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In defense of ass-kicking

In recent discussion about some comments by Gene McCarraher in the in-progress TOJ interview, some interesting stuff came about the relative merits of kicking ass, argumentatively speaking. The passage that occasioned this discussion in the interview is as follows:

I was giving a talk in Chicago a few months after the invasion, and a student asked me a question that just knocked me for a loop. “If the government is protecting me from harm,” he asked, “isn’t it OK for them to lie to me? I mean, if I’m safe, and if it’s for my own good that they’re lying to me, what’s the harm?” I couldn’t believe that a post-sixties college student would even think of asking such a stupid question. I asked him, “So, when do you want the government to not lie to you? If it’s for your own good that they lie to you, why should peacetime make any difference? Why should they tell you the truth at all? For that matter, why should they tell you anything? Why should you want or care to know, ‘as long as you’re safe’?” His very question indicated to me that, for a large cohort of this college generation, truth, falsehood, and evidence just don’t mean very much. “Whatever.”

The discussion brought up the question of whether it was more profitable to kick ass or to foster a “prophetic capacity to see that patience is a far more revolutionary way to engage this generation, to stoke its creative impulses, and stir it from sleep.” From that point the discussion went on to what I take to be a rather good accord, so what follows should not be construed as a critique of the commenter, but rather as something of a spin-off about the merits of ass-kicking as such.

For my money a good verbal ass-kicking is not opposed to a proper revolutionary patience. In fact, to turn a Yoderian phrase here (via Rom Coles), I think ass-kicking is perhaps a vital form of “wild patience.” After all, ass-kicking is not assault or murder, its a form of rebuke, of chastening, of discipline. Certainly ass-kicking can reach a point where it is excessive and sadistic, and finding that line is always the challenge (witness my own, perhaps overblown tendency to verbally kick Mark Driscoll’s ass).

The point though—and I mean this in a very experiential way, having been the recipient of many utterly needed ass-kickings—is that without ass-kicking there’s not much chance of real knowledge, let alone intellectual or personal transformation. Without regular ass-kickings we’re left with precious little besides benign strokings. That helps no one. Ever. While ass-kickings may sometimes kick up plenty of unhelpful dust, they also have far more of a creative capacity to uncover things that are hidden, to bring to light that which needs to be exposed.

That is why ass-kickings can be painful. But it is also why they are much more fruitful and redemptive than any amount of stroking and self-confirmation.


  1. Halden wrote:

    As a follow up, I want to also point out that I firmly believe that I could physically kick Mark Driscoll’s ass as well.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  2. Brad A. wrote:

    What I often seem to notice is that many who espouse Yoderian pacifism are anything but peacemaking in their discourse. That troubles me, because I think there is a connection between the two – speech and tone will indicate what is in the heart. There is a certain hyper-critical attitude – one that I sometimes share – and an inappropriate impatience with others who, perhaps, remind us of our former selves.

    I don’t see a place – ever – for personal shots, and the giving of the benefit of the doubt should be sacrosanct (though I’m not the best at this). The question for me is whether discourse is redemptive and/or reconciliatory. I’m all for strong argument and for holding the line; much is at stake, to be sure. But if it isn’t the job of the church to make history come out right, I do wonder to what extent it’s our job to make people’s thinking come out right. Persuasion is ultimately the goal; a “verbal ass-kicking” is not really useful in and of itself if no one among the interlocutor or witnesses is ultimately persuaded and restored.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I guess I can only speak from experience. I’ve had verbal ass-kickings many, many times and I’ve learned far more from them than from other sorts of exhortations that often use “patience” as a cloak for soft-pedaling.

    But this has nothing to do with “personal shots”, that’s not at all what I meant. What I meant was the vigorous critiques of dangerous ideas and forms of thought. “Oh yeah, well you’re dumber than a bag of hammers!” was not the sort of thing I had in mind.

    And I think that just about any reading of Jesus’s words and actions in the Gospels give prima facie evidence for some form of verbal ass-kicking.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    But you do make a good point. Our job is not to make people’s thoughts “come out right”, especially strangers. Any politics of ass-kicking requires a politics of gentleness.

    Or, to put it differently, the people who have kicked my ass the best and most helpfully have been my friends.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  5. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    I’ll return to this subject a bit later, but may I ask why Jesus shouldn’t be berated for calling his opponents “a generation of vipers”?

    I just read about Pat Robertson’s remarks about the earthquake in Haiti, and may I just say that I’m now convinced that Rev. Robertson is one of Satan’s favorite sock puppets.

    That’s about as gentle as I feel toward Rev. Psychopath right now.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    I’m inclined to agree. The politics of gentleness should never be confused with becoming the nice police.

    Bullshit must be rightly so labeled. Otherwise we are liars, and in Johannine speak, no lie is of the truth.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  7. Austin wrote:

    I agree with Halden to a degree, but I also think there is a way to shame people into seeing how stupid or dangerous their position is. I think Yoder was brilliant at this (just look at his discussions of atonement in Preface to Theology). Hegel was actually really good at this – he would state a position, give a genealogy, are show how a supposedly novel position was just another form of an old one. Both Yoder and Hegel had a capacity, without verbal ass-kicking, of comprehending another person’s position, and showing it to be utter bunk.

    Some people do well with ass-kickings (apparently Halden is one), but for my money, shame at your own insipidity is more inspiring.

    (Of course the outliers also prove the problem – like Rev. psychopath).

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  8. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    If by verbal ass-kicking we’re talking about rebuke then a person who loves the Lord and people should be willing to accept legitimate rebukes. The person who won’t accept any rebuke and stiffens their neck will be broken beyond repair, or at least there’s a proverb that says that. So there does come a point when a person needs to accept even a stinging rebuke that isn’t just a character-assasinating put-down. Some people mistake the latter for the former, of course, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be willing to give and receive the former.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Sometimes a good ass-kicking is a the only way to incite such healthy shame, I’d say.

    Or, to state things in a more complementary way, you kick people’s ass with muay thai, but you can also kick their ass with jiujitsu. Gotta decide based on the situation/persons.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  10. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    I was recently reading the old proverb usually rendered “faithful are the blows of a friend, deceptive the kisses of an enemy”. The JPS renders it differently than most Christian translations, which has given me plenty to mull over, saying more that the wounds of a friend are long-lasting and the kisses of an enemy are profuse. I used to see this proverb as meaning that the wounds of a friend are a sign of friendship but that it may be the other way, that the wounds of a friend hurt for years because of that friendship while the kisses of an enemy are profuse, momentary, and meaningless.

    The most memorable verbal ass-kicking I got was the gentlest and the most unobtrusive. In fact the person who did it probably didn’t even know he was doing it! I was in a situation where I thought the wrong I had done was something positive (I did something wrong) and my friend pointed out that what really seemed to happen was there was a positive thing I DIDN’T do, could have done, that would have helped nearly everyone I cared about in a particularly situation if I had mustered the courage to do it. It wasn’t a verbal ass-kicking of shoving things in my face (which is how those things usually go), it was gently presenting things to me so I could see for myself what I did. That was more convicting than all the verbal ass-kickings others had tried to give me to prove the error of my ways in a situation. Suffice it to say that that friend and I have more mutual trust and respect now than we did before.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Have I ever mentioned that I find your screen name ever so delightful?

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  12. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    OK, having kicked some ass in my time, and having had my ass kicked in my time, let me make a few observations — gently, so as not to ass-kick the sensibilities of anyone.

    Brad’s comments are nuanced enough that I don’t think he’s one of those who simply conflates rhetorical forcefulness with physical violence. There’s been a tendency over the last two decades (especially in academe) to paste the label “violent” on any strong and formidable expression of opinion. I’ve even heard undergraduates tell me that people who try to argue persuasively in any way are being “violent.” I think this is a case of hyper-liberal individualism in which any attempt to break through the hermetic seal of the self is experienced as a veritable assault. It dovetails with that upward lilt of the voice which now makes assertions sound like questions — a nice aesthetic way of distancing oneself from the implications of what one says. Cowardice, in other words.

    I have to disagree with Brad when he says that speech and tone give a clue as to what’s in the heart. If only speech (or gesture, for that matter) were that transparent. Yes, pacifists can often sound very bellicose — but that’s only because we assume that “peace” means simply the absence of overt conflict. A lot of unmistakably violent behavior can be camouflaged by the most dulcet of tones. (Many massacres have been ordered in the calm tones of technocracy — think of “collateral damage,” an eminently non-judgmental phrase.) Similarly, a lot of reparative conduct will look, to those on the receiving end of a rebuke, like violation. (Think of Austin’s allusion to Yoder’s style of argument.) I realize that this can end up in an Augustinian argument that war can be peace by other means, or that killing someone can be a loving act. I’m certainly not willing to go that far. (I take to task Augustine’s sometimes extraordinary talent for argumentative perversity in the 2nd or 3rd part of the interview.) But I do think that you can’t simply read off what’s in the heart or soul simply by attending to words and tones.

    I, too, like Wenatchee The Hatchet’s screen name.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  13. Josh Rowley wrote:

    Alan Jacobs has helpfully drawn a distinction between persuasion and coercion:

    “Persuasion simply is not force, and this can be clearly illustrated by the frequency with which people resist it. That is, after all, what makes force force, violence violence: irresistability. We do not increase our understanding of the world by doing away with the distinction between irresistable acts of force and eminently resistable words of suasion” (Must Christianity Be Violent?, p. 234).

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  14. Brad A. wrote:

    Yes, I’m hoping this is the final nail in Robertson’s public coffin.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Permalink
  15. Brad A. wrote:

    Gene, I appreciate your response, and I think you read me correctly for the most part. I’m not interested in safeguarding the hermetically sealed, hyper-liberal individual.

    On the speech and tone point, I wasn’t talking about “peaceful” speech covering for evil, but rather overly aggressive, humiliating speech supposedly in the name of a good purpose or truthful claim. I was talking also about arguing merely to defeat one’s opponent rather than to lead to or defend some truth or to learn. Even among Christian pacifists (or maybe I’m just thinking academics…), these are certainly regular occurrences.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 6:55 pm | Permalink
  16. Brad A. wrote:

    Agreed, Halden. I had a bit about Jesus, Paul, etc., but I took it out.

    I know you don’t mean personal shots in what you’re saying here, but generally speaking, that’s what it often comes to, whether it’s on blogs like this or in the classroom. I think we who are arguing from faith need to be wary of that. See my response to Gene.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 6:57 pm | Permalink
  17. Jeremy G wrote:

    thankyouverymuch, that’s going into my thesis now…on second thought, it is a good quote, but there’s not nothing to the possibility that language can be violent.
    - Jeremy
    on the post in general, I tend to agree that ass-kickings are good and necessary, but it would seem to me of immense consequence who it is kicking my ass. For instance, (re: the thesis comment above) if my supervisor (presupposing a significant relationship) is kicking my ass, in the end I am much better off. If my examiner is doing it (presupposing no relationship), I’m crying (or not persuaded). Same goes for fellow disciples – one I respect/know has more permission to upbraid my behaviour/beliefs, whereas Robertson or Driscoll would merely make me laugh.
    I think also personality plays a big role in the readiness to accept an ass-kicking. I’m probably more open to such an experience than is, say, an emotionally immature college freshman.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 5:42 am | Permalink
  18. rasselas wrote:

    nice one…btw someone who needs his “ASS-Kicked” asap!!!

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 6:33 am | Permalink
  19. Charlie Collier wrote:

    In the video I’ve seen, Robertson speaks about Haiti’s pact with the devil as if he were an eyewitness to the deal, which does make me wonder about the company he keeps.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  20. roger flyer wrote:

    Halden-May I quote from our own Minnesota Vikings stalwart defensive end Jared Allen:
    “You are a BAD ass.” which is different than a bad ASS. or a badass…

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  21. roger flyer wrote:

    Let’s keep asses and faces in different posts.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  22. roger flyer wrote:

    The second interpretation is the wiser.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  23. roger flyer wrote:

    only if he struck first, right?

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    Well, he’d try.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  25. roger flyer wrote:

    Experience has shown us that is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to ‘persuade’ proud, self righteous, bigoted people of the errors of their point-of-view. ‘Religious’ people of all stripes do not want to engage in dialogue; they want to convert you to their ‘truth’.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  26. roger flyer wrote:

    Halden’s BADass blog is his cross to bear…

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  27. roger flyer wrote:

    He’s getting it kicked all over the web.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  28. Halden wrote:

    Does that mean I’m bad at being an ass? Because that doesn’t sound right.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  29. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    In Baumeister’s lexicon badass is a single word if we’re going to bring in sociological surveys of violence. Earlier this year I was reading him explain that while it is common to suppose people who are violent have low self-esteem the more common denominator in routinely violent men is actually a very high but unstable self-esteem. The man has a high self-image but it is unstable and easily undercut and he resorts to verbal or physical threats of violence in order to build up his self image.

    This would be the reason the relational context is important. Someone who loves you or respects you and rebukes you to bring you back to where you should be can be firm, even harsh, but is still ultimately loving. Someone who rebukes you to put you in your place vis a vis themselves is more likely being a jerk. The first attempts to restore you to your place within the body of Christ and the second attempts to simply put you in your place as the other person perceives it (and the two can seem to overlap depending on what church and what relationship we’re talking about).

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  30. roger flyer wrote:

    It means you’re a BADASS. Don’t mess with you. Sort of a cross between Rambo and Gandhi.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  31. Halden wrote:

    Well, that just won the epigraph award.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
  32. Before this post, I would have thought that only the Mark Driscoll’s of the world would think of Jesus as a badass. I now know that I, too, can claim badassness for the Savior. Thanks!

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  33. roger flyer wrote:

    Le be clear about badassness. I got it from JARED ALLEN, quoted in current Sports Illustrated. Having said that, in Jared’s world (Go Vikes!) Halden is a BADass and I mean that in a good way.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  34. roger flyer wrote:

    I didn’t say the savior was a badass. I said Halden was a badass.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  35. Roger…I got ya. I was more referencing the idea that a badass is someone who gives a decent asskicking. You said it of Halden, but I think it could apply to Jesus, too.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 11:49 pm | Permalink
  36. roger flyer wrote:

    I’m still working my head around that one charisman…

    Friday, January 15, 2010 at 6:28 am | Permalink

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