C.S. Lewis Was Right: Bulverisms are Everywhere
Consider a few instances where, like Chesterton before him, the British literati’s pen continues to prove startlingly contemporary well past his own lifetime:
- Lewis asked big questions about the nature of the afterlife before Rob Bell made Calvinists’ hearts a-flutter over them.
- The Oxford don made Christian fiction an art form, and took it to heights hitherto unmet (and CGI is just now making it possible to visualize the products of Lewis’ stunning imagination).
- Before Rabbi Kushner popularized the theodicy question, Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, both of which hold up better.
And that only scratches the surface of how insightful Clive Staples Lewis continues to be for our own age.
I suppose it is no surprise that he observed a phenomenon of public discourse in 1941 that has reached vicious heights in 2015. He even invented a name for it in an essay by the same name collected in God in the Dock: “Bulverism.” For Lewis, a Bulverism occurs when someone mistakes or substitutes a counter-argument for a psycho-social observation:
In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.”
Lewis goes on to claim that he sees this error everywhere:
I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.
Note that the author goes out of his way to insist this isn’t a strategy of this or that “side” or party. Bulverisms are found everywhere. And aren’t they still, today? Such poor rhetoric has become the air we breathe.
An example just came across my news feed today. A group of African bishops in the UMC released a statement that dealt with issues of global terrorism, human sexuality, and the unity of the church. Bishop Warner Brown Jr. committed a clear Bulverism in his statement to United Methodist News Service:
San Francisco Area Bishop Warner Brown Jr., the president of the Council of Bishops, said his African colleagues were speaking out of their context.
The tempting reply – if I weren’t hoping to avoid that which I am observing – would of course be: so is Bishop Warner Brown, Jr. of the San Francisco area. Because after all, who the hell doesn’t speak out of their context? It’s a facile kind of observation, a victory purchased cheaply, but one that is used ad nauseum:
- She went to an all-girls college, so you know she’s a man-hater.
- He comes from money, so he can’t help but act like a spoiled brat.
- She’s from the Northeast, so naturally she’s going to support Bernie Sanders.
- He’s from the Bible Belt, ergo he’s a right-wing nut job.
As Lewis saw so well 70 years ago, Bulverisms are not only a poor excuse for an argument, but they threaten the very possibility of virtuous discourse. The ubiquity of this error is all the more troubling because Christians are ostensibly committed to charity, patience, and honesty – any of which alone should make Bulverisms rare if not extinct among the baptized. Should is, of course, the operative word here.
I’ll give Lewis the last say, a word of warning that is also a sad description of public conversation today:
Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited.
Was Lewis right about Bulverisms? Where do you see them? How do we avoid them today? Leave a comment below!