Speech, Speakers and Privilege

March 22, 2014    By: Jeff G @ 2:06 pm   Category: Ethics,Mormon Culture/Practices

Within the bloggernacle we are confronted with a strange mix of intellectualism and faith-based non-intellectualism (I’ll just call this “faith” for short).  On the one hand, the anonymity and lack of ecclesiastical or jurisdictional boundaries within this online forum essentially guarantee that no blogger is able to justify their own ideas or policies with an appeal to their own position or authority within society.  This is very close to the defining rule of intellectualism that no claim can ever be justified by any appeal to any person’s position within society.  On the other hand, the tacit acknowledgement of various priesthood authorities by nearly all participants provides a clear and rather anti-intellectual exception to this rule in that the position of some quoted speakers within society can legitimately justify their quoted speech.  There simply isn’t much argument to be had between those who do and those who do not accept the non-jurisdictional priesthood of General Authorities.  Thus, the bloggernacle is not quite like a church meeting since there are no presiding officials, but it is not like the Salons of the Enlightenment where every person that has ever lived has equal standing either.

This tension can also be reconstrued in terms of the distinction that the intellectual insists on drawing between speakers and their speech.  Since, according to the intellectual, speakers’ positions within society can neither justify nor invalidate their speech, the social position of the speakers not only can, but ought to be ignored or even repressed.  Indeed, to criticize (or defend) a position by drawing attention to the speaker is to commit the ad hominem fallacy – quite literally, to address the person rather than his or her claims.  By contrast, official church meetings are at pains to establish the social relationship which exists between the speaker and the rest of the group, as this relationship is very relevant to his or her speech.  In other words, the organization of priesthood authority is meant to clearly establish who can legitimately say some things and who cannot since the position of a speaker within Mormon society often does justify or invalidate his or her speech.

The bloggernacle, then, is a kind of penumbral case in which even though the position of the bloggers and commenters within society, Mormon or otherwise, is totally beside the point, this does not generalize to all people. The race, gender, sexual orientation, kinships, worthiness, political clout, personal revelations, etc. of the bloggers within the ‘nacle do absolutely nothing to justify or invalidate the ideas and positions which they defend or critique.  By contrast, the priesthood positions of the General Authorities that are often quoted within the bloggernacle – authorities which have no jurisdictional limits – absolutely do justify or invalidate those ideas and policies on which they have officially spoken.  In more brash terms, “Once the leaders speak, the debate is over” since that just is what priesthood authority amounts to: the authority to end debate on some issues.

Slightly beside the point, but absolutely worth drawing attention to is how the all too frequent mentioning of our leaders’ falliblity is little more than a poorly masked attempt to apply the rules of intellectualism rather than the rules of faith to them.  Drawing attention to the fallibility of the General Authorities only makes sense if one assumes that their position within the church does not, in fact, serve to justify their speech.  The intellectual, thus, sees any appeal to priesthood authority the same way he or she sees any other attempt to justify or invalidate speech by drawing attention to the speaker’s position within society: as an ad hominem fallacy.  The claimed fallibility of priesthood leaders is thus used as a means of preventing the social standing of the speaker from justifying their speech as it was designed to do.  And yet, I digress….

To recap, among the many rules which constitute legitimate engagement within the bloggernacle we can count two:

  1. Official speech by General Authorities is justified by the speaker’s position within society.
  2. No other speech is justified or invalidated by the position of any other speaker within society.

Having established the two rules which govern the relationship between speech and speakers within the bloggernacle, I now want to argue that far too many intellectuals within the bloggernacle break both of these rules.  Too be sure, such intellectuals do explicitly and strongly insist that speakers’ positions within society should be totally irrelevant to many kinds of speech.  For example, they argue that gender should be totally irrelevant to the validity of various ideas and policies concerning leadership within the church.  (Females should be able to say the sacramental prayers.)  Similarly, they argue that sexual orientation is also irrelevant to many ideas and policies regarding marriage and family within the church.  (Gays and lesbians should be able to openly say “I love you” and the Mormon equivalent of “I do.”)  I do not at all want to engage or discuss the merits of these positions at this time, only to note that such intellectuals do insist that these particular positions within society should no longer serve to invalidate the voice or speech of various speakers within the church.

While these intellectuals clearly argue that the gender and sexual orientation of a speaker should neither justify nor invalidate their speech within the church, many of these intellectuals also argue that the gender and sexual orientation of a speaker most certainly does justify or invalidate their speech within bloggernacle discussions regarding these issues.  When debating women’s ordination, a man’s speech is often invalidated solely because of the speaker’s position within society.  Within similar debates regarding homosexuals’ place with the church, a heterosexual’s speech is given second class status precisely due to the heterosexuality of the speaker.  In such cases, the social position of the speaker is clearly being used to invalidate the speech in question just as the social position of women and homosexuals is used to justify their speech surrounding such issues.

It is under the guise of “privilege” that the intellectual tries to have his or her egalitarian cake and eat it too, since it is the privilege of various positions within society that is what biases their speech.  In these cases, it is the privileged positions of males and heterosexuals within society that serves to make their views less authentic and therefore less valid than those of women and homosexuals.  Thus, on the one hand, the intellectual wants to sever the social position of speakers from their speech, but also reserves the right to bring the social position of speakers to bear on their speech when it is in their interest to do so.  The intellectual has thus rigged the game such that “heads” means he or she wins and “tails” means do-over.

It may be argued that the privileged positions of male and heterosexuals cannot be so easily dismissed out of an exaggerated fear of the ad hominem fallacy.  Male and heterosexual privilege is very real and very relevant to these issues and such attempts at sidelining such phenomena are themselves rather irrational displays of the very privileges that are at issue.

This criticism, however, misses the mark for the simple fact that a privileged position is not necessarily a fallacious position.  The proper exposition of privilege does not itself constitute an ad hominem attack since it merely describes the acquisition of a belief which may or may not be justifiable on its own merits.  To be sure, accusations of “privilege” or “mansplaining” can legitimately be used therapeutically in order to lead males and heterosexuals to recognize the ways in which their privileged position in society has shaped their perspective, distance themselves from this privileged perspective, and thus critically evaluate that perspective.  Such accusations, however, do not by themselves constitute such a critical evaluation. In other words, while such labels can and perhaps should serve to check various speakers, they do absolutely nothing to check the ideas and policies which have been spoken and as such do not constitute a legitimate response to any argument.  The fact that my views regarding the place of women and homosexuals within the church come from a privileged perspective does not in and of itself invalidate my views any more than the fact that the shape of a benzene-ring was discovered by way of a dream of a snake eating its own tail invalidates our views regarding the shape of that molecule.

By these lights, the intellectual’s appeals to “mansplaining” and “privilege” with regard to the place of women and homosexuals within the church fail on two counts.  Firstly, the intellectual’s attempts at severing the social position of women and homosexuals within society from the legitimacy of their speech within the church clearly conflict with the quoted speech of General Authorities.  Secondly, the intellectual’s dismissiveness toward male and heterosexual perspectives is a clear case of the social position of the speaker being used to invalidate their speech.  The only social position which can legitimately be invoked within the bloggernacle in order to justify or invalidate any view is not gender or sexual orientation, but the non-jurisdictional priesthood of General Authorities.

In conclusion, I wish to preemptively block the most common criticism of posts and comments such as these.  I am not trying to silence any female or homosexual’s perspective since their gender and/or sexual orientation no more (and no less!) relevant within this context.  I simply do not care about such things since they neither justify nor invalidate any of views that are at issue.  Such people are completely free to defend or criticize any or all of my speech here in the ‘nacle; just don’t try to distract attention from the issues at hand by shifting it to my position within society.  Pointing out how privileged I am is simply not the same thing as pointing out how wrong I am.

14 Comments »

  1. Excellent again Jeff.

    I think you make an excellent point in the self-interested cherry picking of who counts as an authority. I have observed with interest reactions to some recent statements from the LDS newsroom were celebrated (because many in the ‘nacle agreed with the leaders this time). While others like the Family Proclamation for example are dismissed. It seems at times that anything goes, depending on whether something matches the ideology.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — March 22, 2014 @ 6:16 pm

  2. “Pointing out how privileged I am is simply not the same thing as pointing out how wrong I am.”

    Wrong.

    Comment by Gaz — March 22, 2014 @ 9:34 pm

  3. “Pointing out how privileged I am is simply not the same thing as pointing out how wrong I am.”

    Correct!

    Comment by Jettboy — March 23, 2014 @ 6:39 am

  4. I guess a more carefully worded version would be:

    “Pointing out how privileged this speaker is is simply not the same thing as pointing out how invalid my speech is.”

    Either way, Gaz’s comment contributes nothing to the discussion.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 23, 2014 @ 9:11 am

  5. I also thought of adding that the women and homosexuals who are being used by the intellectuals, are being used because of their ideological agreement. Women and homosexuals that disagreed with the ideology would not be seen as ‘authorities’.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — March 23, 2014 @ 9:40 am

  6. Exactly Eric. The picking and choosing seems less to do with the speaker or privilege and more to do with whether they agree with it or not.

    Lots of huzzah on the bloggernacle and “in your face, we were right all along” about the Blacks and the Priesthood Gospel study topic and it being treated as a official announcement from the First Presidency and 12.

    However, when the ones came out reestablishing orthodox views that go against their personal opinions such as, when it comes to plural marriage, “Latter-day Saints were expected to accept the principle as a revelation from God” and “As man now is, God once was” there’s nary a peep.

    Comment by jpv — March 23, 2014 @ 10:39 am

  7. I fully agree, Eric, and I plan on dedicating a post to that issue.

    JPV, I agree with that as well, although I would be hard pressed to find someone who is not guilty of the same thing. In my experience with such activists, however, my arguments definitely tend to be judged more by how much they like my conclusion rather than the merits of my argument. Gaz’s comment is par for that course.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 23, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

  8. Thanks, Jeff, for another thoughtful and enlightening post.

    Comment by R. Gary — March 24, 2014 @ 12:43 am

  9. Would pointing out that your argument seems to rely entirely on vague strawmen and lacks any concrete evidence demonstrate anything?

    Comment by Casey — March 24, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

  10. Pointing out the specific points that lack evidential support or the specific interpretations that are strawmen might help. To be sure, the post is based on an experience in the ‘ncle that I suspect isn’t very unique and my interpretation of critical theory which is certainly not beyond question. By all means, I’m all ears.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 24, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

  11. C.S. Lewis called this Bulverism: https://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro/DCM-Lewis-2009/Lewis/Bulversim-rev1.doc

    Comment by Jacob J — April 3, 2014 @ 11:35 pm

  12. I like that. To be honest, I not totally satisfied with this post. That’s why when I asked Casey to provide more details regarding its failings. I think that a lot of my points are on target, but it just seems strange for an anti-intellectualist such as myself to criticize others for not following the rules of intellectualism.

    Comment by Jeff G — April 5, 2014 @ 2:16 pm

  13. Jeff G.

    To me your posts are self-refuting because the authorities you reference don’t talk about their authority the way you do. Your views on authority are un-authorized and therefore illegitimate.

    Comment by Martin James — May 5, 2014 @ 10:22 pm

  14. What is fascinating is the concept of social hierarchy and authority that is a significant issue in the Bloggernacle and the way it acts and reacts.

    It always gives me a delicious sense of irony to see it in action from time to time.

    In the current kerfuffle, there are people who want to be heard, not because they have authority, not because they have knowledge in the subject area they are writing on, and not because they have anything but social capital and entitlement.

    With which they resist and react against authority gained by other means. Reminds me of those who felt Jack Welch did not deserve any respect for his ideas — all he had done was publish in appropriate professional journals and receive a warm welcome by some scholars. He had not been part of the right coffee klatches and had not paid his dues to the right social hierarchy.

    It is important to also scan in the social entitlement issues that run through many discussions.

    Comment by Stephen R. Marsh (Ethesis) — June 20, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

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