April 16, 2014

Illiteracy - The Impossibility of Debate

In addition to my work as a professional, I have taught a number of classes at a local community college. My students in those classes range from just graduated high school all the way up to 40+ second-careerists. I also have a wide variety of friends on Facebook, from many walks of political life.

I have had a number of debates in classes and on Facebook, and seen others conducted online, especially revolving around the gay marriage debates, abortion, and other hot-button issues currently roaming around the countryside. In observing all of these, I have come to several conclusions.

The one which concerns me here is: the majority of people with strong opinions about these subjects are illiterate - in the sense that they have not read or discussed their reading enough to understand basic rhetorical devices, such as analogy.

Let me explain, if you're still here.

A typical example in the debate is a question of status versus action. Typically, thoughtful Christians distinguish between status ("homosexuality") and action ("homosexual acts"). In other words, Christians find nothing sinful in being homosexual - the problem is in the homosexual sexual actions (which Christians find are sinful, as are non-marital heterosexual acts, etc). When this distinction is rejected, one basis being that homosexuals feel deeply that the inclinations are inborn and natural, Christians attempt to analogize, such as by retorting that some people feel deeply attracted to young girls,  but that attraction should not permit those people to act upon that inclination. 

The response to such an analogy is usually swift, furious, and illiterate. Rather than taking the analogy as a broad comparison attempting to question the validity of a direct link between a desire always being natural and the related act being "good", the opponent invariably launches a statement to the effect of "so, you're saying that homosexuals are as bad as child molesters", or "you're saying that having consensual same-sex relations is the same as raping a child".

Charitably, I assume that such responses are borne of illiteracy - the inability to understand a limited analogy in argument. Less charitably, I often wonder whether such vehement response is a deliberate misconstruction of the statement, where the interlocutor is perfectly aware of the analogy, but is using shame or embarrassment in attempt to shut down the discussion.

Reflection - April 16, 2014: Deneen, Smith, and the Founding

I often find myself thoughtful at the outset of the day, before my mind is "distracted and diffused", to borrow from Simon & Garfunkel. This is especially true if I have had a chance to peruse some of the more thoughtful blog posts from the various sites to which I subscribe. Therefore, I have decided to spend 10 - 15 minutes in the morning to set a few thoughts out for consideration - for those who might read, to stimulate my own thoughts and dialogue with others, and to get them out of my head and onto "paper".

This morning brings a review of a recent book by Stephen D. Smith, entitled "The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom." In his review, Luis Silva reveals that Smith argues that the American Founding was:
[N]ot a product of the Enlightenment born out of radical distrust for religion, as is widely believed. Rather, the American Constitution expresses continuity with a tradition that originated nearly 2,000 years ago when Christ said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” In Smith’s words, “American religious freedom was not so much a repudiation of and departure from the Christian past as a retrieval and consolidation of that past.
The appearance of this book (and review) comes at a...timely time...in my opinion. Recently, we have seen Patrick Deneen argue (placing himself in the latter school, below) in the pages of the American Conservative that:
For those in the Murray/Neuhaus/Weigel school, it’s simply a matter of returning us to the better days, and reviving the sound basis on which the nation was founded. For those in the MacIntyre/Schindler school, America was never well-founded, so either needs to be differently re-founded or at least endured, even survived. 
In a different post, bringing replies from bloggers Micah Mattix and Stephen Herreid, Deneen reveals his belief that:
I hope Hobby Lobby wins its case. But we should not deceive ourselves for a minute that what we are seeing is the contestation between a religious corporation and a secular State. We are seeing, rather, the culminating absurdity of what Polanyi called the “utopia” of our modern economic disembedding—the absurdity of a chain store representing the voice of religion in the defense of life amid an economy and polity that values turning people and nature into things.
For those more unfamiliar, Deneen contends (contra, apparently, writers like Smith) that modern liberalism, such as we find at the Founding, has a set of ideological commitments embedded within it that must turn it hostile to religious belief - commitments to be found in the basic ideas of the Enlightenment as espoused by figures such as Locke. Smith, I suspect, argues that there were turns made in American political action that destroyed the Founding belief in a religious separation of Church and State, thus turning commitments to religious equality and freedom to overt hostility to religion.

While I suspect there are truths to be found in both camps, and the practice of the history of ideas fraught with the difficulties of delving into individual and group motivation, the discussion is rather fascinating.