03 February 2006

Mutually Assured Disdain

It's time that those of us of all persuasions who give a (choose favorite scatalogical or insulting term) about the quality of debate in this country start smacking around those on our own respective sides of the fence who won't distinguish between "unconstitutional"/"immoral" and "I think it's a dumb idea." It's similar to the rhetorical danger of "mutually assured destruction": When one compares every argument to the nuclear option, every disagreement begins to look like a prelude to nuclear war. I'm a big fan of the kind of restraint descending from de Groot (usually Latinized as "Grotius") and the theory of proportional response; but then, unlike 99%+ of all law professors, lawyers, pundits, what have you, I've actually worked around a nuclear battle plan and "special weapons" before, and I've actually had to think about the implications of that.

As a specific example, consider the stem cell debate. The Perfesser has properly invoked "immoral" on that subject from his perspective. I don't agree with it; that doesn't mean that, in turn, I should accuse him of being immoral/improperly trying to impose his morality upon everyone/advocating unconstitutional means unless I actually spot him doing so (which I haven't). Similarly, that I disagree that "life begins at conception" shouldn't mean that he should routinely accuse me of being a baby-killer because I think some highly restrained research from rigorously obtained specimens is appropriate, and indeed morally required. By doing so, we would both lose the opportunity to learn from the other. That's not the same thing as the old saw "losing the opportunity to convince the other guy"; there is virtually nothing I can imagine that would convince me that life begins at conception, and I suspect the converse is also true. However, that doesn't mean we can't both learn; the Perfesser might concede that harvesting from the "inevitably nonviable" is a good idea, while I might concede that routine harvesting is a bad idea—if only due to the potential for insult and abuse.

In a more abstract sense, the concerted refusal to debate (instead of destroy) just echoes Lucifer's self-fulfilling prophecies before the Fall in Paradise Lost—and everyone who engages in that practice steps into Lucifer's shoes (if, that is, angels wore shoes), no matter what side they are on in a given dispute and no matter how "moral" or "correct" their initial position. Sometimes one has little choice but to go to war; that is not, however, true of every disagreement.