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There's No Point in Keeping Receipts Unless We're Balancing Them (and We're Probably Not Balancing Them)
I understand the point Erik is making here, and he’s right. The more we learn about Joe Biden and his family, the more worthy of outrage it is, and people who claimed from 2016-2020 that character is paramount should, if they’re honest, be willing to say that. But the tweet, which is clearly rhetorical, is basically a template. Swap the proper names, change some details (“son” becomes “corporations,” “mob scenes” replaces “inappropriate trans parties”), and you have exactly the same content that was published endlessly for four years, and will be published endlessly for four more if Trump wins next November. And the rhetorical question about silence from certain evangelical leaders will still land because, guess what, there will be certain evangelical leaders who won’t say anything about these things. I’ve been watching evangelical tribes demand to know why each other won’t show more outrage for years now. The questions stay the same and the answers stay invisible.
Why? Because we just aren’t willing to be honest about these three realities:
We have a much bigger problem with the sins of people we don’t identify with than the sins of people we do identify with.
Prophets against purity culture tend to get skittish about abortion. Those who stand athwart the gender revolution yelling “Stop” often swallow their whistle when the topic turns to race. Reformed Calvinists put up with very little bad theology but have put up with a lot of scorching anger, and mainline folks congratulate themselves on their multiculturalism while heaping scorn on the ethics of the global, nonwhite church.
These “debates” go on and on and on. Everybody has receipts. Everybody has a story of their opponents sinning against the vulnerable, covering up wrongdoing, being exposed in hypocrisy. Everybody is silent somewhere, and everybody else knows where that “somewhere” is.
We all believe there are more things important than constantly criticizing the bad (especially when it reflects poorly on those ideologically or professional adjacent to us).
Social media is unique for how it translates what would otherwise be considered ridiculous behavior into logical, even courageous, online habits. I’ve said before that the “winsomeness” debate smells very online; in the world of physical, interpersonal encounters with those who don’t share our politics or theology, we instinctively reach for winsomeness (even in disagreement) because…well, that’s how an office, a bus stop, and a dinner table work. But the internet is different. We control (or we think we control) our experience of the world, so we expect people to produce certain kinds of output, and when this doesn’t happen, we assume cowardly or malicious motivation.
Many times we are reading the logic of Online back into our real-world experiences. Normal people do not pick up the phone when you call and say, “Hello, did you see what that person in your tribe or my tribe did today? Outrageous!” Normal people are not subscribed in real-time to the sins of their friends (even though they can admit they exist). Normal people do not begin the day with a balance sheet of moral and epistemological crimes. What’s normal is accepting that everybody is a sinner, that this fact should not and cannot prevent association, and that friendships and leadership are impossible when people are counting mistakes.
We all have our own particular donor classes/employers/social networks and we naturally don’t want to upset them.
Let’s answer Erik’s question as transparently as possible. One reason some of the evangelicals that most vocally opposed Trump are not criticizing Biden’s outrages is that their friends like Biden and the Democrats, and dislike Trump and the Republicans. They don’t want to offend their friends; they don’t want to get emails and texts saying, “Whose side are you on, anyway?” Another reason is that some of these evangelicals are embedded in vocational cultures that would frown upon criticizing Biden, and thus present a danger to their networking and prospects. Yes, that is the answer for some of the people that Erik describes. Yes, it is a clear-cut case of intellectual honesty letting self-interest take the wheel.
And of course, the exact same is true for people who failed to criticize Donald Trump. Some of these evangelicals are/were working for institutions whose donor classes liked Trump, and they can afford to talk about gender insanity in a way they can’t afford to talk about stolen-election rhetoric. Some of these evangelicals were pastors of churches whose elder boards and deacons would be upset if their senior pastor talked about separating kids from parents at the border. Some of these evangelicals were leaders who fear a Twitter pile-on. If you want to know why balls and strikes don’t get called, this is why.
Of course, this kind of argument gets dismissed as “bothsidesism.” It gets met with the same Martin Luther quote about defending the truth at every point, except the point that the Devil is most challenging. It gets met with accusations of moral ambivalence. And nobody likes to be accused of those things. That’s why people who know better don’t say all this. They don’t want to log on and see 30 notifications and worry if their employer or their publisher is going to reach out later that day.
So after a while, a lot of people realize something that genuinely does change them: The realization that this is all a game, that it’s set up to punish virtue and reward vice, and that the only way to win is not to play. “Silence” is no longer a cynical strategy. It’s the only response that befits this kind of foolishness.