Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Either Argument Or Violence

Nathan Beacom at The Federalist makes the case that our polity faces two alternatives: Either we can resolve our political disputes through reasoned argument or we can settle them by violence. The latter alternative is the preferred option of totalitarians and utopians who rely on force to impose their will on the populace.

On the contrary, the "Open Society," to borrow the title of a famous book by philosopher Karl Popper, favors the use of argument, but, Beacom cautions, if Americans lose the virtues that make an open society possible, they will soon find themselves under the boot of a tyrant.

There are a number of virtues which characterize discourse in an open and free society, perhaps the chief of which, according to Beacom, is humility:
Humility teaches that we, just like our neighbors, are prone to error, mistakes in argument, and ignorance. Humility is a disposition to recognize that reasoning towards the truth is a difficult process fraught with potential dangers and confusions.

This is actually a perquisite to real argument, for argument is not a matter of beating an opponent, but of working with a partner to come to an agreement about the truth of things. It is clear that the virtue of humility allows us to recognize that we need of others to balance us, challenge us, and fill the gaps in our knowledge. This is how America’s founding figures generally understood the principle of tolerance.

The failure to develop this virtue is an invitation to violence. Indeed, the corresponding vice of dialectical pride is what lies at the heart of a tyrannical ideology. The ideologue is so certain of her rightness that disagreement can only seem to be the result of an evil will, rather than a mere difference of opinion held in good faith. Evil is not to be reasoned with, but mocked and destroyed, so the opponent is not to be reasoned with, but forced into line.
I would add that a second virtue is a willingness to refrain from criticizing the "other side" for behavior one excuses in one's own side, especially when the behavior of one's own side is much worse than that of the opposition.

If, for example, I were to criticize a candidate of the opposing party for his lack of political experience, but enthusiastically support candidates in my own party who have even less experience, then not only do I forfeit the right to be taken seriously, I shut down communication with those in the other party. I lose credibility and no matter how good my arguments may be, few people will be inclined to listen to them.

I think we witnessed this almost daily in the last election wherein Trump and Clinton partisans each heatedly accused the other candidate of offenses for which their own candidate was just as guilty, but whose guilt was overlooked or explained away. The result was that the nation is probably more alienated today than it's been for the last fifty years.

Beacom continues:
The many ways in which the discussions of our own day fail in this fundamental virtue of argumentation indicates a dangerous seed of violence. Calling names, imputing bad motives, mockery, and the anger and emotivism that characterizes many of our public arguments are a failure of humility and fellow-feeling. Those who lack this virtue in conversation also, when in power, commit violence against their opponents.

It is unclear whether social media has accelerated the atrophy of these virtues or merely made it more apparent, but inasmuch as the discussions we see on Twitter and Facebook are typified by precisely the vicious tendencies we seek to avoid, we have reason to be a bit concerned.

Today we see the growing prevalence of radical movements in politics. On the Right there is a pull towards populism, nationalism, and even fascist tendencies. On the Left there is a growing draw towards Marxism and related radical programs. These ideologies are both distinguished by a rejection of the fundamental dialectical virtues.
When people give up on argument, when neither side is willing to listen to the other, first we just stop talking to each other and then we resort to power - of the judiciary, or worse, of the military - to impose our will on the other. Then comes death by strangulation of the open society.

There's more in Beacom's essay. Check it out at the link.