A Sketch of a New Kind of Political Website (Part II)

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

“How big-hearted can democracy be? How many people can it actually include and sustain itself? That is the question I’m asking over and over.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates

Nietzsche is often thought of as the angry guy who liked to go after things: God, Christianity, blockheaded utilitarians, melonheaded Kantians. He wrote in order to teach one “How to Philosophize with a Hammer,” as he subtitled his book Twilight of the Idols. Yet — and this is where we should prick our ears because it runs a bit counter to what’s normally thought — in the intro of that book he explains that it’s not just enough to philosophize with a hammer but also, he notes, to do so with a tuning fork.

A tuning fork doesn’t try to harm what it strikes but rather help it to express itself more musically. The upshot: alongside “critical thinking” one must develop the capacity for plain ol’ regular thinking, what we might even call uncritical or naïve thinking. Critique, subvert, deconstruct, unpack the other side’s argument as you will but only if you also allow things first to express themselves as best as they can. Cultivate the ability not just to produce antitheses but at the same time genuine theses, as the Fitzgerald quotation at the top of this challenges one to. (And, again, we hold such quotations above ourselves as aspirations, not pats on the back).

Broad-mindedness is important even for one (like Nietzsche) who at the end of the day has strong preferences and positions. To see why let’s wander for a moment into the field of science. How does one scientific theory triumph over a competing one? What causes a “paradigm shift” from one understanding of the physical world to another? Contrary to what was argued by Thomas Kuhn in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, one paradigm trumps another not simply because it can account for anomalies that the other one can’t; the new paradigm on top of that allows us to understand the previous paradigm itself better, to understand why that paradigm was unable to account for the anomalies. “The criterion of a successful theory is that it enables us to understand its predecessors in a newly intelligible way,” explains Alisdair MacIntrye in “Crises, Narrative and Science.” To put a more concrete example in front of us, Copernicus’ discovery of heliocentricity helped explain not only the fact that the earth wasn’t in the center of the universe but also helped us see why we indeed thought so long that it was.

To translate this back to the political arena, a more sophisticated understanding of an issue will allow one not only to understand what a better course of action ought to be but also why a debate arose in the first place, why some people might reach such different conclusions about the issue. So, if you really want to win a political debate you need not only to be able to demonstrate why your approach will be the right remedy for a particular problem but you must also be able to understand why another argument is inadequate. And in order to do this you have to become intimately familiar with it. The best conservatives need to be better versed in Marx and Derrida than liberals are, the best liberals more intimate with Burke and Hayek. If you’re right you will be able to explain their position in a way that causes them to realize why they are wrong, but first you need to be able to state to them their position in a way that they would agree is correct. If they can’t agree with the presentation of their own positions that you’re giving them, then there’s no way you’ll be able to lead them ultimately to the correct solution.

Finally, one must also be prepared to entertain the possibility that our political debates — perhaps in contrast to scientific ones — are tragic (if we want to be pretension we’d add “in the Hegelian sense,” meaning that they represent a clash not between a good or correct interpretation and an evil or incorrect interpretation but between two “equally justified” — but mutually exclusive — ones). What shall we do if that’s the case? Even if a synthesis of the two goods is impossible, we can still excavate the ground in which both positions are situated in order to explain why such a divergence has come about, and we can still articulate what problems each approach addresses and what the consequences of adopting each would be. It may be that you and I are living on different argumentative continents, but perhaps we can reconstruct the Pangaea from whence we once both came.

Last post I complained about why is it that you never have the best conservative ideas and the best liberal ideas actually confront each other directly in a simple and easy-to-find place online and suggested there ought to exist a site devoted to encouraging such a confrontation. Again, such an exercise is worthwhile not so we can pat ourselves on the back for being ecumenical but because we suspect that only if the other side is as formidable as possible can we be as good as possible. It is depth, not impartiality that we are after. This post will continue that lament and will attempt to put some of these ideas about discussion into practice by thinking through an actual debate from relatively recently: the debate in the U.S. over same-sex marriage. If you’re conservative, can you recapitulate the best argument in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage? If you’re a liberal person, can you come up with the best one against? If you don’t, where would you think to look? Googling “Best arguments for and against same-sex marriage” is sadly but predictably unhelpful because it delivers the most search-engine-optimized, not the best opinions.

In what follows I’ll try to sketch out a bit about what seems the main points of both sides, but note that this is only an attempt but by no means a presumption to have wrestled together the best arguments, so feel free to correct/refute/amend/etc if something important is missing or incorrect. (also, I’m going for simplicity — why I’ll explain other time — so will necessarily leave out some things I think are less essential).

Now, the debate over same-sex marriage is not much of a live debate currently due to the Supreme Court’s ruling last summer in Obergefell vs. Hodges, and statistics suggest that the vast majority of millennials support the legalization of same-sex marriage. But a reason I pick this debate to start out with is exactly because there’s not really a debate about it, to many it seems self-evident. An Onion headline reads: “Supreme Court on Gay Marriage: ‘Sure, Who Cares,” the gag of which is that all of the justices repeat variations of “Why are we even seriously discussing this?” Most liberals don’t think there’s much of anything to learn from the conservative position, eliding the fact that it is a position once held by every nominee in the party’s history, including Obama and Hillary (oh, also Bernard Sanders and Tim Kaine). It could be the case that it’s the debates that are so seemingly one-sided in which there’s the most to be learned; if one “wins” too easily, one might never be pushed to rid oneself of crummy arguments. For example: again The Onion, when it’s trying to be serious, lists “Bestowing dignity upon a wrongfully oppressed minority [is] just a nice thing to do,” as its #1 argument for supporting the legalization of same-sex marriage. But such an argument ought to take Americans of all stripes aback because it seems to imply that the government is in charge of granting dignity (and therefore should feel good about getting to play the role of hero) in the face of the fact that LGBTQ individuals possess dignity no matter what a government may declare about them. On the other side of things, it seems many conservatives (more specifically, social conservatives) continue to misunderstand why they lost the debate over same-sex marriage, generally preferring to blame “the homosexual agenda” and the process by which the social change happened (Supreme Court) rather than by admitting any weaknesses in their own approaches to the argument.

So, hopefully walking through the arguments on both sides will allow one to emerge with a more complete understand of both sides. Since statistically speaking you’re more likely to be familiar with the case for same-sex marriages, let’s start with the one opposed:

It seems there are 2 decent approaches to arguing against same-sex marriage. The first a simple religious one: The God who created the universe told me homosexual relationships aren’t okay and who am I to say “no” to that? If accepting the marriages of same-sex couples means disobeying the creator, I can’t help but not be able to support it. That’s pretty simple. It’d only then be left to me buttress that commitment with an argument as to why it should be codified in the law that governs those who might not share the same theological commitments. There are a number of ways to do this that we won’t get into right now.

The second argument is this: marriage equality means an equal right to marriage. In order to know what that right entails, we obviously need to know what marriage is, and it is plainly not the same thing as mere love as many seem to assume. Reason tells us (how is a longer story than we’ll get in to here) that by definition a marriage means something that exists between a man and a woman. Therefore, just as, for example, there’s no right for a man to be pregnant, similarly, since marriage is an act that entails certain things a gay couple simply isn’t able to participate in (namely: procreation), a gay couple cannot be married. (Note that it is nature, not the government blocking one from this right). This line of thinking doesn’t violate equality because it’s simply treating unlike relationships differently. Added to this would be the assertion that, once mere logistical provisions like wills, hospital visits, etc… were normalized, there would nothing to keep LGBTQ individuals from living long fulfilling lives together — it’s only that such a life together needn’t be placed under the government-sanctioned rubric of “marriage.”

A liberal person trying to make a case for same-sex marriage, therefore, will not have succeeded in being thorough unless they attempt to articulate:

1) How, if same-sex marriage would become the law of the land, a religious person with the above objection could be allowed to continue holding that belief

2) A definition of marriage that covers same-sex couples but also justifies why marriage ought to be something the government is concerned about in the first place. A pro-same-sex-marriage advocate will also not have succeeded in this if they don’t also explain why it has been the case that societies have held marriage to be between a man and a woman previously. To write the opinion off simply as bigotry is only to beg the question. Similarly, to simply declare “marriage is a social construct” without trying to excavate the reasons societies constructed it so is to have failed to do a thorough job.

If liberals don’t spend enough time considering their image of marriage against the backdrop of past societies’ intimations of it, then conservatives make a similar but opposite error of trying to decouple the issue of same-sex marriage from the larger history of our country’s treatment of citizens who aren’t cis-gender and heterosexual. For example, the authors of What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, perhaps the ur-text on this issue for social conservatives, maintain that the debate “is not about homosexuality but about marriage.” But the motivations behind the push for same-sex marriage legalization are only fully intelligible when considered in the context of the history of LGBTQ individuals in our country. And in learning about that narrative, a liberal on this issue would contend, one would be forced to conclude that there is and has been something that has kept LGBTQ individuals from fulfilling lives: hate crimes, anti-sodomy laws, employment discrimination, and so forth. A conservative who cannot construct a narrative as to why same-sex couples would seek the right to marry that takes this into account hasn’t yet done his or her job. Yet What is Marriage, for example, makes barely a mention of this history, only citing at one point “humiliation by bullies” as a possible obstacle some youth face before zooming out to pronounce “Whatever keeps some people from legally recognized relationships — under whatever marriage policy — we should fight arbitrary or abusive treatment of them with the same force and diligence with which we would oppose unjust distinctions by race or sex“ and elsewhere states “people left dry by isolation of any kind we should graft onto other forms of community.” This rhetorical move is an equivalent of responding with “All Lives Matter;” saying that you of course oppose any injustice prevents you from paying sufficient attention to the pathology of a particular kind of injustice and excuses you of responsibility for working to rectify it (the authors’ use of modal verbs like “could” and “should” are also telling). Because many conservatives don’t take it upon themselves to face the history of discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in our country, they don’t directly address whether there may be a causal connection between such discrimination and the traditional definition of marriage. Of course, as many have pointed out, theoretically there need not be a causal connection between a man-woman definition of marriage and discrimination against those who engage in homosexual behavior. This was the case in Ancient Greece, as we know. But that example only shows to remind us that their history isn’t our history, and while they may have succeeded in it, we have until now failed.

So any conservative that doesn’t mention the statistics about discrimination or put forward an earnest proposal for how LGBTQ individuals are to be relieved of the disproportionate discrimination they face shouldn’t be surprised if their arguments don’t fall on open ears. On the other hand, liberals aren’t going to find much room to persuade many conservative opponents of gay marriage is they aren’t proactive about deliberately carving out space for those who have non-negotiable religious dissuasions against homosexuality. On a more theoretical level, liberals aren’t pushing themselves hard enough if they don’t ask themselves “what is marriage?” and opponents of gay marriage aren’t if they don’t consider theological questions like “why would a good and just God create people whose practice doesn’t according with its teachings?”

If these arguments were summarized more simply and neatly and correctly on one nice clean graphic, the hope would be to persuade the average liberal reader that one not need be a bigot to oppose the legalization of same sex marriage, that “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged,” which, incidentally, comes not from homophobia apologists but rather from the majority opinion in the Obergefell decision. Conservatives, if they believe it, must be allowed and should continue to hold up the “conjugal” view of marriage as an ideal — in fact this may even be easier now because there’s something to oppose it to. However, their faith-based opposition to homosexuality must be made to be politically neutralized. To illustrate what we mean by this, consider: Christianity in almost any form entails a rejection of Judaism, and yet we don’t by default consider a Christian anti-Semitic (unless their behavior leads to direct harm, their disagreements take forms that are disproportionate or show one to be using double standards toward Jews, and so forth). So it should be with opposition to same-sex marriage and homophobia.

The idea behind such a website would be to make everyone have to confront these questions to prevent each side from erasing important parts of the other’s argument so that, no matter who wins, some important insight from the other side will be acknowledged (the history of anti-gay discrimination, for example, or the reasons behind the traditional view of marriage). The ultimate goal would be for the debate to seem less like a debate than a mutual endeavor, the aim of which would be to think how, in the vein of Coates’s question posed at the top, we can cultivate together a society that can contain within itself an array of people living liveable lives and still be able to sustain itself.

So, can we imagine a situation in which, on one hand, LGBTQ Americans are able to flourish without the impediments of violence and discrimination, without feeling like second-class citizens, and on the other hand where those who are unable to support homosexuality are still inscribed within its circle of decency? Recent evidence suggests that this can be achieved, and that this issue may prove to be less intractable than many others we face.

Regarding some disagreements, unfortunately, the answer might be “no.” It might be that American democracy isn’t pliable enough to accommodate certain viewpoints. Every expression of a human being is authentic by virtue of it being expressed by a human being and therefore we must turn our tunings forks to each in order to try to understand them, even if some seem worlds apart from our own worldviews. But it is likely the case that some entities and opinions (the ready-made example is ISIS) will fall outside of what we can imagine cohering in our country. How exactly do we draw this line? We’ll take up this question soon.

Thanks for reading and if you care to let me know your thoughts/ideas/improvements/suggestions/etc.