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Let’s Stop Playing Guilt-by-Association Games

He talks about racism a lot lately and has bought into this ‘cultural Marxism’ nonsense.”

“She’s raised some concerns about the social justice movement. She must be a white supremacist.”

“He liked that author’s Facebook status. I think he’s walking away from his faith.”

“Her books are sold in airports, and I’m skeptical about books sold in airports.”

I have seen these and similar statements made and labels hurled online (yes, even the last one about airport books). Since the election of 2016, guilt-by-association tactics like these have only worsened. “Guilt by association” occurs when guilt is ascribed to someone not because of evidence but because of his or her association (real or perceived) with a person or group.

Associations are not always bad. Psychologists use the word “schema” to “refer to patterns of thoughts and behaviors, built up over time, that people use to process information quickly and effortlessly as they interact with the world,” as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write in The Coddling of the American Mind.

God gives us wisdom and discernment to form accurate associations when a person’s consistent words and behavior over time reveal those associations to be true. (In the words of Maya Angelou, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”)

Jesus talked about such consistency in terms of fruit: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matt. 7:15-16). Associations are fair and cautions are warranted when someone consistently bears fruit inconsistent with the teachings of scripture.

But we are also in the middle of a very polarizing moment in our nation’s history and must be aware of its influence on our ability to think. I have noticed an uptick of guilt-by-association tactics employed on the Internet, and they are tempting when all around us people are dividing along tribal lines. But I am afraid this makes us as Christians poor thinkers and neighbors when we give in to guilt-by-association tactics too hastily.

Schemas of association

We train our eyes to see and tune our ears to hear certain words, phrases, or names that signal to us who’s in the “ingroup” or “outgroup.” Thinking is social. We cannot avoid this, and Alan Jacobs explains why in his book How to Think:

To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”

This is a point worth dwelling on. How often do we say “she really thinks for herself” when someone rejects views that we hold? No: when someone departs from what we believe to be the True Path our tendency is to look for bad influences. She’s fallen under the spell of so-and-so. She’s been reading too much X or listening to too much Y or watching too much Z.

When we only think in these terms, our schemas of association tell us which words, individuals, or groups to be leery of with little thought given to whether the content of their message is actually true or false.

I recently heard someone reference Luke 20:1-8 as an example of this phenomenon, and the groupthink involved in this passage had not before crossed my mind:

One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?” He replied, “I also will ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.” So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.” Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

As the chief priests and scribes discussed Jesus’ question of whether John the Baptist was “from heaven or from man,” notice how they never asked, “What is true? Was John the Baptist sent from God or man?” Instead, they deliberated their answer in terms of who it might associate them with. They were so concerned about which “tribe” others might perceive them to belong to that they never got at the truth, either of Jesus’ question or their own.

Guilt-by-association tactics usually make us think in terms of categories like “safe” or dangerous,” “liberal” or “conservative,” “Christian” or “non-Christian.” In a new book called Mama Bear Apologetics: Empowering Your Kids to Challenge Cultural Lies, Hillary Morgan Ferrer explains why teaching children to divide the world into categories like these hinders critical thinking, and this also holds true for adults:

The danger of dividing up the world into simplistic “safe” and “dangerous” or even “Christian” and “non-Christian” categories is that our kids will eventually (and perhaps accidentally) swallow a lie from something they thought was safe or Christian, or reject a truth from something they thought was dangerous or non-Christian… Why? Because it gives them the mistaken impression that as long as they categorize something correctly, they can turn their brains off and operate on autopilot.

As the saying goes, all truth is God’s truth. If we really want to think critically about the world and people around us, we must resist the temptation of easy categories and associations.

Witnesses to Truth

Guilt-by-association tactics also make us poor neighbors as Christians, because they make us poor witnesses to truth.

Isaiah 59:14 says, “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter.” Christians are called to be truth tellers in the public square, and this includes accurately representing others’ views, even when we disagree with them, and refusing to participate in the spread of “fake news.”

Employing guilt-by-association tactics that are inaccurate is a way of “giving false testimony against your neighbor” online (Exodus 20:16). We are sometimes all too ready to impute guilt on others, even though we would never want others to do it to us.

But there is another way guilt-by-association tactics make us poor neighbors.

A couple of weeks ago a blog circulated on Twitter, calling for a Christian leader to clarify her position on gay marriage, in part, because of her “public affection and admiration” for people on the other side of the debate.

I truly understand the desire for people to clarify their beliefs, but guilt-by-association tactics such as this one are an uncharitable means for asking they do so. We’ve lost sight of what it means to love our neighbors when we assume someone’s beliefs because of their kindness and charity towards those we perceive to be “on the other side.”

Jesus calls us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). If we are called to love even enemies, how much more should we love people with whom we have strong disagreements?

I am often tempted to withhold compassion and charity from those with whom I disagree, whether out of frustration with them or fear of what others might think. When the lure of guilt-by-association tactics is strong, God always brings to my mind the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.

Someone who knew the Old Testament very well asked Jesus what he should do to have eternal life. When Jesus told him to love God and his neighbor, he responded: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Rather than answering him directly, Jesus told a parable about a “good Samaritan” who stopped and cared for a man beaten by robbers and left to die by the road, after two others had passed by him. Jesus then asked the man, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:36).

We are often like the man asking Jesus how we determine who is our neighbor: “Jesus, just tell us what boxes they should check before we extend our grief, compassion, and charity.” But Jesus didn’t define “neighbor” like this man wanted, and he doesn’t do it for us. Instead, he flips the question around and asks, “Are you going to be the neighbor?”

Guilt-by-association tactics are tempting, especially online. In How to Think, Jacobs writes, “The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup.”

For the Christian, a commitment to the truth both about God and reality and love for neighbor are both good strategies to start with when we open Twitter or Facebook and set out to think.

Originally posted at Christianity Today

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