Of Myopic Postmodernism and Memetic Syncretism
A fundamental problem exacerbating the acerbic tone of the culture wars across the West is that in online debates on social media platforms there are no mechanisms to incentivize the voicing of support and agreement. In order to make friends and preserve relationships in our personal lives, it is often good to pleasant, to be agreeable, to find compromise solutions and to support and encourage others in their thoughts and ideas; online, however, there is no way to “like” a “like”, and readers have little reason to retweet or like a comment that simply says “good point, I agree”. We get points for comments that begin with “actually”; we get retweeted when we articulate why something is offensive. No one rewards those who try hard to take up the perspective of the other side and see things generously and sympathetically. The result is often that people who we may agree with are often fair game for those who think we do not agree in the right form or for the right reasons.
I recently encountered the following meme with the accompanying (paraphrased) critique [for those who are unfamiliar with the symbolism, the blue-pink-white pattern on the sheep is a transgender flag]:
These images may try to do well, but they are really wide of the mark. They start with the premise that Christianity is morally correct and then try to reconcile it with queer identities. But guess what: queer identities don’t need the approval of Jesus or Christians to be beautiful and valid.
Trying to put Trans issues on Christian terms results in the situation of a cisgender heterosexual man as the primary agent in the scene. The trans person is depicted as a sheep, but the cis het savior is depicted as human. That’s upsetting. The reality is that trans people have no need of the help of “good” cis people. They’re completely capable of carrying themselves. They just need to not be attacked and discriminated against.
I am not a Christian (though I was raised as one), but neither was I amenable to the takedown, in part because it was blind to its own moral framing and limitations (it also seemed to be needless “problem-mongering”, but that is another story). The author decries the fact that the meme is based on a “premise that Christianity is morally correct” but does not bother to explore their own moral presumptions. Doing so reveals that the above meme is an excellent cultural artifact, and an elegant moral syncretism between postmodernism and Christianity.
Large wars encompass many different terrains and battle conditions. The columnar infantry tactics that Napoleon used to curb-stomp everyone from Jaffa to Jena proved woefully inadequate to confront Spanish and Russian guerrilla strategies; Allied soldiers in the Pacific theater of WWII adopted tactics and perspectives on prisoners that would have been unthinkable war crimes on the Western Front. The general war of the “left” – for social justice and individual liberation (one that I am generally a partisan of, albeit not a particularly active one by conventional measures) – is a war that is waged across many theaters by many different actors and coalition members, and each theater has vastly different languages of conflict and vastly different (and sometimes incompatible) tactical requirements. There is the theater of racial social justice which involves many morally conservative minority religious organizations; there is the theater of feminism which requires affirming the reality of gender and sex and how they affect and repress women; there is the theater of LGBTQ+/SGM which requires affirming the socially constructed and malleable natures of gender and sex. To the point of the above critique, there is a theater within the community of Christians, and within that theater there is the front wherein liberal Christians are fighting against conservative Christians to convince moderate Christians that “Jesus Loves Everyone, Yes Even Those People“.
The moral perspective of the critique in question is a manifestation of the general postmodernist framework – i.e. the validity of individual identities is paramount, and moral structures must adapt to a live-and-let-live perspective to allow people to free themselves from oppressive structures. However, that is *not at all* the moral framework of Christianity generally or conservative Christianity especially, wherein “there are moral guidelines handed down by The Creator of the Universe, your individual differences be damned”. And as much as secularists like myself may disagree with this general premise, I feel it overwhelming obvious that accepting the premise does lead the majority of all humans (not just Christians, but theists more broadly) to some greater sense of meaning and contentment in their lives. To come running into a battlefield of moderate Christianity, completely ignoring this perspective is to risk alienating if not radicalizing a good portion of those potentially “convert-able” moderate Christians who will recoil with a curt “If I have to choose between taking moral cues from The Creator of the Universe or Judith Butler, I’m going with the former”. Perhaps – just perhaps – a more tactful approach can be fruitful.
In service of the online culture that rewards dissent and offense, activists and ideologues of both the left and the right engage in a constant and often intentional decontextualization of the words and images of the “other”. searching for a “gotcha” moment, a line or a symbol that from some angle may be hurtful but which in the context of the broader discourse or in the particular setting it was uttered is perfectly reasonable. To the case at hand, the above meme is a gem of the culture wars (which may in fact be over) because it is an attempt at a reconciliation or syncretism between the Christian and postmodern worldviews, and it does by taking the example of a transgender person – truly a morally outrageous figure to a worldview that views humans as created by god – and attempts to emphasize the fact that those same moral guidelines handed down by “The Creator of the Universe” and that make such a figure morally outrageous do, after all, include the imperative to love everyone. The visual and verbal language employed would be problematic if employed within a theater that operates according to the postmodernist ruleset, like the theater of combatting negative stereotypes of SGMs (and in that context, this meme would indeed, as the critic notes, be insulting for its connotations of dehumanization, a cis-het male savior, etc.). But this meme is not designed for that purpose. It is designed with the visual and verbal language of the intra-Christian theater, wherein, as most readers may be aware, the sheep metaphor is well established and not at all dehumanizing (quite the contrary – all humans are equally sheep and equally in need of salvation), and the Christ figure (though problematic for all the reasons that the Abrahamic masculine divinity is problematic, but this is a digression) is usually not read as a figure of gendered oppression, is asexual and thus not “het”, and in liberal Christian readings is only arbitrarily and inconsequentially physically male.
It does seem that the postmodernist perspective is winning the war of ideas, as Christianity, even of the liberal “love everyone and then maybe look at some of those other rules” variety, just does not seem to be adapting quickly enough to keep up (secularism is waxing in popularity in Australia the US) – but then again, maybe it doesn’t have to: Christianity (and Islam) are outgrowing secularism globally. The world of the next generation will be a more religious place than that of today. Perhaps that means we should give even more thought to the benefits of reverse syncretisms of this kind, evangelizing religious believers with secular and modernist ideas.To the issue of the tone of online discourse, there are possible solutions at the level of the individual online platforms – granting points in some way to those who voice agreement – but in general the solution must come from changes in our personal attitudes and culture. People can embrace policy positions or come into a political coalition for a variety of different reasons. To require that potential allies be not only in agreement with us but to have the same reasons for their agreement is a recipe for endless strife. “Treat thy neighbor as thyself” requires an online addendum: “treat thy online opponent as if they were in the room with thee”.