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From Mockingbird, a review of an upcoming book from free will skeptic Gregg Caruso. I will be returning here to struggle more with this concept at a later point. My younger induction into the cult of personal responsibility, despite the utter failure of those who preached it to practice same (not least of all me), still weighs on my conscience. Todd Brewer writes in Retributive Justice and Our Free Will Illusion:
Judgmentalism, in other words, correlates strongly with a belief in free will. Strange as it might sound, believing that people are basically good, perhaps with a few blemishes, can lead to more punitive responses. Where free will is espoused, legalism is sure to follow. If you think someone could have done otherwise, but didn’t, then they deserve punishment for their crimes. But if that very same action is explained by way of mitigating factors, then patience wins out.
A low anthropology causes one to search for the most charitable explanations — to look with the eyes of grace for causes and circumstances beyond appearances. This graceful gaze sees beyond the transgression itself, failing to linger on the hideousness of the offense, to a fellow sinner incapable of doing otherwise. It disentangles guilt from culpability — not to find some hidden quality that makes one worthy of love, but to reveal the universal defect from which misdeeds flow.
Far from an archaic doctrine with no relevance for modern times, the belief in the bound will is the birthplace of compassion. Understanding ourselves and others as equally powerless and out of control over our actions gives rise to sympathy. It is weakness that lies at the heart of another’s crimes, a feeble helplessness that mirrors our own.
In writing a blog or newsletter or journal or whatever this site is going to turn out to be, there is a path of least resistance, and it's this: get pissed off about something someone else said, and write a post explaining why they are wrong.
It's easy; it used to, occasionally, even be entertaining. I've done it before, back in the mid-00s when I blogged professionally (not as a professional blogger, but as a blogger who wrote primarily about his professional interests, for an audience of similarly-situated professionals). My modus operandi was to pounce on a remark in someone else's blog, something I found smug or irritating or just plain wrong, and then respond with my own post denouncing their opinion in my own smug, irritating, just plain wrong fashion.
That sounds like a familiar approach now, of course — it basically describes the Internet — but it felt excitingly novel back in the wild early years of blogging, when we were still feeling our way through a new frontier of open publishing. At the time I would not have guessed that the snarky commentary that some of us thought we were "kind of good at, maybe" would wind up becoming the default genre of, not just social media, but all media. My only interest was in getting comments and pingbacks from the very small pond in which I swam — remember, this is from before the days of like-fueled dopamine, so to gain that euphoric hit I needed people to actually respond in writing via a comment box or, even better, a link from their own blog. I found the best way to encourage that kind of response was to respond to others myself, and in doing so to be a bit funny, but primarily to sound both definitive and dismissive. (My attitude about most topics was: "Don't be ridiculous.")
When Twitter appeared I remember feeling appalled, and saying so, not because I was smart enough to foresee that it would drive society to its basest levels of tribalism (I wasn't), but because I just didn't see how one could possibly be funny, dismissive and definitive in so few characters. I thought that one must to be able to explain why one is right and others wrong, and I believed doing that would always require something lengthier, something like, well, a blog post.
Oh, wow, was I wrong. Turns out, the only thing you can be in so few characters is funny, dismissive, and definitive. And a universe full of people convinced of their own rightness, it turns out, is kind of a horrible universe.
Anyway, the point of this post — following up on the last/first post as a sort of groping towards a mission for this entire website — is that I am going to try and avoid the path of least resistance, and avoid writing about things that piss me off. Trust me, there are a lot of things that I read on the Internet that make me angry; there are a lot of people that I think are horribly, undoubtedly wrong; but since, as I have declared in the very title of the site, I am probably wrong, as well, then I don't think I should make my goal here to offer my opinions about what I think is "right."
Perhaps I was correct, back in the day, that the only way to gain engagement or any kind of an audience is to pick fights and dare others to "come at me," but since I'm not here with any particular interest in audience building, that's not the approach I'm going to take. When I respond to things I've seen or read, I want it to be in a way that is both positive and humble: what do I think this person means? How can their perspective change mine, if indeed it should? How can I respond to people toward whom I feel an instinctive opposition in a way that acknowledges, not only their humanity, but their value, to God and to the world and to me, personally?
This is not going to be easy. I'm probably going to fail, more than once. It's no more my natural inclination than it is probably yours. But it has to be worth a try.
For a couple of summers in the early ’90s, if you were vacationing in Ocean City, Maryland, and had any interest in deep sea fishing, you might have come across my name as one of the local experts in the field. I wrote a weekly bylined column for one of the papers, supplied daily fishing reports to one of the radio stations, and I was quoted regularly by the “outdoor writers” (a thing back then, not sure if it still is) for The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post.
At that time, I had never been deep sea fishing (or any other kind) in my life. And since then, nothing has changed. I have still never been fishing. I know absolutely nothing about it.
My brief “expertise” in angling was bought and paid for by the owners of the marina where I had landed my first job after graduating from college, managing marketing and promotions.
The actual information came from a dockhand named Sam, a high schooler with an interest in journalism, who provided me with daily reports that I fashioned into columns, radio segments, and press releases. If you spoke to me in person at the time and asked me what was “running,” I could have told you, and even used all the right jargon (none of which I remember now). (Thanks, Sam, wherever you are!)
I didn’t get that job because I knew anything about marketing or promotions. No, they hired me because I was cheap, due to the fact that, well, I didn’t know anything about marketing or promotions. (Up until that point my young life had been focused on writing of the creative, and secondarily academic, kind.)
What I learned during those summers set me on a path for a reasonably successful career in pretending to know what I was talking about. I learned that if I spoke (wrote) with authority, people assumed I had authority; if I worked for a marina, and talked about fishing as if I were an expert, then as far as anybody else was concerned, I was an expert. The same thing applied later in my career to various other industries like trucking and construction.
As I climbed the ladder, such as it was, into management and executive roles, I discovered that what I had learned about “speaking (writing) with authority” applied equally well to “acting with authority.” I made decisions, because that is what leaders do, ergo I was a leader. I acted with confidence, ergo I was confident.
Note that I didn’t necessarily feel confident, and I never believed that I deserved whatever actual authority had accrued to me. My life for many years felt very constrained by the need to fake strength and hide weakness. Impostor syndrome is real, especially if you happen to be an impostor.
Back before the Internet, discovering that one could be an expert just by declaring oneself an expert felt like discovering a hitherto unknown superpower, one that was actually available to all, but most people didn’t know about it. Of course, the world is very different now, and “thanks” to social media, it’s a given: we all have a take to share, we all have an opinion (about anything) that carries the weight of validity because it is our opinion.
We’re all experts now; all we need to work on is our brands.
(Isn’t it exhausting to have to be right all the time? To worry that you might be found out, that maybe you’ll say the wrong thing, or the right thing taken in the wrong way?)
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, which led to the usual sort of life re-evaluations one might expect. Everything that had defined “success” for me up until that point no longer meant much of anything. I’ve been trying ever since to deal with the truth of life (and truth beyond life, truth bigger than myself, bigger than all of us), which means I must try and stop pretending. I have been wrestling with how to stop “acting with authority” and start “acting with humility.”
I fail at this effort, a lot. One builds habits and routines that are hard to break. One has knee-jerk reactions that seem impossible to curtail. One wrestles with definitions (what does it really mean to, for example, write with humility?). One sometimes finds it easier to act without thinking, and sometimes easier to think than to act.
One sometimes refers to oneself as “one” to distance oneself from one’s own weaknesses.
And one often acts like a selfish asshole, because we are all, to quote Sarah Condon from a recent episode of The Mockingcast, selfish assholes.
The point of this blog/newsletter is to give myself a space to explore faith and life and culture without always pretending to know what I’m talking about. I chose the name of this blog for a reason. I’m coming out (again): I’m not always right. In fact, at any given moment, I’m probably wrong. It’s a much less exhausting way to live.
Here I will try to learn how to give up the false air of authority that is the default mode in our society for white men such as myself, and to fail at it publicly, not just privately. To admit that I am probably wrong, and will probably be wrong, about what I think and do and write, just as I was probably wrong on many occasions in my life about the things I did and said so confidently.
You (yes, you) are probably wrong, too. It’s okay. Maybe we are wrong about different things. Maybe we can even learn from each other.