Let’s Quit with the “Toxic” Talk

There’s a term that gets thrown around a lot that drives me crazy, both for rational and irrational reasons. That term is “toxic.”

It seems especially popular with Christians on the Left1 for describing things they dislike on the Right. Traditional sexuality is toxic. The concept of hell is toxic. Complementarianism is toxic. Missions culture is toxic. Etc., etc., etc.

I don’t want to get into the substance of those controversies. In fact, I agree with some of those critiques. Instead, I’m just giving reasons why we should stop labelling any beliefs we don’t like as toxic.

Here they are:

  • It’s a weasel word. Toxic is loaded with connotations. It implies an idea is not only dangerous, but so pervasively dangerous that it infects everything around it. What’s more, it implies that this danger is subtle, and therefore easy for the unenlightened to miss. So by slapping on the toxic label, you’re implying that the belief is entirely hazardous in a way that eludes simple definition. That’s a whole lot of–unearned–authority.
  • Conflates use and abuse. Saint Augustine (I think)2 once quipped that we should never judge a philosophy by its abuses. Toxic makes this very mistake. Those using the term generally take the worst version of a viewpoint and extrapolate it to its worst possible endpoint. It seems impossible to deal charitably with a belief you’ve already labelled toxic.
  • Your experience isn’t definitive. This is the most serious problem with the term. So often, the people who declare certain beliefs toxic have had painful experiences with those beliefs. Someone who grew up secretly gay in a strict fundamentalist church likely had a toxic experience with traditional sexual views. Someone who went on a bad missions trip likely had a toxic experience with missions culture.

I don’t want to discount these experiences. The pain caused by a view (or the abuse of a view) is real and it matters. But it’s not the final word. This may sound obvious, but for many of us3 it’s worth repeating: our subjective experience is not the ultimate authority. Even if your experience with a philosophy is toxic, that doesn’t mean that everybody else’s is or should be. The memories of our subjective experiences are often wrong, or skewed, or unfairly tainted. And they will always be limited to just ourselves. On their own, our experiences shouldn’t even be the sole criteria for ourselves; let alone for everybody else.

In short, using the label “toxic” is both pervasively dangerous and subtle. You might almost say that it is…..some synonym that doesn’t undermine my entire point.

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1  This is just based on what I’ve seen. If any of you have seen conservative Christians throwing the term around, please let me know.

2  At least, I think it’s Saint Augustine–it might be one of those apocryphal internet quotations…

3  Especially the bloggers and memoirists!

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Photo by Clement

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