The Failure of Syntax
A Roundabout Assessment of Direct Communication Failure
CW: sexual violence
This week’s post for Thesis 96 is longer because I haven’t had time to make it shorter, so here’s the TLDR: Don’t fall for the ruse of those who claim they are always direct and never beat around the bush. There is always indirect communication. Whether claimed directness comes from manipulation or self-deception, it doesn’t matter; such people are dangerous in their (conscious and/or subconscious) inattention to their own indirectness. So pay less attention to what they (directly) say with words, and pay more attention to what they (indirectly) say with deeds.
This is my assessment of Joe Rigney’s recent essay Empathy, Feminism, and the Church: Women’s Ordination is Indeed a Watershed Issue, published by the American Reformer. Rigney is Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College, as well as a new member chaplain at Doug Wilson’s church in Moscow, Idaho. I have read some of Rigney’s prior writings on “the sin of empathy”, but that is not my interest here. I decided to respond because it is relevant to the task of apologetics for the abused. What follows is an assessment of the author’s behavior, risky as that may be. As such, I am not debating Rigney’s primary theological argument (at least not directly). Rather, my aim is to make some observations so that you, my reader, can be wise and discerning should you encounter similar behavior in Christian leaders.
Directing, indirecting, which is it?
Rigney makes a great distinction between direct and indirect communication. This seems to be central to his overall argument, namely, that men are naturally gifted by God for church leadership because they are capable of “direct, challenging speech.” That is,
“Male groups operate according to male norms–oriented to things (or ideas), willing to debate, challenge, and provoke one another directly, and comfortable with hierarchy.”
This is in contrast to women and
“Female groups [which] operate according to female norms–oriented to people (or feelings), prone to indirect and subtle communication and sublimated conflict, and averse to open disagreement and overt hierarchies but comfortable with excluding those who violate their social norms.”
It’s quite the contrast, and Rigney deplores cultural trends (ie Big Bad Feminism) which are pushing direct speech out and making indirect speech hip and cool. So he writes that there is a “move to exclude those who violate the norms of “niceness” by engaging in direct, challenging speech.”
Some of the online discourse around this essay and similar pontification in the past few years centers on the question of empathy. Is empathy good? Bad? Neutral? Signaling the downfall of civilization itself? I’m very interested in that subject, as it relates closely to how cases of abuse are mishandled in churches and Christian organizations. But that discussion appears to be a merry-go-round going nowhere.
Instead, I want to draw your attention to a rather glaring blind spot in Rigney’s rhetoric. In a word, his championing of direct speech fails because of his unwitting indirect speech.
Of Statues and Symbols
Much of the (ironically) direct criticisms online were directed at Rigney’s choice of header photo for his essay. It is a statue of a naked Perseus holding a sword in his right hand and the head of Medusa in his left hand.1 Here is a photo of the entire statue:
Rigney’s photo is zoomed in on the heads of Perseus and Medusa (although when linked through X/Twitter the image includes Perseus’ entire torso, with the sword obscuring his genitals). Many online critics pointed to the supposed literal depiction of a man holding the bleeding head of a woman and how that implies endorsement of male violence against women. In reply, Rigney repeatedly pointed out that
“Medusa is not a woman. She’s a mythical monster with snakes for hair who turns people to stone by looking at them.”
This led to discussions of the varying versions and interpretations of Medusa’s story. Did she seduce Poseidon? Or was she raped? Is there an authoritative Medusa story?
Ironically, debating those questions misses the point, which is this: Rigney wrote a 3,200+ word essay in defense of masculine directness and in critique of feminine indirectness, but his very first means of communication to his readers was a symbol. An image of a statue of a Greek myth is symbolic, and therefore highly indirect. That is simply how art works, through indirection. Readers debated (and continue to debate) the meaning of that image precisely because it’s meaning was ambiguous, inviting questions like “Who are the persons in this statue?” “What does the statue represent?” “What story is being portrayed?” “How much of the original story is being applied to this essay?”
Ironically (again), Rigney gave no guidance for his readers on how to understand that symbol. Over 3,200 words, and not one word about why he chose that image. But surely he had a reason, right?
He was prepared to point, at least with a 240 character response, to Greek mythology and name the characters in the statue. That still begs the question as to what version of that Greek myth matches Rigney’s intent. I didn’t research this rather inconsequential question, but one of Rigney’s defenders pointed to the earliest known version in Hesiod’s Theogony (8th century). That tale is quite sparse, with only one line regarding Poseidon and Medusa:
“With her lay the Dark-haired One [ie Poseidon] in a soft meadow amid spring flowers.”
You might say, fair enough, there is no clear indication of sexual violence. But even taking the Hesiod version, it is still impossible to escape the potential for additional symbolic significance in Rigney’s choice of that particular statue. Perseus holding the head of Medusa is a well known story in Greek mythology, and as a Google search shows, has inspired many an artist. But what about that statue?
From Greece to Florence to Moscow
That particular statue of Perseus and Medusa was made by Benvenuto Cellini around 1545-1554 and was commissioned by the second Duke of Florence, Cosimo I de’ Medici. With such a commission from a political ruler, it is no surprise that the statue had special political significance. Ianthi Assimakopoulou observes the general attitude behind the Florentine duke’s interest in the arts:
“By using the talent of many artists and literati, duke Cosimo had managed to establish an efficient mechanism that allowed him not only to highlight Florence as the cultural centre of Italy, but also to propagate the representations of power of his regime.”2
With respect to representation in Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa statue, there was “no doubt about the intended identification of Cosimo with the Greek hero [Perseus].”3 The timing of the placement of Cellini’s statue pointed to the current political regime’s authoritative dominion. Gender may not have been part of the symbolism, but power and control clearly were.4 Assimakopoulou’s further observations about Duke Cosimo’s interest in Perseus are relevant to Rigney’s article:
“The son of Jupiter, Perseus, not only was associated with princely virtue, but represented also the kind of determination Cosimo felt he shared with the Greek hero. Indeed, from the beginning of his reign as "principe nuevo" [new prince], Cosimo I had shown unwavering resolve in curbing resistance by all means and in bringing peace and prosperity in his dominion.”5
"Principe nuevo" is an allusion to Machiavelli’s The Prince. So Assimakopoulou notes, “Machiavelli provocatively urges new princes to be cruel if circumstances demand it.”6 This reference comes from ch. 17 of The Prince, and while we might seem to be on a bit of a rabbit trail, I believe it’s worthwhile, so here is that section from Machiavelli:
“Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only. And of all princes, it is impossible for the new prince to avoid the imputation of cruelty, owing to new states being full of dangers.”
New questions arise after reading that. What relevance does Machiavelli have for the issue of women’s ordination? What, really, did Rigney intend by using that statue? Better yet, in light of the Florentine duke’s artistically inspired curbing of resistance by all means, what kind of man is inspired by that statue? What kind of Christian culture valorizes violence to the point of dubbing an Christian professor “The Perseus of Moscow”?
Speech, Action, and Dangerous Indirection
I will not go so far as to answer those questions. They are good questions, and people knowledgeable of the culture in Moscow, Idaho can make some very educated guesses. But I want to circle back to three unquestionable facts:
1. Rigney chose that image (perhaps with input/approval from his publisher American Reformer, or even if they chose it, he still approved, which is the same thing);
2. Rigney didn’t communicate anything about that choice; and
3. Rigney employed indirect communication that affected how readers interacted with his writing.
Some additional questions follow: Was Rigney cognizant of possible divergent reactions to that image? Are authors responsible for unintended and unforeseen consequences of their work? What about consequences that were not intended but could have been foreseen? To what degree are authors responsible for preventable unintended negative affects? I obviously do not know what Rigney thought of that statue and how it fit his essay. Taking the essay as it stands in its published form, it’s impossible to definitively know what he was thinking about Perseus and Medusa. One might imagine him choosing that image and anticipating with some relish the “hornet’s nest” that would kick up. Or perhaps Rigney was simply naive, unthinking, and/or unaware of how readers would misread his use of that statue. Either way, the element of indirect communication is inescapable. For the sake of rounding out this response, I will assume Rigney didn’t prevent the likely impact of his indirectness.
This is familiar territory. Certain kinds of men (and women, no doubt) claim to be direct. They get upset when others inject emotion into dialogue (some more irony for you). They lack empathy. And that lack of empathy coincides with their insistence that their speech and action can only be interpreted by themselves. Any indirectness, once point out, is repudiated and given absolute, unalterable meaning based on intent that they, and only they, could have known. Such use of symbols—whether in word, deed, or art—with left-brain rigid univocality, apart from being highly ineffective, is also an exercise in presumptive power.
“That’s not what I said. How could you assume that’s what I meant? I would never intend for you to take it that way, obviously you are reading into that.”
When my wife was knee deep in the muck and mire of conflict with church leaders over handling cases of abuse, she had a particularly vivid conversation with her boss, the senior pastor. When it became clear to him that Kristen disagreed and was not going to back down, he engaged in both direct and indirect communication. Directly, he said things like, “I will start a national search and replace you.” Indirectly, he moved from where he was in the room in which they were talking and stood in the doorway. Given human capacity for supression and self-deception, it’s entirely possible he was unaware of what such physical movement would symbolize. But it was quite clear to my wife: “You are trapped; if you want to leave, you must face me first. So if you know what’s best, you’ll back down and submit.”
I know my wife is not alone in this kind of experience with oppressive men. It is a common tactic. But the real danger is when the man simply thinks he is using direct speech and remains unaware of what and how his body is speaking. What Rigney claims is characteristic of women can also be true of men, but in this case pathological: “prone to indirect and subtle communication and sublimated conflict.”
Sublimated conflict. An interesting phrase. “Sublimate” came into more popular usage through psychology around late 19th/early 20th centuries, and I’m guessing that is the sense Rigney is using. Here is Psychology Today’s defintion:
“Sublimation is a defense mechanism that involves channeling unwanted or unacceptable urges into an admissible or productive outlet.”
That just might help pull together the various threads about this article. I will switch to a generic reference, as the point all along has been how this behavior is more common than just one author in Idaho. So, a man begins with an image of violence which was historically used to bolster male ego, symbolize man’s power to rule, and support the right to use force and cruelty when necessary. Even a cursory reading of the essay shows this man’s preference for metaphors of violence. But surely (I hope), the man does not believe in the legitimacy of using literal violence in the alleged war against feminism. That may be an urge, but an unacceptable one. So what does he do? He selects an image of violence, sublimating his violence into an acceptable outlet (relatively speaking, at least). In the end, the man’s actions (representing his essay with a 16th century statue) speak louder than his words (though they run on into the thousands in protest of such unfair evaluation).
Once again: don’t fall for the ruse of those who claim they are always direct and never beat around the bush. There is always indirect communication. Whether that be from manipulation or self-deception, it doesn’t matter; such people are dangerous in their (conscious and/or subconscious) inattention to their own indirectness. Pay less attention to what they (directly) say with words, and pay more attention to what they (indirectly) say with deeds.
Quote from Edwin Friedman7
The Failure of Syntax
The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.8
What keeps you focused more on what people say rather than what they do? What difference would it make for you if you had greater trust in your gut when interacting with questionable characters?
Sidenote: as a devoted student of Iain McGilchrist’s research, I’m very intrigued by the sculptor’s decision to place the sword in Perseus’ right hand, and Medusa’s head in his left hand. The right hand is connected to the left hemisphere of the brain, which when isolated from the right is incapable of empathy and whose emotional range is mostly restricted to anger. The left hand is connected to the right hemisphere, which specializes in empathy. McGilchrist might actually comment on similar artwork of someone holding a decapitated head and how that relates to the brain hemispheres, but I haven’t had time to double check.
Ibid, p. 223.
If one wanted to take more time to note the wider context of Cellini’s statue, violence against women might actually be a possible symbolic theme. See this Wikipedia article discussing the placing of a statue of The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna next to the Perseus and Medusa statue by Cellini in Piazza della Signoria, Florence.
Ibid, p. 222-223
Ibid, p. 223, footnote 6.
Here’s a little more indirection for you. Rigney has apparently built an entire curriculum based on Edwin Friedman’s famous book A Failure of Nerve. Whether or not Rigney has rightly interpreted that specific Friedman book, he could stand to learn from Friedman’s championing of indirect communication (see reference in footnote 7 below).
Edwin Friedman, Friedman’s Fables (New York: The Guilford Press, 1990), p. 7.