(Warning: There are references to sex and rape in this post, though neither is the main point of this post. Please use discretion.)
First, I’d like to offer up a disclaimer: In this post, I’m going to make frequent references to one particular debate going on in the blogosphere. However, my intention is not to write a post full of commentary on the debate itself (though there will be a lot of that). Neither is it meant to make any arguments for the side I think is correct (though it will probably be pretty apparent who I agree with). I do not wish for this post to begin any arguments, or even discussions, regarding this particular internet debate (if you wish to discuss it, I’m willing, but please send me a private message). If you want to research this particular debate, feel free to do so, but since the debate itself is not the point of this note, I’m going to be eliminating a lot of details that I believe are unnecessary to what I’m trying to say.
The Internet Has Changed the Game
The internet, and even more specifically, blogging, has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities. It used to be that if you wanted to write something for the masses to read, you had to spend a lot of time writing and editing, then finding someone to publish your book. Along the way you had many people, both editors and laypeople, read your book and provide feedback. If people misunderstood what you were trying to say in a certain passage, you went back and rewrote it. Writing was a long process, a hassle, so only those who felt the process was worth it wrote books.
Nowadays, with the rise of blogs, it is possible for anyone who wants to share their thoughts to do so and skip the whole process. No more long hours of writing full chapters, no more editors proofreading your work, no need for anyone but you to see the work before publishing the final product.
In many ways, this is good. In a lot of ways, this opens up the possibility for all sorts of bad things, including but not limited to poor writing, hurt feelings, slander, etc.
I have a lot of friends who aspire to write books, to go to seminary and become pastors, to blog on a regular basis, to speak in front of crowds, etc. I have some friends who are already doing these things. Many of you will build platforms for yourselves, and in today’s world, it’s highly likely to include a blog. While what I’m about to ask of you applies to all of your work, blogging is where this need for discernment seems to be the most lacking these days.
When blogging goes horribly wrong
A couple days ago, a popular Christian blog hosted a post in which one of the contributors posted an excerpt from a book that another author wrote in order to provide some commentary on the “50 Shades of Gray” book series. In the excerpt, the author used words like “conquers,” “colonizes,” and “plants,” to describe the man’s role during sex, and words like “receives,” “surrenders,” and “accepts,” to describe the woman’s role during sex.
Quite understandably, many people became upset, commenting that this view of the sexual relationship between a man and a woman promotes a view of sex that is closer to the mindset of rapists than to the kind of sexual relationship Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 7. As someone who has friends who have been raped, I share in this concern. Reaction was strong. Many people called for the post to be taken down. Another popular (female) blogger wrote a very strong rebuke to the blog post. Both the author of the blog post, and the author of the excerpt, wrote posts defending the original blog post that many felt were condescending towards those that disagreed, and certainly were not apologies in any way, shape, or form. Instead, both authors claim that all the hoopla is a result of people’s lack of reading comprehension, with one of them even saying that people need to go back to ESL class. Despite people posting the very plain dictionary definitions of the words that were used, the authors continue to argue, based on a sloppy exegesis of the Song of Solomon, that those words do indeed describe the proper sexual relationship between a man and a woman, and that everyone who disagrees needs to quit ascribing “their interpretation,” but rather understand that the correct interpretation is always what the author meant, and if they don’t understand what the author meant, it’s their fault for their lack of comprehension skills.
I find this incredibly frustrating, because to me the correct thing to do seems so obvious: Acknowledge that the choice of words was not working, apologize, and remove the post. Instead, the authors seem intent on degrading everyone that disagrees with them and insisting that because they meant X, it doesn’t matter that the literal interpretation of the words used means Y.
So to my friends who either have platforms or will have platforms, I ask for you to use them wisely and responsibly. Specifically, I’d like to ask that you keep the following things in mind:
1. You are not an expert on everything (so listen to other people’s critiques)
The fact that the author who used these words originally even thought that using them was okay shows a lack of understanding of how to relate to rape victims. The blog author finally put up a disclaimer at the beginning of his post that basically said, “I can’t see why this disclaimer is necessary, but apparently it is.” This is an incredibly arrogant attitude that has no place in Christian writing. It shows a lack of respect for those who actually have expertise in handling rape and relating to rape victims.
If someone tells you your writing is upsetting to rape victims, your reaction should be to say, “I’m so sorry! How can I be more sensitive?” Any other reaction is arrogant.
This is especially important when dealing with difficult subjects like rape, but it applies to any subject. If someone tells you that your writing is insensitive to a certain group, or contains errors regarding a certain subject matter, or even that it’s just poor writing, your reaction should not be defensive. Rather, your job is to listen and grow. Likely, you are not an expert on the subject matter. If you aren’t a counselor to victims of sexual abuse, you are not an expert on rape. If you are not a linguist, you are not an expert on words. If you are not a theologian, you are not an expert on theology (and even if you are, you likely have your areas where you don’t know as much and should respect those who have studied that area more than you have.)
2. Conversation is a two-way street
It is true that just because someone interpreted what you wrote to mean X, doesn’t mean it actually means X. But if you actually meant Y and many people are interpreting it to mean X, you probably need to work on the way you are communicating what you are trying to say. Contrary to what the original blog post author believes, “authorial intent” is not the final authority on what a piece of writing means. As an author, it is possible for you to choose the wrong words, use words in the wrong order, use poor analogies, etc. If you are finding yourself saying, “But I meant Y!” as your main defense, you probably need to work on how you say Y.
3. Above all, be humble, and be willing to learn and grow
Probably the most disappointing thing I’m seeing in this blog debate is a lack of humility from the authors. Instead of being characterized by words like grace, humility, gentleness, and understanding, their rhetoric can be characterized by words like arrogant, stubborn, and condescending. Frankly, no one cares if you’re right if you can’t be kind and sensitive.
I know that a lot of you have brilliant minds and can use words really well. After all, many of you were former competitors of mine in speech and debate. 🙂 However, as you go into the world and use these talents, I ask that you remember that having a platform is a privilege that needs to be used with grace and humility. Please be willing to acknowledge when you aren’t an expert, have communicated poorly, and be willing to show lots of humility and grace.