Episode 489: 10/10 Would Burn Again

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we tackle orthodoxy, heresy, church, and state in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with current events.

Peter Fenzel and Matthew Wrather mistake late capitalism for late antiquity, as they discuss current events through the lens of a struggle between heresy and orthodoxy, a crisis of authority, and the discursive chaos that results when state or quasi-state actors are derelict in their duties.

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Further Reading


The Surprising Revolt at the Most Liberal College in the Country

Babylon 5

8 Comments on “Episode 489: 10/10 Would Burn Again”

  1. Margo #

    Wow. That was a thinky podcast. Thank you for such a nuanced, careful consideration of the fraught topic of the handling of Campus sexuality assaults.


  2. Stokes OTI Staff #

    This was a really fascinating episode, but it made me have so many opinions…

    1) I’m sure that Pete & Matt know this, but just to clarify some of the stuff they said on-the-fly: the fact that LCK was doing that stuff at work is not the primary problem. Doing that to a non-work friend or to a stranger on the street would still be abusive and illegal.

    2) “Heresy” doesn’t mean anything unless there’s a well-defined orthodoxy, just like “illegal” doesn’t mean anything unless there’s a well-defined law. So an argument that’s like “feeling this way about a celebrity scandal is basically Donatism… and that’s heretical!” is a really weird argument. What is the claim here? If we dug up St. Augustine and forced him to have an opinion about the secondary discourse surrounding the Louis CK scandal, then it would be intellectually consistent for him to reject the “burn it out root and branch” arguments. But I’m not sure what relevance this should have for you and me — and even Augustine would probably be able to make a case that the situations are totally different.

    3) When you are like “where are the monks?” I’m like “huh, it’s almost as if the Roman Catholic Church and Woke Internet Discourse are two different things!


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      Fortunately there’s no authority to tell us whose opinions are correct


    • Peter Fenzel OTI Staff #

      So, it was clear even while this recording was going on that I didn’t have my thoughts organized well enough to be able to get my points across clearly in the context of the podcast. And it’s pretty apparent that I failed to do this. I hope people still enjoyed the podcast regardless. But I’ll try to clarify a bit what I am trying to get at. And I’ll break these down one at a time.

      For point #1, regarding workplaces versus public spaces as harassment hot spots –

      This is a complicated topic, and I still firmly believe that it really matters that this stuff is happening in a workplace, along two axes. But I also recognize that people who have not been personally involved with managerial work in comedy theaters and performance troupes likely has a different sort of perspective on this than I do.

      First axis of point #1, for example, there are frequently men who expose themselves on my town subway system – you hear about somebody doing it a lot every few years. While this is wrong and illegal, it is not nearly as big a problem in the sense that everybody has to get together to do something about it as it would be if this person were a boss doing it at a big prominent company to employees. Mostly because of the effects it has – sure, a chilling effect on women riding the subway is a problem (and one that exists), but a chilling effect on women entering a whole industry, or on how their careers advance and how they are paid, and even follow-on effects across the whole culture, is a more acute problem.

      One stopping point along the way is to consider that the rule of law around exposing yourself on the subway has not broken down. The police will still grab you for that. So that contributes to why it’s less of a problem, I suppose. The orthodoxy does not have to concern itself with problems that the civil authority can still deal with. Render unto Caesar, etc.

      But even past that, I believe a man whose behavior of this sort gender-segregates a workplace is more destructive in terms of the evils of sexism than a man doing the same things in public to strangers. People deal with a lot of crap in public that makes them unsafe, and there are a lot of ways to deal with it that seem to work more or less well. But when you’re talking about work, you’re talking about people’s livelihoods. The primary and most meaningful enemies of women in a chauvinistic or misogynistic sense are not strangers – they are men who are close to them, and men who have responsibility or authority over them. So when a man in that situation does it, it is much worse.

      Second axis of point #1, a bunch of the things Louis C.K. did would _not_ be as bad or illegal outside a workplace or working relationship. And a lot of the things other people did would also _not_ be as bad or illegal outside a workplace or working relationship. Although this is probably more true of other men that it is of Louis C.K.

      A good example is Ellen Page’s story about Brett Ratner outing her as gay in a suggestive way at a cast meet and greet (by suggesting that a woman have sex with her). Outside of a working relationship, what Brett Ratner says would be crude, rude, inappropriate, hostile, etc., but only in a working relationship does it really become an actionable sort of civil rights violation.

      The trick is that “working relationship” or “workplace” or “employee” or any sort of term like that is widely defined to include a bunch of sorts of places that aren’t generally thought of as jobs.

      But if that just happened to Ellen Page on the street it would be lousy but wouldn’t really be remarkable in this way. Street harassment is bad, but it’s not nearly as bad or illegal as workplace sexual harassment.

      Of course here “illegal” applies to civil penalties as well as the criminal system – maybe even more than the criminal system. As in Ellen Page can sue Fox for what Brett Ratner did if she wants. And if she gets the sense that he retaliated against her for raising objections or reporting him, she can sue and win. And in casual conversation I tend to describe that as “illegal” even though maybe a lot of people only use the term in a criminal context.

      So, that’s my take on #1. Though I admit of course the big headline stuff Louis C.K. did would get him arrested even at a train station. But he did a lot of different things over a lot of years. It was a range.


    • Peter Fenzel OTI Staff #

      Okay, so, #2.

      “‘Heresy’ doesn’t mean anything unless there’s a well-defined orthodoxy, just like ‘illegal’ doesn’t mean anything unless there’s a well-defined law.”

      The main thrust of what I was trying to say is that I do not agree with this.

      There are certain sorts of ideas that by their implications for the behavior and structure of groups are going to be opposed to a hypothetical orthodoxy of any sort before it even exists.

      And by orthodoxy here I am referring to the necessary shared ideas of a broadly extant body politic.

      An orthodoxy is different from a consensus in that what everybody in the group thinks is not the basis for the shared ideas. But it’s similar in that it claims authority over a local maximum of number of people.

      Orthodox Jews in this framework do not just think they have strict rules – they also think that their way of practicing is supposed to be the way everybody practices – and that it would be good if some definition of “everybody” joined their group and got involved in their body politic to do this. The same with Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians – the two main forms of Orthodox Christianity.

      I know there’s a semantic gap here between what I define as “orthodoxy” and what others do. But I think the distinction is useful and necessary for what I’m trying to say.

      And what I’m talking about in the podcast is building an ideologically driven body politic outside of nation states and their laws to set behavioral norms by punishing powerful men, which is a project currently in full swing. The main extralegal punishment here is social and economic ostracism. The necessary ideas of that body politic – which you will require everybody in the body politic to ascibe to in word and deed – are its orthodoxy.

      “Believe women.”
      “Men don’t talk, listen.”
      “No #notallmen.”

      If you do not have a shared set of ideas of this sort, you will not be able to exercise collective will in this kind of framework. You will fragment and not have a body politic.

      So – you want to get together a group of people capable of harnessing the power of a shared idea to be able to ostracize people. Why?

      Before I even know why, I can start naming ideas that you are going to have to fall outside your orthodoxy – ideas that will necessarily be heresies:

      – Moral decisions should be private and not discussed with other people.
      – Every person is their own judge, and no one can tell someone else what is right or wrong.
      – Every place where 10 people gather is an independent group that can make its own decisions.

      These cannot just be “rules” because we’re talking about a sort of body politic that derives its ability to shape behavior from its ideas. We are outside the rule of law in power discourse – there is no “enforcement” outside of the will of the group. So if somebody were to make a moral argument that it was necessary to carry things out in this way – regardless of the goals or beliefs of your orthodoxy, they would have to be heresies – and opposed and punished in some way – or else your orthodoxy would collapse.

      This becomes especially apparent when you look at how the emperors, east and west, generally dealt with heresies, as distinct from how bishops dealt with them. The emperors tended to be on the practical side – and oppose heresies that undermined what they saw as their ability to maintain unity and moral force, regardless of whether the emperors were taking theological coherent positions in doing so. Many times the emperors just outright banned religious conversations on sensitive topics and branded whole fields of discussion heretical in themselves, because they saw the disunity of nascent Christian sects as the main problem, much more than they saw their own view of Christianity as correct or important.

      I was trying to make the case that in particular the Donatist heresy was a heresy of this sort – that Constantine saw that the Donatist heresy was a threat to the very idea of *having* an orthodoxy – that you could not have religious unity – and thus not a united religious culture for the body politic of the empire – if you were going to allow for the retroactive annulment of a large share of the everyday work of religious officials. It was an organizational problem disguised as a doctrinal and moral problem.

      And I was thinking that early Christianity was a laboratory for discovering some of the most troublesome and difficult of these sorts of organizational problems. That the big heresies that emerged in early Christianity, both Trinitarian and Christological, were not just about how to preach and understand Jesus, they were about “how to keep the band together” – not just this band, any band – and thus if we are involved in a project to “keep the band together” we should pay attention to how religious and civic authorities dealt with heretics, and whether and to what degree this led to success or failure, and at what cost.

      The relevance for you and me is first to try to step away from the modern (and I’m arguing, bourgeois and Pollyannaish) idea that persecuting heretics is necessarily immoral and bad – or at the very least that it is morally easy to *not* persecute heretics, and comes with only trivial trade-offs – and also that it is necessarily characteristic of religions or religious people.

      And I am also arguing that insisting on never separating the person from the work as part of your secular orthodoxy is the kind of idea that threatens and undermines a secular orthodoxy just generically – without regard for what kind of orthodoxy it is – and over time would tend to become a heresy. The body politic, in dwelling with any sort of normalcy or comfort in this organization, often has too much invested in the collective works of its members to be able to carve out the full implications of those works without sacrificing its cohesion. The cohesion comes at least in part from the regard for an abstraction that takes on some measure of quality and agency for the group. And without the abstraction, without the cohesion, it has no power, and ceases to be a body politic.

      St. Augustine would probably care more about the Manichean argument, which is more expressed in blog posts and such I have seen a lot since this podcast recording, but were not uncommon before it – the whole “Yes, men, all men, yes you, you are all trash” (which often end by lampshading “You can be better” but are really more about how bad everything is). Augustine would argue, I think, that this sort of thinking, while within its scope is correct, does not admit to the larger scope that includes the possibility of the entrance of Grace into the lives of men, and seems instead to resign them to the sins of their bodies – and as such while it’s partially attractive and can seem correct, it doesn’t actually help everybody get to the right destination – in the context of our conversation, it doesn’t lead people toward the desirable sorts of beliefs and behaviors that hold together orthodoxies.

      Why is this relevant to us? If we tell everybody that men are trash and that is why there is so much sexual harassment, we do not strengthen our informal social organization that seeks to wield moral authority to punish sexual harassment. We instead weaken our ability to act together.

      Taken on the more existential way – coming to the conclusion that you yourself are not morally valuable just categorically, regardless of what you do – that men are trash – leads to the conclusion that, by your own measure, you are free.

      So, making someone morally special, upgrading them, gives you a basis for controlling them – like how the Pope crowned Charlemagne, but Napoleon insisted on crowning himself. Whereas if you don’t upgrade them at all, that frees them. And that is not workable within orthodoxy.

      The “lay of the land” here – the strategic fact about orthodoxy that is not really *a priori* but is structural to the point of being agnostic to underlying belief – is that it is a blunt instrument. It does not do grades of punishment well. It does not do diversity of ideas well. In practical matters, as obsessed as it can become with minutiae, it does better with broad strokes than fine details – that’s why in so many orthodox societies there is such a huge gap in sophistication of engagement with the orthodoxy between the elite and the rank-and-file – the rank and file have the sort of hidden wisdom in the simplicity with which they address their body politic – black and white thinking, member or not member – and they tend to have a sense for which sorts of questions you shouldn’t ask too hard if you want to keep the group together.

      And yeah, the situation is totally different, sure. But I don’t think this is all irrelevant. Or else I wouldn’t have talked about it for almost two hours!


      • Peter Fenzel OTI Staff #

        And, by the way, I’m not saying you _have_ to have an orthodoxy and go about punishing heretics to protect the moral cohesion and authority of your group, or even that it’s right. But it does give you the power to punish Louis C.K.

        Interestingly, as we are seeing, the orthodoxy is much more effective at punishing Democrats than Republicans. You can’t ostracize someone who isn’t of your own number. You have very limited moral authority over someone who doesn’t recognize your legitimacy because they don’t feel like part of your group, and who has their own power base to protect themselves from your pressure.

        I guess people could have set up tribunals, but that would have run into other problems.


  3. Peter Fenzel OTI Staff #

    On #3.

    One would think!

    But then one reads the bio of a blogger who professes to a bunch of life experiences and political positions not workable in your own life that contribute significantly to their moral authority, and then maybe they stop feeling all that different after all.

    At the very least, there is a large observable correlation with craft microbrewing. :-)


  4. cat #

    I really enjoyed the podcast this week. This is the most I’ve considered theology in a very long time and I think you managed to uncover some interesting ways of considering these issues by adding a layer of distance. Essentially, I agree that these issues are very difficult and for someone who is normally attached to institutions and authority this is the closest I’ve gotten to a sort of “burn the world down and start over” sense of anarchy. But we’d probably just end up in the same place because dismantling the ineffective systems and trying to replace them with better ones doesn’t actually resolve everyone’s inconsistent moral beliefs. But it’s a decent argument against strict constitutionalism.

    Sure, there were flaws in the analogies and logic but of course I know where you guys are coming from and perhaps I’m more inclined to view things charitably than the more casual listener.


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