On “Our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved”…

From “How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds” P. 20

In a 1994 essay called ‘Puritans and Prigs,’ Marilynne Robinson challenges the contemptuous attitude many people have towards the Puritans — the very word is no more than an insult now — and gives a more generous and accurate account of what they thought and why they thought it. In the writing of the essay it occurred to her that ‘the way we speak and think of the Puritans seems to me a serviceable model for important aspects of the phenomenon we call Puritanism.’ That is, the kinds of traits we label ‘puritan’ — rigidity, narrowness of mind, judgementalism — are precisely the ones people display whenever they talk about Puritans.

And why is this? Why are people so puritanical about the Puritans? ‘Very simply,’ Robinson writes, ‘it is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.’ That is, we deploy accusations of Puritanism because we know that the people we’re talking to will share our disparagement of Puritanism, and will approve of us invoking it. Whether the term as we use it has any significant relationship to the reality of Puritan actions and beliefs is totally irrelevant. The word doesn’t have any meaning as such, certainly not historical validity; it’s more like the password to get into the clubhouse.

Robinson further comments that this kind of usage ‘demonstrates how effectively such consensus can close off a subject from inquiry,’ which may be the most important point of all. The more useful a term is for marking my inclusion in a group, the less interested I will be in testing the validity of my use of the term against — well, against any kind of standard. People who like accusing others of Puritanism have a fairly serious investment, then, in knowing as little as possible about actual Puritans. They are invested, for the moment anyway, in not thinking.

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