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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.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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Here is my most recent comment on the conservative gun-idolater thread that has inspired many of my recent posts, in response to the somewhat correct allegation that it has devolved into nothing more than a shouting match:

A shouting match between fact and reason, clearly stated, on the one hand, and blind fanatical dogma, repeated endlessly despite being debunked (e.g., the constant insistence that any and all gun regulation is by definition an infringement of your Second Amendment rights, despite a universal rejection of that notion by Constitutional scholars, including uber-conservaitve Justice Scalia, as quoted above), on the other. You live in a world of fabrication in service to crude prejudices and bigotries and belligerence toward the world, and abhor those who stand for reason and for humanity. You invent your own caricature of the law and of the Constitution, your own caricature of history, your own reality, and then laugh like jackals when confronted by the reality you have simply defined out of existence.

You can persist, pretend, and posture to your heart’s content; it will only serve to convince those who are already as lost as you in your own shared arbitrary ideological delusions that the idols of your tribe are undisputable absolute truths, and to convince those who are not that you are yet another dangerous, violent cult posing as a political ideology. The fact that you are a large and well-established cult does not make you a benign one, or even one of mixed value. You are organized ignorance and brutality, a familiar perennial of human history, always popping up anew, with one shared constant: Rabid anti-intellectualism. You share that with the Inquisition, the Nazis, the Soviets, the Khmer Rouge, and Islamic terrorists, to name a few. You are on the side of ignorance and tribalistic ideological brutality, in opposition to reason and humanity.

The most telling distinction is that, by your own account, precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze and contemplate information are the ones you dismiss as bastions of liberal bias, without ever addressing why that would be so. Why would there be a positive correlation between the professional processing of fact and logic, on the one hand, and liberalism, on the other? The answer, while complex, is rooted in the fact that active and curious minds, immersed in observation and thought and the use of disciplined reason, tend to arrive at conclusions diametrically opposed to your dogma, because your dogma stands for the opposite of such modes of thought.

You stand in opposition to fact and reason and a commitment to humanity, which is why you simply ignore and dismiss the avalanche of statistics debunking the obviously absurd notion that there is no connection between our overabundance and overly easy access to instruments of deadly violence in comparison to other developed nations, and our extraordinarily high rates of deadly violence in comparison to other developed nations.

And the fact that there is a statistical correlation between laxity of gun laws internationally and homicide rates? The fact that the overwhelming majority of guns used in the commission of crimes in the US are put into circulation by being bought in those states with the laxest regulations? The fact that for every use of a gun in self-defense, one is used multiple times in a suicide, multiple times in a crime of passion, multiple times in an accidental shooting; the fact that a gun in the home INCREASES the likelihood of a member of that householder dying of a gun-inflicted wound; the fact that a gun-owner is more likely to be shot than a non-gun-owner, are all, to you, “spurious statistics” that you dismiss with the casual misuse of the word, thus never having to consider or acknowledge inconvenient realities. That’s not rational. It’s the intentional preservation of ignorance.

No, the problem is not just, or even primarily, a function of our gun culture; it is, more broadly, a function of extreme individualism, of the reactive rather than proactive orientation to our shared existence that you impose on us, of the social disintegration that you confuse for “liberty.” Our Founding Fathers were committed to the construction of a wise and just society; you are committed to its destruction.

The fact that you are certain that the Constitution verifies every last ideological conviction you happen to hold, and that therefore the thousands of legal and constitutional scholars over the last two hundred years who would and have argued subtle and complex points about that Constitution and how to interpret it are all wrong, are all irrelevant, because you know the one absolute truth, is the voice of ignorance, the voice of fanaticism, the voice of irrationality. You argue legal positions that are dismissed or challenged by almost all legal scholars, economic positions that are dismissed or challenged by almost all professional economists, historical positions that are dismissed or challenged by almost all professional historians, and not only commit the intellectual error of clinging to those positions as favored by reason, but insist that they are incontrovertible absolute truths. That is not the voice of reason, but rather of irrationality.

Of course you couldn’t stop engaging me, because you can’t stand to leave fact and reason disinterred and visible to all any more than I can stand to let you shovel unchallenged the dirt of your ignorance and barbarism over it once again. You have to bury the facts; you have to bury the rational arguments; you have to bury any authentic understanding of human history or economics or sociology; you have to bury any humane orientation to the world, because none of those supports your blind ideological fanaticisms.

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Few issues, few demands to balance legitimate competing concerns, better illustrate both the subtlety of the challenges we face, and the dysfunctionality of displacing careful and thorough analyses with ideological scripts. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, on Meet the Press, just repeated the familiar right-wing refrain, “why are they more worried about the terrorists rights than about the rights of innocent travelers?” Some on the left (in an echo of Tea Party Liberty Idolatry) like to repeat the refrain, “those who trade liberty for security deserve neither.” Jindal also suggested that searching grandmothers and children at airport security is unnecessary, because they’re not the terrorists. Some on the left, in one of those all-too-common inter-ideological agreements on an oversimplification, insist that such measures are not about security at all, but rather about the exercise of government control and subjugation. (Vincent Carroll echoed that sentiment as applied to what he considers the government assault on Free Speech, as illustrated by, for instance, the opposition to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which protects corporate political speech from legislative restraints: see Freedom & Coherence).

It’s all Bullshit. Really.

Jindal’s refrain about Democrats’ overzealous defense of terrorists’ rights has been repeated in various contexts throughout American history, and has repeatedly been discredited. The very foundation of our system of justice is that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The constant allusion to the presumption of guilt that vests at the moment of being suspected (it is terrorists‘ rights that are being protected, rather than people suspected of terrorism) is as un-American as it gets. It was used to justify Gitmo, which every person I know of who actually visited Gitmo and talked with detainees there recognized held many, many completely innocent people.

The fact is, that despite our procedural bias in favor of protecting the rights of the innocent, we put thousands or tens of thousands of innocent people in jail every year, and some unknown number on Death Row. Violations of civil rights, including excessive violence by police against people who have committed the most minor of infractions, is a constant and real concern. Those on the right who are implicit advocates of decreasing our vigilance against those natural social forces that tend toward a police-state are doing this country an enormous disservice. As Sinclair Lewis said, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross” (there is some debate about the attribution:

On the other hand, the notion that we don’t have to compromise any of what we consider to be the full extent of our liberties and rights to the concerns of mutual security is equally absurd (sorry, folks). The very existence of any system of law enforcement is an intrusion on personal liberty. That’s what laws are: An intrusion on personal liberty. And enforcing them is, inherently, an invasion of privacy, including, to some extent, of the innocent. The vast majority of Americans prefer the slight invasion of privacy associated with airport security  measures (at least prior to the implementation of the new, more intrusive measures) than the increased risk of violent death associated with their absence. I do, especially when my seven-year-old daughter is traveling with me.

The issue is not settled by some broad-brushstroke platitude on one side or the other, but rather by understanding: 1) the competing values; 2) the dangers of overemphasis of one or the other of those values; and 3) the cognitive and emotional biases that may play into exaggerating one or the other of those values (e.g., fear of criminal violence playing into an exaggerated predisposition to trade rights for security, or fear of government oppression playing into an exaggerated predisposition to trade security for rights). As in all matters, we are challenged to mobilize the best analyses, with all relevant information in play, and make the best decisions we can on that basis, in service to our values and to human welfare, all things considered.

Both Jindall, and some on the left who are indignant over TSA intrusiveness (in a Facebook thread on a post of the video of the little girl screaming “don’t touch me!” while being physically searched), invoke the refrain that small children and old ladies aren’t the terrorists. The fact is, that the terrorists are adaptable, and that there are those in all demographic categories who can be recruited, knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly, to carry explosives or other instruments of terrorism across airport security. Without a doubt, the TSA procedures can be better designed, and their treatment of children can be more sensitive to the particular needs involved (i.e., have TSA employees trained in working with children, using techniques that put them at ease). But those current imperfections are not some kind of major scandal. They’re just current imperfections, that we should insist upon refining.

The message is the same message that permeates all of my posts: Don’t reduce the challenges of self-governance to ideological refrains and broad-brushstroke platitudes. Avoid precipitous conclusions driven by political-emotional predispositions. Do the analysis, and recognize that we live in a complex and subtle world, that demands more of us than ideological purity and self-righteous indignation when the presumptions of that purity are violated. The challenge of self-governance is not a trivial one. Let’s stop trivializing it.

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