A certain kind of person seems almost compelled to grasp the third rail of a culture, by which I mean taking hold of the most controversial, emotional, and possibly dangerous idea or social stance that will give them attention and energy. A mild version of this is something I called earlier “kissing the sea anemone” after reading about a daring young man who liked doing exactly that. Not the big “flowers” whose bright petals are stinging tentacles, but the smaller green/brown ones along the shore, not so enticing but still capable of a jolt. It’s a rousing experience, but the “third rail” in a subway, which is the source of the metaphor, will kill you. Yet, flirting with death — the risk alone — powers daredevils and writers.
In seminary, in animal control encounters, on the rez, and while clerking for building regulation, guys (rarely women) hooked on the adrenaline complex provided good examples. We thought of them as angry and emotional, outliers who selfishly wanted their own way, but their numbers seem to increase, which justifies a little deeper reflection. I’m offended by efforts to suppress them, which are often presented as “virtuous,” preserving the greater order. But the suppression is based on freezing the status quo, since it benefits them.
One of the ways of defending the mainstream is to label and stigmatize such crusading indignants as having personal issues verging on the crazy rather than idealistic motives. This is much more practical when the whole concept of the Theos and social notions of “Big Men” who can save us all are in play, but it cuts both ways, challenging both society and rebel. If there really is a justification for a crusade and especially if it decisively wins, then the world is changed: the American Revolution has created a new country. But if fails, then we have martyrs, like Louis Riel whose Red River nation of Metis is only now emerging into public memory.
When these Third Rail Graspers are met with complacent acceptance, like the Neo-Atheists, because everyone sees the point, the electricity fails. They are put on their back feet, unable to detach from their original issue but also unable to find something new. Global warming, world domination, the status of women — those issues are scary, depressing, difficult, pathless (or maybe just multi-pathed) struggles that don’t lend themselves to demagoguery.
There are two other social forces that resist crusaders. One is simply not legitimizing people who take on social categories other than their own. In particular racist and sexist issues are seen as demanding participating identity. This is emotional and comes from inside of the group.
The other is appearing in the social sciences quite a lot recently: the problem is that if something doesn’t fit one’s categories of experience, it is invisible. Thus, one of the major problems of getting Native American history taught in Montana was that too many white people truly thought there were no such thing. They believed that nothing happened until they arrived and put all the Indians on reservations where time was frozen at the point of contact and it became no business of white people. This is an incredible idea, but in conversation I run across it a lot.
What started this whole line of thought was a recent “Sightings” essay about one of the U of Chicago Div School adjunct faculty, Rachel Fulton Brown, taking up the subject of Milo Yiannopoulos, a flamboyant young (32) man evidently on the far alt-right Breitbart spectrum. (“Yiannopoulos was born and raised in Kent in southern England. His father is of half Greek and half Irish descent, while his mother is British.” It was a confused marriage.) Brown’s consideration legitimizes him. This was objectionable to some people in that community — in spite of their formal declaration that nothing is ever to be excluded from reflection. Brown was asked to explain and she responded with this essay.
Here are the first two paragraphs:
“On Wednesday, February 1st, there was a riot at the University of California, Berkeley. The College Republicans had invited Breitbart Senior Editor Milo Yiannopoulos to campus for what was supposed to be the concluding event of his year-long “Dangerous Faggot Tour.” Over 100 UC Berkeley professors signed a letter saying that Milo shouldn't be allowed to speak, but the administration let the talk go ahead, acknowledging that the First Amendment prohibits public universities from censoring speakers on the basis of their views.
Protesters began assembling outside the venue hours before the talk was scheduled to start. University police were present, and the administration issued a traffic advisory warning of expected large crowds. Before the doors opened, however, a group of black-clad rioters arrived, and within minutes the potentially peaceful protest had gone up in flames. The rioters lit fires, overturned police barricades, smashed windows, and threw fireworks, while students in the crowd, middle fingers held high, danced to the tune of “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place.”
One can either laugh or cry at the contradictions and paradoxes.
This is Brown’s formulation of the root cause. “Weary of quarrels among the various Protestant denominations, universities shifted the emphasis of their courses on religion from theology to morality, while “unsectarianism” became a guiding institutional ideal. Students were expected to learn what religion they needed from Sunday school, while religion as such ceased to be a required subject at the university level. As a consequence of this self-secularization, religion became an object of academic study considered only from the outside, not tested intellectually or experientially from within. Universities, particularly public universities, became places for the purportedly neutral exchange of ideas, not for conversion to any clearly articulated and tested faith. Religion was a matter for the heart; education a matter for the head.”
Brown is no renegade or atheist, whether neo or not. I very much agree that churches have moved problematic theology over to dogmatic morality. (Also, to psych issues.) They believe that positions that are not dogmatic are not religious. It’s a way of pushing out scientific method.
“Author, Rachel Fulton Brown, is Associate Professor of Medieval History, Fundamentals, and the College at the University of Chicago, and Associate Faculty in the Divinity School. Her research and teaching focus on the intellectual and cultural history of Europe in the Middle Ages, with an emphasis on the history of Christianity and monasticism in the Latin West. Her book Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought is forthcoming from Columbia University Press in 2017.”
The Sightings solution to handling the electrifying Milo is to put him into a lineup of opinions, a set of essays. The reader must sort out what they mean and their validity. It dilutes the legitimization without starting a riot.
I haven’t read the various pieces for an array of reasons. One is that I don’t really care very much because I’ve moved my marbles out of that ring and am not informed enough to support any opinion. Another is that the same predicament presents itself in arenas that I DO care about and I save my energy for them. I always search for the deeper dynamic. Milo is trivial.
Another is that often the hidden reason for notoriety is “ad hominem”, really based on whether the provocateur is lovable or not. Who seizes the flag and shouts “follow me”? Do they really have a cause or do they just crave the mic. The ultimate end of the Berkeley rioting objection is assassination. He who carries the flag is the most obvious target. (Trump didn’t know that.) If Milo falls or fades, his prospects of martyrdom aren’t that good.