Americans Giving Testimony

On the inadvisability of public confession as spectacle

For the unfamiliar, testimony is what Protestant—particularly Fundamentalist or Evangelical—Christians are periodically asked to give as part of a worship service: it’s a short, public address in which you, the speaker, attempt to reach the unsaved and the backslidden there assembled by telling a short story about what a bubbling pot of shit stew you used to be before you gave your heart to the Lord and got instantaneously born again into the savoury and most unctuous mulligatawny of a person (heaven-bound all the way) that see before you today. It’s like reverse social media where instead of curating your life by its bikini-est, Bali-est best you choose to portray the cruellest, raunchiest and stupidest episodes of your life: it’s a way of signalling to the sinners gathered before you that you were once like them—a disgrace!—you were as bad as could be.

How bad?

Real bad.

Stealing suckers from babies bad. Jaywalking. Smacktalking. I am telling you with God as my witness I was one Polanski-nasty, chainsmoking-menthol-cigarettes-on-the-express-train-to-hell Son of a Bitch, and I didn’t even care who knew.

From the seventies to the mid-aughts no one who wasn’t a born-again Christian was giving testimony. Mind your own fucking business, was the general order of the standard non-Christian day.  Until it wasn’t.

Which, in a new essay for The Atlantic entitled “The Four Americas”, George Packer argues happened in 2014. In 2014, per Packer, North America underwent a massive cultural shift characterized by an alarming narrowing of public discourse. Pre-2014 most North Americans still conducted their conversations and arranged their social media selves freely: that they might say or write something that could cost them their job or reputation was not a primary consideration. Post-2014, the ability to speak freely without reprisal was determined collectively to be an inferior public good—important, yes; but nowhere near as important as recognizing the validity of censorship and of public shaming as acceptable reprisals for the expression of discredited and forbidden views; post-2014, it was determined that language could, and did, cause real-world harm on scales both macro and micro and had been doing so along. Because the need was felt to be so grave, post-2014 nothing was deemed below the belt—so long as the punch to the junk was delivered in the name of intersectional justice and the infinite malleability of identity.

The only way to prevent yourself from getting hit was to give testimony pre-emptively and voluntarily—against yourself. To become one of them you had to first leave behind the old you. Testimony functions within social groups which believe they have provided, or are able to provide, a solution to your problem. And their belief is that everyone has a problem. Everyone with no exceptions. Humanity in their theology or theoretical worldview consists always of, at minimum, two stages of existence. The piece of shit stage into which you are born because of original sin or because of whiteness or because you got socialized into masculinity during an era when men were instructed to be even greater pieces of shit than usual. The only way to get to the second stage is through a thorough, sustained, public acknowledgement of your transgressions. Claiming to not have transgressions is worse than admitting you are a frequent and bilious agent of mayhem. Silence is proof of guilt.

Outside of Christian circles, pre-2014, discourse was dominated by a different, single-tiered understanding of humanity: Everyone fucks up. Give it time. Fallibility is the nature of species.There is, therefore, no testimony to give. (It’s not that I don’t believe you were a piece of shit and an actual bad person: I grew up in the 80s and 90s and racism, sexism and homophobia were everyday, casual, commonplace things far more than is currently represented in contemporary popular culture.) How could it be otherwise? In any given era of history, the majority of people will be guilty of the same offenses, which weren’t contemporaneously wrong, but which will be retroactively punished by the judgemental generations of posterity. I prefer to assume—because it is no longer the 80s or 90s—that you are no longer the same piece of shit we all were to varying degrees, that you understand and appreciate the merits of current cultural shifts, and that you are doing your best. As am I.

The new, secular world where everyone is a priori guilty of everything, and judgement is a virtuous and commendable first course of action, is actually an old, religious world. And neither the old nor the new world of testimony is a good world because both worlds come to dominance by persuading good people to think of themselves as inherently evil.

They also turn contrition into spectacle. 

American Christians in 1982, the year I moved with my missionary family to San Jose, Costa Rica—were intensely charismatic, the last of the Jesus Freaks, countercultural dreamers who had drifted in their post-Altamont disillusionment to a new form of fanaticism. Newly freed from hairy, hippy sex and having miraculously survived all of the ruinous Age of Aquarius drugs they proclaimed themselves not only still very high, but higher than they’d ever been because now they were hooked on the saviour, man, Jesus Christ was good ganja, our Lord was the ultimate high. Testimony had become a high art form. At the same time, it is difficult to overstate the theological paucity of late-20th century North American evangelical Christianity. It amounted to little more than this: We Are Right. All others were looking at a lot of lifetimes of hellfire.

“Are these people stupid?” I often wondered to myself.

They weren’t, no.

At least not disproportionately so.

In another time, under a different discourse, these fanatics would undoubtedly have proven capable of sophisticated and complex thought. This was not that time. These Christians found their faith during a time of Christianity when all of the theological questions, all of them in their entirety, had already been settled. They’d been settled for so long and so finally that it seemed not only strange to ask origin questions of—to interrogate, in Stuart Hall terms—certain texts, but more fundamentally they simply didn’t comprehend doubt. It wasn’t they who were stupid, it was you. Christians of this era, the last of the real true believers, responded to the sincerest theological inquiry with a smile of benighted benevolence which would, should you persist to demand more intellectual rigour, twist into a look of pity. Your curiosity wasn’t benign, it was doubt: and doubt was exactly the thing that damned you in the end.  

In the place of intense and sustained theological inquiry, evangelical Christians turned instead to performativity in the form of: testimony, altar calls and, to a lesser extent, other vestiges of early 20th century revivalism such as faith healing through the laying of hands, and collectively speaking in tongues.

Everyone believes, right? That’s what happens when everyone believes. Why argue about that which everyone agrees upon? Why reflect on it at all? It’s not that degraded, intellectual discourse is in any way the unique property of a certain era of evangelical Christianity. On the contrary, degenerate intellectual discourse is an inevitable stage that follows any given belief system’s sudden mass acceptance. Indeed, if a starkly different worldview suddenly gains mass acceptance it is almost certainly because its discourse has been sufficiently simplified so that the many can adapt themselves to it as quickly as possible with the fewest objections.

Both Packer and Jesse Singal, in his new book The Quick Fix, argue that there is a definitive intellectual schism that separates the originary, foundational theoreticians of a new theology or philosophy (or pseudo-social science, as Singal discusses) from the acolyte generation that these original thinkers first teach. Amongst all originators doubt still exists. However, originators intent on gaining power understand that, in order for the theory to survive, not only must doubt be publicly disavowed, but pioneering punitive examples must also be made in order to create the conditions necessary for sustained and rapid proliferation. These conditions include the silencing and removal of formerly allied originators who choose instead to express doubt publicly. Particularly during this necessary and delicate transitional phase from idea to instinct, much of the so-called cancelling is of a professional sort: deliberate, targeted, and cynical. I would argue that that phase has now ended, and the next phase featuring the rise of true-believing acolytes has begun.

Two unique and newly emergent characteristics define the shift: 1) absolute belief; 2) stark uninterest in the arcane arguments behind what to them is obvious, natural common-sense truth. As Packer comments, our new true believers already don’t care anymore about either Michel Foucault or Judith Butler. Mentioning Baudrillard or even Irigiray to them would elicit the same look of bemused disdain that would have greeted me if I’d asked the Jesus Freaks to tell me where they stood on Niebuhr’s dialectical turn or for their assistance unpacking the significance of the death of the Macabees in Ambrose’s overall oeuvre. People can’t teach what they don’t know.

Yet, ignorance is not an unhappy by-product of orthodox eras: it is an intentional necessity, the decline or absence of which inevitably signifies the end of that orthodoxy’s period of dominance. Eras of great orthodoxy are seldom characterized by great intellectual exploration: instead, they are characterized by the persistent and invasive enforcement of the boundaries with which each orthodoxy is by necessity established. How those orthodoxies are enforced is of significant less interest than that they are enforced.

Once a society determines that enforcement of a particular way of thought is justifiable it is inevitable that the true believers it constructs will come to place an ever-increasing emphasis on enforcement over exploration. Not only will examples of over-enforcement be condoned, they will be considered necessary and courageous. Whenever a social group places its priority on the preservation of orthodoxy and begins to silence future dissenters by punitively and symbolically shaming present ones it is, paradoxically, at the same time:

1) in possession of its highest era of dominance;

2) already in the nascency of its demise.

It is perhaps little consolation to those already shamed or the thousand shameables yet to get their taste, but the true believer stage almost always concludes when everyone has been found guilty of everything. Which was, I would have thought, the lesson of Robespierre. Well, the two lessons of Robespierrre. First Rule of Robespierre Club: whoever starts the revolution gets killed during the latter stages of that same revolution. Second Rule of Robes’ Club: all revolutions end in authoritarianism which is the inevitable necessity of any orthodoxy that would endure as dominant. Authoritarianism has no tolerance for dissent. Without dissent, movements and groups lose their way. Cult-like conditions requiring public confession begin to emerge. No one says what they think. Everyone says what they are supposed to say.

Not a great time to be a critic, no. But an important time it seems to me. Which is why I’ve roused myself from my customary, and actually very pleasant, lethargy out of a sense of irritated obligation. I was a Christian kid during our last great period of mass orthodoxy and it was intellectually deadening and depressing to witness. It did, however, prove ethically illustrative. I learned how to say one thing and believe another. I assume the duality of self will be a useful skill for each of us to learn or hone in these dark days of narrowed discourse when saying the right thing is not the same thing as saying the true thing, and when the consequences for confusing the two are getting severer all the time.