Newsletter #6: Can reporters be "objective"

In this week's newsletter: "objective" reporting, manipulative Christian sayings, religion at work, ghost stories, and more!

Happy Wednesday! I’m nearing three months on Substack, and it’s been a great experience so far. I’ve had a 90% increase in my email list since switching over from Wordpress, and now that I’m growing my list of paid subscribers, I’m hoping to pay for poetry and other submissions!

One of the challenging things with having a set publishing schedule is that I constantly have ideas I want to share with you all, and I want to share them now! Currently, I have essays drafted and awaiting publication on everything from epistemological approaches to Christian doctrine, to Jason Evert’s ties to conversion therapy, to Critical Race Theory and Catholic abuse survivors, to how a liberal arts education will ruin your corporate career (which is why you should get a liberal arts education). You’ll be getting all that and much more through the fall and winter. If there are any ideas you’d be interested in me exploring, or that you think merit consideration, you’re more than welcome to share in the comments!

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And don’t forget… through the month of September, all profits from subscribers to this Substack will be donated to Afghan individuals and families. So if you’ve been thinking about supporting this work through a paid subscription, now’s not a bad time to sign up.

Here’s what’s in the newsletter today:

  • Ways of knowing: can reporters be ‘objective’?

  • Christianese: “God put on my heart…

  • Rethinking religion in professional life

  • Catholicism and conversion therapy

  • The State and the disobedient Christian

  • Bly Manor, ghost stories, and contemporary culture

  • Now accepting essay, poetry, and short story submissions

Ways of knowing: can reporters be “objective”?

We often hear arguments about “objectivity” and “subjectivity” in relation to how we present the world. Some believe, for example, that reporters have a responsibility to be “objective,” while others claim that objectivity is impossible and that the best reporters can do is write with a recognition of the biases and prejudices that come from their inescapably subjective understandings. Some believe that the latter is basically a commitment to “relativism.” But things don’t have to be so black-and-white.

Critical realism, a group of philosophical positions held by a number of scholars (including Catholic sociologist Christian Smith), helps to bridge the gap. To vastly oversimplify, critical realism holds onto a set of core premises, including ontological realism, epistemic relativism, and judgmental rationality. Ontological realism holds that objective realities exist outside of us, independently of our interaction with or knowledge of them. Epistemic relativism holds that we can only know those realities in limited ways, conditioned by our own human limitations. And judgmental rationality holds that we can come to better or worse understandings of those objective realities, that a key to having a better understanding is engaging those realities in as many ways as possible, and that we can make judgments about the quality of others’ understandings of those realities.

Part of what critical realism does is that it preserves the objective nature of reality while also recognizing that our comprehension of reality is conditioned by our personal perspectives. I can’t really know something “objectively,” but I can work to have a more holistic knowledge of that thing. I don’t expect reporters to have an “objective” presentation of events, because while the events were objective realities, the only things that can be reported are the things that the reporter chose to pay attention to. But I still expect reporters to do their best to respect those objective realities by giving as balanced a presentation of the events as possible.

In many ways, Critical Realism is consistent with Newman’s approach to knowledge and belief (particularly in his Grammar of Assent). Perhaps I’ll write about that another time. For another presentation of critical realism, you can check out this mind map.

Christianese: “God put it on my heart…”

I was speaking with a therapist friend recently about the ways in which Christians at times spiritualize their emotions. I’ve heard Catholic friends go so far as to mistake their emotions for the divine, and I’ve probably done this myself. One key phrase where this often happens is: “God put it on my heart…”

The phrase can be finished in a number of ways. “God put it on my heart to pursue this job.” “God put it on my heart to tell you to break up with him.” “God put it on my heart to tell you that your failure to do your dishes hurts the community.” “God put it on my heart to tell you to stop making such a big deal about your race.”

The problem with this phrase is that it is often just a cover for “I want…” Now, I’m not saying that we can’t come to some idea of the will of God through discernment. But I also think that we should be careful about turning our feelings that arise in discernment into God’s will. It’s a dangerous road to step on, communicating “God’s will” when there’s a good chance that we’re just over-spiritualizing our emotions and desires, especially when what we’re communicating is that someone else must do something. This is actually a form of spiritual manipulation.

But Christians love this phrase, and it makes sense. In addition to turning their emotions and desires into the literal will of God, it also allows them to disclaim any responsibility for the consequences of their words. If something goes wrong after someone follows our God-given command, then we don’t have to feel responsible, because it’s “what God wanted.”

I think that Christian communities should let the phrase die. Pray. Discern. And then say, based on your discernment, what you want. Then take responsibility for what comes as a consequence. If we take this approach, we might all be less inclined to tell others what to do, because it’s actually less fun to be God than we’d think.

Rethinking religion in professional life

American professionalism is undergoing a racial reckoning. Critical race theorists have helped to show us ways in which “professionalism” is often not a neutral standard, but a standard established by and formed around the expectations, habits, dispositions, and bodies of a particular group of persons. We are now realizing that “neutral” expectations for professionals regarding hair, punctuality, speech, and a host of other characteristics and habits are often not so much “neutral” as they are the expectations of white upper-middle-class white men (who outsource childcare largely to their wives).

In a long-overdue racial reckoning, many workplaces are now exploring the extent to which “professional” expectations have served to marginalize, overlook, and even underutilize BIPOC employees. American workplaces are seeing changes from dress codes to scheduling to recruitment, in efforts to draw on the strengths of their diverse employees. In Where Peter Is, I recently argued that religious Americans should seize this moment to question the expectation that the American professional be not only “aracial,” but also “areligious.” You can check out my essay here.

Catholicism and conversion therapy

Next week I’ll be releasing my recent research on Christopher West, Jason Evert, and sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE). Tonight, I’m hosting a discussion with Catholics who have undergone SOCE. It didn’t work for any of them, and they’ve had to process the pain and confusion it has caused in their lives and the damage it has done to their faiths. They’re all Catholic and were driven to SOCE by other Catholics as a “fix” to their attractions.

Many Catholics don’t realize this, but SOCE and the theories behind them provide the foundation for West’s and Evert’s approach to homosexuality. Since sharing some of my initial research, I’ve had other LGBTQ+ Catholics reach out to me with stories of how West and Evert directly harmed their relationships with the Church. Some of them agree with Church teaching, some don’t. But all point to West and Evert for harming their relationship to Catholicism.

Next week, I’ll be making that research public, sharing the stories of some of those LGBTQ+ Catholics, and reflecting on how ToB (Theology of the Body) Catholics prime us to reject Church teaching on homosexuality. Much of it has to do with SOCE, but a lot of it also has to do with how we talk about Augustine. Stay tuned for those two posts! And if you have a story you’d like to share, please reach out to me on Twitter or on my contact page. I’m also accepting essay submissions (see below).

The State and the disobedient Christian

Last week’s essay discussed how Christians should respond to unjust laws. Christians are always obligated to disobey laws commanding things like the worship of idols. But for other unjust laws, the early Church and contemporary Catholic Social Teaching suggests we have three options: (1) to humbly accept punishments for disobedience, (2) to remove oneself from the position which would require disobedience, or (3) to find a way to make obedience work. The key principles are to respect the authority of the state, and to obey the natural and divine laws. 

As part of the discussion, I noted a significant place in which the Catholic tradition and Critical Race Theorists disagree: the foundation of the State’s power and authority. You can read more here.

What I’m Watching: Bly Manor

The Haunting of Bly Manor is the follow-up to the Netflix-produced horror series The Haunting of Hill House. I loved Hill House. It was promoted as a horror-thriller ghost story but ended up being a deeply felt family drama about love, trauma, and forgiveness. In one of the final scenes, Hill House’s Nell Crain tells her brother:

“Forgiveness is warm. Like a tear on a cheek. Think of that and of me when you stand in the rain. I loved you completely. And you loved me the same. That’s all. The rest is confetti.”

That’s exactly what forgiveness is like.

Ghost stories may be going out of fashion in Western culture, in part, because of our active avoidance of death. Ghosts confront us with death, the eternal consequences of sin and regret, and how we are in a mysterious way accountable to those who have come before us. Russell Kirk, the great American Catholic conservative, committed himself to writing Ghost stories, in a fight against modernity’s trend towards realism in fiction.

Kirk writes in his essay A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale, “Since most modern men have ceased to recognize their own souls, the spectral tale has been out of fashion, especially in America.” But the modern obsession with the “rational” and the “real” will not always serve to liberate:

“[O]ur longing for the invisible springs eternal, merely changing its direction from age to age. So if one takes away from man a belief in spirits, it does not follow that thereafter he will concern himself wholly with Bright Reality; more probably, his fancy will seek some new realm—and perhaps a worse credulity.”

This, Kirk argues, is why the rise of “science fiction” does not really evidence a realist scientific world. Instead, science fiction stories are ghost stories and fantasy novels in disguise. Ghosts and hauntings have become “psychic phenomena.” The “other world” of ghostly dimensions is now the “other world” of the skies. Because it cannot terrify and excite us with haunting dissections of the soul, realist fiction (especially young adult fiction) must try to disturb us with bodily gore. Humanity must be degraded and destroyed. As the narrator says in opening of the Haunting of Hill House, “No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” Ghost stories, paradoxically, draw us back to reality.

Kirk wants writers to return to the genre of ghostly tales. Writers should be drawn to their “fearful joy,” the enjoyment of being scared “so long as we are reasonably confident that nothing dreadful really will overtake us.” The Christmas romantic comedy seems a forgetful parade of sentimentalism when compared to the haunting and then cathartic realization of the Christmas ghost story. Christians may be especially well suited to the ghost tale. Kirk writes, “I venture to suggest that the more orthodox is a writer’s theology, the more convincing, as symbols and allegories, his uncanny tales will be.” Humanity cannot escape the supernatural. Christians should help the world see it.

The success of ghost stories (both Hill House and Bly Manor received rave reviews) may be a cause for hope. Both of these ghost story series have consistently been among the most-watched series on Netflix, excelling beyond what has been produced in the sci-fi genre. As with the successful Stephen King adaptations (I couldn’t recommend enough the 2017 It remake), newly produced ghost stories prove that horror has much more to offer than pornographic gore. Indeed, even the sex scenes in horror play a narrative role, telling us more about the characters than just attractiveness and lustiness.

Anyways, if you watch The Haunting of Bly Manor, you’ll explore how the past, and past lives, are not really escapable for people who want to have the deepest understanding of the present. Bly Manor is a story about finding peace with the worst parts of ourselves, the ways in which avarice and pride can echo across time, and how redemption comes in ways we don’t entirely understand. The script is not always as tight and the plot not as interesting as Hill House, but generally Bly Manor is well worth the watch. And, like Hill House, and like Russell Kirk, Bly Manor reminds us that ghost stories are not just ghost stories.

The Haunting of Bly Manor takes place as a story within a story. A woman attending a wedding rehearsal dinner shares the story with guests late into the evening. The woman finishes her tale, and the bride tells her, “I liked your story. But I think you set it up wrong, just in the beginning.”

“Is that so?” the woman asks.

“Yeah,” says the bride. “You said it was a ghost story. It isn’t.”

“No?” asks the woman.

“It’s a love story,” the bride says.

The narrator looks back at her and responds, “Same thing, really.”

Now accepting submissions!

If you like what I’m doing here and want to join in this developing project, I’d love for you to submit an essay, poems, or a short story for consideration. You can learn more here.

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And that’s all I have for you today. If you’re on social media, you’re welcome to also follow me at Twitter and on my Facebook page.