External Forces, by Tyler Smith
If you’re familiar at all with Christian film, you’re probably aware of the frustrating tendency of these filmmakers to paint non-believers not only with a broad brush, but with a condescending tone. This is especially true of atheist characters, who are often treated as defective Christians; they would believe, but something went wrong. This is seen most clearly in the first God’s Not Dead, in which Kevin Sorbo plays an outspoken atheist college professor who challenges our main character – a Christian student – to a public debate about the existence of God. It is later revealed that the professor used to be a person of faith, until the moment his mother tragically died of cancer. In that moment, his faith evaporated.
It’s a very common image of the non-believer. It’s not so much that they don’t believe in God, so much as that they’re angry at Him for allowing so much suffering to occur. It would appear to be a sympathetic portrayal, humanizing the characters. But, if we look deeper, we see that there is a very troublesome message being put out there. That is, the idea that these characters – and atheists, in general – aren’t persuaded by our arguments just isn’t feasible. Surely, there must be something else – some external force – that caused the person to lose their faith.
It undercuts any hope for true academic debate, and is often treated as a trump card to be played against the atheist character, as we see at the end of God’s Not Dead.
To lean so heavily on this device is not only narratively lazy, but intellectually. It suggests that nobody could truly disagree with our position. And that those that do must just be broken.
This brings me to another example I’ve seen recently. It is not uncommon for people to look at film critics with suspicion, never really feeling like they can “trust” them. A common refrain that I’ve heard in the past is, “Whatever a film critic does, I just do the opposite.” While I tend to roll my eyes at this, I can at least respect that the person is able to acknowledge that they don’t look for the same things in a film that a critic does.
The problem comes when people start assuming that critics are “paid shills”. When the majority of film critics like a movie that the moviegoing public – or a specific subset of it – doesn’t care for, accusations start to surface that the critics are just lap dogs for the studios, eager to do or say anything for continued access to press screenings and junkets. When critics largely endorsed Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, some Star Wars fans were so incensed at the idea that anybody would like this film – whose subversion of expectations apparently borders of sacrilege – that they were quick to assume that those critics were just paid off by studios, or the corporations that employ them.
The idea that these critics could have arrived at these conclusions on their own can’t – it just can’t – be true. Surely, some external force must have come into play. Otherwise, these people came to their “wrong” opinion completely organically, which means it can be debated as a point of view. But that would make it a lot harder to dismiss these critics, so the sellout narrative is created, and these Star Wars fans can rest easy, confident in the knowledge that there are only two groups of people out there: those that hated The Last Jedi and paid liars.
Which brings us to politics.
With the gun debate raging on, it should be no surprise that this rhetorical device has been used as a method of delegitimizing those opposed to further gun control legislation. It has been suggested that Republican politicians, such as Marco Rubio, have been bought and paid for by the NRA, and that they’re more interested in lining their own pockets than the lives of children.
Of course, this suggests that Rubio and his ilk actually do support gun control – I mean, who wouldn’t, right? – but are too greedy to stand up for it. Surely, the NRA must have contributed to Rubio’s campaign and he said what they wanted. It couldn’t possibly be that Rubio has an ideological objection to gun control, which the NRA supports. Of course not! It’s all about the money! To make such statements is to suggest that there really isn’t any significant philosophical position against gun control. There are simply those that are in favor of gun control and the corrupt.
Readers know that I’m fairly right-leaning in my politics, so I’ll go ahead and say that I don’t like when Republicans do this, either, suggesting that Democrats are in the pocket of the teachers unions and that’s why they won’t get behind school vouchers. It is a lazy rhetorical device, focused more on undercutting opponents instead of bolstering one’s own argument.
And, of course, it makes us feel better. We like to believe that there’s only one real opinion and that everybody holds it. It’s only these external forces – tragedy, studios, the NRA, unions – that corrupt those too weak to stick to their beliefs. It also allows us – maybe even encourages us – to shut out opposing opinions. After all, why should we listen to disagreement when we can’t even trust the motives of the person disagreeing?
As the country gets more and more divided, with fewer and fewer people seeming to actually listen to one another, it’s important to recognize and call out the various methods we use to reduce and dismiss others. And I think there are few methods more insidious than the suggestion that external forces are influencing those we disagree with, and that we are pure as the driven snow. Of course, to actually engage with somebody’s opposition and give them the benefit of the doubt is risky. But, as C.S. Lewis said (and God’s Not Dead quotes), “Only a real risk can test the reality of a belief.”