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Bad Readers and Their Twitter Swarms

July 10th, 2023 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

One of the reasons the Josh Butler fiasco was such a disaster is that when TGC published a letter apologizing for the excerpt it communicated to Butler's attackers that their methods work. And so it should not surprise anyone that they are now recycling those methods in hopes of swarming another writer who is saying things that post-evangelical progressives don't like.

The latest example concerns the conservative writer Nancy Pearcey and her new book on masculinity. Author Sheila Gregoire, one of the primary critics of Butler and a fairly regular example of the "bad cop" type amongst post-evangelical swarms, recently posted this on Twitter criticizing Pearcey:

Hey, @kkdumez, if you’re still doing research on evangelicals upset about women’s suffrage, you may want to take a look at Nancy Pearcey’s new book Tge Toxic War on Masculinity. She frames the debate entirely from the anti-suffragist position.

Here’s a quote: “In short, women’s suffrage represented a tragic erosion of women’s trust in men to take responsibility for the common good—especially women’s good.” She portrays the household identity as superior.

I’m just amazed to see a book published in 2023 painting the anti-suffrage movement so sympathetically and waxing nostalgic for pre 1850 USA./p>

Now here is the broader context in which that quote is found in Pearcey's book:

Why did most women oppose women's suffrage? It was not out of 'indifference' or 'apathy.' Instead, it was because they understood clearly that universal suffrage implied a shift from the household to the individual as the basic unit of society. As one anti-suffrage group wrote in 1894, 'the household, not the individual, is the unit of the State, and the vast majority of women are represented by household suffrage.' Another anti-suffragist said the vote would 'strike at the family as the self-governing unit upon which the state is built.' Still another said it would, 'shift the basis of our government from the family as a unit to the individual.'

Why were women so concerned about a shift from the family to the individual as the unit of society? Because it struck a blow to the concept of male responsibility. For if society accepted that a man voted as solely an individual, then it no longer held him morally responsible for representing the common good of the entire household.

In short, women were concerned that universal suffrage would reduce men's sense of accountability for everyone in the household.

Obviously, I am not arguing whether or not women should have the vote today. I am explaining what the controversy meant to people at the time. The debate over universal suffrage illustrated a shift in political philosophy from the household to the individual as the basic unit of society.

Eventually, of course, women came around to supporting female suffrage. Why? The tide began to turn when the vote was expanded to universal male suffrage—that is, when men who were not responsible for a household were given the right to vote. At that point, the meaning of the vote changed. Men no longer voted as officeholders responsible for the common good of the household but only as individuals. Politics was now every man for himself.

And if the vote represented only individual interests, women concluded—quite logically—that they too needed to represent themselves. They could no longer count on the head of the household to represent their interests. Read these poignant words by Alice Henry, a leader in the Women's Trade Union League: Female suffrage is necessary, she said, because men, even good men, cannot be trusted to take care of women's interests.

In short, women's suffrage represented a tragic erosion of women's trust in men to take responsibility for the common good—especially women's good.

Note, especially, Pearcey's explicit acknowledgement of the fact that women became supportive of suffrage because they lost trust in men and that this was "quite logical." Also note that Pearcey is explicitly not calling for the abolition of women's suffrage. Rather, she is trying to have intellectual empathy for anti-suffragist women of the past, trying to understand them on their own terms so as to represent them fairly as well as better understand how people of the past actually thought about sex and gender.

In other words, she is being a responsible author.

In reply to Gregoire's thread, a number of accounts made various sorts of remarks about how Pearcey plainly wasn't well read on 19th century domestic conditions, didn't understand the reasons why women wouldn't trust men, and so on. Simply quoting the entire context surrounding the one sentence Gregoire chose to highlight would have sufficiently addressed these various accusations. But then it also would have muted the impact of Gregoire's tweets, which are plainly intended as an effort to lump Pearcey's book in with other conservative books about gender so as to invalidate Pearcey's along with the others.

This is how the game works, of course. If you can simply claim that Pearcey's book is like Butler's book and if you have already established that Butler's book was bad in xy, and ways then you don't actually have to bother with making a real critique or review of Pearcey; you can just dismiss her.

Indeed, Gregoire's way of reading (which bears a sharp resemblance to Stephen Wolfe's reading habits) calls to mind this warning offered by C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

One of the many threads that link together the post-evangelical left and the Christian nationalist right is a shocking indifference to arguments, ideas, and, ultimately, truth. Both movements are driven chiefly by vibes. The primary rhetorical posture of both most post-evangelicals and most Christian nationalists is the sneer. It is not marked by saying, "this argument is wrong because x, y, and z." It's marked, rather, by "oh, you can't possibly believe that, can you?"

The sneer works rhetorically because it creates a kind of atmosphere in which arguments don't need to be made because social pressure is exerted in such a way to coerce people into a position. Put another way: Those who sneer don't actually care about ideas; they care about power. That is why they are often such terrible readers. They don't go to books to learn, to reflect, to be challenged, and so on. They go to books to find assets for their predetermined project and to identify tools to use in creating an atmosphere of sneering.

Put another way, they operate by convincing their audience not that an idea is true or false, but that it is "based" or "inclusive," "woke" or "abusive." They teach their audiences to think in terms of labels. Then they tell them what labels to attach to what books. Once that has been accomplished, it no longer matters whether or not an idea, book, or argument actually is "based" or "inclusive," "woke," or "abusive." Reality is irrelevant. The labels are all that matter. (The similarities this shares with the fundamentalism I grew up in are quite remarkable.)

This, of course, is why our Christian nationalist critics and post-evangelical critics often behave in remarkably similar ways in response to criticism. They don't argue; they only mock and ridicule and belittle. Arguing is beside the point. If you can sneer and through that create the atmosphere where that person or idea is categorically dismissed without consideration, then you don't need to go through the work of actually making an argument.

Gregoire's treatment of Pearcey's argument would be laughed out of any serious classroom for how plainly dishonest and manipulative it is. But on a social media platform optimized for sneering that same treatment is rewarded. The only way to combat it, I think, is to refuse to be manipulated, to refuse to participate in swarms, and to instead actually take the time to do what our critics consistently refuse to do themselves. Judged by Twitter metrics, this won't always be effective, of course. But it is right, which is what matters most, and secondarily it places us, like Tolkien's heroes, entirely outside the reckoning of social media fools.

We will, like his heroes, let our 'folly' be our cloak.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece suggested that Professor Du Mez was tacitly participating in this particular swarm against Pearcey. In fact, she replied on July 8 to Gregoire saying that she would have to read the book first. So the earlier version of this piece misrepresented Du Mez's place in this particular incident. While writing I had looked for a reply to Gregoire, but had missed Du Mez's because she replied to the final tweet in the thread rather than the first. I regret the error and apologize to Prof. Du Mez for falsely accusing her.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).