Rudeness and Plausibility Structures Print
Written by Douglas Wilson   
Tuesday, 04 January 2011 11:15

Seeing the invisible things is really hard. And our own assumptions about reality are frequently the most invisible. They are particularly invisible when everybody we know shares them, and all the books we read assume the same things.

I believe it was sociologist Peter Berger who coined the term "plausibility structures." Celestial marriage doesn't seem as weird in Salt Lake City as it might in some other places. Rubbing a mixture of aloe and mayonnaise on your skin cancer doesn't seem weird to all the folks suggesting it in your Internet chat room, all of whom testify that it did wonders for someone they personally know. Baptizing by sprinkling doesn't seem outlandish to those who have never seen it done any other way.

There are two things going on here -- the first is the legitimacy of the case that can be made, for or against whatever it is. The second is the cultural reinforcement that this practice will get from the cultural conformity of a bunch of people, 99 percent of whom could not make the case for it.
When we first encounter someone who lives outside our plausibility structure, what they think seems crazy to us. And, of course, it well might be. Depending on who you meet, it probably is. That's not the point.

When plausibility structures collide, the result is almost always thoughtlessness and rudeness from one party or the other, and perhaps from both. That's the craziest thing I ever heard of, "and I said so, too."

But whenever a case against a particular practice is made, it is often assumed that the same kind of thing is going on. But arguing for a position is not rudeness, and arguing against silly positions is not rudeness, even if the argument reveals the silliness. But it does not follow from this that anything that calls something "silly" is therefore something that constitutes an argument. As we advance our arguments, we have to be aware of how many reinforcements our arguments get from the assumptions that have nothing to do with the argumentation itself.

Among Christians, when plausibility structures collide, we have to make sure that charity governs. And we have to make sure of this by doing two things. The first is that we must not write off the other person as a idiot simply because they are doing or saying something outside our experience. If we do that kind of thing, we are as much in the grip of thoughtlessness as they are, and if we pop off because of it, we are guilty of an additional kind of thoughtlessness.

But the second thing is that we must not walk on eggs when it comes to a plain argument from Scripture or common sense simply because the argument, or the truth, would ruffle some feathers. Plausibility structures are something we must take account of as we love our brothers and sisters -- but they are not something that anybody has an absolute right to. As much as we would all like to believe that we have a right to our opinions, this is not true if our opinions are wrong. Wrong is kind of an old-fashioned word, but there it is.

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