Friday, July 25, 2008

The Exclusionary Principle

One of the fault lines of "the culture wars" that feed so much into the red/blue right/left state divisions has to do entirely with the fundamental understanding of debates. It's a division on who has a right to speak, on how the debate can happen, and what boundaries separate individual rights/opinions from universal values.

The extreme division goes like this:
  • The left believes all points of view should be heard in a debate
  • The right believes that acknowledging views they believe to be wrong undermines the very quality of the debate
While this is bleak, it explains the tendency towards repeated mantras and a shouting match. If the people having the debate cannot agree on what positions should be allowed in the debate, progress is impossible.

A few years ago, I would have argued that this is proof of the need for moderation, of a larger center in US politics. The reasonable statement I would have offered would have been a fitting compromise: the left realizes some positions are absurd and is okay excluding the "insane fringe", and the right realizes that some (but not all) positions besides those on the right are worth debating. That's what I would have said.

But I can't say that now. The compromise plan feels hollow. Either side concedes anything, and their whole position is compromised. Both sides agree that a limited set of multiple views are valid, and the debate is limited in ways that are unfriendly to all.

So where do I stand?

I believe in the validity of all points of views, at least so far as they are expressed. That's a personal preference, and there was a time where I would have argued to just be left alone with my views as they affect my person, and let others have their views affect their respective selves. That's the standard position of the left, and if the world had no right it would work out okay. Again, it's a doable enough world view - each to their own is one of the strong American impulses, and its a key part of the self sufficient and independent folk.

But then I heard one of the installments from this series. In the NPR series, we have several pairs of people active in the Boston abortion debate. The pairs are all groupings of people from opposing sides, and the focus is to understand opposing sides as human beings who are decent people, despite the oppositional points of view. It's noble, and it's admirable, and on the whole it works. The pairs do discuss abortion, of course, and that provides the interesting crux of the dialog. With even an "agree to disagree" resolution, both sides would leave with the hope of reconciliation. That doesn't happen, though it is (unsurprisingly) urged by the pro-choice leftists. Instead, one of the women in dialog (I believe Frances Hogan, though I'm not sure) says that (and I'm paraphrasing, as the transcripts aren't free) "I cannot except your view for yourself and my view for myself any more than I could accept you owning slaves while I do not."

It's a hard statement, to have one's notion of liberty approximated to an act that is, at least present-day, synonymous with evil and the very denial of human dignity. And, well, yes, freedom. It's a brilliant statement, the kind that rolls around in ones head for months as an appropriate reply is soused out.

The parallel of "Freedom to abort" and "Freedom to own people" equates the aborted fetus with a born, living human. Slaves are independent entities, while conceived but not born embryos/fetuses/infants are solely dependent on the person in whom they reside for sustenance and exists. Slave/master is a very different dynamic than pregnant woman/child. In the first scenario, we have the rights of two adults in opposition, while in the second we have the rights of one adult and one not-alive-but-potentially-alive being. While I will never stop advocating the rights of youth, I think the most valid legal distinction of personhood can be made between an adult and a fetus.

That's splitting hairs - the idea of that construction is to give one person unfair power over another, and to portray that power as being fundamentally, morally wrong. This is perhaps why so much of the abortion debate lately has spun around defining the legal status of a the conceived but not born - if the law says it's a person when unborn, then the law says abortion is ending a life. No polite way around it, and that's the point of the phrasing (clarification: this is my understanding of how the law would act, and it's something with which I disagree wholeheartedly; the law and moral standards, as can be inferred, often differ wildly). The people who are opposed to this view it as an issue that transcends personal rights, in much the same way that people keeping slaves transcends individual property rights. And here's the trick to dogmatic argument: if you acknowledged the validity of this argument and hold a different view, you admit you are wrong.

Let's move on to this clip. Here we have a Mormon woman who lived with a gay couple (who are parents), and after a month of living with them, her views about homosexuality are unchanged - she can acknowledge them as decent people, but she has to exclude a part of their life from that analysis. It is, in her eyes, a crime against God. The couple asks her to let them be, an "agree to disagree/each to their own" argument, and she finds it unacceptable. She has a belief that overrides the value she places on individual freedom. And then it hits me, as I see people make the reasonable argument and have it fall flat.

Some values are impossible to reconcile.

Not that reconciliation isn't an admirable goal. And not that it's impossible to have intelligent and reasonable dialog with people who are actively opposed to the views one holds dear; the NPR piece is an incredible example of that. But in order to have the debate we want, in order to understand why we're stuck at a shouting match, we have to re-examine the values that go into the debate. "Universal Values" is a particularly tricky term - one definition is for values held by everybody, and one definition is for the actions and values an individual believes should be applied universally. Individual rights are a particular universal value that leads to a lot of controversy, because the left asserts individuals should be free to act as individuals, that many choices (like the right to choose) or personal traits (sexual orientation) are so linked to other accepted values (freedom of religion, rights on consent and marriage) that no sane person can oppose them.

It is wrong-headed to assume insanity on the part of those we disagree with.

Leftists, especially leftist intellectuals *cough*, assume that their values are the correct ones. When you value reason, and you then thoroughly examine beliefs and reason yourself to a conclusion, the inclination is to assume that the position settled upon is right, and anyone else making a reasonable deduction will arrive at that position. This glosses over personal values
that go into the decision, and it fools us into thinking that we're unbiased. People are generally reasonable beings: we differ not because of inferior reason, but because of different emphasis placed on different values. This needs to be understood, because debate cannot exist in a world where we don't know why people are arguing what they are. The repeated fall-backs to scripture or scientific study are moves that say "Look at what I find meaningful. How can you not find it meaningful also?", and moves that are met with "I place little to no value on what you are showing me; therefore, what you say must be invalid."

So where am I going with this? The militant in me wants to adopt the rightist stand that some views are invalid, and that the left will lose the culture wars until it agrees this is the case. But that is, of course, unreasonable. That stance further cements division, hurts understanding, and just leads to better armed camps.

I want to do away with armed camps.

The divisions will remain. It's the nature of assuming someone is inherently wrong - nothing they can do will make them right. But the inherent nature of that wrong should be understood, and the values motivating their action, moreso than anything else, need to be understood. "Agree to Disagree" is a flawed statement, not because of the good intentions behind it, but because of how lightly it treats the division. We can assume people are wrong on an issue and talk about other things, but that doesn't put us in right relationship with that person. It means we are refusing to acknowledge part of their being, and they are doing the same to us, and that is no way to live. Instead, we need to understand our differences, realize that this are reasonable people we are dealing with. Reasonable people with different, sometimes threatening and sometimes terrifying, values, and that those values have worth for the people themselves. To do any less, to gloss over such a key part of a person, is to do a disservice to them, the debate, and any good-faith efforts at reconciliation.

We can have separate camps, but let's not keep them armed.

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