Case Study: The War on Christmas

I spent much of teenagerhood as an ”angry atheist”, or at least I would have if there’d been much religion around me to rail against. The most I could muster was some half-hearted kvetching about school end-of-year ceremonies being held in a church. Conservative christians were mythological creatures you only read about in horror stories from across the Atlantic. Half unicorns, half boogeymen. Fifteen-year-old me would not have expected to ever be on their side.

To be fair, I’m not on their side as such. But I’m sympathetic – for some meanings of the word. It’s not so much that I agree with what they want, but it bothers me when people’s concerns are dismissed for the wrong reasons, rather than acknowledged and then dismissed[1] for the right reasons.

The title is a bit of a spoiler, but in case someone missed it: what I’m talking about is the so-called “War on Christmas”. Christmas season is approaching and a lot of people are getting ready to fill up social media’s outrage section (if only they had a separate outrage section) with rants about how christmas is under attack or how stupid people are for thinking that christmas is under attack. Considering what this year has been like so far it might get worse than ever this time.

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It being a preoccupation of American conservatives, my familiarity with the ”war on christmas” idea comes mainly from people who mock it. My main source of fast-food-quality argumentation to snack on during any multisecond window of free time I can get as a father of toddlers is Reddit, which isn’t exactly the nerve center of cultural conservatism. So I sort of have to stitch things together, drawing on similar situations I’m more familiar with.

The story seems to go like this: The word “christmas” and symbols of christmas are disappearing from the public arena. Both government entities and corporations shy away from them in an effort to be politically correct. If you put a conspiratorial spin on it, you could say that christmas is intentionally being removed from public life. Such patterns of thematically similar things happening in several places probably triggers our agency detection mechanisms, causing us to see singular intention where there is only unplanned parallelism.[2]

Imagining agency where there is none is one way of setting off people’s this-is-obviously-wrong alarms, since a war is intentional and coordinated and this is not. Case closed. Or is it? You don’t have to take everything literally. Words are often used figuratively (citation needed), and in this case “war” is. Using it is hyperbolic, sure, but that isn’t the same thing as false, it just means that something is described as more important and dramatic than it actually is.

Still, how can christians be so deluded as to think that christmas, this behemoth of seasonal holidays, is in any way threatened? Reddit tries to find out by asking (on the atheism forum, suggesting it’s mostly a rhetorical question) “How can American Christians truly think there is a war on Christmas?, but unfortunately no answer is particularly enlightening.

The question is accompanied by a picture of an empty parking lot on Christmas Day, meaning that if christmas has the power to keep the mighty retail stores closed it’s hardly threatened. And it’s not, christmas is by far the largest celebration in the western world and quite popular in some other places as well. To suggest that christmas is threatened because major institutions are making an effort to be more welcoming to non-christians (or non-christmas-celebrators, I say as a christmas-loving non-christian) seems obviously absurd.

Alright, erisology hat on. Engage armchair.

I wrote before that if someone says something ridiculous they may mean something other than what you think they mean. That tends to happen in cases like this when people disagree about the validity of some concept; some people think that X is clearly a real thing and those who deny it are lying or stupid or both, and other people find it equally obvious that X just points to something completely imagined. People can look at the same thing, see something different and declare the other blind. I wrote about this in the last half of this article.

A commenter on the Reddit thread said:

They don’t believe that there is a war on Christmas. They are lying.

Really?[3] Everyone? That interpretation makes sense if “there is a war on Christmas” necessarily means “the existence of christmas is threatened” or “someone is out to destroy Christmas”. Nobody could believe that, so they must be lying. But these interpretations are not the only possible ones, and insisting that they are means you’re fighting straw men. At least “weak men”, since there are probably a few nuts who do think that, there always are. But an idea doesn’t gain traction on a large scale if it’s obviously wrong (and a wide conspiracy to lie is not credible). Even the most biased, twisted narrative needs a basis in reality to be accepted by more than a lunatic fringe.[4]

So why does this come off as obviously wrong to so many? Because the meanings of vague, abstract concepts are more slippery than we usually think. When faced with a new concept people’s reactions ought to be “Ok, what does that mean, exactly? What claim is being made?” but that doesn’t happen. Instead we make a half-unconscious, split-second interpretation and treat that as the obviously correct one.

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Here in Sweden the word “mass immigration” has for a while worked as a tribal shibboleth. Those who don’t like immigration use it to refer to the large flow of immigrants that’s been entering the country for a number of years now. Their opponents don’t use it and claim there is no such thing. The expressing seems to serve very little function besides as a mark of allegiance. I’ve seen it used a number of times, but never have I seen anyone (on either side) ask for clarification. If you claim that we have “mass immigration”, what are you claiming? “A lot of people are immigrating”? If so, then yes, this is fairly trivially true, the numbers are high both by historical standards and compared to other countries. Those who say no clearly don’t interpret it to mean this. Maybe “there is a concerted effort to immigrate in a large group, through collective decision” which seems equally clearly false.

The disagreement is not at all a matter of facts or empirical claims. It’s about whether immigrants should be conceptualized as an undifferentiated mass (anonymous and threatening) which fits the anti-immigration narrative, or as individuals (sympathetic people with faces) which fit the pro-immigration narrative. It’s perfectly understandable that there is disagreement about that. What irks me is that we pretend (to others and to ourselves) to disagree about the truth of statements.

This happens all the time, what is really a matter of differing attitudes gets treated as if it’s a matter of facts. It’s not about “what is true?” but “how should we model the world?” or ”what concepts should we use to refer to things?”. Those are ultimately about values, temperament, intellectual styles or underlying self-interest and these questions don’t have correct answers as such. And I guess that’s why we pretend, because then we can think of it like we’re right and they’re wrong.

An even better example is the minor brouhaha on a similar theme a year ago when a survey showed that one fifth of the population agreed with the statement “humankind can be divided into races”[5]. Media outlets reporting the news pointed out that biologists have dispensed with race as a biological category, making sure the scandalous implications were clear. But the statement is actually extremely ambiguous, and the correct answer depends entirely on how it’s interpreted.

People very obviously do look different depending on where in the world their ancestors came from, and the features that vary are correlated, forming clusters. To make an analogy: the spectrum of visible light is continuous, but we still divide it into colors we give different names. Logically speaking you ought to be able to divide humans into races the same way even though you’d have to draw arbitrary boundaries, just like with colors. Seems like the answer could be “yes”. On the other hand, people’s features vary gradually, and much like the light spectrum form a (multidimensional) continuum. So if you mean “humans come in neatly separate ethnic categories” then the answer is “no”. I honestly wouldn’t know how to answer that question if I got it. Or rather, I would know because I know the question is really about attitudes and people are expected to (and do) interpret it the way that implies the answer they want.

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An encounter with an ambiguous yet controversial-sounding claim starts with an instinctive emotional reaction. We infer the intentions or agenda behind the claim[6], interpret it in the way most compatible with our own attitude, and then immediately forget the second step ever happened and confuse the intended meaning with our own interpretation. This is a complicated way of saying that if you feel a statement is part of a rival political narrative you’ll unconsciously interpret it to mean something false or unreasonable, and then think you disagree with people politically because they say false and unreasonable things.

Depending on your political attitude, you interpret the phrase “War on Christmas” as meaning something obviously true or obviously ridiculous. We’ve discussed the ridiculous interpretations, what are the reasonable ones? What is the kernel of truth around which a hyperbolic[7] narrative has congealed, and why do people find christmas threatened when by all accounts they have no reason to?

Another Reddit commenter hits on something important when criticizing an article that complains about the Infamous Plain Red Starbucks Cups of 2015:

The author doesn’t seem to understand that things like this are meant to make people of all cultures feel welcome, not to make Christians feel unwelcome. There is absolutely nothing about the “war on Christmas” that is actually anti-Christian. Really, it’s just opposed to a Christian monopoly on the holiday season.

Right. ”Christmas Warriors” are not worried christmas will disappear altogether, but that it will be removed from its privileged ”default” position. When public institutions and corporations stop using christmas symbols it means they are no longer making the assumption that everyone celebrates christmas. And since not everyone does it’s only fair and right to not make that assumption — if you did it would make many people feel excluded.

Liberal western societies have become increasingly concerned with this sort of issues recently, making more and more efforts to show respect to people who in various ways aren’t like the majority. For example, just in the last year or two I’ve seen it become way more common to include a third option on forms asking about your gender/sex, so you can pick some version of the answer that the dichotomy doesn’t apply to you. This concerns a very small minority of people, much smaller than the proportion of Americans that don’t celebrate christmas. Abolishing christmas’s “monopoly on the holiday season” seems overdue.

So it’s not strictly untrue that there is something going on that some conservatives call “war on christmas”, it just shouldn’t be called a war because it’s not actually an act of aggression. Christmas is just being asked to move over a bit to make room for few more around the table.

Unfortunately ”aggression” is not a technical term. It doesn’t have a perfectly unambiguous definition and a word with the unfortunate combination of fuzzy edges and charged connotation will get stretched and used as a weapon. Any action that has a negative effect on somebody else, however indirect and regardless of intention, can be called aggression if it’s rhetorically useful. By this logic de-monopolizing christmas can be called an act of aggression and a “war” if this somehow hurts christmas. But didn’t we just say it didn’t? Christmas is doing quite well.

Not necessarily. It still exists but it’s not the same as it used to be[8].

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Christmas is a holiday and set of traditions, an institution. It’s a prime example of what we call social reality. Social reality exists. Not the way material objects like a rock or Neptune or a social-material composite like the European Parliament exist but the way abstract social entities exist: by “making” people think and do certain things. That’s not some second-class-existence consolation price, that’s what it means for social phenomena to exist.

I’m sure there is a sociological term for this but I don’t know it: some traditions/observances/holidays/rituals are the practical equivalent of common knowledge. Common knowledge are the things we normally assume other people know — not just what everyone knows, but what everyone knows everyone knows, etc. We can call this practical equivalent common practices[9]. Common practices are things that ”everyone” does and that everyone knows everyone does and everyone knows everyone knows everyone does it. Christmas used to be a common practice in the western world (because the people who didn’t practice it didn’t count, and people “don’t count” in this context because they’re few, culturally powerless or both) but this is no longer quite the case.

Remember, social reality is real when people act like it’s real. That implies, obviously, that a practice is only real to the extent that people practice it. When something in social really becomes universal enough that it’s held by ”pretty much everyone” (i.e. nonconformists are dismissed as noise rather than acknowledged as a different signal) it goes through a qualitative shift, like water suddenly freezing to ice when the temperature drops. It hardens as social reality becomes as firm as it can be, knowledge becomes common knowledge and practice becomes common practice. It becomes assumed and unquestioned.

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On some level we know, now in the (post)modern world, that social reality is ultimately arbitrary and only exist in our collective heads. If everyone just started to do things differently social reality would change. And we’re kind of uncomfortable with that, uncomfortable with the lack of ultimate, cosmic justification for what we do. Not everyone is equally uncomfortable with this, however, and that fuels a lot of political and cultural disagreements downstream.

Living in genuinely multicultural societies as we must in the 21st century (the alternative is both unworkable and unacceptable) forces us to confront, on an everyday basis, the fact that the particulars of our traditions and practices are arbitrary. Humans have evolved to live in small tribes, and small tribes have unified cultures, traditions and practices. All knowledge is common knowledge and all practices are common practices. In these conditions, facts of social reality can easily be considered as rock-hard as facts about the physical world. We don’t even understand the difference.

In large pluralistic societies only a few such features are hard enough for us to be able to push their arbitrariness out of our mind. When social practices cease to be the norm, the broadly unquestioned norm, they’re no longer maximally real. To go from consensus to just majority view, from immovable background to foreground player, even the biggest and strongest, is a demotion in ontological status.

This has happened before, to a lot of things. One of the more dramatic cases is that of the Earth. See, the Earth was destroyed during the early scientific revolution. But it’s still here? Yes, the physical object is here but the concept of Earth, the piece of social reality that represented the physical Earth and its relations to other things have been destroyed. Most of us aren’t aware it ever existed[10].

Philosopher Owen Flanagan’s book The Problem of the Soul is about how the concept of free will is incoherent and must be destroyed and replaced with a sturdier version. He knows this will be tough and uses the Copernican revolution to explain how someone might be dissatisfied with a non-magical account of free will:

Now imagine a forlorn defender of the Ptolemaic view who has accepted defeat saying to his therapist, “We have lost the earth. There is no earth. Earth doesn’t exist.” Is this guy out of touch with reality? Maybe not. There is a sense in which Ptolemaic astronomy and Copernican astronomy can be said not to mean the same thing by the term “earth” since they assign it radically different, indeed mutually inconsistent properties. According to the first view, the earth is stationary and the center of the universe. According to the second view, the earth is in double rotation- first, on its own axis, second, around the sun and is not even the center of the solar system, let alone the universe. The therapist, if she is wise, will see what it is that legitimately worries the Ptolemaic. She might try to relieve his despair by saying, and saying truly, that there is still a sense in which the two views do mean the same thing by “earth,” namely, “this heavenly body we call home.” But the Ptolemaic may rightly respond that he meant much more by “earth” than this thin idea, this primitive core sense. By “earth” he meant this heavenly body we call home and that is stationary and lies at the center of the universe. Earth, in his sense, no longer exists. He sees this and even accepts that it is true, but it sickens his soul.

The Earth being the at center of the universe before the Copernican revolution was much more than just a matter of astronomy. It was central to the whole moral order of the universe. Higher was better, and the moral ladder extended from Hell in the bowels of the Earth, past the surface and onto the Heavens[11]. Nowadays the idea of moral order being built into the structure of the universe is just weird. The Ptolemaic was right, his world was destroyed.

Could the Ptolemaics reasonably  have claimed there was a ”war on Earth” going on during the scientific revolution? Well, doing so would be hyperbolic, paranoid-sounding and inscrutable to outsiders but they would have had some kind of point and it should be acknowledged that they were in fact losing something, however necessary the loss was. I can easily see how, just like thinking that being in the center of the universe is what makes Earth Earth and magical circumvention of causality is what makes free will free, a modern christian could think that a “monopoly on the holiday season” is necessary for christmas to really be Christmas[12].

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So can I justify protesting about the things ”christmas warriors” protest about? Well, you can of course protest about what you want, but I can’t agree that de-monopolizing christmas should be judged as a net negative and stopped. What’s happening has to happen, the alternative would be wrong. But I’m also just a little bit sad that it has to happen and I think it’s ok to feel that way. I really do sympathize with the Ptolemaic. And maybe I’m being naïve but I suspect people would be less angry and less likely to unreasonably demand change if only their concerns were understood and acknowledged.

[1] I really don’t want to say ”dismissed” here because it kind of precludes acknowledgement. I want a word that says ”understood and taken into account but not getting its way in the end”. Interestingly there doesn’t seem to be a word like that.

[2] It is intentionally done by each actor, but the pattern as a whole is not intentional. There is a middle ground between completely independent actors doing similar things and a unified conspiracy — such as technically independent actors acting similarly because they’re loosely unified by a particular set of ideas or interests. Both the left and the right often identify such semi-coordinated formations, and they tend to find them in different places, calling them things like “the cathedral” or “the kyriarchy”. These things tend to sound like conspiracies when you talk about them, possibly also when you think about them.

[3] I think that outright lying is much rarer than most people think, at least in situations like this.

[4] Declaring large sections of the population lunatic fringe is getting more popular. I don’t think this is very healthy.

[5] It should be noted that the analog of “race” is not normally used in Swedish to refer to humans, making its connotation closer to “breeds” in English.

[6] Which humans with their sophisticated social instincts are pretty good at, although not as good as they think because our current social environment is extremely unnatural.

[7] For some reason there seems to be a bug in the human reasoning system that thinks adding hyperbole to an argument makes it sound more persuasive, when instead it often does the opposite. I can see two possible explanations: either we’re just not well adapted to talking with people who don’t share our worldviews, or we’re bad at distinguishing effective “convincing opponents”-rhetoric from “riling up the soldiers”-rhetoric.

[8] Neither is marriage, which has an almost identical controversy surrounding it. I think there is something similar going on when people say that the world wars and associated cultural movements ”destroyed objectivity, truth and progress” — my reaction has always been that those things are alive and well, thank you very much. But that might be because I haven’t experienced the world before postmodernity and don’t know what these things were like before; if you actually thought that absolute certain knowledge or a perfect society was possible I guess it had to be horrible to have to let that conviction go.

[9] “Common practice” does mean something like this in music history, where it refers to the period in european classical music (roughly 1600-1900) where everyone composed in a cohesive tradition with common standards and practices. I don’t know if it or a similar term is used in other fields.

[10] It’s typical of social constructivists to deliberately conflate physical things with the concepts that represent them in discourse (please hold objections of the kind ”it’s concepts all the way down!” until after the lecture. Thank you.). This is usually a highly annoying habit that obscures the useful part of what they have to say in exchange for making it more radical-sounding and exciting (it also makes you feel clever, I noticed). I’ll try to avoid doing that when using their ideas.

[11] I may be butchering this.

[12] Being religious in today’s world is quite hard for me to imagine accurately, and I guess that many still feel that moral order in inscribed in the structure of the world somehow, and that we’re erroneously denying it by treating it as arbitrary (and treating christmas like just any celebration). But that’s a matter of religion and such disagreements are really beyond argumentation, you’ll need to start at a much more foundational level before you get to such details. I’ve tried to give an account that doesn’t depend on the accuracy of religious beliefs. I think it works, and I think of religion as the ultimate expression of the desire to reify social reality anyway.

3 thoughts on “Case Study: The War on Christmas

  1. “When faced with a new concept people’s reactions ought to be “Ok, what does that mean, exactly? What claim is being made?” but that doesn’t happen. Instead we make a half-unconscious, split-second interpretation and treat that as the obviously correct one.”

    Yes. How do we bypass this mechanism of “instinctive emotional reaction,” as you put later? Is it tribal? Is it the way an idea is phrased that turns off those who hear it? The source who delivers it? The qualification “ambiguous-sounding” makes me think phrasing plays a part, but is not necessarily the orchestrator, since all language is ambiguous, and phrasing merely alters degree.

    Indeed, this essay seems at its core about the slipperiness of language, about how hard it is to be understood by people even slightly unlike you. I see where your interest in the subcultural side of language compression comes from, and the ways in which the problem runs so much deeper.

    “We pretend to disagree” is a fascinating and controversial way to phrase this idea, and the fact that the wording makes me want so badly to… push back on it… strikes me as a good indicator of its effectiveness. So often, when two seriously committed — committed, that is, to generosity and discovery instead of victory — parties attempt to bridge a gap, to resolve a disagreement, the outcome is “Oh, I guess we basically agree.” This is a resolution of conflicting attitudes, yes, and of /positionings/. Positionings relative to others, in response, as counterballast, as differentiation. This isn’t necessarily bad. To use your own example: I think it’s a good thing, perhaps, and at least with good intent, that progressives argue the non-existence of race as human category. An essentialist tradition of identity politics is a discursive heritage which has proved infinitely damaging. But if the other side doesn’t understand this… this compensation… to get to a nuanced equilibrium… then they perceive progressives as ignorant to biology or fact. It magnifies perceptions of partisanship far beyond actual disparities in worldview.

    (None of this is not to imply that fundamental disagreements in worldview and ideology never exist. But as one winnows down from global to national, then state/regional/cultural groups, these disagreements become increasingly minor.)

    Have you read any of Sarah Perry’s work on narratives, virality, and conspiracy theories? I think they’re up your alley.
    http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2016/10/06/the-art-of-the-conspiracy-theory/

    I also think, based on your Ptolemaic section and interest in neologisms, you would appreciate the term “ambijectivity.” It may be worth a Google search.

    Like

    1. Thanks for many interesting thoughts! I’ll just write some brief comments because I have to get back to work…

      I’d say this essay is about two things that conveniently come together in this particular controversy: progressives’ and conservatives’ differing feelings toward the postmodern condition, and the destructive potency of the combination of reason as being fundamentally about rationalization and persuasion rather than inquiry, and the slipperiness of language. “Ambiguous-sounding” may have been a bad phrase, since I explicitly meant that things are almost always more ambiguous than they sound.

      Unfortunately the instinctive emotional reaction bit seems close to hard-wired (at least if I understand Haidt correctly) and needs to be explicitly overridden the way you might try to do with other biases. I don’t think it’s going away any time soon.

      IThe “Oh, I guess we basically agree” thing has happened to me more than once and it’s a large part of what led me into thinking that misunderstandings are a large component of dysfunctional disagreement in general. Hence “erisology”.

      don’t think we “pretend to disagree” as such, more that we are half-conscious collaborators to a misunderstanding about the nature of disagreements because we want them to have correct answers.

      About the race thing… yes, I think it’s a good thing to emphasize the continuity and non-categoricalness about ethnicity (I don’t like the word race, it strikes me as blunt and unpleasant), but that can be done more effectively by not opening oneself up to criticism by asserting something indefensibly strong. I’m for a similar reason somewhat worried by the recent turn towards re-essentialization (albeit of a sociological kind) of “race” among anti-racist activists.

      I absolutely agree that fundamental disagreements do exist, but they’re often buried beneath several layers of confusion, which makes things worse.

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