Stankorb Understands Wilson

This November, Wilson’s month of antagonistic blog posts (usually printed later as anthologies sold for $6.95) did not evoke his anticipated fear and trembling. For Wilson watchers and critics, some days online it felt like Wilson’s annual firestorm might have finally reached a critical mass of outside observers—and threatened to consume him instead.

Midmonth, two skirmishes on X (formerly Twitter, and a place where many Christians still gather) sidetracked Wilson. First, Christian writer Karen Swallow Prior found herself in a discussion about the supposedly misleading nature of empathy—a concern of Wilson and his theological kin, such as Joe Rigney, now a fellow at New Saint Andrews (a small college in Moscow that was founded by Wilson in 1994). The conversation turned to the danger of using empathy to evaluate abuse claims. To Prior, Rigney cited a 2023 NQN post by Wilson about “untethered empathy,” in which Wilson told the story of a hypothetical 12-year-old girl claiming to have been raped by her stepfather. In Wilson’s made-up example, the accusation is false, but unquestioning empathy would allow the girl to “do whatever she wants to anyone else, including the baby. Chop it up into little pieces.” The danger of “untethered empathy,” to Rigney and Wilson, is a loss of objectivity, where a victim can require all your allegiance, can become “like God.” This, they say, is a sin.

Prior, who is herself antiabortion (but supports increasing access to child care and offering material assistance to pregnant women, and is an advocate for victims of abuse), responded to the fictional example with a video she’d recently received. Since Rigney had pointed to Wilson’s writing on a hypothetical false rape accusation, “I took the opportunity to ask him what he thought about this true story in this video,” Prior told me.

The video featured Emilie Paige Dye, a 2015 alumna of Logos, the K–12 school Wilson co-founded in Moscow. Dye describes being groomed through attention and inappropriate touching by a Logos teacher, then an elder at Wilson’s Christ Church. Dye has written about how naïve she was at the time: “Because I believed everything purity culture taught me, I knew basically nothing about sex. I hadn’t even googled my questions about my body, fearing that I would stumble on porn and instantly damn myself to hell.”

A school secretary was concerned by the teacher’s behavior with Dye, and in 2014 reported it to school leaders, who, Dye notes, did not escalate the situation to the police at the time. Administrators did see fit to dismiss the teacher from Logos in 2015, but, Dye said, the teacher’s behavior escalated, even as Dye moved away for college. She eventually left the church and cut off contact with the teacher.

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Sarah Stankorb | “That Moscow Mood: How Much Culture War Is Too Much?” | December 2, 2023


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4 comments

  1. I haven’t had the inclination or patience to read Slate in maybe a decade BUT … I can say that ten years ago when scandals became headline-worthy in Seattle about Mars Hill Slate was one of the few secular/progressive journalistic outlets that got coverage factually accurate and in a timely way. Justin Dean might (still) disagree but Slate didn’t drop the ball shamefully like Salon/Alternet coverage. I’ll come back around to why that’s important in relationship to Doug Wilson’s public writings but I have to go somewhere else first.

    I can’t blame Anthony Bradley for laughing at Doug Wilson’s really weird post with its strange proclamation. Claiming that Bradley doesn’t realize it but he wants a land where white girl tears get a black man lynched is a non-sequitur on the situation Bradley and others were discussing. It primed the pump for Wilson’s already sympathetic readers but struck me as an obfuscating gambit as an introduction in a post.

    Now I found the empathy/sympathy perorations from Wilson mostly tedious because it’s as if Wilson/Rigney don’t follow usage changes in psychological literature or the distinction between pop usage and academic usage. The social psychologist Roy Baumeister proposed decades ago that a common understanding of empathy is the CAPACITY to imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling and sympathy is that you actually DO care. Psychopaths and abusers can be full to the brim with empathy but have no sympathy for the people they abuse.

    What Doug Wilson seems to have been trying, largely ineffectually, to grasp at, and then explain, is that in the age of social media the halo effect is a thing. Daniel Kahneman describes the halo effect as being reflexively disposed to believe person X when they make claim Y because you already sympathize/empathize with them. Kahneman, at least, pointed out that as a cognitive bias goes the halo effect works in reverse, too, leading you to discount the credibility of people and reports you already don’t trust.

    This is the real core of Wilson’s flourishes and rhetorical gambits, to tell his readers that the halo effect of the liberals, harpies, intoleristas, commies and woke jolk folk means they are incapable of being sensible, rational or governed by any principle whereas he, he’s just teaching what the Bible says. This was something I saw Driscoll refine for his Seattle context over the course of a decade and a half. He obviously got it from somewhere and Driscoll’s penchant for rhetorical flourish seems to have come largely from Wilson.

    What Driscoll and Wilson do is make outrageous claims and then explain, to their fans, why they are the reasonable middle-of-the-road sane people in contrast to their real or perceived opponents. The thing is, as rhetoric, this is exactly the default Nadia Bolz-Weber took in her book Shameless. I went so far as to contend that Nadia Bolz-Weber is Mark Driscoll 2.0 for blue-state progressives. These kinds of figures aim to polarize because it is part of their brand cultivation strategies. Driscoll was, in some respects, smarter than Doug Wilson has been by opting for complete silence on scandals involving Mars Hill in which he could not be the focal point of coverage. Driscoll sat out the headline cycles about Andrew and his disciplinary contract, and kept quiet during the plagiarism controversy that erupted a decade ago in his interview with Janet Mefferd.

    Post 2014 resignation Driscoll has decided to largely stonewall the press unless he’s talking with sympathetic talk show hosts. When dozens of former Mars Hill elders have said he’s unfit for ministry and unrepentant that’s not water off of a duck’s back. Wilson seems able to take assurance that the kinds of people who have spoken out against him can be summarily dismissed by appealing to the halo effect. All he has to do is broadbrush the intoleristas and the audience knows to tune them out.

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