The Generalization of Outrage

The dawning awareness in the US about the barbarism of QSIS has provoked a new round of the same old anti-Muslim rhetoric from the usual sources. Frequently these denunciations follow a predictable recipe:

1. Point to an abhorrent example of something labeled ‘Muslim’ (e.g. QSIS, some violent text in the Qur’an).

2. Declare that this example expresses the essence of Islam, and denounce it: ‘Islam is a religion of violence!’

One often hears this argument from Christians; so it is no small irony that Richard Dawkins and his ilk deploy the same specious form of argument against religion in general, not least Christianity. He too will point to something like the crusades, crack open a few texts of terror, and then triumphantly denounce the violence and irrationality of Christianity.

When this form of ‘argument’ is directed against ourselves, we all know, or ought to know, how unfair it is. We all know, or ought to know, that one example does not exhaust something as complex as an entire religious tradition. We all know, or ought to know, that every religion has its awkward texts, its hermeneutical gambits, its inner tensions.

Why, then, do we nevertheless hear this sort of argument deployed so frequently?

To begin to answer this question, I want to try to understand a bit more clearly how this argument goes wrong. It seems to me that it employs a kind of equivocation: a word changes its meaning in the course of the argument. In step 1, the meaning of ‘Islam’ is restricted to a single case: e.g. ‘Islam’ refers to QSIS. In step 2, the word ‘Islam’ has expanded, without justification, to refer to everything under the sun that bears the label ‘Islam.’ So the term ‘Islam’ is being used with two meanings: one particular, the other hugely general. Since the arguer tacitly presumes he can judge what Islam is in general on the basis of a single case, some have called this the ‘fallacy of hasty generalization,’ which is just a fancy way of saying he ‘jumped to conclusions!’

To maintain oneself in the thrall of a specious argument requires various forms of internal violence. Our arguer will, on the one hand, tend to fix her attention and conversation on the particular cases that provoke her outrage. On the other hand, she will cling rigidly to her general definition, which simply mirrors the particular case from which it is derived. QSIS will seem to her like the essence of Islam, and she will take pains to discount any apparent evidence to the contrary as immaterial, or worse.

Perhaps the chief attraction of this argument is what we might call the generalization of outrage. Through hasty generalization, one takes wholly appropriate outrage at a particular horror undertaken in the name of Islam and redirects it at every individual or group with the misfortune to bear the same name. Every individual Muslim now rekindles and reinforces that simmering cocktail of outrage and certitude. So action that might have been appropriate with respect to QSIS — ‘stop them at all costs!’ — now speciously appears like an appropriate response to every Muslim.

This can have deadly consequences.

Assuming my analysis of this kind of argument is on the right track, how should people of good will respond? Here I find myself at a loss. Perhaps one culprit is that our culture has largely forgotten how to reason ethically. So while we trust the immediacy of our outrage, we have few mechanisms for forming and channeling our outrage wisely and judiciously — we can only generalize our outrage by fiat. So we need to relearn lost ethical wisdoms.

Another similar explanation is that we have largely forgotten how to think empirically, how to hold our generalizations accountable to the totality of particulars. Instead, too many of us trust in ‘principles,’ ‘rights,’ or ‘theologies’ that tell us what we need to know in advance of looking. So we need to relearn to look and listen, and to judge cautiously and judiciously.

Or perhaps we are simply outraged — feeling in our bodies that something in our world is awry without being quite sure what to do about it. So we need to find the underlying source of our anger, and heal it.

Or perhaps you, my readers, have other insights.

In any case, surely the most basic neighbor love and the most elementary wisdom demand better of us. Christians in particular owe it to their Muslim neighbors to hear each of their voices, to be ‘quick to hear and slow to speak,’ and all the more, since QSIS would love nothing better than to be given the right to speak for all of Islam.

Image of a temple of (the god) Isis also easily brings to mind the uphill battle against simple binary understandings of the Other.  Courtesy of Flickr Commons.

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3 thoughts on “The Generalization of Outrage

  1. Thanks Mark. I appreciate this analysis. I think your last paragraph gestures towards one of prerequisites for the generalization you speak of, namely, where you use the term Muslim “neighbors”. Not many of us in the US have Muslim neighbors (in the literal sense). Even when we do, not many of us actually interact with our neighbors in a meaningful way. So when we use the term in the general, ethical sense, we also are still often talking about a theological abstraction vaguely equivalent to “the other”. We can do anything we want to abstractions. Friends and coworkers tend to be harder to generalize.

    So, it seems that this tendency to generalize depends upon the lack of actual experience of particular counter examples. When we don’t actually know any Muslims, we don’t have any relationships, any faces, that resist the identification of the particular ‘QSIS’ with the general ‘Muslim’. Not everyone has the chance to hang out in the class rooms of their local university religious studies department. So it seems that one aspect of getting past this must be the fostering of lived encounters with other people, Muslim people, in whose lives we can be mutually invested. SR seems especially promising in this, though it still seems to be relatively limited to the sort of people who already hang out in religious studies departments.
    What role, if any, can churches play in fostering such experiences and relationships? Especially churches which seek to be involved in outreach to Muslims?

  2. Thanks Nathan, I always appreciate your thoughtful responses! Yours seem to me like exactly the right questions, and perhaps now, as a pastor, you’re particularly well-situated to think about them. I’d love to know if you — or some of the other readers of State of Formation? — have more concrete suggestions.

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