Alan Jacobs posted a few questions in response to my essay on Matt Walsh that others have also raised on Twitter, Facebook, etc, so I answered them below. I will update this post with any further clarifications that come up. (Alan’s questions in bold italics, my responses beneath.)

1) What exactly is this game that we are all playing?

Mostly I mean writing on the internet, arguing on the internet, but also just engaging in political debate in the hope of creating positive change — a lot of which now happens on the internet.

2) Who are “we”?

Anybody who does the above.

3) Isn’t there a bit of a problem with lamenting the absence of “substantive debate … careful and charitable argument … reasonable and informed debate” in a post in which you describe the people you disagree with in this kind of language: “a moron and a bad writer”; “the Platonic ideal of a douchebag”; “a douchebag”; “a shameless voice”; “echoes the more general prejudices of douchebag politics”; “a gurgling font of reactionary babble”?

Maybe. For most readers, it probably appears hypocritical, but it’s a risk I decided to take. My argument here is not that substantive and reasonable debate excludes strong arguments, rhetorical passion, or even name-calling. Anybody who’s read things I’ve written in the past knows I’ve been an opponent of certain ideological definitions of “civility,” especially the notion that there is something inherently morally elevated about a detached and colorless rhetorical tone. The alternate problem, the problem with the hot take, is that it has no substance beneath its combative rhetoric; it’s pure attitude, id, or cynicism. What I’m trying to demonstrate here is that substantive argument can be combined with an appropriate degree of meanness when the target legitimates it. I wouldn’t argue against all or even most conservatives this way; the only reason I do in Walsh’s case is that he is exceptionally idiotic and horrible. But people are free to conclude that I have not substantively demonstrated enough about Walsh to justify my insults, and thus that they are invalid and inappropriate. That’s fair game.

As for the “douchebag” insult, I don’t mean this as a catch-all epithet. In fact, I chose it carefully and linked to an essay that defines it very specifically (as the insistence on white male prerogative in every social interaction.) This is derogatory, sure, but it’s not unfair; it’s a perfect description of Walsh’s ethos. I favored “douchebag” defined this way over other generalized epithets (“bro” or “asshole”) because those just seem like aimless personal attacks. I have no position on whether Walsh is personally an asshole, but he is objectively a terrible writer and clearly, in virtually every post, demands that the CSWM (conservative straight white male) worldview define reality.

4) Sessions writes of Walsh, “His position is presumed from the start, and he adds nothing beyond scare-quoting and free-association,” and then a few words later he begins a sentence, “The whole ‘analysis’” … so this is intentional self-parody, right? That’s what the whole “game we’re all playing” stuff is about, yes? Please tell me it is.

Sorry, no. I mean what I say.

– – – –

UPDATE: NOV 3, 7:11 PM

Don’t I know Matt Walsh is a Catholic? Why didn’t I mention it? 

I confess I did not. I read about 10 posts preparing for this essay, and scanned dozens more over the past couple of years, and never saw anything that indicated MW was a Catholic. You could say the fact someone could read that much of him and get no inkling of a reference to Catholic tradition or philosophy is an illustration of how bad he is at arguing. But good to know! My subject was his reception in evangelical discourse, which doesn’t hinge on which church he belongs to. In my view, if you replaced “evangelicalism” in my essay with “conservative Christianity,” it would include Catholics and change nothing. Others can disagree.

– – – –

UPDATE: NOV 3, 9:22 PM

Alan Jacobs clarifies his criticism here. I think his reading of my essay is fair based on the text, so I should try to clarify what my intent was.

His criticism is that I explicitly state I will not engage with the substance of Walsh’s “ideas,” and proceed to attack him in a fairly mean-spirited way while making a larger complaint about Walsh’s style of refusing to make substantive arguments. At some point I make joke that “we all know” that X—a thing Walsh thinks is deeply disgusting—is actually funny; Jacobs takes this as a preacher’s knowing wink to the choir. Jacobs also notes that I accuse Walsh of scare-quoting the liberal media, and then put scare quotes of my own around the phrase “analysis.”

First, I couldn’t engage with Walsh’s ideas if I wanted to because he has no ideas, or if he does, he makes no arguments for them. There may be respectable arguments for his positions that could be engaged with in debate, but he doesn’t make them. So it’s impossible to “engage” with Walsh; to do so would be to try to impose upon his writing a coherence it does not have.

However, secondly, the other reason I sidestep Walsh’s substance is not so that I can get on to the mockery, but because it’s not relevant to the argument I’m making. I make a genealogical argument that attempts to illuminates how concurrent shifts both in conservative Christian discourse and the broader media landscape made it possible for someone like Walsh to seize the moment. My central contention is that this change has been a more or less deliberate shift away from explicit, “formal” argument toward a kind of impressionistic emoting that can’t be pinned down by argument. I see this is a bigger problem across the board, not just an annoying style that Matt Walsh or any other particular writer has adopted. My problem with it is precisely that it cannot be argued with; I, unsurprisingly for an academic in training, prefer an argument that is clear about its premises and evidence, and thus can be defended or disputed. So, you can say that I am assuming too much that my readers agree with me, but you cannot accuse me of failing to make arguments or offer any evidence for them; the evidence for the type of argument I’m making just happens to have little to do with the ideas or lack thereof in Walsh’s writing.

Third, Jacobs reads way too much into the “We all know” line. That was a deliberate overstatement for comic effect; I don’t think it’s obvious that “we all” finds little kids swearing funny.

Finally, as for the scare quotes, I think this is bad reading on Jacobs’ part; it conflates things that are not the same. I criticize Walsh for using quotations from the liberal media that conservatives will find alarming, but I don’t similarly use selective quotations from Walsh’s writing to make him sound evil. My use of quotation marks when I refer to his “analysis” is to indicate that I’m using a word that is not really appropriate to describe what I’m describing. This latter example just has nothing to do with my analysis of Walsh’s scare quotes.

Despite all the above intent on my part, it’s still possible to conclude that I criticize Walsh and other bloggers for assuming agreement with things they don’t argue, and then do the same thing myself. I hope that someone who disagrees with me politically—perhaps they winced at me calling Walsh sexist and anti-gay in the opening paragraph—could still agree with my conclusion that XYZ kind of shift happened in evangelical discourse and it’s lamentable for XYZ reasons. Or they could mount a counter-argument and show that I’m wrong. In my view, if I made an argument that can be debated or refuted, I’m logically consistent; I’d like to think, additionally, that agreement with some of my political assumptions is not necessary to find something valuable in the essay. But it’s fair enough to say I let my prejudices show pretty clearly, and that what I came up with isn’t much different than a hot take. I mean, I even called it that myself.

 
About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

13 Responses to Your Questions About Matt Walsh Answered (Updated)

  1. i thought your piece was fascinating and spot on. writing in a community that overwhelmingly preferences storytelling is a tight rope walk for me as someone who is far more geared for criticism and argument. those preferences are also sharply gendered; it’s considerably more acceptable for men to engage in debate, and for those same men to chide the women who’d engage for being insufficiently jesus-y.

    • I’m glad you brought this up, because I’ve thought a lot about the gender dynamics of this. Women writers can, as you say, be treated pretty badly by territorial men when they try to make strong arguments. I’ve seen it many times and it’s very ugly. In this case, it’s understandable that some people end up trying to connect with readers some other way.

      While I don’t present myself as an expert on what every woman writer should do, I would love to see more women holding their own in these debates regardless of whether “the boys” like it. But some women understandably don’t want to deal with a community that doesn’t see them as equal, so it’s easier to find a one where this stuff is less of an issue. It’s hard to be a smart woman and not end up pretty unhappy with the evangelical world, that’s for sure.

      • Leanna Moxley says:

        However, and here’s my biggest criticism of a piece that I really, really, want to like and agree with: there’s an idea in the world of feminist theory that says it is actually valuable to have forms of discourse that aren’t about winning arguments. A lot of this storytelling and personal connecting that’s happening on the internet is born out of the feminist tradition of consciousness raising sessions, where women would gather as a group and share their experiences in order to find a way to make sense of the world outside the ever-present paradigm of patriarchy. This paradigm includes the idea that the goal of everything is domination: you win or you lose, your opponent wins or loses. This is argument: it’s intended to change another person and convince them to be on your side. Matt Walsh, and other hot-takers, are not engaging in argument because they are really preaching to the choir – they’re just saying what their fans want to hear, not attempting to make points or to change others who don’t currently agree with them. This is pretty useless. However, there are other ways to engage people you disagree with that are not about argument, and I would submit that those ways are valuable. Another way that I’m particularly interested in is invitational rhetoric. The goal of invitational rhetoric is to invite an exchange of ideas, rather than to change another person. This form sees communication as collaborative, rather than combative. Obviously, Matt Walsh isn’t engaging in this either, because he is only willing to entertain one hyperbolic position. But many women on the internet are engaging in forms of rhetoric that aren’t about debates, and their reasons are not always about weakness or women being scared of the way the men do things. Women should totally debate away, and men need to get over that, but we can also all be aware that winning debates is not the only course we can take.

  2. Anthony Bradley says:

    This is a wonderful response, David. So good: “First, I couldn’t engage with Walsh’s ideas if I wanted to because he has no ideas, or if he does, he makes no arguments for them. There may be respectable arguments for his positions that could be engaged with in debate, but he doesn’t make them. So it’s impossible to “engage” with Walsh; to do so would be to try to impose upon his writing a coherence it does not have.”….I wish other people understood this about him.

    • Patrick Sawyer says:

      Dr. Bradley,
      Given your connection to the Acton Institute and The King’s College, it surprises me you would slurp Sessions this way. I’m no apologist for Walsh, but the notion that he has “no ideas” or “no arguments” and is “impossible to engage” is as absurd as it is convenient. It strikes me I may misunderstand what the Acton Institute and The King’s College actually hope to accomplish with their intersections into secular culture. I may be looking at this all wrong. Perhaps your comment to Sessions is consistent with those organizations and it is me who is out of step with those organizations. Hmm…not sure.

      • Anthony Bradley says:

        Patrick, I have to assume you’re being sarcastic. The inference that my being associated with those institutions means I have to like Matt Walsh is a very ignorant expectation. Because I’m an academic, I actually, regularly, exercise something called “academic freedom.” This means that I’m free to come to my own conclusions and not participate in “group think.” Why Slurp Sessions? Because he’s a friend that I’ve known for about 5 years and was extremely gracious to me when I first moved to New York. Also, unlike Walsh, David is a brilliant thinker and is in a separated IQ class with an earned college degree, a masters degree, and he is now completing a PhD. David is a brilliant thinker and has a wide knowledge base and, because he is on the path to becoming an academic, is more nuanced and has no patience for undereducated, unuanced, undifferentiated, unreserached, hackish opinions of bloggers like Walsh.

        As one well-known evangelical pastor who writes at The Gospel Coalition recently concluded, “Matt Walsh is an example of what it would look like if Job’s friends had blogs.” If writers at The Gospel Colation believe that Walsh is pathetic then you’re delusional if you think that my associations with the instructions you mentioned would lead me to disagree with my friend David Sessions, a for whom human I would gladly happily take a bullet.

        Also, what is absurd to me is your expectation that I would like Walsh at all. I spend my time engaging people with multiple degrees and academic training not hackish bloggers who don’t really work for institutions that are adding any value to the common good. David was generous compared to something I would have written about Walsh. The fact that evangelicals find Walsh credible is an indictment on the low standards and even lower expectations that evangelicals have for their thought leaders. Maybe this is why Walsh’s appeal is to evangelicals and not Catholics (his own tradition). Catholics look to men like Princeton’s Robert George, evangelicals? Matt Walsh. It’s really sad. I hope that clarififies it for you.

        • Patrick Sawyer says:

          Dr. Bradley,

          You said, “The inference that my being associated with those institutions means I have to like Matt Walsh is a very ignorant expectation”. There is nothing in my comment that even remotely suggests such an inference. You have launched on a mild attack from a platform of your own making, not one that I provided.

          I was not commenting on your personal feelings towards Matt Walsh. I did not know them until your response here. Moreover, I did not speak to whether I “liked” Matt Walsh. That was not the point of my comment. (Incidentally, I don’t know him well enough to have an opinion on whether I “like” him).

          My surprise was simply that given your connection to Acton and King’s, I would not think you would endorse an approach that doesn’t actually deal with Walsh’s beliefs and ideas but merely states condescendingly that Walsh has “no ideas”, “no arguments”, and is “impossible to engage”. I view the Acton Institute and The King’s College as places that eschew being pejorative and focus on dealing with the merits (or lack of merits) of the argument at hand. But like I said I may be incorrect as to how Acton and King’s are engaging culture these days. Even still, this hardly qualifies me as being “delusional” as you say.

          I have been reading Sessions in various places for a few years now and am aware of his academic life. As one who has been in secular graduate school for 7 years now, I realize Sessions has put in some good work and long hours in his academic endeavors. But I must admit I’m not sure what you mean by Sessions being in a “separated IQ class”. By the way I’m glad to hear you and Sessions have a strong friendship. Relationships that explore ideas cannot be over-valued.

          I too read The Gospel Coalition. I also appreciate Robert George and have spent a fair amount of time reading him and his good friend, Cornel West. West is a nice segue to my final point here. I teach at a state university. In one of my classes I had my students critically analyze and deconstruct various readings (ranging from popular writing to peer-reviewed articles) that addressed “White Privilege”. Two of the articles were emotionally charged, one by a strong progressive and the other by Matt Walsh. This is how I know that Walsh’s ideas can be engaged, dissected, and interrogated, and how strands and segments of his thinking can be embraced, rebuked, appreciated, and rejected. I hope that clarifies some things for you.

          • Anthony Bradley says:

            Sorry Patrick, it’s really difficult to take you seriously. If this is something you value “places that eschew being pejorative and focus on dealing with the merits (or lack of merits) of the argument at hand,” then reading Matt Walsh at all makes zero sense. For example, his post on suicide was beyond ridiculous.

            This is one of my favorite websites that I would be more than happy to contribute to one day: http://whatismattwalshwrongabouttoday.com

            By “separate IQ” class, I mean that Sessions is actually intelligent, widely read and thoughtful. I would not be able to say the same about Walsh. They are not in same intellectual league. Not even close.

            David wrote a brief blog post about the asinine nature of Walsh’s approach and method. And that’s what it was a short, brief blog post. The expectation that David would provide an article length explanation to provide examples to satisfy your expectations is to misunderstand the genre. It was written over at Medium.com. Please go back and reread David’s point 3 above. It will help you understand the genre and the post.

            Life is short and there are lots of opinions that swirl around but when I have a my students read contrarian views, even emotionally charged popular ones, I would not waste their time by having them read Matt Walsh. There are better popular representatives that share his views that write without such profound unnuanced ignorance and tribalistic narcissism. It’s great that you think Walsh is valuable for your own students but I simply do not believe Walsh is worth anyone reading and that should be ok especially because Walsh is “pejorative” and rants instead thoughtfully engaging ideas and truth where it is found. It should be ok for me not value Walsh in a world where there are hundreds of popular writers. Walsh’s models exactly what you believe (is shocking) about why I have zero interest in Walsh and believe that David nails it. Sessions calls Walsh a representative of “douchebaggery.” Again, that’s generous, I would put Walsh most likely in the Biblical category of “fool,” which is harsher. Walsh is regularly “pejorative” and dismissive of nuance but those who agree with him give him a pass. When Walsh is treated in-kind, objections are raised. Walsh is a tragic representative of tribalism and confirmation bias.

            This is instructive: “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5). There are times when a fool is not to be answered in-kind because one becomes like him (Prov 26:4) but there are times when a fool needs to be treated in-kind. David does a great job of demonstrating why Proverbs 26:5 is needed. That’s exactly how I read his post and why I support his comments and follow up. I believe that people should have the freedom to exercise Prov 26:5 when it’s necessary. Matt Walsh is one of those necessary times. We need more posts and responses like the one David issued above. Many more. Again, I have no problem with Sessions writing a post about Walsh that answers him “according to his folly,” regardless of the institutions with which I am associated. I would have my students read Sessions over Walsh any day.

          • Anthony Bradley says:

            And one last point Patrick, your attempt to shame me by mentioning the Acton Institute and The King’s College as a rhetorical weapon lacked charity, civility, and class. I’m beginning to see this more and more lately which only says that people haven’t read any of my books.

          • Patrick Sawyer says:

            Really?? This is how you have processed my comments to you, that I have attempted to “shame” you? This is how you have assessed my motives? And you say this against the backdrop of how you have approached me in your comments (your tone, your assumptions, and your accusations)? Wow.

            Since I read your last 2 comments yesterday I have been intentional in praying for you. Given your exchanges with me and how you have processed my comments, I feel that is all I can meaningfully do. This will be my last comment on this thread. Best…

  3. dehrman says:

    The social church has always been a distraction from the spiritual church. Does God care about politics? Sure, but only as they impact people he has breathed life into. As a Christian, does my politics impact the poor, the broken, so sojourner, justice, life and freedom to worship? If God has created life, then I’d better be pro-life when it comes to the death penalty or owning a pistol – not just hot-button abortion discussions. If God is providing for the poor, my politics better get behind God’s provision, however imperfect I perceive it to be. If God is providing justice for the sojourner, my politics better accommodate God’s provision for them – even if its through government. If God is for the brokenhearted, my politics on drugs should be full of mercy and grace. If God has said the one without sin should cast the first stone, I’d better walk away, considering my rightful place in need of God’s love and grace for today. If God wants to impact the world he’s choosing to do it through each of us – even if its through me.

  4. AC700 says:

    I didn’t know Walsh was Catholic either, not sure how that works???

    I think rational debate would be a better high road – everything has become politicized & I am very guilty myself…… When the culture war is defined by ‘war on women’ & ‘homophobia’ or a hard to follow circular diatribe, the whole argument has entered the realm of reverse hate speech & self righteous superiority ….. David, if you could ever lose your hard left bias you could be a great bridge….. But I’m not gonna hold my breath. Stewart & Colbert are your heroes

  5. todd says:

    The fact that his writing does little to nothing to even suggest that he’s Catholic might just illustrate what a shitty excuse for a Catholic he is.

Leave a Reply

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.