Suspicion: Are You a Racist? Or Do You Just Hate America?

Because those seem to be our only two options.

I did not watch the Republican National Convention (except for Clint Eastwood’s Bob Newhart-style skit) but I would have had to be deaf to not overhear leftist pundits talking about racist overtones embedded in seemingly innocent words Republicans use, like “Chicago”, “chair”, “work” or “golf”. It seems that the 30 or 40 percent of Americans who define themselves as conservatives are really part of a vast Nazi conspiracy with its own code language.  I wonder if they have a secret handshake like the Masons. (And if Chris Matthews says he hears dog whistles everywhere, doesn’t that make him a dog?)

It is not as if right wing blowhards are much better: there has already been too much talk about liberal politicians fundamentally misunderstanding America, disliking America, hating America or even intentionally trying to destroy America. I grant that some liberal politicians come across as tiresome scolds, but I always thought the tone was more one of wounded affection, not hate.

Those of us who try to resist being brainwashed by either side complain about the rise demonization and incivility, but I think these are symptoms of a deeper problem.

What defines our political discourse is Suspicion. We cannot believe that people who disagree with us can be intelligent or well intentioned, they must be stupid or evil. It is easy to dismiss rank and file members of the opposition as stupid, but since some of the leaders of the other side are capable of making pretty speeches they can’t be stupid; they must be evil.

But why do we find it so impossible to even hear what the other person is saying without questioning their intentions? It is because while our arguments use the same words in the same English language, we give them different definitions, have different points of departure, and use different rules of logic.

Here is an inflammatory example:

  • Since a fetus is substantially the same throughout its spectrum of development (conception, in-utero development, birth and maturation) it enjoys the same basic rights throughout, of which the most basic is the right to life.
  • Since a woman is an autonomous being who must define her own life for herself, expecting her to carry to term an unwanted fetus is an intolerable infringement upon her rights. Since a fetus is incapable of defining a life for itself, it has no rights independently of its mother.

Both arguments use the same kind of words, but give them different meanings. The first argument has its roots in the thought of Aristotle, and sees an inherent meaning in things like “life” or “being” from which “rights” can be deduced. The second argument is rooted in late 19th and early 20th century thinkers like Sartre, who saw things like “life”, “being” and “rights” as having no real meaning in themselves, but were opportunities for mature human beings to create meaning. (And please, just because one philosophy is old and the other not so old does not have any bearing on their validity. Fads come and go but if Aristotle is still read it is because he is still convincing on some issues.)

But the people having the argument generally don’t realize that they are speaking a different language. So they begin to shout, get shrill and suspicious, and eventually give up the argument all together. You are stuck being either a baby murderer or a woman hater. Attempts at resolving the problem, like this one, are pretty much useless:

  • Since arguments about the meaning of life are beyond the scope of human reason, the rational state has no business regulating them. Therefore the state grants the option of abortion to some, and the option to complain about abortion to others, and orders everyone to get along.

But who says the meaning of life is beyond the scope of human reason? Not the people arguing above. What possible function can “reason” have if not to discover “meaning”? How can the state safeguard our rights if the state does not have the rational capacity to know what they may be? The idea that the meaning of life is unknowable is a product of 18th century German philosophers like Kant. Who is to say that Kant is more likely to be right than Aristotle or Sartre?

In a day or two I’ll follow up with some more thought on suspicion and its effects on us.



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