We are addicted to outrage! There are days when I feel like I’m living in a foreign land. I scan the comments’ section or social media feed of a news outlet (yes, even this blog) and I’m jerked awake stunned over the intensity of rage that can result from the slightest provocation. How did we become such an angry culture?
I’m not sure the name Stanley Fish will be all that familiar to you. Among other things, Stanley Fish is a literary theorist who subscribes to “literary pragmatism.” One of the primary pillars of literary pragmatism is the idea that “textual meaning is determined by the reader.” So if a reader is coming to engage with a text, how does that reader determine the meaning of the text? Fish answers, “The reader’s response is not to the meaning; it is the meaning.” In other words, “meaning” is not something I come to the text to discover, but “meaning” is something I come to the text to create. The intent of the author of that text is immaterial. The reader’s interpretation is final.
In the early 2000’s I had to spend a bit of time studying literary pragmatists like Fish. It was a very academic endeavor and I wasn’t sure how practical such study would be. After all, I didn’t actually know anyone personally who subscribed to “literary pragmatism.” But as a professor of mine once said, “Ideas are like rain – they start in the clouds invisible to the eye but finish on your front yard for all to hear, see, taste, touch, and smell.” I’m wondering if literary pragmatism’s influence has reached Main Street. How so?
Derald Wing Sue, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, coined the term “microaggressions.” He and several colleagues defined the term as: “…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” I’m happy to shout from the rooftops that we have historically marginalized groups who continue to face frequent acts of bias and prejudice. And this is a grave injustice. However, when Sue decided to include the term “unintentional”, he pushed over a domino that let lose a deluge of outrage addiction. Slights are now defined solely on the basis of the listener’s interpretation. “If I feel offended by you, you are guilty of offending me even if your intent was benign.” Assuming the worst about people and reading their actions as uncharitably as possible creates perfect conditions for outrage addiction.
From a theological perspective the crux of the matter lies in this: both literary pragmatism and Sue’s “microaggressions” grant sovereignty to the reader/hearer/receiver without any consideration given to the author or speaker’s intent. The reader, hearer, or receiver has become “God”…and therefore by implication, sinless.
First John 1:8 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” It would be unthinkable for the offended party to even consider her own personal sin playing a role in her own offendedness. But this is what Scripture teaches. The Christian community, where the full-orbed gospel is being taught, ought to be a counter-cultural outpost of “unoffendable” people.
“A person’s patience yields wisdom; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.” – Proverbs 19:11