One often hears talk of “holiness spirals,” and there is a good deal of truth in this talk; but there is also an “unholiness spiral.” The reaction against over-refined sensitivity all too often leads to unrefined crudity. The reaction against goopy sentimentality too often leads to hardness of heart.

        Those of us who believe that Church has been infected with vulgar liberalism and sentimentality are thus always in danger of tipping too far in the opposite direction, and thereby loosing our sense of genuine compassion and charity. I don’t mind people asking me to “check” (examine) that from time to time.

      • JMSmith:

        I agree with what you say, and even that generally speaking catalysts to check the mirror are good. But there is a certain danger of validating crybullying when that is the catalyst to check the mirror. Taking something seriously inherently implies that it is a serious thing.

      • I take it that you and WS have a history that is hidden to me. I know him only through his comments on the Orthosphere, in which he generally defends right liberalism.

        I define a bully as a person exercising the Will to Power at the lowest possible level–the pettiest of petty tyrants. If such a person fails to bend you to his will, I call him a failed or wanna-be bully. So a bully is not a bully until you give him your lunch money.

        In the case of a cyber-bully, I take this to mean that he forces you to go silent or “change your tune” without actually convincing you that you are wrong. They do this with threats of social or psychological harm, such as getting you fired from your job or implanting a crippling self-doubt.

      • JMSmith:

        I doubt it would be productive to start a conversation closely parsing the neologism “crybully”. The point is that buying in to all of his attempts to personalize the clash of ideas is taking the bait.

        Maybe you only read the one post of his, and missed the bits where he accuses Orthospherians of lack of compassion, judgmentalism, descent into egoism, battle of egos, echo chambers, post truth / alternative fact, etc.

        Mind you, I don’t take his passive-aggressive attempts to personalize ans deflect personally. He doesn’t know me, and despite the affectations he hasn’t really attempted to adequately grasp (or is simply incapable of grasping) the arguments he is criticizing.

      • You’re right, I only read that one post. In it, I did notice a suggestion that my opinions and rhetoric might be explained as expressions of my discomfort in higher education. He might have had in mind my recent post on the Art of Dropping Out, or some other post indicative of professional alienation. I could take this as an underhanded attempt to slime me as a bitter failure, but I don’t. I take it as an salutary invitation to ask myself how much bitterness over personal failures does affect what I write.

        Asking this question, I can only answer that there is a dialectical relation between opinions and alienation. Holding certain opinions is sometimes the cause of alienation. Alienation is sometimes the cause of holding certain opinions.

      • JMSmith:

        I could take this as an underhanded attempt to slime me as a bitter failure, but I don’t.

        Even if “attempt to slime you as a bitter failure” is an unfair characterization of the content of his contention, though it might not be, it is clearly a shift toward remote psychoanalysis: toward personalizing the discussion to the detriment of the substance of the matter, exactly the sort of personal flaws his words project onto the bloggers and commenters here.

        Just another typical poke in the eye with an olive branch, in other words.

      • “he hasn’t really attempted to adequately grasp (or is simply incapable of grasping) the arguments he is criticizing.”

        See, this seems like every bit of an ad hominem attack as anything you accuse me of.

      • winstonscrooge:

        See, this seems like every bit of an ad hominem attack as anything you accuse me of.

        It is a characterization of your writing on a particular subject in a particular set of public discussions. I don’t pretend to know anything about you personally.

        I suppose I could have stated it more precisely by prefacing “in his writing he hasn’t really attempted …”. When it comes to that sort of thing, I think I actually do a better job than most. In my public writing.

        More succinctly, evaluating the qualities of a person’s publicly accessible work product is not an ad hominem. It is the opposite, in fact.

      • winstonscrooge:

        Sure. If Bob expresses disagreement with the Theory of Smurfs that doesn’t tell us much of anything one way or the other about the accuracy of Bob’s understanding of the Theory of Smurfs. We evaluate his understanding of the Theory of Smurfs by reviewing his attempts to characterize or paraphrase it.

      • winstonscrooge

        You are playing by an old and obvious playbook:

        Make a bunch of personal attacks under the affectation “I’m just being Mr Reasonable, look how nasty those people are, Prodigal Son parable, fruits of the Spirit”.

        When it is pointed out that these are in fact personal attacks – despite the “Mr Reasonable” affectation – do the tu quoque dance.

      • winstonscrooge:

        At issue isn’t who is and is not taking personal offense. No apology is necessary — that isn’t what is at issue. You needn’t be concerned about my emotional state, which I suppose is part of the point.

        You don’t know me, or my commenters, or the bloggers here, etc. And we don’t know you either, nor even really each other all that much except in some cases where we’ve interacted in other more private and/or in-person venues. Public blogs just aren’t really that sort of personal medium. We may get a glimpse of personality here or there, but the pool is very shallow and we are as likely to be deceived and projecting our own prejudices, when we start in on personal psychoanalysis or spiritual evaluation of actual discussion participants, as we are to have any genuine insight. More likely I would say.

        At issue is the actual content of your recent arguments at your blog, which are in fact attacks on the (putative) psychology and spiritual health of particular persons (about whom you know next to nothing, because this is the blogosphere); as opposed to – or certainly in addition to – discussion of ideas in contention, reality, etc.

        Your “observation” boils down to –
        as far as I can tell – “these guys have some interesting ideas, but I don’t like (what I perceive to be) their attitude, and if they were really right about what they argue they would have a better attitude”. Straight up ad hominem.

        Lets just stipulate that I’m a sociopathic jerk and a clown. It doesn’t bother me if anyone thinks that. Really. Take a number.

        Once you’ve gotten that out of your system we can get back to discussing what is or isn’t true. Rhetorically your best argument against my own criticism of liberalism is against the “no free societies” framing. But that rhetoric rests on not really grasping what is actually meant by the criticism, and it isn’t as if I haven’t presented a great many other ways to approach the reality I am attempting to characterize.

        Or don’t do that and just keep on with the remote psychoanalysis and spiritual counseling of the avatars in your head. It makes no difference to me, other than as a filter on what I do and don’t take seriously (and on what I recommend be taken seriously, or not).

        FWIW I am beyond certain that there are plenty of liberals – human beings with significant commitment to political liberalism – who are in the scheme of things very well adjusted, etc. They just haven’t confronted the object of their loyalty, haven’t properly grasped it and its full implications. (More could be said here but tl;dr). I make no claims about my own degree of well-adjustment, since that evaluation is best left to others.

        I don’t really care about all that though, at least qua blogger, because liberalism isn’t identical with individual liberals nor with the things floating around in their heads. Liberalism is a force in society fueled by a doctrine, much like a religion – a massive, globally dominant force – which transcends particular individuals, their idiosyncrasies, their personal unexamined commitments, etc. The more you try to personalize things, the less you will understand.

      • Winston,

        What specifically do you feel I lack the capacity to understand about your theories on liberalism?

        Zippy can speak for himself, but for my part I can say that it is unclear based on your writings what aspects you do and don’t understand about our arguments against liberalism. For example, you mentioned in your last couple of posts that in certain instances you have found aspects of our arguments compelling, or at the very least logically consistent, but you’ve never elaborated as to what those aspects are. Furthermore, while it is clear that you understand us when we draw certain controversial-sounding conclusions (e.g. that Nazism is an inbred ideological offshoot of liberalism) your writings have not shown that you grasp why this conclusion was reached.

        Borrowing Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement, your chief criticisms of us Orthospherians have been a classic example of DH2, “Responding to Tone”. That’s the direction you’ve chosen to go on your blog, which is disappointing since previously you were engaging with actual Counterarguments (DH4). Nevertheless, I have yet to see you attempt to form a Refutation (DH5), let alone a Refutation of the Central Point (DH6). And maybe doing that just doesn’t interest you, and that’s fine. But it’s not even clear to me, at least not from what you’ve written thus far, that if you wanted to make a Refutation of the Central Point, you would be able to accurately convey what the Central Point of our arguments is in the first place.

  3. Pingback: Hurt Feelings for the Gospel | Conservative Christianity, Worship, Culture, Aesthetics, Classical Education, Homeschooling, Family - Religious Affections Ministries

    • Sorry, you may be right. Can’t think of a word that’s milder but equally direct. I don’t mean it to sound as if I’m indignant, since I’m not. At least I didn’t write abhor!

      • I don’t think that acerbity is per se a bad thing. It’s just that I think the fruit of the spirit should make an appearance every once in a while. That said I don’t want to give the impression that I’m really wound up about this. It’s an interesting and fun back and forth.

      • I didn’t think you were wound up about it. You kicked the ball in an interesting direction and gave us all some things to think about.

  4. Pingback: Crossing the Rhetorical Rubicon: A Defense of Acerbity | Reaction Times

  5. “Let your speech, while always attractive, be seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” — Colossians 4:6

    Sounds like St. Paul doesn’t have a problem with acerbity.

  6. It strikes me that “acerbic” would be too weak a word for any Old Testament prophet, even the sometimes-mild Isaiah.

    Not to mention Martin Luther, or half the saints if you happen to be Catholic.

  7. It seems I have always been on a journey to figure out where​ my place in the world as a left leaning Christian is positioned. I find it moves beyond a label of liberal or conservative. Throughout my journey, which has hit some rough spots lately, finds itself ever changing while still rooted in many Christian norms. People that know me, especially my more conservative friends, would say I’m fairly liberal. Yet, I think I have certain standards​ they transcend certain tribal labels. Our political discourse seems to have had so much bile injected into it political norms seem to be a thing of the past. Maybe we should try to reestablish these norms so we can not let the coarse nature if our political discourse infect the other​ institutions society relies on.

    • I will start out treating every individual with respect and courtesy, and then turn the other cheek a couple of times. But I won’t play the game in which they they get to call me a loathsome ignoramus and I have to call them a idealistic intellectual.

      • My comment was just a causal observation about society at large. It was not meant to highlight any specific person’s statements. I apologize for any misreading of my comments. I do agree with you that courtesy is a two way street while we can only turn the other check so many times.

      • Misreading was the wrong word to use here. I meant to apologize for the lack of clarity in my comments. The comments were not meant as a criticism of JM Smith’s comments.

  8. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2017/04/02) - Social Matter

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