Reflections on First Encountering Ethnomethodology effectively covers a few points I would’ve loved to make (and also re-articulates some ideas I already did mention). It’s a short read that I recommend. I wanted to pay particular attention to how she describes the sculpting of religious/political beliefs.

Concepts are socially created and maintained, but they are real enough to affect the world by ordering human thought and behavior.

I have always loved the idea of “apologetics”. I like the idea of there being a sort of established canon story and maybe a veneer of infallibility. I love the constant rationalization, the retranslation and semantic distinctions and interpretive works and addenda that slowly morph ideas that meant something to one audience at one time, into very different ideas that mean something new to a different audience. I enjoy the idea of the rhetorical acrobatics of the intelligent, zealous, heterodox early Christian writers, the careful “Communist” incrementalism/conservatism of Chinese reformers as they try to play social status games with the Authoritative Texts.

Entrenched Institutions, like the Church or the State, cannot turn on a dime. Their ideologies don’t tend to crash into reality often enough (or if they do, the causality isn’t clear enough to mark an ideological tenet as a failure) so instead of these belief structures being shaped by collision with pragmatic failure, they are primarily molded by other forces (Sister Y suggests “social transmissibility, organizing behavior, and providing experiences” as plausible forces). The shared impression of what the most important meanings are keeps certain aspects of the shape of an ideology in check. Some parts of an ideology are effectively ossified into a solid: they are clearly defined by widely shared, accepted meaning and prioritized importance. There is no (sudden) negotiation there. Other parts are malleable: broad or vague or controversial in meaning, or have variable or low importance. The shared experience is important to the meaning of whatever stories are told, no matter how they are transmitted.

 To understand something is to link it up with a concept or story; to communicate it is to link it up to a concept or story that is shared (and includes the process of building these shared concepts). -Sister Y

My next post is on my favorite example of Apologetics, but first I wanted to sketch out some properties of the art.


Apologia: Best Practices

The Apologist starts with a framing of history. It tells a story that defines “our tribe” and our behaviors. Apologetics derives from apologia, “a formal written defense of one’s opinions or conduct”. Apologetic tends to retell a story and emphasize the enshrined principles that guide our tribe, outlining values and priorities, and then backing it up with a history of applications of those values at work, demonstrating the wisdom/folly of past actions and suggesting how they work as a guide toward future action. Apologetics is ultimately persuasive rhetoric in a difficult-to-falsify environment, as ancient as mythology and as modern as sportscasting. Like legal or procedural rhetoric, it is generative: a few rules that fuel an intricate system of thought, a perspective, that can be applied to new situations. Some values are expounded upon at length. Some values are simplified and clearly delineated (maybe it separates us from them). Some are downplayed and others are ignored.

The politics of the US Supreme Court demonstrates a plethora of judicial interpretations and legal philosophies. Not only does each justice generally have a discipline composed of known beliefs and established historical understanding and argument style, but the court as a body is also seen to have properties that change as its lineup does. The relationships between the Justices matter as much as their guiding principles do because the final decision of the Court is a negotiating procedure. Co-developing values with other judges is a persuasive rhetorical exercise for your coworkers and for future justices that are favorable to your cause.

Ultimately, I suspect, healthy tribes value survival over ‘truth’. So, Apologists are sometimes cornered into “refactoring” their own enshrined principles (without nominally forsaking them). I don’t see this as uncommon. Some principles defended slavery until they didn’t. Or, as The Party would suggest, some were hostile to capitalism until they weren’t. Under (and since) Deng Xiaopeng, the Chinese Communist Party refactored their own model and their view of seemingly capitalist principles in order to achieve pragmatically useful ends and still maintain themselves as a consistent, mature ideological stronghold. This post, “Ersatz Individualism Makes the American Collective Strong” refactors conservative thought into a seemingly collectivist principle. I think it’s safe to argue that people do not build their lives and politics up solely from first principles. Politics starts from social experience. The Individual Mandate was conservative in the United States before it was liberal (due entirely to political dynamics, not abstract principles).

The good Apologist knows he has several audiences. His primary audience, even when he pretends otherwise, is his own flock. Preaching to the choir does have benefits, it is not an empty exercise. The Apologist intends to consolidate their beliefs further and keep the tribe rowing together. Outsiders do not tend to convert on an informational basis: Conversion to the Apologists’ ideology requires a social touch (or coercion, of course. Or perceived social/other utility). The Apologist also knows that his own position and perceived legitimacy is important (Aristotelian rhetoric 101). The Apologist knows what knowledge/belief is already shared among his audience and where the less consolidated, more malleable aspects of the doctrine lay. Attacking entrenched strongholds of common belief is a martyr’s game- a longterm Apologist instead engages in proverbial islandhopping. Ultimately, most extreme rhetorical weapon the Apologist has is the Polemic. Attacking the Other is a great consolidator. More on that later.

Apologetics is a heavy and serious rhetorical exercise, attempting to sculpt social realities through interpreting sacred symbols and recounting the tribe’s history as an important moral tale.

Edit: An article on political Christian Dominionism that demonstrates some of the principles here.

Next post: The Gospels of the New Testament and persuasive rhetoric.


I wrote the next several posts in one session, and  was planning on scheduling them to post two times per week for the next few weeks while I worked, but then I remembered what I had said about a backlog (I don’t really want one). Instead, I’ll post every day until I’ve only got a post or two in reserve. That should be more than enough buffer to keep this blog active without stressing me (I’ve got a new client this week, so I have no idea how busy I’ll be).