On March 27, six people were killed at a Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, by a former student who identified as transgender. Everyone was rightfully horrified — left and right, and whatever side of the sexuality and gender debate you are on.

A few days later, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre decried new bills emerging in state legislatures putting some restrictions on gender transition procedures for youth. Calling these bills “hateful” and threatening to “freedom,” she said, “Our hearts go out to the trans community as they are under attack right now.” 

Predictably, that remark provoked outrage from people who found the timing inappropriate. Former White House press secretary and Fox News host Kayleigh McEnany called out the White House for the “audacity” of choosing that moment to speak of attacks on the trans community. 

While Jean-Pierre’s comments were certainly misguided, they were not focused on Nashville at all. But their temporal proximity to the school shooting inflicted by a trans-identifying person was all it took. McEnany declared with emotion that it was the Christian community truly under attack, and her co-host Emily Compagno went on to insist that these state bills have “nothing to do with ‘anti’ or ‘hate’” and instead protect Christians from “this overbearing, overreaching government.”

I sympathize with these concerns, and it is absolutely fair to raise them, but the entire exchange illustrates what gets lost in a cultural competition about who is being attacked. 

What is lost is the full truth, and the conversation that could take us there.

America on edge

Like an autoimmune condition in which nonthreats are perceived as real attacks by a confused body, we all know how haywire things can feel when our closest relationships become amped up and hyper-reactive. 

When my own family gets on edge, everything and anything — including minutia about kitchen cleaning or scheduling details — can feel like a threat, even an attack. 

Didn’t you realize I had planned something else for that night? Why is it that I’m the only one who ever notices the dishwasher needs to be emptied?

So many people seem on edge right now like this — primed to see things that aren’t truly threatening as attacks.

This same kind of a pattern is showing up more and more in our over-reactive public discourse today — when, for instance, honest attempts to scrutinize someone’s ideas or work are angrily portrayed as an “attack.” 

Philosopher Stephen Yanchar acknowledged recently that “critical thinking has a reputation of being a slash-and-burn attack mode,” but it also “can be loving, kind and gentle — a part of relationship building.” 

When was the last time you saw someone receiving a thoughtful critique with such generosity — or did so yourself?

Thanks for pointing out some other things I need to think more about. ... I am grateful that you’d highlight some limitations to my current approach.

It’s much more common to instead shift the focus to the motive, or even character, of the person raising the questions. Then the questions themselves depart stage left, and we’ve got a juicier conversation on our hands, one focused on reputation debates rather than truth-seeking.

You see, there is power in accusing a sincere questioner of launching an attack. At the very least, it distracts and deflects from any uncomfortable attention on you — or something you care about. Such a deflection can be very helpful indeed. 

The power of victimhood

Former President Donald Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct multiple times over the course of his career. When fresh allegations surfaced during his first campaign, I was struck by how often he turned the attack back on the women, accusing them of “attacking” his campaign and threatening to sue them for defamation. 

It almost feels like we should have a word for this — when people being accused of serious things accuse their accusers of being the true aggressor. Many of my own colleagues have similarly experienced attacks simply for raising sincere questions and concerns about the harms of pornography.

National Review’s Jack Butler wrote recently about this same pattern of victims being portrayed as aggressors, suggesting this is the unenviable position many conservatives find themselves in while trying to defend various Judeo-Christian norms — only to be confronted by the commentariat on the left, who “having initiated its latest volley, turns around and accuses us of being the ones waging ‘culture war.’”

Whether individually or organizationally, there are perhaps good reasons for this tactic, each rooted in self-preservation. Jonathan Rauch, an insightful senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has pointed out the “disproportionate influence” that can come from “claiming to be physically endangered and psychologically traumatized” by someone else’s comments.

Perspective: Cognitive rigidity is not an American tradition. Why do we act like it is?
Perspective: Why do so few people care about what is true anymore?

Much like the emotional power of claiming one has “experienced trauma” (even if it’s just a “microaggression”), there are tactical benefits from insisting on being a victim of “attack.” Surely, the proliferation of both usages are tied to similar trends. 

Much of this is no doubt part of a tribal society convinced that the major intersections between right and wrong correspond to the divisions between men and women, white and black, rich and poor, religious and non-religious. Once you’re convinced of that, it hardly takes any leap of logic to feeling attacked by any group not your own.

It’s important to point out that an over-reactive sensitivity and paranoia about threat are among the classic symptoms of psychological disorders like paranoid personality disorder, delusional (paranoid) disorder and schizophrenia. And psychotherapists have whole programs designed to help people recognize when a feeling of attack is real or overstated and mistaken. 

Not all of this is merely psychological, of course; there are real threats around us, too, as reflected in the worrisome increase in violence in our neighborhoods and schools.

It’s worth remembering who benefits from a flame-throwing discourse in which each side accusing the other of attacking it. It’s not me, and it’s likely not you. But there are clearly some who stand to gain from our confusion, our division and our inability to arrive at truth together. The rest of us are left more vulnerable and raw … primed from one moment to the next to either feel attacked or to be seen as attacking, when in fact most people are doing the best they can, with what they know. 

There are plenty of bad apples out there. And they deserve some real scrutiny. But let’s agree to stop pretending that people with honest questions and critiques are somehow “attacking” me or you. They’re not. And with a little thicker skin and stronger backbone, we surely can all see that. 

Jacob Hess is the former editor of Public Square Magazine and writes at Publish Peace on Substack. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, he also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”