Tuesday, December 22, 2015

HT Phoenix Preacher, Joe Carter writes at The Gospel Coalition about pseudo-events and evangelical outrage, revisiting a case study in the pseudo event generated from within the evangelical culture


Are Evangelicals Addicted to Pseudo-Events and Media Outrage?    
December 8, 2015


Because there is not enough news to fill our insatiable demand, the media (including social media) feasts on what Boorstin refers to as pseudo-events:
A pseudo-event, then, is a happening that possesses the following characteristics:
(1) It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.
(2) It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported. Time relations in it are commonly fictitious or factitious; the announcement is given out in advance “for future release” and written as if the event had occurred in the past. The question, “Is it real?” is less important than, “Is it newsworthy?”
(3) Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, “What does it mean?” has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.
(4) Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel's 30th-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.
The media, politicians, or public figures create most pseudo-events. But the advent of social media has allowed the common man to get in on the act.
A prime example is the “call to denunciation.”
Not all calls to denounce the comments or actions of a public figure are cynical and unwarranted, of course. You can usually tell which are genuine because they tend to be broad and generic (e.g., “All people of goodwill should denounce such violent rhetoric.”) They tend to become “pseudo-events,” though, when they share certain characteristics:
(1) Person A calls for Person/Group B to denounce Person/Group C—although A has no personal relationship to either B or C.
(2) B has no real connection to C, other than both being members of a large, generic group (e.g., Muslims, evangelicals).
(3) The addition of a time element (e.g., “It’s been three whole hours and B hasn’t yet publicly denounced C!”).
(4) A isn’t as interested in the comments or actions of C as in trying to find a reason to criticize B.
Search through your social media and you’ll find examples of this trend. On just about any given day someone in your social media circle is complaining because Pastor X or Organization Y didn’t denounce a comment made by some pastor they have no association with or some politician they would never, ever vote for. In the age of instant media, it’s not enough to simply be our brother’s keeper. Now, we must also be their round-the-clock, always-on-call denunciator too.
Some well made points.  And you know what's interesting about the schematic?  What we can do here is introduce a prelude and a postlude to the pseudo-event as it plays out.  It could go something like this.
Prelude: Person/Group C decides to post something to the internet that is sweeping in its generalization and without qualification or that invites an open season response in a given venue. This may be posted in a publicly accessible venue in which it may be observed by person A.
(1) Person A calls for Person/Group B to denounce Person/Group C—although A has no personal relationship to either B or C.
(2) B has no real connection to C, other than both being members of a large, generic group (e.g., Muslims, evangelicals).
(3) The addition of a time element (e.g., “It’s been three whole hours and B hasn’t yet publicly denounced C!”).
(4) A isn’t as interested in the comments or actions of C as in trying to find a reason to criticize B.
Now we get to ...
Postlude:  Person/Group C decides to blog about the whole situation and introduces a bunch of background narrative and qualifying information that was not presented in the initial inciting/inspiring remark on social media that Person A denounced.
So in the history of this blog is it possible to imagine a scenario in which this slightly modified account of a pseudo-event can be described as applying, possibly, to a particularly situation.
July 13, 2011
This week the Christian blogosphere worked itself into a frenzy over a Facebook status posted by Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. The status, which was later removed, read, "So, what story do you have about the most effeminate anatomically male worship leader you've ever personally witnessed?"
The news of this post quickly drew responses from bloggers like Rachel Held Evans, who called Driscoll a bully, and Tyler Clark, who reflected on his own experience as an oft-labeled effeminate male. These responses consequently elicited counter-responses from writers like Anthony Bradley, who accused Evans of libel, only to be met with counter-counter-responses, such as Brian McLaren's contribution to The Washington Post. The discussion finally culminated with Driscoll issuing his own response, admitting his comment was both "flippant" and failed to address "real issues with real content in a real context."

Some Backstory

I had a recent conversation with a stereotypical, blue-collar guy who drives his truck with his tools, lunchbox, and hard hat to his job site every day. He said he wasn’t a Christian, but he was open and wanted to learn what the Bible said. In that conversation, he told me he’d visited a church but that the guy doing the music made him feel uncomfortable because he was effeminate (he used another more colorful word, but that one will suffice in its place). He asked some questions about the Bible, and whether the Bible said anything about the kind of guy who should do the music. I explained the main guy doing the music in the Bible was David, who was a warrior king who started killing people as a boy and who was also a songwriter and musician.
I then put a flippant comment on Facebook, and a raging debate on gender and related issues ensued. As a man under authority, my executive elders sat me down and said I need to do better by hitting real issues with real content in a real context. And, they’re right. Praise God I have elders who keep me accountable and that I am under authority.

Real Issues in a Fuller Context

So, we are working on a new website where I can speak to these real issues in a fuller context. Lord willing, sometime in September, after my trip to Europe with my family and a lot of other people, and then some recovery time, we will launch a new website. 
In the past, I’ve not had a regular place to work out personal commentary on social issues, and so I’ve erred in sometimes doing so in places like Facebook, Twitter, and the media, where you can have a good fight but don’t have the room to make a good case.
The first content on the new website will be about gender, and much of it will be around a book my wife, Grace, and I have completed together called Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, to be published by our friends at Thomas Nelson in January. 
Both Grace and I will be blogging at the new site on issues related to gender and marriage, including mistakes we’ve made, sins we’ve committed, and convictions we agree on. And, we’ll have lots of other content on other issues as well. Until then, have a great summer, and a sincere thanks to all my critics who sometimes have good wisdom that helps me out. 
Now notice how much back story Driscoll included only after the internet caught fire for a hardly contextualized general invitation.  Driscoll simply asked on a Facebook page for people to share stories of the most effeminate anatomically male worship leaders people had come across.  Cue the reactions from the likes of Rachel Held Evans and others in the summer of 2011. 
What's most important to note here in Driscoll's response, however, is not just the lengthy backstory that wasn't included in the initial process.  What's critical to observe is that once Driscoll was the focus of so much attention what did he do?  He presented the rambling backstory to show, more or less, how out of proportion and crazy all the adverse reactions were.  He set up an elegantly false dichotomy asking a rhetorical question whether gender was either a social construct or a reflection of nature.  By now most people who think on the topic at all agree some mixture of nature and nurture, doubtless complex, informs things like gender and sexuality.  But a figure like Driscoll depends on binaries, perhaps most so when those binaries are artificially introduce, in this 2011 case post hoc.
But the real conclusion?  Driscoll promoted his forthcoming Pastor Mark TV website and, yup, forthcoming book Real Marriage.  This was not news, Jimmy Balmer would assure us, this was t-t-totally an ad.  This was arguably a pseudo-event par excellence. 
Driscoll could fit the slightly modified taxonomy of Joe Carter's Person C and Rachel Held Evans could be described as the Person A in the denunciation scenario.  Rachel Held Evans found it easy to criticize Driscoll for remarks that came off as demeaning gays and women.  It was handy to call Driscoll a bully during the year she also had a book to promote.  It can sometimes seem that whether it's a Mark Driscoll or a Donald Trump that Rachel Held Evans speaks up but if you only do shooting fish in the barrel criticism any partisan can do that. 
Now there's more discussion of Driscoll's use of social media, playing the public victim card, and how it shaped his persona. You can read about that over here.
For now just the 2011 incident will suffice as a case study in which an evangelical was the focus of a pseudo-event. If anything a case could be made that by writing what he did when he did, and in the way he did, that Mark Driscoll created a pseudo-event that was well calibrated to get a heated response which would allow him to further "clarify" things by describing what new products were going to be out there to promote and that could be bought. 
The problem is not that we notice pseudo-events or that we occasionally comment on them. The problem is that we evangelicals appear to share the culture’s addiction to pseudo-events and social media outrage. If you’re enaged in the practice every single day or week then you should really ask yourself, Is this incessant focus on daily trivia the best use of my God-given time and energy?

As Christians, we’re expected to take an eternal perspective, viewing events not just in their historical context but also in their eschatological context. But we can’t do that while focusing on the pseudo-events and social media outrages of the last 24 hours. We can’t keep an eye on what is important while we are furiously scripting our reactions to pseudo-events that will be forgotten within a week.

Truly important events are not always captured on the front page of a daily paper or found in your social media feed. ...
There's much about Carter's critique of the pseudo event and associated outrage I find agreeable.  I would add a small modification, which is to point out that not only are evangelicals (and others, really) addicted to this pseudo-event cycle and its associated outrage, there are figtures within evangelicalism who have made the dynamics of the pseudo event with the clarifying modifications I've provided central to their public persona.  Not just Mark Driscoll did this.  After all ... earlier this year some dude blogged about why he thought Christian girls were prettier and the internet lit up and then, oh gosh, the dude just had to blog about how crazy it was he was getting, like, friendly fire.   Doug Wilson and company retracted A Justice Primer and there's something to be said for that, but that doesn't really change how remarkably well Doug Wilson's public blogging career can be understood as including in its utility kit the occasional pseudo-event.  Doug Wilson can opine on this or that topic in a way that just so happens to inspire the ire of those whom he identifies as "intoleristas" and he can back up and winsomely and gently explain how what he said was misconstrued and willfully misunderstood. 
We've discussed this little incident that could be described as another pseudo-event in the past. 
Posted on Wednesday, September 23, 2015 by Carl Trueman
Over at his blog, Douglas Wilson has an interesting post on why Christian women are prettier.  [that was Tuesday, September 22, 2015] I was particularly struck by this paragraph:
"Unbelieving women either compete for the attention of men through outlandish messages that communicate some variation of “easy lay,” or in the grip of resentment they give up the endeavor entirely, which is how we get lumberjack dykes. The former is an avid reader of Cosmopolitan and thinks she knows 15K ways to please a man in bed. The latter is just plain surly about the fact that there even are any men."
So there you have it.  That is Mr Wilson's sophisticated take on the psychology of non-Christian women: they either aspire to be sex mad prostitutes or, failing that, turn into butch lesbians.
I guess he must be describing my mother because she is not a Christian -- but I am not sure at what point in her life she quite fitted this description.  I must have missed it.  When she married, still chaste, at 20?  Throughout her 46 years of faithful, devoted marriage to dad?  When she patiently and lovingly nursed him through his long, final, painful illness, administering his meds, lifting him on and off the toilet, attending to his most basic and undignified bodily needs? During the years since his death when she has been faithful to the memory of 'the only man I will ever love', to use her phrase?
To be sure, she is not a Christian.  She needs Jesus as her saviour.  But I suspect the reduction of non-Christian women to whores or lesbians says more about the psychology of the writer than it does about my mother.  And maybe other mothers too?
Wilson, for his part ...

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Well, you’ve gone and put your foot in it now, Wilson. Why, what have I done? It’s all very well to aspire to become the bad boy of Reformed letters, but there are supposed to be limits. But this piques my curiosity. To what might you be referring? Yes, you pretend to be ignorant, but you know very well what you have done. Well, yes, I actually do know. I did toss a cinder block into the goldfish bowl.

As I mount the gallows and look out over the crowd gathered for the festivities, the chaplain accompanying the hangman asks me if I ever thought it would end this way. Well, kinda, I did, but to be honest, I hadn’t anticipated that it would be for believing that Christian women were prettier.

The only thing worse in this scenario than garnering controversy is to not get attention.  Now some of you readers may be noting, fairly, that perhaps Wenatchee The Hatchet could just ignore guys like Doug Wilson and Mark Driscoll already.  That would be nice, really, but these are guys who insist on staying in the public sphere against what some might consider better judgment.  Moreover, Driscoll, long ago in his blog post for the Brits, boasted in his professional credentials in media and journalism and also on behalf of the credentials of his wife.  Driscoll, in other words, was saying to us "we're professionals."  Indeed.  It could seem that Driscoll's mastery of the pseudo-event gives us some evidence for Driscoll's interest in and, indeed, at least partial mastery of, the tools of spin and counterspin in social media.
If he's insisted on telling the world how qualified he is for that sort of game and insists on staying in the public eye then it doesn't hurt to remind the world that Joe Carter's concern is a legitimate one.  It's also worth noting that at least one former member of the Gospel Coalition itself has some history of pseudo-event generation.  If Doug Wilson's got any observable history of inciting pseudo-events that might be something for The Gospel Coalition folks to consider.  If we're going to rise above the temptation to participate in pseudo-events and vent spleen it would really help if we survey our own team and aks whether any of us, whatever our team is, isn't guilty of leveraging and creating pseudo-events to promote products and causes instead of covering actual news and observing important historical events.

After all, we've since learned that when it came to things Mars Hill inking a deal to rig the New York Times bestseller list was incontestably a bigger deal than the summer publicity stunt Driscoll did that Rachel Held Evans and a whole lot of other people got played by. Carter's right that truly important events are not always captured on the front page of a daily paper or in your social media feed.  That had everything to do with why Wenatchee The Hatchet spent half a decade blogging about the history of Mars Hill and the decisions of its leadership culture. 


Mike said...

Joe Carter is quite the one to criticize manipulative, disingenuous media tactics in psuedo-Christianity. Perhaps his expertise and experience in such matters qualifies him, something like Frank Abegnale, himself an infamous fraud, becoming a crack fraud investigator.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Carter may himself be a master of pseudo-events but the tension between Carter's concern and the history of TGC contributors Driscoll and Wilson creating pseudo-events might be enough for the aims of the blog. Trying to get things back to other topics eventually.

And it seems as though Rachel Held Evans is a case study in how pseudo-events can be formulated. She has tended to be the Person A in pseudo-events. The idea that only one side or the other is guilty of pseudo-events is something we need to wean ourselves off of.

I think Carter's way of describing pseudo-events fails to account for the reality that conservative Protestants participate in these; but that said progressive Christians do, too. Sometimes it seems as though the entire public career of Frank Schaeffer has been little more than a string of pseudo-events, whether he was on the right or left side of the political or theological spectrum. We need to be able to see the pseudo-event as a disease of media use that is endemic to American culture even without the internet amplifying things.

Mike said...

I didn't really mean Joe Carter was a pseudo-event creator; actually, I don't follow his musings enough to know, but what I have seen of him seems cynical, manipulative, win-at-all-costs for his team--and based on the fruits as I adjudge them, his team may not be the one headed by the Carpenter's Son.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Fair enough. I think the win-at-all-costs people dominate too much of the right and left (whether in religion or politics) in North America. The religious right seemed to learn nothing from the old religious left and a new religious left reacting to the religious right may comparably learn too little too late. It may be an American skepticism about institutions and institutional memory, then again, I dunno, do Canadians have any comparable problems? Maybe ... I mean ... Todd Bentley?

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

Didn't "a pseudo-event" used to be called "A Publicity Stunt"?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I think these days a publicity stunt is something "you" can be proud of while a pseudo-event is something "they" do to promote stuff you don't like. So TGC may have people who have done publicity stunts while pseudo-events are reserved for Rachel Held Evans. And, of course, the dynamic can be reversed. Not particularly fond of either side there, though longtime readers "probably" already knew that. :)