Them’s Fightin’ Words

Say what you will about the brutality of dueling, at least it was a mechanism which reminded men that their words have value–that they can be worth fighting over.

As we sit and lament cancel culture, it may be tempting to think this is still the case. After all, we experience conflict over words all the time, and certain kinds of speech have once again become personally dangerous. But while we may think words are worth destroying another person over, we do not think they’re worth fighting over. The “beauty” of the duel was that it was a two-sided fight. When an insult was offered, both the target and the insulter needed to think it was worth shame, injury, or possibly even death in order to proceed all the way to a duel. Otherwise, one would simply withdraw either the insult or the complaint.

Cancel culture, in contrast, is entirely one-sided. A mob conspires to go after a man’s reputation, his livelihood, his family, his life, and anything else they can destroy. All this they do without any real threat of reprisal. That’s why the mob is far quicker to pull the trigger on violence than any duelist–they have no skin in the game themselves. Cancelling is no less brutal than dueling, but it provides cowards with a risk-free path to the violence they wish to inflict on their enemies.

Given such circumstances, it shouldn’t be surprising that many people who desire to publicly gore our culture’s sacred cows will use pseudonymous accounts on social media–they write under persistent handles rather than their real names. After all, there is no such thing as engaging the mob on equal terms. Public discourse is no longer a fair fight, and acting as though it were is a delusion that can lead to severe consequences.

Nevertheless, I’ve observed a great many Christians deride pseudonymity as cowardly. Some of them do so because they are too out-of-touch to truly understand the nature of cancel culture. Others, unfortunately, do so because they themselves are part of the mob. They allow the world to teach them when to be offended and react with all the fury of an SJW when it comes to non-sins like racism and sexism (though they usually try to create a false contrast with the radical left by appealing to “real” racism or “real” sexism.) Of these two types of Christians, only the latter desire to dox, but both join together in accusing the pseudonymous of cowardice.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of courage, and I’ve witnessed a number of exchanges recently that have made this plain. They’ve gone something like this:

1: Why don’t stop hiding behind an anonymous Twitter account and put your name on your words, you coward.
2: Well, why don’t you and me step outside and we’ll settle this like men, you coward.

By themselves, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about either of them. But what stood out to me was how many people would cheer on #1, but then immediately decry #2 as childish bravado. Making threats, you see, is beneath such fine, upstanding, and mature men.

This is nonsense. If you really believe such threats are just machismo, then there is no functional difference between the two statements in that respect. You should be condemning both. Make no mistake: “Step outside so we can fight” and “Dox yourself so we can cancel you” both threaten violence in 2023 America. Boomers might be oblivious enough to believe otherwise; but anyone else who would deny the equivalence is likely part of the mob trying to passive-aggressively obscure their attempted attack.

But while both threats are paired with an accusation of cowardice, they are differentiated by the aforementioned difference between dueling and cancelling: whether or not the proposed violence is entirely one-sided. Demanding a dox is a desire to be able to inflict violence on a person from a place of personal safety within a mob. Demanding a fist fight is a desire to be able to put oneself at risk in order inflict violence on your opponent one-on-one. So which of these threats really requires bravery? Demanding the abandonment of pseudonymity in cancel culture–to tell a man he must let you safely destroy him for the sake of his honor–is an act of cowardice, plain and simple. Though cowardice is the accusation on both sides, only one of them has thoroughly proven their own.

When Aristotle wrote about the virtue of courage, he found it to be more a matter of skill than of temperament. The veteran soldier, for example, was almost ipso facto more courageous than the new recruit because he had been through many battles in which his courage had been honed by practice. Many American Christians today have overlooked this aspect of courage because in the past few generations, bravery has seldom been demanded of us.

It wasn’t that long ago that I attended a Bible study in which we were discussing Jesus’ warnings about persecution. The teacher made an assertion which I have been taught by Christians my whole life: “We are fortunate to live in America where we don’t have to worry about such things.” That presumption is an echo of the America in which the Boomers grew up–a country which may not have been particularly faithful, but which could at least be called Christian without immediately provoking scornful laughter. This is no longer the case.

Jesus warned of even family turning against each other on His account. It’s hard to consider that merely hypothetical when half your family has disowned you precisely because you openly embrace Jesus’ teachings on controversial subjects. In our current age, Satan is most fiercely attacking the First Article gift of family–and all the sub-topics which orbit it like sexuality, education, headship, and nation. Any layperson who has publicly spoken out on those topics has learned the risks it entails from friends, employers, family, and government.

This reality on the ground is completely outside the experience of many of the aging pastors and members of my denomination. Those who can still can consider Jesus’ warnings hypothetical generally do so because they themselves haven’t had to pay for being faithful. When you haven’t experienced any significant repercussions, it’s easy to think that any talk of persecution is an exaggeration and that Christians are therefore “hiding” behind pseudonyms out of cowardice. And yet that assessment is merely their own lack of courage in the Aristotelian sense. They have not practiced. Nevertheless, that does not stop them from loudly decrying “anonymity” with all the self-righteous ferocity of a Pharisee. “If you were really witnessing faithfully, you’d embrace the consequences instead of hiding!”

Scripture has promised persecution to faithful Christians, yes. But Scripture and history alike have also taught us that there is both a time to embrace persecution and a time to put it off for another day. Paul escaped Damascus in a basket because he had better things to do than face the lethal consequences of proclaiming Christ in the synagogues there. Luther lived under the pseudonym of Sir George at the Wartburg to avoid his death sentence and continue his work of teaching the Gospel and translating the Bible. Jesus repeatedly slipped away from the Jews who were trying to stone him because his hour had not yet come; He had other things to do first.

None of these men were cowards. They were exercising their own God-given wisdom in deciding when to accept persecution and when to avoid it to continue their work. There are times when faithfulness demands our reputations, our suffering, our families, or even our lives. Christians must be willing to give up any of those for our Lord. But that doesn’t mean we eagerly jump on our swords at the first opportunity, as though our reputations, families, & lives were worthless or as though the vocations God has given us were of no significance.

Upon hearing this, some will try to paper over their own cowardice by stealing the bravery of others. “How *dare* you compare getting doxxed and cancelled to the real threats directed at men like Paul or Luther!” It’s true that there is (so far) a disparity in threat level, just as there is a disparity in response (being pseudonymous isn’t exactly as severe as fleeing a city.) But at what point does a Christian’s suffering for his faith actually become real to such men?

When the world merely mocks a man for being Christian, does his brother in Christ who lost his job for the Faith sneer at the pain? Does a third man who was beaten for Christ dismiss the first two as drama queens? As the martyrs beneath God’s throne cry out “how long, oh Lord” do they also call out “that’s nothing, you sniveling pansies” to all their brothers still on Earth? Nothing could be further from Christian love. Creating a hierarchy of persecution with which to dismiss those on the bottom is merely a conceit by which one pretends that him who assumes small risks is the same as him who assumes no risk whatsoever. In contrast, those who truly walk the same road are more likely to experience comradery than contention–even when one is further ahead.

Obviously, I don’t use pseudonymity myself. Considering what I’ve already written under my own name both here and on far larger platforms like the Federalist, what would be the point? But I decided against pseudonymity well over a decade ago in a very different world where cancel culture was not yet a thing. It was an act of naiveté rather than courage–one I suspect I’ve only made a down payment on. But there’s no taking it back now. Nevertheless, I will by no means judge another man for choosing differently. What gives any of us the right to condemn another for making that choice in their lives and according to their own God-given wisdom and vocations?

And those of you who are tempted to condemn the pseudonymous as cowards would do well to ask yourselves what price you’ve paid for faithfulness. If God has spared you all of this, you should devote yourself to gratitude rather than self-righteousness. And if the world does not even consider you enough of an enemy to bother hating you, you should consider which side of the Great Conflict you’re truly on.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, Musings, The Modern Church. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Them’s Fightin’ Words

  1. SL says:

    “Dox yourself, coward” is a threat which reflects quite un-Christian attitudes. They don’t know how much they expose themselves as evil men when they say it, but it’s an excellent heuristic for your average guy to see which teachers are false.

  2. Pelagius says:

    Calvinists were the first doxxers.

  3. Nope says:

    Just want to let you know that you’re dumb as a post, my guy. I pity your kids.

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