An excerpt from Alex Willmott’s new book has appeared at the Christian website Threads, and caused some debate. I differ drastically from Willmott and the organization he was part of – Christian Vision For Men – on a range of theological and social issues, so I wasn’t particularly expecting to agree with the piece. His ideas on “real leadership” in Christianity are very far away from mine, and that’s a given. However, I wasn’t expecting the level of rhetorical dishonesty which the piece and the comments revealed, particularly from a site like Threads, which offers itself as a reputable voice in a particular stream of modern, liberal Evangelicalism. That dishonesty is why I’ve taken the trouble to write this piece, suggesting that there is something wrong about the way this discussion was carried along (rather than its conclusions) and that Threads might want to change its editorial line in future.
The first example of this dishonesty comes in the subtitle of the article: “Why Church Leaders Should Front Up Or F*** Off”, which it explains comes from a summing up of the author’s (excellent) boss’ management strategy. Willmott explains that it’s not his phrase, it was used by a colleague, but he “appreciate[s] the clarity of the statement”. Though he adds that he is “neither offended nor in favour of such abrasive language”, which seems odd given that he chose it as the subtitle of his entire article and told a story in which it was the punchline. The word “fuck” (which is starred out) is the point of that anecdote and the slogan of his argument, it’s not an incidental feature which could be silently edited out, and its (not quite) appearance sums up some of the problems with Willmott’s approach. He quotes an expletive but won’t say it, he cites a colleague’s “abrasive” language but won’t either condone or approve it. The piece wants to shock but not to justify itself.
This becomes even clearer in the comments section, where Willmott performs a series of rhetorical moves which will be depressingly familiar to many. In response to a critique of his theology and logic, he replies with a dismissive comment about changing nappies, then describes his interlocutor as “like Optimus Prime”, and when told “I assumed we were having a serious discussion about the issues” disclaims all desire to be serious: “Nah. I prefer to keep it light. At night I like put on a miners hat, switch the light on and head into the garden. After five seconds I’m dancing with hundreds of moths. Other than that I enjoy rugby, snooker and whisky. What about you bro? What sort of things do you enjoy?” A series of equally dismissive, or simply bizarre, replies follow. To a 700-word discussion of the problems with church leadership, he responds “I wish you’d saw me in the 90s. I was such a cool guy”, a suggestion that he name who should “fuck off” and discuss the context garners the answer “I once played rugby in Flamingo Land. It was brilliant. As a welsh lad playing in England, it felt like something special. I remember singing with the 1st team on the bus. I remember trying my first beer. I remember the days” and in response to complaint about his attitude, “Stop flirting with me you sassy little beauty.”
This is rhetorical dishonesty. It’s the sort of language which we’ve discussed previously at Quite Irregular, in response to Rowan Williams’ writing on “The Integrity of Theology”. Williams criticizes dishonest speech on the basis that it seeks to gain and maintain power, and typically does so by refusing to disclose the purposes and principles behind it. To quote him briefly:
Why is it so important that speech should not conceal its purposes? Discourse that conceals is discourse that (consciously or not) sets out to foreclose the possibility of a genuine response. By operating on two levels, one acknowledged and one not, it presents to the hearer a set of positions and arguments other than those that are finally determinative of its working. Thus the repudiation or refutation of the surface position leaves the body of the discourse untouched, since it will not engage the essential agenda
Language which fails to do this is trying to gain power whilst making itself invulnerable to response or conversation. It’s exactly what seems to be going on here: whenever the subject of the article is engaged with, the comments deny the possibility of that engagement by disclaiming any meaning, or refusing to reply to the point or repeated references to blokey activities such as going for a pint (or several). The repetitive machismo is the same move under another name, appealing to an assumption that to want to talk seriously or analyse the topic is unmanly, and that the rhetorical upper hand can always be gained by a man who can prove he prefers drinking to thinking.
That machismo is not incidental. The “stop taking it so seriously/ it was just a joke/ lighten up” response echoes continually around our culture, used by the powerful to belittle or dismiss the less powerful. It’s the reply of the office pest and the bullying boss – “can’t you take a joke, love?”, “bit too sensitive, mate!” – of everyone who wants to sneer and humiliate whilst maintaining a smokescreen of plausible deniability. At the moment, it’s the rhetorical stance which people like Dapper Laughs are encouraging young men to take to cover street harassment and sexual assault. Using the language of criticism without anyone being able to reply is a dangerous fantasy, and one which all too many men indulge.
It’s both telling and troubling that this is taking place in a discussion about leadership in the Church, and particularly about who should be in charge of institutions, who should be speaking and who should be listening, how authority should be brought to bear on those perceived to be lacking. In the Evangelical tradition, which has rightly stressed the power and impact of speech and proclamation, it is even more concerning. I’d suggest that a site like Threads needs to be much more sensitive to these dynamics in its editorial line.