13 August 2007

Snark, Tolerance and Ambivalence

A reader comments on my previous post (fairly, civilly and raising good points):

Ok, I read the synopsis of the Book of Genesis and I understand the point the writer was trying to make.

Mr. Oh-Willeke, it is time for a brief discussion of tolerance if you will indulge me.

I have been reading your blogs for the past few months and I appreciate your impassioned pleas for tolerance in America. I agree we need more tolerance. At the same time I read your blogs with titles such as "Another Reason to Hate Texas". I read you belittle anyone who lives below the Mason-Dixon line, anyone who holds God and country dear, anyone one who has ever voted Republican, anyone who has not achieved the level of education you have because of their inability to understand "complex" issues and anyone who has ever lived in Grand Junction Colorado.

Mr. Oh-Willeke, you probably think I am some kind of red-neck because I am a working-class guy living on the other side of the river from Wash Park who is, politically, a bit to the right of you. I love Texans and Vermonters, people of faith and atheists, gays and straights, republicans and democrats and the people of Grand Junction. I am proud to live in America with all her diversity. My only intolerance is towards those, by their misconduct, who have committed serious crimes and have shown disrespect for law and order. I guess that comes from having three burglaries at my home, three attempted burglaries, being assaulted (with battery) in my backyard plus numerous vandalisms. But I digress.

My point is I am tolerant of 85 to 90% of the people of this country and based on your blogs I would set your tolerance level to 5 to 10% percent of Americans.

Mr. Oh-Willeke, can we give up on red state/ blue state America and endeavor to create a purple America where all people can work together to arrive at real solutions to our nation's problems?

Thank you for your time,

Rick Taylor

My immediate response was:

Thank you for you empassioned and civil comment, which deserves a front page post response, which I will post. You make good and fair points.

The issue Mr. Taylor raises deserve quite a bit of analysis, response and explanation.

This blog is frequently raw. It comes with the genre. The rawness is more snark than serious. But, beneath it, is a far deeper issue. As I noted two posts ago, in Against Nihilism, I do not believe that "a 'true morality' does not exist, and secular ethics are impossible; therefore, life has no truth, and no action can be preferable to any other."

I believe, that many of the public policies of Texas are not just different, but are "wrong" in some more absolute sense, in much the same way that a much larger swath of people believe that the public policies of the Confederate States of America(and its predecessor slave states within the United States) and the post-reconstruction Jim Crow policies that followed were wrong. I believe that many policies of the Republican party are just plain wrong headed, and that many of their leaders are corrupt. I believe that belief in God is, at best, the wrong reason for doing the right thing, and at worse, a justification that trumps law and common sense for doing the wrong thing (religion comes in many flavors). I believe that blind patriotism, while often harmless, can be a dangerous thing and warrants suspicion. While I don't believe that education or extraordinary intelligence is necessary to understand "complex issues", I do believe that information is often necessary and that many bad policy decisions are driven by a lack of that information; and I believe that many people lack relevant information because they actively resist it. I think that Grand Junction is on the whole a healthy small community (and I enjoyed my time there) but that it is a poor place to raise children if you want them to be ready to function at their best in the wider world (particularly if they are multiracial).

I am no friend to crime or criminals, but recognize that people commit them for reasons that make their crimes more understandable than people are often comfortable admitting.

Of course, I don't really hate anybody (well, maybe one or two or three individual people, and certainly not you or anyone you know). Still, I don't actually hate Texas, I actually rather like Grand Junction, and I am myself born in the Georgia where I lived in my younger years.

The deeper question is how to balance my deep movement politics desire to change hearts and minds by illustrating how deeply wrong some of the alternatives are, with civility and tolerance.

Tolerance, by the way, is not the same as acceptance and welcoming. It means leaving others alone in matters that are their province, not embracing or condoning their way of life. It means maintaining civility and basic respect for someone, as a person, while trying to change their views. I'm sure I cross that line from time to time, and even when it is snark, it can be grating to those on the receiving end. On the other hand, humor and outrageous incidents often make good conversation starters for getting at more common and serious issues. Some posts, like my last one, are more in the nature of editorial cartoons than serious reasoned argument, because emotional buy in is often as relevant as rational buy in.

The core of civility, in my mind, is trying to stick to "fair" criticism. Normally, this means ad hominem arguments are out, although hypocrisy can make them relevant. Generally, this means that I try not to raise objections about policies that I don't genuinely believe are the real problems, even if the real problems are less "sexy."

While my instinct is to myself work on low profile constructive change (for example, technical fixes in private civil law), i.e., the "purple America" consensus choices, I don't think that this is an approach that is sufficient to bring positive change to this country. We need change that a lot of red state America is instinctively averse too. Most of the decisive positive changes in American policy history have come from one party being right and securing large majorities by implementing those policies on a partisan basis, not through broad consensus building. Social security, for example, may be a a consensus program now -- indeed, it is the third rail of American politics -- but, partisan politics got it into place.

Also, it is worth noting that while my views are generally in the middle of the American left (although I have probably more bipartisan readership than most left wing political blogs, in part because of my science, health and military coverage), that in the international political world, I am quite centrist. By international standards, the American right, both religiously and politically, is extreme.

Texas, for example, is a frequent subject of notice on this blog, in part, because it, by itself, is the source of a large share of all non-Chinese executions in the world, and is the leading source of executions in the developed world. Similarly, the American South is the only place in the developed Christian world where there is widespread belief in Creationism.

The balance between tolerance and civility on one hand, and active evangelization for a secular humanist worldview which is more morally sound and empirically based than many opposing views, isn't easy. I stumble, and it is fair to call me on it. But, open mindedness doesn't mean being so open that your brain falls out, and I'm not going to depart from pointing out the failures of the "red state" approach to governing and living.

One of the most cogent criticisms of the "mainstream media" has been its nihilist tendency to treat all opinions as equal, when often, there is one person's view, another person's view, and the facts, which often clearly lean towards one view or another. All opinions are not equal in merit, and people people deserve tolerance, opinions and policies that flawed, do not.


Anonymous said...

The point to me is that it is *your* blog. You can choose to be snarky, serious, condemnatory, or tolerant. That's more or less what blogging is all about. I didn't finish the Genesis link because it was repetitive and boring (and besides, I know how weird that book is--I've read it many times). I no longer believe that a "purple" America is possible.

rtaylor1802 said...

Mr. Oh-Willeke,

Thank you for taking time to have this discussion. I think it was Voltaire who said, "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it."

I could argue a couple of points in your response, but this is your blogsite and I am a guest in your "house." Perhaps I will have my own blogsite one day when I can go on rants against left-wing dogma locally and right-wing dogma on the state and national level for the cause of "purple America."

Thanks again for your hospitality and best wishes!

Rick Taylor