Thursday, September 09, 2010

Let's not be so principled

Right now, it seems the point of almost all discourse is to plausibly characterize your adversaries argument as one of the following, in rough order of severity:

  • Bigotry
    • Sexism
    • Racism
    • Homophobia
    • Religious Intolerance
  • "Hypocrisy"*
  • Support of an enemy group.
  • Failing to support a sympathetic group (soldiers, teachers, "science", etc.)
  • Violating a Constitutional principle
  • "Moral equivalence"**
On the other hand, it is considered a sufficient defense of any action to evade charges of any of the above.

On Catholic blogs, the game is to associate your opponent with "formal cooperation with intrinsic evil."  

There is not space to debate matters of prudence.  Either we don't trust our instincts on these matters, suspecting they are rooted in bigotry, or we just don't want to talk about it.  So, if we disagree with what somebody does, we have to try to fit it into one of the boxes above.

This leaves us impoverished when it's time to discuss an issue that doesn't entirely fall neatly into one of those boxes -- as evidenced by the Cordoba House controversy and the Qu'ran burning.

The Mayor Bloomberg-approved conclusion from the Cordoba House debate seemed to be that our country has a grand tradition of free exercise of religion, and any effort to curtail another's exercise of religion is bigotry.  Don't we remember the ugliness of how Catholic Irish immigrants were treated years ago?  Don't all arguments against it boil down to guilt-by-association bigotry, or accommodation thereof?

And along comes a Florida pastor with his plan to burn the Qu'ran, and we recognize it's a bad idea, but we don't have the language to say so.

On the one hand, it is religious intolerance, but it's also their exercise of religion on their property.

Some have tried to use General Petraeus's statements against it to create a mixture of hypocrisy and failure to support the troops.  But most recognize it's not quite a fit.  Besides, why would this endanger the troops?  Because some might hold them responsible for the church's actions.  Well, isn't that guilt-by-association bigotry?  And didn't we just decide that we don't accommodate that sort of thing?

We need to develop a culture where we can have robust debates about matters of prudence rather than just continuously asserting rights.  And we have to be open to the possibility that even if we have the right to do something, it might not be a great idea to actually do it.


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* In public discourse, "hypocrisy" does not mean saying one thing and doing another, it means something like inconsistency; e.g.  you're all for "small government" on Issue X, but that seems to disappear on Issue Y.

** Strictly speaking, this would be asserting that the act in question is exactly like one that is universally disparaged.  But it is typically deployed when any kind of analogy is offered, even if the speaker explicitly denies claiming moral equivalence.
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