A telling editorial and some other points

I came across this Washington Post article by Charles Krauthammer.

In it, he makes demonstrates a point I’ve been pressing, and one that I think is important. The key word here is demonstrate; Krauthammer doesn’t really MAKE many points I find convincing, and in many places I think he undermines his own position. But his article is a good EXAMPLE of something I’ve been worrying about, which is the use of rhetorical and argumentative strategies we use in public debates.

In many of my past posts, I’ve discussed the risk that trying to impugn people’s motivations is very dangerous. It puts people on the defensive by making a claim that cannot be easily refuted (only the person knows their motivations), but it can be countered. And so, once motivations are on the table, the debate takes off in a tailspin of accusations and counter accusations (for instance, Krauthammer responds to charges of racism with charges of insincerity and liberal arrogance). Krauthammer here attacks liberals for painting many conservatives as animated by prejudice on a variety of issues, including the mosque issue, the tea party, immigration, and prop 8.

And things get very tricky very quickly, because even though I think it its generally a poisonous and defeatist maneuver to start in with psychological claims about what drives the other side in a debate, its sometimes very necessary, for instance, when real racism or discrimination is at work. For example, Krauthammer talks about proposition 8 and laughs at the idea that homophobia is at work. He writes that the reason conservatives oppose gay marriage is

And that seeing merit in retaining the structure of the most ancient and fundamental of all social institutions is something other than an alleged hatred of gays — particularly since the opposite-gender requirement has characterized virtually every society in all the millennia until just a few years ago?

But that is no argument at all since mere tradition is no argument for anything (there are good and bad traditions, but whether they are good or bad turns on what they are, not whether they are or are not traditional). And so one is wondering, really, what COULD be the argument against gay marriage (or, if we’re libertarians, equality of status, whatever way we decide to sanction two people living together in a special arrangement)? Complexities abound again. Do all people who oppose gay marriage want gays to be worse off? Do they want to harm these people, or are they just gripped by a vague sense that something “isn’t proper” about gay marriage; a nameless psychological blockage to accepting the arguments in its favor? Who knows, but it seems like its at least safe to say (at least I’m comfortable saying), that whether or not people who oppose gay marriage are homophobic, they have no good reason to oppose it.

Again, I’ve said this for the mosque debate as well. Why do we need to say that people who oppose the mosque are homophobic? What does that acc0mplish other than making the debate more difficult. Isn’t it enough to say that they have no good reason to oppose the building of the mosque? Why also anger the other side when all that’s needed is to defeat it.

One last point. Krauthammer think republicans will win big in the midterms, and I think that is very likely, as talk of a double dip recession starts to fill the airwaves (and this is justified because things look bad again). But notice here the wisdom of the founding fathers who STAGGERED elections (2 for house 4 for pres, 6 year terms for senators), so that our government can’t be swept away due to short term difficulties that no party could whether.


3 Responses to “A telling editorial and some other points”

  1. 1 Judy Wesselhoft
    August 28, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Jordan, God has given you a good brain, thanks for sharing these thoughts, I tend to agree– the anger is a problem…guess it is our fallen nature. May you keep seeking the Truth.

  2. 2 alex
    August 28, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    This is a sweet post, it really is very tricky.

    Basically you make a good point that trying to project motivations is dangerous for all the reasons you said, but also that sometimes it is necessary to talk motivations so that genuine racism etc can be fought as is appropriate. I definitely feel like there’s no good way to discern when discussing motivations is appropriate or useful, and sometimes I’m definitely disappointed in myself that in general I err on the side of assuming people are no good.

    Probably reading posts like this help that, though, so I appreciate it.

    There is something also intellectually very interesting with the “no good argument against x” thing that keeps cropping up, though I don’t feel like I can say anything more about it than that it’s fascinating to me that it keeps happening in different political arenas.

    • 3 questionbeggar
      August 28, 2010 at 6:38 pm

      Yea, thanks for this comment, its helping to focus my own thinking, and I think I might do a post exclusively about this issue of “no good argument,” which is not a moral judgment on someone, but simply a judgment about their reasoning. I think such responses would civilize political discourse.

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