#Insurrection and #Celebrity | Is #AlainDeBotton a Philosopher? | People are People Too

There have been some heated exchanges on Pete Rollins’ blog and Mark Van Steenwyk’s ‘Jesus Manifesto‘ site, sparked off by Mark’s critique of Pete’s forthcoming ‘Insurrection’ pub tour. To summarise: Mark – who has now fully apologised – made some too-hasty remarks about Pete’s financials, and then had some pretty nasty responses shot at him for doing so.

I don’t claim to have any big profile, but being published does open you up to people making comments on the web, and I often think that the separation that the screen brings can make people forget that these people are people too. Writers are rarely the arrogantly successful and impermeable souls that we might think them to be.

This was highlighted to me recently when someone commented on a site I had left a link on to a piece Alain de Botton had written. ‘Nice piece,’ they said, ‘but please don’t call him a philosopher.‘ I thought this unkind. de Botton clearly is a lover of knowledge, and a superb communicator of philosophical ideas. By any measure I’d use, he’s a philosopher, and a damned good one at that (I’m loving The Consolations of Philosophy). So why the temptation to denigrate him? Is it his celebrity we are jealous of?

Similar charges have been laid at my door – and perhaps with reason. I’m not a theologian. I don’t write proper theology. Mostly this comes from those in ‘the academy’ who would perhaps prefer I didn’t waste my time having a job in a school but did some proper study.

Unconnected thoughts. But with this thread: we need to be careful what we write online. Personal attacks are personal, and people are people. We don’t have firewalls. So, just a plea for kindness and thoughtfulness online. That’s all.


12 responses to “#Insurrection and #Celebrity | Is #AlainDeBotton a Philosopher? | People are People Too”

  1. Good reminder Kester – And to that I would add – we’re all human. And that means that we’re going to do things that piss each other off – heck even the disciples got Jesus PO’d on more than one occasion. I know for me with a family health crisis, the demise of the Wittenbur Door (the magazine became a community to me what Vaux is to you) and some delays caused by the financial crisis, I haven’t always been on my best behavior this past year. It sucks when you try to tell someone “I’m sorry if I was an ass, can we have a beer and move on” and you’re told to “*&^&%@ off.” Not having boy bits, I can’t claim to know the will of Christ but this doesn’t strike me as how we should deal with our differences.

    Those of us who are published writers also have to remember that we have a platform – what we say does get circulated a lot more than we may think. So, we need to choose our words especially carefully and lead by example. That’s why I’m psyched to see how Mark handled this debate as it showed grace and humility while trying to continue a discussion that we really need to have here.

    And here’s a Q that I don’t have an answer – we have this VERY weird phenomenon in America called “Christian Publishing.” I talked a bit about this in the comments in Mark’s blog but how do we help each other get the word out so we don’t become co-opted by the system? There are so many subtle pressures out there from agents, publishers, and the like to market us that often we don’t even know we’ve been sold out until we’re branded and put on the shelf like a slab of non-free range meat. Once branded, you’re screwed – there’s an expiration date on what you offer and once the brand expires, people move on to the next fresh piece of meat. I avoided this cycle mainly by being a religious satirist and a chick, two factors that force me to play outside anyway. But it really pains me to see talented voices cross my desk year after year that really excite me only to see them become this holy homogenized piece of Christian cheese when I know they really should be this gooey smelly French cheese that’s a helluva lot more tasty.

  2. Kes, this is exactly what you’re complaining about— but he is the Jamie Oliver of Philosophy. I kind of concur with those initial comments.

    Firstly, I’m not sure if I’d know anyone who’d seriously reference him in an essay. Yet more to the point. I think he leaves himself wide open, pimping himself on banal TV and radio programs ( I can think of 2 in particular that made me want to throw stuff at the telly). Its the same disdain one has for celebratory and therefore, maybe, he’s fair game. If you’re ego requires extension and attention via a medium. Then that said same ego must expect to be battered as well as stroked.

  3. I read Mark’s post and further comments on blogs etc. I personally think that although its directed at Pete, it is also a comment that we all need to listen to, we talk far more radically than we actually are. I also think that there is a note of caution in there, not to believe our own hype or the hype that others put onto us…and whatever we do don’t sell out to Christian celebrity culture!

  4. Nic, I think the problem is confusing quality with denomination. You may not think he’s a great philosopher, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a philosopher. (Actually, I think he deserves more credit – bringing philosophy to a level that accessible is very creditable, and doesn’t mean he can’t do the high level stuff) Surely you face the same issue in terms of design? At what point does someone deserve the tag ‘designer’ and who has the right to bestow it? There’s something about power relations which is important.

    Ben, in terms of talking more radically than we actually are… Hasn’t everyone who ever lived been guilty of this? ‘The good I want to do (and talk about) I don’t actually do…’ In terms of believing the hype, this is very tricky, because hype is inevitably something that people project on to others, and they often have no control over how they are being perceived. This is a particular problem online. A lot of people I spoke to at Greenbelt were complaining about how Rob Bell was so up his own ass… Something I found to be patently untrue having actually met him. But the projection is so easy to make – turning our own disappointments into attacks on others.

  5. What’s the Christian logic in being ‘nice’ to someone with whom you disagree? Jesus didn’t do it, and neither did St Paul — even with fellow Christians. And that’s just the New Testament. In the OT people got battered with a jawbone instead. In fact, one of the things about the Bible — about Jesus — that makes me tremble is that it seems to value Truth way higher than Peace. Aligning them means going through the fire.

    On de Botton, 20 years ago we’d have called him a public intellectual. But we’re ridding ourselves of these kinds of words in search of equality. So ‘philosopher’ is used because it can sound like a job description, just like ‘plumber’. It sounds less superior than ‘intellectual’. It’s not the right word, but hey, we’re all about the equal and the nice.

  6. Absolutely Kes, he’s the Jamie Oliver of philosophy— he creates pukka-thought.

    It’s a good point about mantles and I think discourse (like this) is part of the process. But also there are a whole set of variables that will ultimately determine someones identity. In Academia and Science “Peer review” is very important— there are King-makers out there, a community of practitioners who wield a lot of power. Personally, I like to use this both ways, sometimes adhere to it— sometimes go against.

    If we’re playing Pokemon with philosophers— You can have all my DeBotton dupes, he’s not rock star enough

  7. What’s the Christian logic in being ‘nice’ to someone with whom you disagree?

    Absolutely agree. But this isn’t about being nice to people, but truthful. What kicked this episode off was a bunch of ill-thought comments about someone’s work, which were in no way based in fact.

    Perhaps you are right on the public intellectual term. But when I read about Socrates – the father of philosophy no less – I get the feeling that he was more ‘de Botton’ than ‘Heidegger.’ He was intimately concerned with public engagement and improving people’s lives through revealing truth. Too many philosophers and grand-thinkers appear deliberately obscurantist.

    Thing is Nic, Oliver is a chef. Do we think less of his food because it’s not ‘hard’ or because he’s populist? Quite the opposite. What he has done for ‘the masses’ in terms of diet and cuisine is more remarkable than any complex nouveau thing that is much lauded by a couple of experts but leaves everyone else still hungry for more.

  8. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that being a public intellectual was a lower species of being than a philosopher. Quite the opposite — and I’m with you on Oliver too (albeit slightly suspicious of his getonyourbike Victorian ideas of social improvement).

    I guess my point was that we often seem more worried about being rude (or culturally non-egalitarian) than we are about being dishonest (or economically non-egalitarian). And in so doing have made AdeB look like a wannabee philosopher rather than an astute communicator of ideas.

  9. I have to be thankful for Jamie now? The Horror, bring on the Celebratory Messiahs !-)

  10. Kester – you’re right that we can’t control how others manipulate our message. But we do need to be aware of language and the image that we project – see my above comments for the need for those of us who operate in the public square to be very tuned in to how the Americana Christianity system operates. I can cite countless examples of people whose behavior got them labeled as something they aren’t and it really crippled their ability to get their message out in the long run.

    And there has to be a more Christlike way of debating than a whizzing match. As a chick, I lack the necessary ontological equipment to even engage in said fights. This is especially true online when we can hide behind our words without dealing with the other face to face.

  11. Acetate Monkey

    This kind of border work goes on all the time doesn’t it? Defining who’s in and who’s out of a social world by their credentials (whether academic or experiential) and denigrating amateur to mean ” a crap dabbler” rather than a lover of something. I’m not a philosopher and bow to superior knowledge, but I thought of de Botton in the same vein as Mary Midgley and she’s a philosopher isn’t she? On the subject of chefs, is Bumenthal a chef? he hasn’t trained as one (apart from a short stint with Marco Pierre White), doesn’t have cordon bleu, yet was voted best restaurant in the world by the cheffing elite?
    So it’s all a bit of a popularity contest really. If you get in with the gang then you’re accepted and promoted otherwise you’re derided.
    I agree that I’m more likely to be troll-like when you’re depersonalised as just words in ether, and isn’t that the findings of some psychologist’s work (I’m not one of those either!)?
    Any practical suggestions on how to engage in cyberworld beyond trying to remember “people are people”?

    PS, for what it’s worth, I find your writing interesting, readable, and above all applicable to my life to thanks for bothering.

  12. I Just can’t stand people knocking Jamie Oliver. I’ve known him take on many causes because he wants to see fundamental change for the better, I’ve seen him labelled a Messiah and knocked and dismissed for it. I’ve never seen him act spoilt or egotistically, or patronisingly, or seek celebrity status. You know what, he seems to have encouraged better food in schools, disenfranchised young people into a profession, parents to learn to cook for their families, blokes that it is OK to cook, and people like me that good cooking is about the produce and the flavours and about community, not about self indulgent arty £300 a plate pretentiousness. So why has he become a byword for all that is wrong in the media. Surely we, who can’t learn anything unless we are marketed to and pummelled from all media angles, are to blame for the media saturated, celebrity obsessed culture we have. God Bless Jamie for acheiving much of what he has set out to do because he’s been bothered to try, for remaining a human being throughout, and for putting up with all the stick he gets and carrying on. Would we rather all be eating microwave meals and take aways? Off subject rant, but this site seems to be frequented by people who want to think and make changes, so why knock someone who has had the bravery to do it?