Is Hurt Mail the New Hate Mail

Is Hurt Mail the New Hate Mail

Years ago, I tried (and by general consent failed) to develop as my party trick an impersonation of the Hollywood actor, Christopher Walken.  When I donned his identity, I just said the one line: "I'm going to hurt you."  To anyone familiar with Walken's films, the line, if not exactly side-splittingly hilarious, was supposed to be at least vaguely amusing: Walken had, after all, made his career on the back of playing psychopathic megalomaniacs whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to inflict unnecessary pain on various hapless victims.   As I have never been a good mimic, however, I usually had to explain who I was trying to impersonate, at which point whatever little strength the joke possessed vanished like the morning mist in summertime.

That line - "I'm going to hurt you" has come back to my mind more times than I care to remember over the last few years as the language of pain and suffering has come to permeate mainstream modern discourse.  Everywhere I look, I find people "processing their pain," "feeling the hurt," or reacting to comments from others that are variously described as "hurtful," "insensitive," or "cruel."  It would seem that the world is being overrun by the evil spawn of Christopher Walken, to whom the "hurting" and the "pained" are now responding en masse.  I might even propose a new law, to go alongside that of Godwin's.  In fact, let's call it "Trueman's Second Law" (Trueman's First Law is known only to a few close friends, but, trust me, it has never been broken).  Trueman's Second Law would be formulated something like this: in any exchange of views, sooner or later one or more of the participants will describe themselves as hurt or in pain as a result of somebody else's comment; and at that point it is clear that they have lost the real debate.  

I confess that I have a serious problem with all this alleged pain and suffering because these terms and associated words are, by and large, being used in vacuous and trivial ways.  What, for example, should I do when I receive a note from someone who claims to be "hurt" by something I have written which she described as a "personal attack," despite the fact that I have never heard of her and was completely unaware of her existence until she chose to contact me?  Now, I am no philosopher, but it would seem to be logically necessary for me to know of the actual existence of somebody before I can launch a personal attack upon them.   Thus, to respond as this person did would seem to point to one of two possible explanations: she was a narcissist and thus incapable of understanding that articles written by another could possibly not be aimed at her; or (and frankly, more likely), she was clueless about controversial discourse and unable to separate critique of a particular viewpoint from a malicious attack on any person who might hold to said viewpoint.   Whichever was the case, however, the use of the language of hurt and pain as primary involved both a trivialization of those concepts in themselves and a sidestepping of the real issue, i.e., was the argument I proposed right or wrong?

Of course, in the current climate, such sidestepping is not really considered sidestepping at all.  Readers of this column will know that I beat the `postmodernism is aesthetics' drum with some regularity.   By using the categories of hurt and pain with reference to arguments, one plays the ace in the postmodern hole and effectively focuses attention not on the substance of a position but on the style; or, perhaps more accurately, one transubstantiates the style into the substance.  There has always been something of this in the nature of argument, of course: many of us have attended debates where our brains tell us that the one protagonist has won, but, frankly, he behaved in such an arrogant way that, when the votes are cast, we side with the loser and give him the spoils.  But the modern world seems to have taken this to the next level: everything with which I disagree is so hurtful, every time I suffer a trivial setback I have to process my pain and ethics and argument are all about aesthetics, not truth or falsehood.

The impact of all this feeling of hurt and processing of pain is twofold.  First, as noted above, it transforms arguments from debates about truth into debates about taste; and that is lethal for Christian orthodoxy.  Now, Paul does talk about aesthetics at points in his writings, and presenting arguments persuasively surely requires attention not just to what is said but to how it is said. But he railed something rotten against those who denied certain truths and proposed certain myths.  Clearly, therefore, the current situation has gone way beyond Paul in its discounting of the content of arguments and discourse in favour of the packaging.  The mewling and puking among the more aesthetically inclined over my comments about the film Milk on Reformation 21 are a case in point: apparently, Christians can learn from the commitment of a homosexual activist to his cause, but they cannot and, indeed, they should not, learn from someone whose commitment to his cause leads him to decry the film as sleazy Hollywood propaganda, unfit for Christian consumption.   In today's public square, it is apparent that plain speaking is unacceptably tasteless in a way that sanctimonious Hollywood sermons about the political radicalization of gay sex are not.

The second area of impact is the way in which this "hurt" and "pain" cheapens the language and leads to trivialization of all things serious.  Late last year, I was sent a column from some webpage where an individual was lamenting that they had lost their job.  Now, I spent eighteen months out of work myself at one point in my life; it was not pleasant and I have great personal sympathy with anyone caught in such a situation.  It quickly strips one of self-respect and dignity; but, believe me, bad as it was, it was not analogous to twentieth-century genocides in Europe; yet this was the analogy this person drew and through which they apparently found the strength to carry on.  Unemployment is depressing; but it is usually a function of impersonal economic conditions or personal incompetence, neither of which are the result of intentional maliciousness on the part of others; and it certainly bears no resemblance to seeing your male relatives herded into a field in Bosnia and machine gunned to death.

The reason for this trivialization, of course, is that the idiom of pain and suffering places the individual at the centre of the universe and makes him or her the measure of all things.  In other words, it panders to the idolatry of fallen human nature.  Suddenly, it is my experience, my feelings, my pain, which are the most important things.  Sure, I have never known what it is like to see my loved ones gassed and cremated at Auschwitz, but I can be a victim too: I have lost my job, or been sworn at while driving, or had my opinions belittled in a blog somewhere.  I don't know the pain of those who have really suffered - but my own trivial discomforts are just as important because I am me, I am the centre of the universe as I know it, and I deserve to feel good about myself.   To deprive me of this is simply cruel.  
How did we get here?  How did we reach the point where professing Christians can seriously compare a temporary experience of unemployment to organized genocide?  How did things come to such a sorry pass that even in the church there are those who discuss theology not so much in the categories of truth and error but of hurt and pain?  Well, postmodern monkey see, postmodern monkey do.  My guess is that the church has come to ape the world; and before we all start thanking the Lord that we traditional, Reformed evangelicals are not like other men, this is not just a monopoly of the church on the left of the evangelical spectrum; some of the biggest whiners, mewlers and pukers out there are among the professed advocates of the old school approach to things.  Thin-skins, absurd senses of entitlement and a bizarre conviction that all criticism of ideas is really a personally intended affront to those who hold them are not the exclusive preserve of any one theological party.

In terms of intellectual/cultural history, I suspect the fusion of Marxism and Freudianism in the late fifties and sixties in the work of men such as Herbert Marcuse made oppression less a function of economics and more of being forced to be `inauthentic' by society.  This, combined with Freud's view of the subconscious and Marxism's false consciousness, meant that all disagreements could come to be seen as oppressive, and that, however plausible my arguments against your position might seem, they are really masks hiding my attempts to oppress or control you.  Mix in Nietzsche via Foucault, and you have a heady philosophical cocktail indeed.

Few if any will have read any of these thinkers, but make no mistake: we live in a world that is reflective of the values they embodied and articulated.  The importance of therapy in modern America is one key sign that the rarified philosophy of these men has penetrated in practical ways to the commonplace level of everyday life and routine.  The net effects are evident everywhere: nobody can dare to say that their position is superior to anybody else's because that denigrates, marginalizes, represses, and oppresses.   That therapy, conversation, and a general prioritizing of aesthetic categories now grips the church and its own moral and theological discourse should be a cause for real concern.   In a world devoid of truth content, claims to truth are oppressive and thus personal, hurtful, and distasteful; and the church seems, by and large, to be buying into just this kind of namby-pamby nonsense.

But I think there is more to this phenomenon of hurt and pain than a mere aping of the culture.  It is more cunning and dishonest than that,  Over the last couple of years, I have noticed that the hate mail in my inbox has been replaced by what I now call hurt mail.  Now, the agenda of your typical hate mailers is pretty straightforward: they are simply attempting to intimidate or humiliate the recipient into silence.  What you see is what you get.  Hurt mailers, by comparison, are rather more subtle and duplicitous: by claiming pain, they immediately do two things.  First, they make themselves the poor victims; and second, they imply that the targets of this hurt mailing are intentionally malicious perpetrators.  The game is precisely the same as with hate mail -- to make someone whom they dislike or whose opinions they discount shut up -- but the tactic is different: to win by seizing the moral high ground that belongs to the professional victim.

This new tactic also involves a fundamental change in the whole moral landscape.  Let's face it: pain, as an abstract concept, is not in itself evil or a sin. I run marathons: the training is painful, not to mention the races; but the personal reward at the end is worth it and unattainable without the pain; my dentist regularly causes me a certain degree of pain in order to save me from worse to come; and anyone who has endured cancer treatment can testify to the salubrious effects of physical discomfort.  Nor is such good pain just physical: I hated leaving the security of the parental home, but I had to do it if I was to grow up; I disliked having my essays torn apart by my college tutor but it was the only way to improve my intellectual and literary skills; and parenting teenagers can be heart wrenching, but it has to be done.  Pain in itself is not bad; rather, it is the cause or the purpose of the pain that provides the good or the evil involved.

Thus, to complain that somebody has hurt you is, as noted above, to put an aesthetic category where a moral category should be.  The question to ask is not "Do I feel pain?"  but "What has this person done that has caused me pain?"   If the person has maligned you, trashed your good name, accused you of being cruel to nice old ladies and puppies with injured paws, then you may have good grounds to feel hurt.  But the problem then is not the symptomatic pain which you feel but your accuser's actual transgression of a moral precept, in this case, the breach of the Ninth Commandment.  Don't whine about the effect; complain rather about the cause.  Paul doesn't criticize others primarily for hurting him; he criticizes them for breaking moral commandments, for sinning against God.    

Expressions of hurt are too often really something else: cowardly attempts by representatives of a cosseted and self-obsessed culture to make themselves uniquely important or, worse still, to bully and cajole somebody they dislike to stop saying things they don't want to hear or which they find distasteful.   My advice to such is akin to that of the counselor in the Bob Newhart sketch: Stop it!  If somebody's writing or speaking hurts you, ask yourself "Why?", don't whine about the discomfort. Get a grip, get yourself some trousers, stop feeling sorry for yourself, and please, please, please, don't hide behind the aesthetic pietisms of the tiresome and clichéd `feel my pain while I process my hurt' posse.  Have the backbone, have the decency - nay, have the honesty - to take your licks and move on, either to addressing the substance of the argument or to some area of endeavour that is, well, perhaps less painful and hurtful for you.