April 17, 2009

Making allowances for human nature

Posted in Public discourse tagged , , , , at 8:28 pm by M L Clark

What better way to spend Easter than reading the Bible — am I right?

It’s not the most likely thing for an atheist to say, but I’ve been mulling over the application of Bible verse to contemporary beliefs: in particular, as they pertain to Evangelical stances on issues like climate change. As a friend sagely reminded me, all religious culture comes first — then canon is interpreted to fit it. This is why so many Bible verses might be accepted in one generation, and ignored in the next: Other aspects of human culture change, and with those changes, our engagement with the original texts is also transformed. (One need look no further than the treatment of slavery in the Old Testament to recognize that Abrahamic faiths pick and choose which “hills” they’ll defend in public practice; there are other, social factors that play in to the application of faith.)

And yet, alongside reading the Old Testament, this past weekend I picked up a CBC Massey Lecture series installment — five short lectures from the 1980s by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, known best for literature with strong political and feminist leanings. This volume of hers, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside, tackles a most curious social juxtaposition: the fact that we are, as a civilization, more aware than any generation before us of overarching trends, tendencies, and themes in human nature — and yet just as unable as individuals to apply this knowledge to our everyday lives. Lessing herself was drawn up in a Communist party as a young woman; this was in direct response to the egregious abuses of power enacted in her childhood nation, apartheid-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), but as Lessing develops in her lectures, there was just as much propaganda and groupthink necessarily at work among her chosen group as among the corrupt society those Communists were striking out against.

From such personal experiences and relevant academic experiments, Lessing develops the argument that all groups have this propensity towards thinking themselves in the right, and all dissenters as in the wrong; and that this righteousness furthermore flies in the face of the temporary nature of all human resolution. However, argues Lessing, if we were only to make ourselves more aware of the transience of our beliefs — and more willing, too, to accept as human nature the inclination to various trains of thought (polemic argument, for one; and with it an “us vs them” mentality) we might be able to maintain more critical thought even as time entrenches us in one camp, or one label, above all else. We might even be able to make a greater difference in the world: Lessing writes at one point about how the broad condemnation of war will never suffice to eradicate its existence if we don’t acknowledge and accept that some people do, and always will, actively enjoy the exercise of war itself. These more complex analyses are harder, yes, but likely more useful in effecting real-world change, and so at the very least merit an attempt.

But to return to the Bible: Lessing notes that religious and political beliefs share a common propensity towards absolutism and fanaticism — an observation we are all too often loathe to make, though the acceptance of this similarity might help us learn to better converse with those whose viewpoints differ from our own. The depressing truth is that most people are so long trained in empty rhetoric, and so short on the experience and tools needed to engage in formal debate, and most of all so comfortable in their own righteous certitude as to see no reason to second-guess their way of thinking, that even getting everyone to engage in open dialogue is a pipe dream in and of itself.

And yet, let’s say it could be done. What would that look like? How would it be achieved?

These are the questions I was asking myself while poring through the Old Testament this Easter, because I’m still holding out hope that some measure of formal debate might be attained if we in the media are willing to engage believers on their “home turf.” The problem is, is that home turf the religious texts themselves, or the empty rhetoric that often passes for argument in public spheres? (I’m referring here to the singing of songs in response to critical inquiry, the rattling off of catch-phrases, and all in all the extreme use of circular and straw man fallacies to avoid scholastic scrutiny of the verses themselves.)

In the case of climate change, my starting point was simple: Is there any reason Christian Evangelicalism can’t be united with theories of climate change? For many years now, a culture of vehement denial has been maintained in these communities, but why? Does climate change necessarily threaten the precepts of Christian belief? Is it necessarily a challenge to the faith of so many Americans?

From what I’ve been able to discern, there are a few places — some obvious, some less so — where the existence of climate change seems, at least on the surface, to be a threat. The most obvious is a sense of entitlement: Many believe their god gave them this land, and all that exists upon it, to do with as they would. This permits a rather regal lifestyle upon the earth — one in which the fruit of one’s labour may be applied to whatever one deems fit. If climate change has a human origin, and with it comes the cry for the curtailing of excess, this would to many seem a direct challenge to that entitlement. Worse still, it threatens a sense of hierarchy on the planet: God, then man, then the beasts of the earth, then everything else. If the preservation of one species suddenly trumps man’s full enjoyment of god’s gifts, how can that not be considered a threat?

This is where Bible-reading comes in: I wondered if that entitlement were as textually concrete as many Evangelicals make it out to be. True, in the Genesis story the world is created with man its crowning achievement… but that’s Eden. And humankind gets kicked out of it. Much of the New Testament ennobles man’s place at the top of the planetary food chain, but there’s really nothing to suggest that man should feel entitled, after the Fall, to a world as stable and nurturing as Eden. And, after all, Christian nihilists (those who see no intrinsic good in humanity, or this life, without the presence of a god) already regard this world as bleak and secondary — so why can’t the instability of the environment, and human responsibility for the quality of the land they live on, be reconciled with Evangelical thought?

I suspect the answer lies in a deeper threat felt by Evangelicals: namely, that climate change — and with it, the threat to the stability of human life on Earth — has grave consequences for proponents of intelligent design. Evolution presents elements of the world, and all who dwell within it, as “just good enough” — with first successful drafts, as opposed to perfect creatures, being the product of evolution. But intelligent design is argued from a position of precision and perfection, with the human eye especially (bewilderingly, too, for it has many weaknesses and blind spots) used to argue for the “impossible complexity” of the world we live in. From this standpoint, it’s easy to see where climate change can be threatening: If humankind could so easily tip the balance so as to make the world inhospitable, so much for that perfect construction!

And yet, here too, it’s so easy to spin the message so as to fit Evangelical parameters: God gave us a world built so that its fate is determined by human action. Gay marriage = hurricanes, floods, and stabbing death on Greyhound busses (okay, that last is a little extreme). Gluttony and greed = deforestation, unchecked industrialization, and climate change. Causal, not just correlative, relationships are the lifeblood of much religious thought: in a sphere of argumentation that already permits leaps of faith to fill in where empiricism fails, there is no intrinsic reason for Evangelical belief to side against the existence of climate change.

So where does this leave the matter of critical discourse? Well, if it were possible to foster open dialogue about such issues, the aforementioned route seems the likeliest to succeed. But more importantly, I think it has to succeed: in the last week alone we’ve seen much in world news highlighting the need to address intersections between religion and human rights, but still the topic remains taboo. Why? Is it really impossible to talk about the differences between religion and culture, group and individual, or contextual and universal rights without brewing a maelstrom of polemics, empty rhetoric, and broad accusations of various -isms and -phobias from the general public?

Lessing would argue that it is impossible to avoid these manifestations of human nature — but that even then, it is still possible, with an awareness of past behaviours and social constants, to react to these inclinations in a way that counteracts what would otherwise have us forever defining ourselves, and others, in uncompromising blacks and whites.

I really hope she’s right.

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March 14, 2009

Why Aren’t We Standing Up To Ad Hominem Attacks?

Posted in Public discourse tagged , , , , at 11:42 am by M L Clark

In the wake of the Jon Stewart / Jim Cramer controversy, which I feel was not so much overly hyped as, in its polemic framework, erroneously hyped, a striking point remains unmade: Where was the condemnation of mainstream ad hominem attacks?

Specifically, Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe, by launching a heated attack on Stewart on his show, provides a good example of the kind of argument held by Stewart’s critics all throughout the week of this controversy: Many called him on being a comedian, and condemn him for having critical opinions in this capacity about the statements of others.

People have responded to this condemnation, yes. They have done so by arguing Stewart isn’t just a comedian, noting his strong history of media criticism and notable appeals to journalistic ethics. Not one person in the mainstream media has said, however, “Even if he were just a comedian, would that make his criticism any less valid?”

And that’s a problem. It’s a problem because while many fallacies are very difficult to police (being of the subtler variety), ad hominem attacks are pretty straightforward. Moreover, the ad hominem fallacy in this case is an attack on freedom of speech (in the U.S.) and freedom of expression (in Canada), because by its very nature it implies some people’s arguments are less valid simply because of who is making them, and yet it’s made by people in positions of power — people who, as members of the media, should be empowering everyone to hold them accountable for failure.

So while Scarborough was attacking Stewart for daring to make a critique of CNBC while simultaneously being an entertainer, he (and others like him, in print as well as on TV) was also encouraging the unquestioned use of this fallacy. And that’s dangerous, because Scarborough has privileged access to both the airwaves (which gives him access to millions) and, from his association with notable news organization, a measure of legitimacy (which gives him an edge over pundit bloggers). He is part of a system which sets a standard for casual, daily discourse in North America — and he, like many of the people in these roles — is failing to promote fair, reasoned, empowering conversation in this realm.

The ways in which print, TV, and online articles have used this fallacy are often indirect: Headlines reading “the clown won” after the Stewart/Cramer conversation on The Daily Show are as damaging to the cause of coherent, empowering media discourse as any direct, unchecked statement of “What right does a comedian have to criticize?” could ever be.

And that’s where things get confusing: Why on earth are these statements going unchecked? Where is the dominant culture of critical analysis that curtails, both institutionally and on a case-by-case basis, statements that feed into this “dis-empowerment” of individual viewers?

There was a time when we had few on-air personalities: now we have an excess of them, and the depressing catch-22 is that if the bulk of these personalities don’t regularly remind their viewers about formal argumentative structures, fair comment, and journalistic ethics (which they don’t), said viewers will come to view the kind of argument that exists instead as the right one — fallacies and all. And why should these on-air personalities do otherwise? They were hired because their companies know that entertainment sells, but don’t grasp why Jon Stewart is so successful providing both entertainment and analysis; so these companies treat their forms of entertainment with all the gravitas of serious journalism, even when they’re not. And if a comedian — someone who readily acknowledges that he’s doing entertainment, but maintains a core sense of journalistic right and wrong distinct from his role as entertainer — calls them on it? Well, they’ve got ample public access where they can condemn him for speaking in the first place, instead of addressing his comments, to their hearts’ content. And no one will call them on it, because they’re the ones setting the discourse in the first place, and the discourse they’ve set is of refusing the legitimacy of a comment on the basis of the person who makes it.

… Except that there are people who do ostensibly toil for the protection of U.S. citizens in relation to media abuses. The FCC is vigilant about calling out “public indecency” as it (or rather, the loudest of the interest groups that pressures the FCC) perceives these instances to be. And so we see justice meted out swiftly when a woman’s nipple is shown on national prime-time television, or a children’s cartoon has a character with two moms, or an expletive is used in the wrong time-slot. In all these ways, the general public is kept safe from the excesses of media.

But the unchecked use of fallacies that, by implication, strip an awareness of power from viewers by pushing the essence of American discourse away from what was said, to who said it, and encouraging others to do the same? These are let stand.

I’m not saying the FCC should fine people for unsatiric use of ad hominem fallacy. I’m just saying, Christ, wouldn’t it be great if someone in a position of media authority at least condemned it?