The biggest challenge that faces human beings is to make sense rather than to make noise. Effectively addressing all other challenges depends on it. Whether we want to change the world or want to protect ourselves from the impositions of others trying to change the world, our beliefs, our goals, our actions, are all a function of how we understand reality, and it is clear, at least in the abstract, that some understandings are more precise, more accurate, and more useful than others.
The first thing we have to understand is that we are not just a collection of individuals, but rather are members of a society and organisms in a biosphere. We exist interdependently with one another and with our environment, unable to survive at all without the latter and unable to survive as human beings without the former. Our continued existence as organisms depends on ingesting food and breathing air, two vital needs that are produced and maintained by the living planet which we inhabit interdependently with other living things. Our consciousness as human beings and our existence beyond bare survival (and in almost all cases our survival itself) depends on our coexistence with other human beings in organized groups, through which our use of language allows us to thrive through a shared but differentiated mind and a shared but differentiated enterprise.
That leads to the first question we must face: Do we, as individuals and as a society, take responsibility for our impact on those systems of which we are a part, or do we leave them to their own organic trajectories, pursuing our own immediate goals without attempting to act with conscious intent beyond them? Do we attempt to be conscious and conscientious participants in these larger wholes of which we are a part, or do we simply live as individual organisms pursuing our own individual desires? Do we take responsibility for one another, for the distribution of suffering and well-being, of opportunity and of relative lack of opportunity, for how well our systems are functioning in terms of their sustainability, their robustness, and their fairness, or do we insist that doing so is either impossible or undesirable?
The second thing we have to understand is our own fallibility. Anything any one of us is certain about may be wrong. Our various beliefs and certainties are conceptualizations of reality in our minds, and must always be considered fallible. This leads to two considerations: 1) the best (and perhaps only rational) argument supporting those who insist that we must not try to govern ourselves as rational people confronting the challenges and opportunities we face is the argument that perhaps we are simply not up to the task, and that we should therefore rely on simple principles that best liberate our collective and individual genius rather than try to “micromanage” our shared existence, and 2) our focus should be on how we arrive at our conclusions, rather than on insisting that our current conclusions are the one absolute truth.
The first consideration is easily dealt with: Recognizing our fallibility and the power of organic processes is a part of being rational people working together to do the best we can, not a displacement of it. The Constitution (created by intentional human thought, arguably a very ambitious act of “social engineering”) and the modern marketplace (also a product of much intentional thought and oversight) are not magical panaceas which free us from the responsibility of striving to be responsible and humane sovereigns, but are merely part of the accumulated material of past efforts by past generations to do what we ourselves are called upon to continue to do: To govern ourselves intelligently, responsibly, and intentionally, in service to our shared humanity.
We should strive to emulate rather than idolize our “founding fathers,” to be the same kind of proactive rational citizens, working together, mobilizing our intelligence, believing in our ability to rationally and humanely govern ourselves. We should utilize rather than surrender to market forces, recognizing that there is nothing about them that automatically resolves all human problems and challenges, but rather that they are one useful institutional modality upon which we can rely in concert with others, in our ongoing efforts to work together to do the best we can in service to our shared humanity.
The second consideration flowing from our recognition of our own fallibility is the one that leads to a broader and deeper commitment to the methodologies that have proved most useful in the modern era at diminishing the aggregate effects of bias and increasing aggregate accuracy in our conclusions. Both scientific methodology and legal procedure are sets of techniques for informing and framing rigorous debates over what is and is not true, following sets of rules regarding what evidence to consider reliable and how to organize and channel the determinations that follow from that evidence. In science, the purpose to which this process is put is to refine our shared consciousness; in law, it is to increase the justness of our coexistence. These, indeed, are the two things we should always be striving to do, as responsible sovereigns, and to do so most effectively we should build on the methodologies that already exist for doing so.
In other words, the most pressing imperative facing our shared human enterprise right now is the expansion of the logic of science and law into the realm of public discourse and public opinion and policy formation. We need to transcend, to leave on the dust heap of history, the myth that all opinions are equal (while protecting the expression of all opinions in order to determine their relative merits), and engage in rigorous, increasingly formal debates in a constant quest for the best understandings, in best service to our shared humanity.
Tragically, we, as a people, are not only faced with the challenge of cultivating these disciplines more broadly among ourselves, but also of convincing those least committed to them that they have any value at all. We are also faced with the challenge of overcoming the reality that human beings in general do not arrive at their conclusions primarily through rational processes, but rather through social and emotional processes that often circumvent or disregard reason and evidence, and often serve narrower interests than our shared humanity.
The challenge facing rational and humane people, therefore, is not just to make the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity, but also to create a context in which the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity are more likely to prevail. That requires us to be rational about human irrationality, and to engage not primarily in a competition of rational arguments but rather in a competition of emotional narratives. The challenge, in other words, is to create a compelling emotional narrative out of the notion of being rational and humane people, and, even more, the notion of being rational and humane people in certain specific, disciplined ways, and then to create a set of mechanisms by which the most compelling rational arguments in best service to our shared humanity are also, simultaneously, compelling emotional narratives that persuade people who do not engage in or necessarily understand the disciplines we are promoting.
The most immediate challenge in the ongoing human endeavor, in other words, is to create, promote, and disseminate a compelling emotional narrative that systematically favors reason in service to humanity, not on a case-by-case basis (as we have been doing), but in a more general and comprehensive way.
There are, therefore, two major branches to the human endeavor: 1) to continue to develop, deepen, and broaden a commitment to disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity, using the methodologies we have developed for doing so, and extending the breadth of contexts in which they are utilized and the number of people striving to utilize them; and 2) to create an emotionally compelling narrative that attracts those who lack the desire or ability to utilize or defer to those disciplines (rigorously applied and debated rational argumentation) or that objective (our shared humanity) to support them not just in name, but also in some effective and authentic way.
To some, this will all seem too abstract, too far removed from the political and cultural realities we grapple with, or too far removed from their own emotional and cognitive inclinations. But those of us who are truly committed to striving to become an ever-more rational and humane people need to recognize that the ongoing mud-fight isn’t the height of what we can do, that we need to reach higher, think deeper, act more ambitiously in service to the highest of ideals and the noblest of purposes. The great cultural and political heroes of modern history, who we revere for their inspired and effective leadership, are who they are precisely because they have had the courage and determination to bite off rather large chunks of this challenge that I have just laid out, opposing imperialism or racism or other injustices. But we can invoke them all now, we can rally them to the greater cause of which they all were a part, and we can promote that cause with the same degree of passion and commitment that they did…, because that truly is the essence of the human endeavor.
(My essays on Colorado Confluence elaborate many of these themes. In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts are hyperlinks to essays laying out a comprehensive social systemic paradigm through which to understand and analyze our shared cognitive/social institutional/historical/technological landscape. In the second box are hyperlinks to essays laying out a social movement idea for promoting the narrative of and actual commitment to reason in service to humanity. Scattered among the remaining boxes are hyperlinks to essays exploring various aspects of both of these branches of the human endeavor. Together, they form a comprehensive and detailed map of the human endeavor as I have described it in this essay.)
In many on-line debates, a well-informed and well-reasoned argument is met with the greatest scorn, often in the form of responses decrying the arrogance of the person making the argument. These responses are almost always devoid of substance, a string of z’s or a sarcastic announcement that the opponent obviously isn’t intelligent enough to have an opinion. Often a request is made to cease making such well-informed and well-reasoned arguments, to protect those who feel intimidated by them from having to be challenged so discourteously.
Putting the best face on it, one can argue that there is some merit in this objection, that everyone should feel safe to express their own opinion, and that intimidating arguments, such as those found in courts or the halls of academe, are not appropriate in the forums of public discourse. But this fails to understand the value of free speech, its purpose, and what is lost when we are more concerned with protecting arbitrary opinions from factual and rational challenges than we are with, together, arriving at the best informed and best reasoned conclusions.
Those who are most ideological and least analytical are most committed to a view of public discourse as being the futile “exchange” or arbitrarily held and inflexible dogmatic convictions. Those who are most analytical and least ideological are most committed to a view of public discourse as being a robust debate between relatively well-informed and well-reasoned arguments. Among the fundamental meta-debates underlying all other issue-specific debates is the between these competing narratives, with one side favoring entrenched dogma courteously left unchallenged, and the other favoring an increasingly disciplined process of discovery.
There is an ongoing battle on such forums whether we should be more committed to lowering or raising the level of discourse. It might seem odd that anyone could argue that we should lower it, but many implicitly do. It does a disservice to our nation and to our shared challenge of self-governance to take such a position. As uncomfortable as rational debate might be –particularly to those who are least rational– it must be the ideal toward which we continue to aspire.
The one constant is change, but the speed and utility of change is not constant at all. Organizations emerge for the purpose of fomenting change, yet, as a general rule, they soon ossify in the same kinds of unimaginative patterns as the institutions they are seeking to affect. Significant change through the medium of established organizations and institutions is generally catalyzed by either those who are raised to positions of influence despite their failure to satisfy conventional check lists of appropriate qualifications, or those who act in ways not predicted by the fact that they satisfy conventional check lists of appropriate qualifications.
Human actions fall within a space one axis of which is defined by courageous and imaginative choices striving for excellence at one extreme, and conventional choices striving for mediocrity or maintaining the status quo at the other. That axis alone does not describe the quality or efficacy of individual actions: Courageous and imaginative choices striving for excellence that are made in service to an odious ideology, or that are in some other way misinformed, may well do more harm than good, whereas conventional choices striving for mediocrity may make valuable marginal contributions to human welfare. But, while caution, analytical sophistication, foresightedness and respect for uncertainty, and subtlety of insight and strategy are necessary variables to render courageous and creative innovation a positive rather than negative force, the absence of courageous and creative innovation guarantees suboptimal outcomes.
Several recent experiences have raised this to the fore of my mind: A program director position for an educational reform foundation that I applied for, and would have done a truly exceptional job in, that I failed to get because an unimaginative vice president was looking for candidates that satisfied the more superficial and easily acquired criteria for the job rather than the more profound and harder to duplicate criteria of greater importance; other nonprofit positions filled by decision makers similarly focused on superficial and less salient criteria; an alternative school led by a robust and idealistic principal who may prove to be an exception to this “rule;” a widespread insistence, across the ideological spectrum, to cling to conventional modes of thought and conventional strategies and conceptualizations of political activism, rather than to reach down a bit deeper and attempt to foment truly fundamental change instead.
The most profound lesson of human history is the robustness of social change, the degree to which that which is taken for granted as a permanent feature of our consciousness and our social institutional landscape is truly ephemeral, and can and does change far more rapidly and dramatically than those living in their own time and place are wont to realize. It is true, of course (as discussed in The Variable Malleability of Reality) that some things are easier to change than others; that smart strategies identify what aspects of our current reality are more malleable in order to massage our encompassing social (and natural) systems in ways which move us in desired directions. But it is also true (as discussed inThe Algorithms of Complexity) that that layered complexity, in which deeper levels are generally less malleable than more superficial ones, provides frequent opportunities for rapid, dramatic change, when some of the underlying “algorithms” are actually fairly malleable. The art and science of participating in history in socially responsible and “ambitious” ways involves recognizing and reconciling these two aspects of the challenge at hand.
It’s time for a new social movement that confronts this challenge head-on, and does so with a commitment to doing so as rationally and imaginatively and compassionately as possible. I’ve outlined one general proposal for organizing such a movement in A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill and in the other essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. (In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts can be found essays exploring the nature of our social institutional and technological landscape, to better inform such efforts; and in some other boxes can be found specific applications and aspects of this analysis.)
The proposal has three components: 1) Non-partisan community organizations whose members agree to commit only to reason and universal goodwill, to listening to competing views, and to seeking the policies which best serve humanity; 2) A data base or internet portal making access to all arguments that are framed as analyses applying reason to evidence in service to human welfare, and that provide documentation for all factual evidence relied on, upon which such community organizations can draw for their discussions and debates; and 3) Something I call “meta-messaging” (see Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives): The emotionally and cognitively effective dissemination of the narrative that this is a good and worthy project, that it is good for individuals and good for society to view our shared existence as a shared existence with shared challenges and shared opportunities, that, as I like to put it, it’s better to be Ebenezer Scrooge after his adventure with Marley and the Three Spirits than before.
Such a movement depends on suspending substantive debates until they can be contextualized in the framework being advocated, because to do so would be to lose what cross-cutting appeal such a movement might have. While there are many who would never join such a movement, and never join the community organizations that are a part of it, there are many who would, including many who identify themselves as “conservatives” or “independents.”
This is not, and cannot be, a movement to overturn Citizens United, or a movement to increase public spending on social services and education, or a movement to achieve preconceived substantive goals of any kind, because to allow it to become so would be to defeat its purpose: To find and develop the one common ground all people who wish to be reasonable people of goodwill can agree on, and that is that we all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, humble enough to know that we don’t know all of the answers, wise enough to engage in a public discourse devoted to doing the best we can, and disciplined enough to develop new procedures and new institutions that help us to work together as reasonable people of goodwill confronting the challenges of a complex and subtle world.
What we need more fundamentally and more critically than to achieve any of the individual, ideologically saturated substantive goals that divide us is to rediscover and develop our common ground, the underlying values and aspirations that most of us share, and the procedurally and attitudinally focused framework that we can create to pursue them more constructively and cooperatively. There are many people in America who are sick of the divisive, angry, excessively intransigent political rhetoric which dominates our public forums and airwaves, who would flock to a movement that steps back from that and tries, instead, to establish another kind of public discourse, another kind of political participation. This is a movement to bring them in, and move us forward.
That means letting go of the rituals of warring false certainties, and coming together instead around a common acknowledgement of shared uncertainty and fallibility. It’s time for all who are willing to make that leap of daring idealism, of courageous commitment to doing better, of believing in our humanity, to do so. We can continue to reproduce the unimaginative and unproductive ritual of over-confident warring false certainties, or to work together to create something new and vibrant and potentially revolutionary. As always, we each get to choose how daring and imaginative and conscious, and therefore how effective, our commitment to progress really is.
My current argument is not one about what the substance of our immigration policy should be (I’ve made such arguments in, e.g., A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Legality, Morality, and Reality Regarding U.S. Immigration Policy, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score, The Nature of the SB 126 Colorado ASSET Debate, Godwin’s Law, Revisited, and A Humane & Rational People), but rather about what the process for determining our immigration policy should be. As always, this argument is just one instance of the larger argument that we should commit ourselves to striving to apply reason to evidence in service to humanity, rather than engaging in careless habits that result in the application of irrationality to ignorance in service to inhumanity.
The focus of this essay is one clearly fallacious argument, that is, in fact, the principal argument used by those who take a stand unyieldingly hostile to millions of people, of a certain status, who currently reside in this country (and, by implication, millions more who would like to, but have no legal pathway toward doing so). Debunking this one argument does not, by itself, debunk their entire position, but rather merely forces the debate into a more appropriate framework, where any and all substantive arguments they may have can compete with any and all substantive counterarguments, in a process which best serves our better angels by giving our baser demons fewer shadows in which to hide.
The fallacious argument to which I refer is that the current widespread hostility toward undocumented immigrants and residents, in which these particular ideologues actively participate, is not only legally warranted but legally mandated. Their error is their failure to understand that the law, in the final analysis, is our servant, not our master. (Yes, in an intermediate sense the utility of the law is that it is binding and not optional, but it is designed to be a malleable and adaptable tool rather than, in its particulars, a fixed and permanent shackle.)
As an aside, the irony of this error is one thread of a larger hypocrisy: The people who make it are overwhelmingly the same people who insist that they are the most committed to “Liberty,” while in reality being the most committed to authoritarianism. But that is a topic for other essays (see, e.g., The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism).
The argument frequently invoked by this particular faction, that their hostility is not directed toward immigrants but rather only toward illegal immigrants, and that the word “illegal” conclusively supports their public policy positions on the issues of immigration and residency, reflects a fundamental misconception of the nature of law and the responsibilities of citizenship in a popular sovereignty. They mistakenly believe that a current legal status quo is the definitive refutation of both any public policy arguments that critique it, and any public policy arguments that defend other aspects of the current or proposed legal status quo that they erroneously consider somehow legally prohibited by some presumed inconsistency with the aspects they prefer. In other words, they presume that public policy arguments can’t challenge existing laws that they do like, and, at the same time, can’t defend existing or proposed laws that they don’t like, the latter based on some presumption of a legal prohibition against the existence of any laws which presuppose the violation of other laws. Both of these beliefs are easily debunked, and their mobilization in service to a blindly ideological position easily demonstrated.
Laws are something we make, implement, interpret, modify, and rescind according to processes that are themselves established by law (see The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government)). They do not define what the conclusion of public policy debates and legal processes should be, but rather what they thus far have been. They obligate, with varying degrees of flexibility, individual behavioral compliance, not collective ideological conformity, rigid administrative enforcement, or perpetual universal legal consistency. The fact that laws do not mandate the latter three is in large measure how they evolve and adapt to changing circumstances, values, and understandings.
The response to an argument that we should, within the constraints and according to the guidelines of our current legal framework, alter or reinterpret or modify our implementation of our legal framework, with the counterargument that we can’t because the current substantive legal status quo is different from what the modified legal status quo would be, is like arguing a century and a half ago that we can’t abolish slavery because the right to own slaves is protected by law (an argument which was, in fact, frequently and persistently made). And to argue that we can’t pass laws short of a comprehensive change of paradigm because it would be an affront to that dominant paradigm is analogous to having maintained that we couldn’t have made the morally laudible step of allowing escaped slaves to attain their freedom in non-slave states because to have done so would have simply encouraged more slaves to escape.
Let me be clear: I am not comparing current anti-undocumented immigrant ideology to slavery. Rather, I am comparing the defense of one set of laws that we recognize in retrospect to have been morally repugnant and well worthy of being changed with the defense of a current set of laws that some (including myself) argue is also morally repugnant and well worthy of being changed, in order to illustrate that the public policy debate should focus on the value of the law rather than on the fact of its existence. A debate can and should be had about whether the current set of immigration and immigration-related laws are ideal or morally repugnant or somewhere in between. The mere fact that that set is the current law is irrelevant to that debate.
(It’s worth noting, however, that there are some similarities: Slaves were considered not to be citizens, a perception codified in law by the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision. Abolishing slavery would have admitted this formerly excluded class into national membership. Allowing escaped slaves to attain freedom but not necessarily citizenship in non-slave states would have been analogous to allowing undocumented immigrants to enjoy some of the opportunities afforded citizens and legal residents without being automatically granted that status itself. The 14th Amendment’s establishment of jus soli, the doctrine that anyone born on American soil is an American citizen, was part of the long-unsuccessful attempt to demolish the legacy of slavery, root and branch, and still has implications relevant to immigration policy. Though the differences are greater than the similarities, the fact remains that exclusionary policies that tend to dehumanize those excluded inevitably resemble one another to some degree. See, e.g., Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding.)
It is our responsibility to determine what our laws should be, while also considering how best to implement and enforce the laws that currently are. Those with a zero-tolerance attitude toward undocumented residents, insisting that we are legally required both to in no way accommodate their presence here and to remove them all regardless of the costs (fiscal, economic, social, demographic, and moral), should also, for consistency, insist that every motorist who ever drifts even just one mph over the posted speed limit should be caught and fined regardless of the costs, and that laws which presuppose violations of the speed limit (e.g., prohibiting driving in the passing lane, even at or above the speed limit, on the basis that it obstructs other motorists who might want to pass) are somehow unacceptable (or themselves “illegal”).
Or, to pick a more illuminating example, even though it is illegal to jaywalk, a motorist is still legally obligated to yield to that law-breaker, who is thus protected from some of the negative consequences of his or her infraction by another law accommodating it. (After all, aren’t we just encouraging more people to jaywalk by requiring motorists not to run them over?)
Again, let me be clear: I am not comparing illegal immigration to speeding or jaywalking. I am, rather, debunking the fallacy that no law can or should exist which presupposes, or even at times accommodates and implicitly “encourages,” the violation of another law. Our laws neither require nor benefit from that kind of rigid consistency: We can, and should, have laws which both prohibit certain activities, and that protect or accommodate those who violate them. Such laws are particularly well advised when the infraction is non-violent and non-predatory, the protection vital to that person’s safety or sustenance, or the accommodation ultimately in the public as well as private interest (such as by giving all residents of the country maximal opportunities to become productive members of society, rather than denying such opportunities and thus increasing the rate of socially, fiscally, and economically costly dependency and predation).
When people oppose, for instance, a law which would allow in-state undocumented high school graduates to attend state universities at in-state tuition rates, with the argument that the current law somehow prohibits the passage of such a law (“what part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?!”), they are inventing a legal doctrine that doesn’t exist (a requirement for perfect consistency among all laws), in order to insist on a particularly vindictive and counterproductive policy position.
Our national debate regarding immigration (as with all issues) needs to focus on what set of policies realized through what legal paradigm best serves our national interests and values. Citing the current legal status quo as an argument in that debate is, in reality, an attempt to insulate preferred elements of that status quo against criticism without having to mobilize any rational or informed argument, or address any rational and informed counterarguments, to do so. At the same time, citing one aspect of the current legal status quo (e.g., the laws against entering and being in the country without legal authorization) as an argument against another aspect of the current legal status quo (e.g., administrative policies not to target for removal those who have not committed other crimes) is an attempt to argue in favor of a change in the legal status quo without having to mobilize any rational or informed argument in support of such a change.
These are not just irrational and, to put it politely, “information-disregarding” arguments in our national debate on immigration policy, but are also instances of a larger contest in American political discourse: The contest between, on the one hand, a commitment to reason applied to evidence in service to humanity, and, on the other, a commitment to irrationality applied to a disregard of the evidence in sevice to inhumanity. It is a contest which those of us who champion the former must win both issue-by-issue, and in more profound ways as well, transcending the individual issues, reaching into the heart of our collective consciousness, transforming with the spirits of reason and goodwill the memes and emes of our own persistent inhumanity.