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Anatomy of a sneer

Watch for three ways progressive activists push their opponents into a corner

iStock/Tetiana Lazunova

Anatomy of a sneer

In 1776, the English historian Edward Gibbon released the first volume of his massive work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As a quintessential example of Enlightenment history—with the assumed superiority of his then-current “age of reason” over the religious superstitions of earlier centuries—Gibbon’s six-volume magnum opus was a-not-so-thinly veiled attack on Christianity as the chief culprit in Rome’s demise. Gibbon faulted Christianity for undermining the tolerant regime of pagan religion and plunging Europe into a millennium-long dark age. When asked for his reaction to The Decline and Fall, the Christian apologist William Paley replied tersely: “Who can refute a sneer?”

USA Today’s Nancy Armour recently published an opinion piece entitled “What ESPN’s Sam Ponder calls ‘fairness’ is plain old bigotry.” Samantha Ponder is a well-known sports broadcaster with many high-profile television responsibilities to her credit. Ponder is also a Christian. The reason for Armour’s denunciation is that Ponder recently voiced her disapproval of trans “women” (biological males who now identify as women) participating in women’s sports. “It is not hateful,” Ponder said, “to demand fairness in sports for girls.”

Armour, of course, thinks Ponder’s position—which is shared by an overwhelming majority of Americans—is simply bigotry. While I hesitate to try to refute a sneer, Armour’s article is such a succinct and virulent summary of typical arguments, that I thought it might be useful to analyze the case she makes.

For starters, let’s consider what the debate over transgender athletes in sports is about. There are three questions we should be debating.

One, what is a woman? That’s the starting place. Are male and female distinctions rooted in given biological realities or are “man” and “woman” simply designations we choose for ourselves based on our own feelings and sense of identity?

Two, can men become women (and vice versa)? We speak of someone transitioning from male to female, but we rarely stop to ask whether a change of appearance and a change of hormones actually turns a man into a woman.

Three, do men—even ones who now identify as women—possess inherent advantages in athletic competition? This is the question of fairness. Is it fair for biological men to compete against biological women in sports?

Armour follows a predictable outline meant to silence opposing viewpoints.

While at one level these questions may deal with philosophical or theological issues, most fundamentally they are matters of science. Until very recently, each of these three questions would have been answered relatively easily, just based on a shared understanding of biological givens and physiological realities.

But these are not the questions Armour seeks to address or even contemplate. Instead, she follows a predictable outline meant to silence opposing viewpoints and to paint her opponents as dangerous, harmful people. While Armour’s article is not important in its own right—and this whole kerfuffle will likely be quickly forgotten—it’s worth noting how progressive activists push their opponents into an ideological and rhetorical corner. We can identify these “arguments” with three words: vocabulary, virtue, and victim.

Vocabulary. Armour’s title and first sentence make clear that those who disagree with her are bigots. That is, her opponents are not honest, reasonable people. They are motivated by “hate, fear and ignorance.” They traffic in a “cesspool of transphobic tweets.” Ponder and those like her may talk about fairness, but that’s “a sham,” a “bogeyman” argument. Armour’s strident vocabulary does the arguing for her. Ironically, she is the real bully in this debate, asserting that if you dare to disagree with her position, you are an ignorant, hateful monster.

Virtue. Armour attacks Ponder’s character, claiming that she wants “to see the transgender community marginalized out of existence.” Unlike Armour, who virtuously advocates for women’s sports, Ponder doesn’t actually care about fairness. Notice that the “evidence” used to support this claim is almost entirely about what Ponder is said not to have done online. She didn’t use her platform to express outrage. She didn’t use Twitter to urge her followers to call their representatives. She didn’t tweet about ESPN’s videos about Title IX last year. Virtue has come to be redefined in almost entirely digital terms. What people are like in private, how they treat people, what they may do outside the public view—these things don’t count for virtue. Good people express the right outrage and send out the right tweets.

Victim. According to Armour, Ponder speaks out of “an inordinate amount of privilege to pile on a group that is already among the most vulnerable in our society.” People who oppose transgender athletes, or disagree with transgenderism more broadly, have committed “harm” against transgender people and may even be responsible, Armour suggests, should someone from the trans community commit suicide. This is the hardest “argument” to refute because it is the most emotionally charged. Virtually no human being on the planet wants to see another human being commit suicide. And yet, we have to muster up the courage to disagree with the assumptions behind the argument—assumptions like “individuals are not moral agents responsible for their own actions,” and “intellectual and personal disagreements are tantamount to harm,” and “unqualified acceptance and affirmation are the only things that count as love and support.”

Besides all this, it’s worth observing that suicide rates have skyrocketed in this country at the same time that acceptance for newfound identities and sexualities has grown. Perhaps traditional morality is not to blame for our current age of anxiety.

In the end, there may be no way to effectively refute a sneer. But dissecting the anatomy of the sneer is at least a start. As Christians, we should not give up on reason and rationality, even if the world, increasingly, seems to have little place for either.

Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in Matthews, N.C., and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte). Prior to the summer of 2017, he pastored at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich. Kevin holds a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and received his Ph.D. in early modern history at the University of Leicester. He is the author of several books, including The Biggest Story, The Hole in Our Holiness, Crazy Busy, and Just Do Something. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have nine children.

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