Deferential Discourse

Recently I was fortunate enough to see a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. I really appreciate the points that Lewis conveys in his original work, and while the play was well-produced and had its shining actors, I had some problems with the writing of the adaptation itself. In translating the letters to a more concrete narrative, Lewis’ emphasis on attitudes and distinctions is lost. For example, the patient’s early dealings with haughty, progressive friends in the book are supplanted by the devils’ conspicuous trumpeting of social class, which the play ultimately does nothing constructive with. However, it does insult liberals by making the patient’s drunken louse friend a socialist.  In introducing the parish pastor, the play brandishes its disdain for the overreach of cultural relativism with a reference to church karate classes taught by a Japanese Muslim. But since these introductory remarks show no connection to the characters they describe, they come off as cheap hits on unfavored practices. If we recall the patient’s haughty pacifist friends or the morally picky parish pastor of the book, Lewis does better by withholding direct judgment on specific issues and individuals. Whether examining social activism or church sermons, the book’s Screwtape turns our attention toward our attitudes of approach rather than the specific practices or practitioners before us.

This deference given toward individuals and institutions with which there is disagreement is something I see a lot with British writers, more so in the past than today. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis criticizes the ideas put forward in a science textbook, but chooses to leave the work unnamed in order to stem the sensational urges that come from connecting individuals to their ideas. So those whose idea he criticizes are called in his text “Gaius and Ticius.” In old works of fiction, its not uncommon to see authors go out of their way to avoid impugning real people or places by calling them “Mr. X” or  “M. S____.”  Today I see the survival of this sense of deference in people like apologist Ravi Zacharias, well-connected with Oxford and Cambridge, and British-born journalist Peter Hitchens. In his past talks, Zacharias has often left broad elements ambiguous for the sake of his audience’s attention, saying only that such an anecdote occurred in some city on the West Coast, or that a cutting conversation happened with a professor of some unnamed Eastern religion (really, how many can we choose from?). Likewise, in a recent interview promoting his latest book The Rage Against God, Peter Hitchens consistently avoids “personal” criticisms of his famously strident atheist brother Christopher. If you press him too hard on his conjectures of their personal relationship, his deference will block you and return the conversation again to the ideas, not to the people who espouse them. Peter, who claims that he is a pariah to his countrymen because of his beliefs, points to the demise of deferential discourse in his earlier book, The Abolition of Britain.

This old-style deference is remarkably rare in a sensate age where more points are conveyed with blunt images and sound bites rather than well-reasoned arguments. Yet I’m attracted to the power of shorthand that specific people and places convey. If we look at the controversies of today, so much emotion and meaning can be unpacked if you just drop some names: merely mentioning Sarah Palin or Jerry Falwell will set off a certain crowd, while mentioning Chairman Mao or Che Guevara will set off another. The deference writers do have the advantage of taking the high road and keeping their discourse focused, but I do believe there are times and places where it makes sense to be more direct. However, if someone is going to drop names, they ought to be more than just smears by association. Whether constructing a talk or writing a work of fiction, we will benefit just by being a little more careful about the specific mentions we make.

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