Dumb, Lazy or Lying - A Lowbrow Lewis's Trilemma For The Internet Age
If C.S. Lewis is known for anything more than magical closet-based felineocracies, it’s probably that he thought that Jesus was God and generally thought that you should, as well. He spent a lot of time on the subject and despite the fact that his theological and apologetic works have enjoyed far less modern CGI enhancement than his fiction, the drier, less swordy religious books and speeches comprise the bulk of his life’s work.
We can imagine, then, how annoyed he must have been to find that many of the people to whom he spoke about religion had down-graded Jesus from deity to something like a pretty good guy who said a lot of pretty good things. From this probable frustration was born Lewis’s Trilemma, Lewis’s argument that Jesus as depicted in scripture could be many things, but not a substantially good mortal man. From Lewis’s Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Lewis’s surface level argument here - and maybe the entirety of it, at any level - is that if you met a man who claimed he was God (as Lewis thought Jesus to have done) and who tried very hard to convince you of it, you likely wouldn’t presuppose him a good fella who had an awful lot of good things to say. You’d probably think of him as a con artist, or insane, but really specifically not a cogent, honest guy whose words you should consider reliable and true.
I personally think but can’t prove that Lewis thought there was something morally wrong about the Jesus-as-a-moral-philosopher stance, something dishonest with oneself and with others. I think that’s what he’s getting at with the “patronizing” line there - Lewis didn’t believe you really think Jesus was a great moral teacher and nothing more. He probably thought you had figured out that was a good way to fend off annoying Christians at parties while not having to bear then possible social negatives of going full-on-atheist, or something similar.
You might not agree with Lewis on the divinity of Christ, or with me about Lewis’s thoughts about it, but there is something in the Trilemma that generalizes beyond the realm of theology, and I think it’s something like this: Sometimes the truth will cost you something. Sometimes the truth will not be nice. But sometimes the facts you know demand an answer or answers from a certain bounded set of conclusions, and you would be dishonest to deny those bounds regardless of the cost or social consequences involved.
Kendi, Once more, with sighs and reluctance
This brings me - improbably, incredulously - to the subject of Ibram X. Kendi for the third time this week. Ibram is the author of How To Be An Antiracist, 2019-20’s mega-best-seller book about racism in America. In it, Kendi posits (among other things) that racism exists on a binary. To Kendi, you (and policies, and organizations) are either actively working against all things racist and thus anti-racist or you are a racist. He thus see no space in between, say, Winston Churchill and a Klansman in this regard; in the binary, one either is or isn’t racist; all other nuance between Winston and the Wizard must be assigned to other characteristics of the men. Kendi’s views on disparate outcomes between black people and other groups are similarly binary; either the outcomes are the same or racism is at play, with no other options considered suitable to entertain.
John McWhorter is a linguist and public figure who does a lot of podcasts and articles about the intricacies of language; I also (bias alert) think he’s brilliant at it. Among his works is a book review of Antiracist, in which he casts the book as overly simplistic - in his view, the binary is insufficient to capture the complexities of reality.
In my last post, I addressed an answer given by Kendi in response to the question of why he refused to debate figures like McWhorter who disagree with the premise of his work. As part of his explanation, Kendi explained that McWhorter viewed his work as simplistic in the sense that it was readable by the masses, and that once Kendi’s work was read and understood by those masses, they would come to understand that McWhorter’s ideals were racist.
This, as noted above, is false, or at least indicated to be false by any word McWhorter has ever spoken on the matter. The word “simplistic”, as he’s used it in relation to Kendi’s work, has always meant something like unnuanced; McWhorter uses it in this context to describe insufficient complexity to accurately describe the world and not to mean “readable” as Kendi states.
In response to this, I wrote the following:
Of course there exists no statement of any kind from John complaining about Kendi’s book being readable or clear. So we find Kendi doing here what he accused John of in the previous section - he’s either misrepresenting John’s thoughts on the matter, or he hasn’t read and understood them. John’s review of Kendi’s book is widely available, so it’s inescapable that Kendi here is either lying, dumb, or lazy; pick one or more.
In seeking feedback on the post, I was repeatedly criticized (in the positive sense; the critics here are people I consider to be friends) for the both the accuracy and phrasing of the “lying, dumb, or lazy” section of the quote above. I think that the phrasing is justified in this case, but I can understand how someone would disagree. As I’m probably going to use similar phrasing in the future, I think it’s worthwhile to break out what I mean and why I think the harshness is necessary instead of gratuitous.
What Is meant by “Lying, Dumb, or Lazy”?
I think it’s a given that McWhorter didn’t mean “Ibram X. Kendi’s work is readable, and thus might reveal me as a racist - I am publicly describing his work as simplistic, as a negative, to prevent the world from knowing the truth of my bigotry.”. You might disagree with me on this (and I’m open to talk about it!) but for the sake of this argument let’s take it as a given that McWhorter isn’t trying to hide his racism by publicly declaring that a book is bad explicitly because it might somehow make that racism plain to the masses. It’s important that we have a fairly solid footing in assuming a statement is factually wrong, but once we take that as a given, we can run a series of tests to see how Kendi might have come to make that particular accusation against McWhorter.
First, we can consider that he might simply be lying about McWhorter’s motivations. We can discuss why this would be to his benefit, or we could posit that he simply is a liar; some people lie for their benefit, and some people lie out of habit, so this isn’t implausible. Not everybody likes to think about it and even less like to say it, but when a person makes a statement that is verifiably inaccurate the possibility of it being purposefully dishonest should be front and center in our minds.
Let’s say we reject the idea that he’s lying, though - maybe we know Kendi to be particularly honest, or we don’t believe it would be in his interest to lie. We then have to consider alternate reasons why he made an inaccurate statement. The next thing to consider is that the person is dumb; a more charitable way to say this is that they are insufficiently intelligent to understand the thing they are talking about. When people are charitable in this way, they still usually mean that they are dumb but hope that by softening it they can indicate they were reluctant to point it out.
Regardless of phrasing, though, we can’t ignore dumb as an option. I am sufficiently dumb in ways that make me incapable of understanding all sorts of things I’d like to understand - so are you, unless you are lucky enough to be the smartest human alive in all human categories of knowledge and understanding. Kendi, being human, is subject to an upper bound on his understanding just as we all are.
With that said, it’s pretty easy to build an argument that Kendi isn’t dumb - among other things, he’s attained a high level of education and written a mega-best-seller, both things that typically take at certain minimum of intelligence. McWhorter’s criticisms of Kendi trend towards wordiness (the man is a linguist) but they aren’t indecipherable by most standards; it’s reasonable to argue that Kendi could probably understand what he was saying.
That leaves us with lazy. In the lazy option, we propose that Kendi just hasn’t read or hasn’t carefully read McWhorter’s criticisms; he has the bandwidth to understand what John wrote, but hasn’t. Nobody has read everything, so to use lazy here we have to consider that Kendi is both neglecting to read one of the major, known criticisms of his most popular and important work and choosing to speak about it as if he has.
With both lying and lazy, we assume a certain level of bad faith. The bad faith in lying is fairly clear and doesn’t necessitate a ton of discussion. Lazy here has a tinge of dishonesty about it, because we are using it under the assumption that the target of the sloth accusation has said something about the subject he’s chosen to know nothing about. Dumb is a bit different - a person can be dumb in good faith; he’s read the thing and put out effort to understand it, but didn’t; he might not be aware of this and thus can’t help being inaccurate when he speaks about it.
Is “Lying, Dumb or Lazy” All-Inclusive?
The next big question here is if “Lying, Dumb, or Lazy” covers all statements made inaccurately. A few of the critics said they could imagine reasons Kendi would say what he said without fitting into that category. If that’s true, then the LDoL standard fails because it tries to uncharitably oversimplify a spectrum of possible motivations, some of which might not be as negative.
I don’t currently see how they could be right, however. Due to the method of how I received the criticism, I wasn’t able to ask them what they believed to be the alternate ways a person could make an inaccurate statement, but they currently remain a mystery to me. I want to be clear that if they do exist, I want to know about them; feel free to comment or contact me by email.
It does currently seem to me that if someone says something they mean to be believed that’s incorrect, they must do so knowingly or unknowingly. If it’s knowingly, then it’s a lie. If it’s unknowingly, it seems it must either be because they attempted to understand what they are speaking of and failed, or didn’t attempt to understand it in the first place. If there are legitimate scenarios that fall outside of this understanding, let me know, but until that time I feel the category is sufficiently inclusive to be used.
Is “Lying, Dumb, or Lazy” Too Mean To Be Useful?
Some of the criticisms I had seemed to point to the idea that the phrasing itself was needlessly mean - not that the statement itself was necessarily wrong, but that there are nicer ways to say the same thing. I don’t think this criticism is entirely incorrect - I wouldn’t accuse a child who answered a math problem incorrectly of LDoL, I don’t think. Tact is sometimes called for, even if 2*8 isn’t 15.
But I don’t think that tact is always called for, either. In this scenario, Kendi wasn’t tactful when he said that McWhorter only disagreed with him because he was a racist. In fact, if Kendi’s accusation was true, he shouldn’t be! If McWhorter was really trying to keep the common man in the dark about the true nature of racism so that he could go on being a racist willy-nilly, causing all sorts of damage, tact would be the last thing I’d want to see. Instead, I’d want to see plain, true language of the type stark and brutal enough to get across the enormity of McWhorter’s sins.
Getting away from Kendi and Lewis for a moment, one place I suspect I differ from a lot of people is that I don’t think a person who chooses to speak publicly about a subject should have an expectation of sugar-coating if he’s found to be inaccurate about something they’ve confidently stated. I think person who puts themselves forth as an expert and public figure on a subject deserves that courtesy much less. I also think utility is with me on this one - if we want to encourage knowledgeable dialogue, we should be able to point out that someone is wrong. I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to extend an excuse of “maybe he just misunderstood” when it’s clear a person either didn’t or shouldn’t have misunderstood something they confidently stated. Doubly so if what they confidently stated was a slur or accusation against someone else.
C.S. Lewis wasn’t attempting to be mean when he said that two out of three potential categories of the Christ were madman and liar; he was making a point in clear language driven by logic that sometimes the information relevant to an argument limits the answers one can provide to it. He made a demand that people speaking with him didn’t condescend to him and themselves by ignoring those limits - Lewis believed Christ was divine and though we should, too, but if we couldn’t he understood that at least we should believe he was something possible within the constraints of what we knew. He didn’t pull punches here because he felt what he needed to say was important enough to deserve clarity and that what he was punching at needed a punch - not a stroke on the cheek.
I acknowledge that some circumstances call for gentleness, but I also reject the idea that harshness is inappropriate in all cases. Similarly I don’t claim I will always be right, I’ll certainly accept harsh language aimed at me when I can be clearly shown to be wrong about something I held up as true.