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.