If I’m so wrong and you’re so right

5 09 2011

is this all about convincing other people to share our intuitions and if people don’t share such faith (religious or otherwise) convictions on what possible basis would they be convinced by anything we say that builds on them? Is there no obligation to try and have some researched basis for our public opinions?—dmf

No easy questions, eh, d?

I don’t know that there’s any one, good, way to deal both with clashing ontologies and the question of the quality of the opinion. Habermas attempts to do so, as do Guttmann and Thompson and deliberative theorists generally—attempts which tend toward the suppression of fundamental conflicts and an optimism regarding shared language. Focus on a respectful process and practical goals, G&T advise, and use reasons which can make sense across any epistemological or ontological divides. Aim for consensus rather than winning, or rather, see consensus as winning. The point is not just to solve problems, but to deepen democratic discourse generally.

I am, unsurprisingly, skeptical of the deliberative approach, of the willingness of different sides to agree to a shared approach, and of the desire for mutually-agreed-upon outcomes over a clear win. That said, I think it can work in specific instances, especially those in which participants really do want to solve a problem and where some version of splitting the difference (as in, allocation of funds) is possible.

It does not work on matters where an underlying principle is so closely related to the position that any disagreement on the principle makes impossible any agreement on outcome. The exemplar of this kind of conflict is that over abortion: female autonomy runs up against fetal personhood, such that the right to choose cancels the right to life, and vice versa. There is no splitting this difference, at least as it is currently configured; there are only winners and losers.

These sorts of polarized debates (which can arise for any number of reasons, including hyped-up partisanship) make it very difficult both for us to find a shared language (fetus/baby; undocumented immigrant/illegal alien; etc.) and to agree upon any standards of debate. If I am convinced I am right I won’t agree to any standards which might allow you to win the argument, and will dispute your starting point, reason, evidence, and conclusion.

The abortion debate, however frustrating and exhausting it may be, may nonetheless remain within the confines of democratic debate. We may not be able to resolve the conflict, but in the main (not, necessarily, on the margins), it can at least be contained by such debate.

That’s not always the case.

Consider the political debate over global warming. Most scientists agree that the planet is warming and that human activity has contributed to increased temperatures. If I think global warming is scam designed by extremist leftist-environmental types, I’m not going to listen to anything you have to offer which might prove me wrong. I’ll bring up the so-called climate-gate and take issue with any inexactness of your evidence, and will offer my own scientists and state that the reason they’re not published in scholarly journals is bias, plain and simple.

I am energized by fierce political argument, but this shit is disturbing. This isn’t simply about two sides disagreeing about the evidence, this is one side outright rejecting the relevance of evidence: it can’t be so it must not be. And if we can’t stand on the same ground on an issue for which there is clearly only one place to stand, then how the hell are we going to have any kind of conversation or debate about what to do about that issue?

In other words, what should be a good and vigorous political debate about what to do in response to a phenomenon (anthropocentric global warming) has been made impossible by one side of that debate declaring, in effect, that its politics don’t allow it to see the preponderance of evidence for that phenomenon. In short, the political commitments of one side has forced it to rule out the existence of the phenomenon itself.

There is no way to deal with this kind of reality-shifting except to defeat it. By any means necessary.

There are other kinds of less dire political debate wherein some notion of reason and evidence is accepted by the various participants. There may be scuffling over evidence or even the sources of evidence but not over the need for evidence itself. In these cases, your question of obligation for a researched basis is mooted insofar as it is beneficial for the participants to have done their homework ahead of time.

In other words, the best way to get people to meet an obligation to inform themselves before offering an opinion is both to reward such information and punish its lack.

Dealing with reality-shifters, I’m afraid, is largely a negative affair. You have to beat them (metaphorically, of course!) into submission, allowing them no quarter in any debates. You’ll never win them over, but you might be able to win nonetheless by so discrediting them to any larger audience. You trample over the shifters to speak directly to the audience, and smack ’em back down whenever they pop up with an objection. You rely, as ever, on reason and evidence, and offer zero respect for arguments which rely on neither.

However much such a strategy may be in service to a democratic politics, it is not democratic itself; it is, instead, brute, and brutal, politics. It is a ground war, one fought to establish whether the elements necessary to democracy will be encouraged to flourish, or not.

There will always be disagreements over the grounds, the standards, and the desired outcomes of debates; a democratic politics takes for granted the disagreement over desires, accommodates those over standards, but may shatter if it becomes too preoccupied with the grounds.

Whatever other commitments its citizens make, whether some have one foot nestled in heaven and some, dangling over the abyss, the other must be planted on common ground.