Post-Partisan? The Importance of Language and Labels

In a recent interview with the Washington Post (6/28/13), the new editor of America Magazine, Matt Malone, explained a shift in policy that no longer allows writers to label fellow Catholics as liberal or conservative:

“It’s not simply that terms [in a Catholic context] like ‘left’ and ‘right’ are inaccurate, it’s that they are counterproductive. There’s a real unity of Catholics. Any language that would oppose one part of the body to the other is inappropriate. We’re a communion. We’re, by definition, one.”

Such thinking is on the rise and often goes by the name “post-partisan.”  While I appreciate the desire to find points of unity and agreement amidst widespread conflict within the Catholic Church, I do not believe that it is ultimately our use of the labels liberal/conservative or left/right that create such conflict (although certain labels may foment conflict – more about that below), indeed, I think such labels reflect the fact that one’s theological views cannot be entirely separated from political, social, and economic realities.

It seems to me that the post-partisan effort is like someone with a jar of beets and a jar of cat food that for some reason finds their difference uncomfortable.  To manage their discomfort over the conflict between beets and cat food, they claim that both are simply “food” and so should only be labeled as “food.”  Further, any questions or evaluations from people wanting to know what kind of food is in the jar are dismissed as partisan.  Instead they are told that the “food” is equally the same, it is really one “food,” and so it can be used in any recipe, as if no one will actually taste the resulting concoction.  In other words, banning descriptive terms that point to real world differences does not thereby equalize or pacify those differences in a way that will make them cease to exist.

Playing around with labels, or pretending they are not there, is based on the assumption that it is language which is causing conflict, when in reality, language is the formal expression (more or less helpful, and more or less accurate) of the material causes of the conflict, i.e., the social, political, economic, and ecclesial situations that have historically developed thus far.  Language is the human ability to take in with our senses various information from the world and describe it.  Theologian Denys Turner gives the example of a human and a dog that are both startled by a noise.  Both sense danger, but only the human can fear it under the description “terrorist.”  Changing the sign by which we express what is meant by “terrorist,” or ignoring it all-together, does not thereby make the situation any less dangerous.  Similarly, ignoring the signs by which we express “left” and “right” does not thereby make any less real the effects of these different ways of structuring our social, political, economic, and ecclesial lives.

Paradoxically, underlying this rather idealist understanding of language, i.e., that ideas inform the world rather than the world informing ideas, is the post-partisan claim that somehow the Catholic or religious sphere is not subject to the same kind of descriptions of reality as “left” or “right” that are apparently perfectly appropriate for other spheres.  As Malone stated in his interview, he believes these terms do not accurately reflect a Catholic unity.  It seems to me that this is an attempt, whether culpable or not, to divorce Catholicism/religion from the sphere of public life, a backdoor way into the privatizing of religion.  Yet it has been the contribution of our age to recognize the false dichotomy between religion and politics, between theology and the everyday.  One’s theological and religious views have real world implications, just ask right-wing Christians (or in Andrew Sullivan’s apt phrase, “Christianists”) who opposes any environmental regulations because of their belief in the apocalypse and a high Christology that tends to de-emphasize Jesus’ humanity and thus his kinship with us and the created world.

Proclaiming Catholic unity does not make it so, and indeed simply hides the differences under a false congeniality.  Attempting to deny the larger frameworks within which we evaluate, discern, critique, dialogue, reason, etc., is never a good idea.  The Church and its members are located within the larger frameworks that make up our social, political, and economic life, and in this way are subject to the values therein.  Likewise, the Church’s values are part of this matrix of competing visions of the good and the true.  Acknowledging the reality of our shared if fragile and conflicted framework, the postmodern horizon within which multiple visions of the good life mix together, is to perform the essential Christian task of reading the signs of the times.  It is to be lovingly attentive to the overall direction of the current of humanity and to seek to guide this current along a Gospel path, even while recognizing that this will never be done perfectly by us (in other words, God is the primary cause of the Kingdom).

In this sense, it is not conflict that is to be feared and it is not labeling such conflict that is the problem.  Jesus himself moved toward conflict, even variously labeling those he disagreed with as hypocrites, white-washed sepulchers, snakes, foxes, etc.  What he did not do, however, was allow those labels to be confused with the nature of those human beings, i.e., he did not allow the expressions of reality to mean that such reality cannot change and become, to mean that those he was calling out could not turn in a different direction.  In fact, he was constantly asking for repentance, and lovingly willing to attend to any and all with ears to hear and eyes to see.  Likewise, he did not seek to resolve and redeem conflict through violence or degradation.  While his speech may at times have been strong, in the end he was willing to give his life for both those who proclaimed to be his followers and those who proclaimed to be his enemies.

We do not love our enemies by pretending difference is not there.  We love our enemies by engaging in dialogue, in the slow painstaking task of articulating our different visions of the good and the true, and in attempting to convince one another, without violent coercion, of the credibility and authenticity of our vision.  In this sense I share with the post-partisans sadness at the denigration of the language by which we address one another as well as the use of language to pursue and maintain conflict with no intention of real dialogue.  Unlike the post-partisans, however, I do not think the solution is to hide from the conflict, but rather to embrace it in the Christian hope of its redemption.  We cannot rid ourselves of evaluative language, and shifting or trying to hide from it will only repress real structural differences, most likely to the advantage of the already privileged.  Belief in justice and human dignity requires us to evaluate, discern, and label some things as closer to the latter than others, so let us get on with developing non-violent and effective means of communication rather than trying to present all competing views as if they were equally good and true.conflict

12 responses to “Post-Partisan? The Importance of Language and Labels

  1. I am so glad you wrote this post. I feel exactly the same way. When I read the WaPo interview, I wondered if the next logical move would be for the magazine to announce that it was officially colorblind and didn’t see race. Or maybe it could nix terms like “misogynist” or “homophobic,” on the grounds that they impede unity and make people feel divided. I think the move to ban the use of “conservative” and “liberal” shows not just a misunderstanding of how language works but is part of an ideology of moderation that thrives on painting every opponent as “extremist” (as Katie argued in a previous WomenInTheology post).

  2. This piece, ironically, serves as perhaps the best argument imaginable for Matt Malone’s position. It is an own goal.

    You have labeled your opponents in such a way that (1) you have failed to discover what they actually believe, and/or (2) you can dismiss them without engaging their actual points of view. Again, ironically, the piece serves as a classic example of how labeling is so destructive of actual, genuine engagement and disagreement.

    No one I know who has the goals you criticize and lampoon (in a rather dismissive and uncharitable way, I might add) is interested in avoiding genuine conflict. Dropping the old, imprecise, and out-of-date labels actually *allows* for true exchange, dialogue and disagreement to take place. No one who has the goals you criticize and lampoon is interested in retreating from the public and political conversion. Dropping the labels actually *aids* authentic Christian participation the political conversation. Those you criticize are interested in resisting wildly imprecise political labels that should not only be rejected by Christians, but by the secular culture as well. These labels rely on a lazy binary which hides and distorts far more than it reveals. Furthermore, it artificially and simplistically sets people against each other–such that one’s very identity is built around opposition to the other–making it virtually impossible to be in solidarity.

    No one is “playing around with labels” or “pretending they aren’t there.” (Again, speaking in this dismissive way is powerful evidence that, at least in this piece, you don’t actually want to authentically engage and disagree with your opponents.) The people you choose to dismiss are instead boldly resisting destructive power structures which promote and feed off of the old political binary. The goal of your opponents is to realize the unity of the body into which we have been baptized, but you seem to suggest that your opponents think that it already has been realized? The *whole point* of what they are trying to do is based on the fact that everyone knows this unity has not been realized.

    It is also worth pointing out that non-Christians are also tired of the old, lazy political binary. Those who identify as independent are at all time highs and growing. “Third Way”, “No Labels” and similar organizations are flourishing. In seems that every month a new organization pops up that is attempting to find a way to move beyond our polarized categories and actually have real discourse and exchange. Millennials (who, for instance, generally support gay marriage, but not abortion) are poised to topple a political discourse which has already rotted away from within. Rather than holding onto the old way of doing things, we should get behind them. And push.

    • Thanks for engaging “nohiddenmagenta.” Apparently I’m hopelessly out of touch, dismissive, destructive of genuine engagement, and only interested in old, lazy, artificial, and simplistic binaries. It’s a good thing your “No Labels” or “Third Way” is here to set me straight by not putting me into any artificial or dualistic categories. Your critique here has shown me how not labeling advances one’s authentic participation. You win!

  3. Brad, I certainly didn’t put you into an (artificial) category–either in this post or in my mind–and I never will. I owe you this both as a fellow member of the body of Christ and as a fellow human being. You say you want genuine engagement and disagreement. I tried that. Your comment in reply was non-responsive, and continued to imply false things about those who disagree with you.

    • Charlie, I’m not going to continue to take the bait, but I wish you well as a brother in Christ.

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  7. I think you’re misreading Malone. You both agree that dialog is the key. I think Malone believes that the use of labels is an impediment to dialog as it creates false assumptions and is often used as a bludgeon. I don’t believe Malone thinks the labels themselves create disunity, rather the labels impede dialog which then disrupts unity.

    I don’t believe Malone is hiding from the conflict. He’s trying to guide the conflict closer to resolution rather than endless, superficial bickering. You might disagree with his approach to doing so, but I believe your analysis of his overall goals is inaccurate.

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