The Problem Of Right And Wrong

A signal feature of civilization is the eternaland eternally frustratingquest to distinguish right from wrong.  Standards of behavior have changed dramatically over time, and our search for moral clarity has led humanity in many different directions. Guidelines for a good life have come from many religions, cults, monarchs, autocrats, academics, poets, entertainers, politicians, authors, and relatively ordinary individualseach offering their own visions for organizing our governmental, social, and individual lives.  What all have in common is that they have tapped into our deeply felt human desire to embrace principles that elevate our intentions and actions above those whom we deem our enemies or inferiors.

Moreover, we have always needed those to whom we look for moral or ethical leadership to possessor at least be able to plausibly fakea purity of individual character that can inspire us to follow their example and teachings.  The truth of the matter is almost beside the point.  John F. Kennedy may have spent his adult life running around with his zipper hanging open, but he spoke well, dressed sharply, and could pilot a sailboat with his photogenic family smiling by his side.  

It obviously helped JFK that the press was happily complicit in hiding his peccadilloes from public view, but their willingness to do so was a function of their starry-eyed admiration for his easy charm.  He seemed to fit their vision of what a moral and inspiring leader should be, so they were content to engage in some willful blindness in the pursuit of what they perceived to be a greater good.  Those on the inside will always shield a personally compromised leader if they believe his or her purpose is pureand their own power and prerogatives are protected in the bargain.

Finally, it is beneficial to have the right enemies if you are to offer compelling moral leadership to the masses.  Having a great and good vision is important, but it is much easier for your followers or potential followers to offer their support if you can offer an apocalyptic alternative that will occur if your teachings are not followed.  Many centuries ago the Catholic Church was able to exercise domination over Europe because failure to obey meant Satan would arise and your immortal soul would be damned to hell fire for eternity.  Today the conviction that the Earth will spiral into unthinkable environmental catastrophe in only 12 years if draconian measures are not immediately taken to remake our daily lives and entire economic structure is driving the fervor of some for eating insects, living in yurts, and using composting toiletsthe enemy is our species and its crimes against our planet.

The obvious problem with seeking guidance and leadership in the quest for moral clarity is that heroes are not always clearly heroic and villains sometimes not overtly villainous.  It would be helpful if the enemies of humanity were legally required to live in secret lairs inside active volcanoes (evil assistant optional) or daily dress in black leather embossed with swastikas, but we have learned the hard way that truly terrible people can be superficially quite charming and engaging.  Conversely, some of the most heroic people in our history have been bland, awkward, or confrontational.  

Worse yet, it is extraordinarily difficult (if not impossible) to know for certain whether a given individual or action will in the long term serve the interests of good, evilor perhaps both.  For example, the scientists who created the atom bomb toward the end of World War II helped to end the actual combat more quickly; however, it was also the case that hundreds of thousands of people died horribly as a result and a nightmarish era of nuclear anxiety and paranoia warped world politics for many decades to come.  Were these scientists heroes, villains, or dupes?  We are still arguing the point, and the final answer eludes us to this very day.  Right and wrong are often maddeningly complex concepts with innumerable twists and turns.

Nonetheless, we are surprisingly comfortable with condemning the beliefs and actions of others with sometimes startling viciousness, and our inability to recognize the limitations inherent in our perspectives is an impediment to productive dialogue.  In addition, our predilection for rhetorical overkill and fallacious linkagesI just today read of a Presidential candidate equating being pro-life with racism and anti-Semitismrenders all involved less heroic despite their intense beliefs in the merits of their causes or ideas.

Although we have spent the past several decades insisting that our feelings are more important than hard, verifiable facts, relegating our emotions to the margins of our conversations might be the only way out of the quandary we find ourselves in today.  It would, of course, be foolish to forget that facts can be readily manipulated and twisted by those with a partisan purpose, but cool-headed inquiry based on data is less fraught with difficulties than determining who is the most angry, offended, or appalled by a given proposal or viewpoint.  

Some are now convinced that logic is an oppressive tool of patriarchy and racism (Dont believe me? Look it up!).  However, it could be reasonably argued screeching at one another until our eardrums burst is an oppressively stupid method of resolving our disagreements that leads only to unending discord and misery.  

Numbers are not hateful.  Although some would certainly disagree, your bathroom scale is not discriminating against you when you check your weight in the morning. Standardized test scores might be influenced by a familys social-economic status, but that is not a reason for discontinuing the use them as one basic measure of K-12 academic outcomes.  Our spiraling national debt has many causes, but it cannot simply be dismissed as an irrelevant annoyance when contemplating governmental programs that will cost tens of trillions of dollars.

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We Live In The “Non-Information Age”

I miss the news.

I know this seems like an odd assertion when all the data in the world is—quite literally—at our fingertips, but I sometimes find it frustrating to dig through all the noise to find a straightforward presentation of fact that has not been spun into a prediction, rumination, admonishment, speculation, warning, or outright fantasy.  One lesson that I find increasingly easy to teach my college students—sadly enough—is that biased presentation of information is a fact of life today.  Worse yet, what even is a “fact” is now often a subject of intense partisan debate.  I sometimes wonder whether putting ten people in a room today to discuss whether the sky is blue would result in a brawl worthy of the Jerry Springer Show.

Of course, the primary reason that tempers flare when any matter beyond the most mundane is discussed relates to the stakes at hand when we try to attach the terms “right” and “wrong” to behavior, beliefs, or beliefs about behavior.  To be “right” can provide workplace advantage, educational preference, and legal protection.  To be “wrong” results in both a variety of benefits being unceremoniously jerked away and a beat down on social media as an added—and unwelcome—bonus.  Not surprisingly, “news” articles and programs are the primary mechanisms for both conveying and justifying the “correct” attitudes and perspectives, which many times means what passes for news is actually a mechanism for transmitting social, cultural, and political beliefs—not factual information that a reader or viewer can use to form independent judgments of their own.

I wonder how many journalists are even aware that in the not-too-distant past editorializing was confined to the editorial page (how quaint!), and every bit of information had to be confirmed by at least two credible sources identified in the notes that were reviewed by an editor prior to publication or broadcast.  Now “news” stories are many times exercises in rumor mongering and anonymous accusations.  This has, sad to say, resulted in a crushing drop of public trust and confidence in news media, a well-documented phenomenon that perversely seems to have incentivized yet more partisanship in the mainstream media in order to hold onto those readers and viewers who enjoy having their pre-existing beliefs confirmed.  Just to add another layer of crazy to this craziness, partisan journalists on both sides now launch regular attacks on one another’s credibility and judgment, which only further shreds whatever tattered public trust they each might still retain.

Reliable, credible, and unbiased journalism is as necessary to a functioning democracy as air is to human life.  Voters need sources of information that are free from the taint of partisanship in order to make thoughtful judgments about questions of public policy and to choose elected officials to implement those policies.  Lacking this, debate quickly descends into personal attack rather that reasoned discussion.  

It has, of course, always been the case that people have disagreements that result from differences in their judgments, experiences, and values.  However, when these differences are turbocharged by “news” that presents those with opposing ideas as deluded, stupid, or simply evil, any possibility for the type of compromise that allows both sides some satisfaction and creates the public trust necessary for democracy to thrive is eliminated.

As much as I might hope we can return to yesterday’s model of staid and boring journalistic practices, I know this is not possible in a modern media environment where scandal, shock, and salaciousness is necessary to attract viewers and readers.  Therefore, I fear that we may be irrevocably trapped in a pointless and destructive cycle of anger, insult, and accusation that will further deepen the already catastrophic divides in our nation.  

Until the day arrives when we finally realize what passes for news today is many times an addictive and damaging drug in disguise that is consuming both our public discourse and personal sanity, we are going to need to be reconciled to never ending conflict that is feeding a crippling distrust of one another rather than providing the tools we need to manage and build our nation.  How long we can proceed down this path before we take to the streets to start clubbing each other is anyone’s guess—I hope this day never comes—but it is a realistic concern for a nation whose “news” often cannot distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy.

 

We Must Reject Extremism

President Trump’s State of the Union address, which had been delayed by the federal government partial shutdown, was finally presented to Congress this week.  The speech was lengthy, packed with predictable applause lines and obligatory calls for unity and swift actionand I doubt it changed a single mind in the chamber.  The sneering and snark was flying through social media from pundits, late night comedians, journalists, celebrities, and political opponents even before the speech was concluded.  The battle lines were obvious, the political gamesmanship was all too apparent, and the criticisms were predictable.

Now what?

If you took a step back, you would have to wonder what someone living outside of our nations deeply partisan bubbles would think of the vehement criticisms they heard or read after President Trumps speech.  Considering that the overall national economy is doing quite well, unemployment is at historic lows, efforts are being made to extricate American troops from deployments overseas where the original missions seem to have been accomplished, another summit with North Korea to discuss nuclear de-escalation is scheduled, trade imbalances are being addressed through tough negotiations, domestic manufacturing is booming, and more intractable national problems with healthcare costs and public education are being evaluated and discussed, it might seem a puzzle.  Although there will always be differences of opinion regarding the nature of our challenges and possible solutions, there seem many reasons to hope for a peaceful and prosperous future for our nation and its people.

But many are still filled with a frothing rage.

The explanation for this boils down to two words: immigration and abortion.  Although I strongly suspect that the vast majority of the American people occupy the high middle ground, our political leadersegged on by their most vociferous supportersseem trapped in deep and narrow valleys of extremism.

Take immigration, for example.  As has been pointed out repeatedly, the Democratic Party was until only recently perfectly content with policies that restricted entry into the U.S. and favored the swift deportation of those who entered illegally.  This was once a mainstream and moderate position that attracted support from across the political spectrum.  Speaking at a town hall in California in 2009, President Obama neatly summarized the position held by the many who elected him twice:

“…I think what we have to do is to come together and say, we’re going to strengthen our bordersand I’m going to be going to Mexico, I’m going to be working with President Calderón in Mexico to figure out how do we get control over the border that’s become more violent because of the drug trade. 

We have to combine that with cracking down on employers who are exploiting undocumented workers.  We have to make sure that there’s a verification system to find out whether somebody is legally able to work here or not.  But we have to make sure that that verification system does not discriminate just because you’ve got a Hispanic last name or your last name is Obama.

You’ve got toand then you’ve got to say to the undocumented workers, you have to say, look, you’ve broken the law; you didn’t come here the way you were supposed to.  So this is not going to be a free ride.  It’s not going to be some instant amnesty.  What’s going to happen is you are going to pay a significant fine.  You are going to learn English.

You are going toyou are going to go to the back of the line so that you don’t get ahead of somebody who was in Mexico City applying legally.  But after you’ve done these things over a certain period of time you can earn your citizenship, so that it’s notit’s not something that is guaranteed or automatic.  You’ve got to earn it.  But over time you give people an opportunity.

Now, it only works though if you do all the pieces.  I think the American people, they appreciate and believe in immigration. But they can’t have a situation where you just have half a million people pouring over the border without any kind of mechanism to control it.

Now close your eyes and imagine President Trump saying exactly the same words.

The reaction is easy to predict.  He would be immediately denounced as a xenophobic white supremacist who was planning to build an immoralwall of hatred, and this would be just the start of a crescendo of anger that would sweep the blogosphere like a tidal wave of toxic waste.  It could perhaps be argued that the exceedingly suave speaking style of President Obama was the sugar that made the medicine go down more easily, but it is also certainly true that Democratic proposals regarding immigration policy have undergone a startling and radical shift over the past ten years that has rendered any negotiation or compromise nearly impossible.

The Democratic position on abortion also seems to have been hijacked by extremists over the past decade or so.  According to The New York Times, Hillary Clinton had this to say on this matter in a landmark speech back in 2005:

“I, for one, respect those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available,” she said.

Toward the end of the same speech, she even described a possible future where “the choice guaranteed under our Constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances.”

This seems very different from today’s Democratic support for abortion on demand up toand now includingthe point of actual birth.  It would not be inaccurate to suggest that the recently passed bill in New York that codified these ideas throughout that state is crossing a dangerous and distinct line into support for infanticide in all but name onlyand it is not only in New York that these notions are becoming mainstream Democratic dogma.  

Although his comments on this topic have been eclipsed by the outrage over a deeply offensive racist photograph he featured on his personal page in his medical school yearbook, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam caused great concern with his comments concerning a third trimester abortion proposal in his own state:

[Third -trimester abortions are done with] the consent of obviously the mother, with consent of the physician, multiple physicians by the way, and its done in cases where there may be severe deformities or there may be a fetus thats not viable.  So in this particular example if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if thats what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.

Governor Northams suggestion that a baby born alive might be provided with palliative care only and be allowed to die flies in the face of both a physicians solemn oathGovernor Northam is, remarkably enough, a pediatric neurologistand the basic human decency that informs our lives.  Nazi Germany encouraged the deaths of those babies born with genetic problems or serious health issues in order to strengthen their master race.  However, having learned the horrible lesson of history that such practices inevitably lead to genocide, any suggestion of choosing which babies should be allowed to liveand which should be compelled to dieis firmly rejected by all but the most heartless and cruel among us.

However, state level efforts by some Republicans to restrict or deny abortion access during the first trimester of pregnancy are clearly wrong as well. The ugly and sad reality is that not all pregnancies are the result of loving relationships between men and women, some women may be utterly incapable of either carrying or nurturing a child, and others may be but a child themselves when a pregnancy occurs.  To, for example, force a thirteen year old girl who has been raped to give birth lacks all compassion and human understanding of the horror she has endured and simply amplifies the trauma she will be living with for the rest of her life.

Why is it that extremism has come to dominate our politics, and what does this imply for the future of moderate and sensible positions on immigration and abortion that will allow the vast number of voters who occupy the middle ground on these issues to feel that their voices are being heard and respected?  To insist that national borders serve a purpose and illegal entry should not be rewarded does not translateas so many seem now to believeinto bigotry and hatred.  To argue that late term abortions should be restrictedparticularly in light of the remarkable medical advances since Roe v. Wade in 1973 that now allow even the most premature of babies to survive and thriveis not at all equivalent to taking away the right of women to control their bodies.

Extremism in thought or action is generally marked by two signal characteristics: a tendency to hate those with differing ideas and a refusal to acknowledge the possibility of your own error.  Moderation in most matters of the heart and the mind is a sign of an individual’s ability to understand and embrace the sloppy complexities of life that often require one to abandon immature and inflexible ideological beliefs.  I hope that we will see more moderation and less extremism leading up to the 2020 elections.  We need cooperation and compromise in order to address key issuesincluding immigration and abortion.  Reducing the national fever of hate and insult that is corroding our governmental processes is essential.  We must find a moderate path that will recognize and reconcile all values and viewpointsor we will tear one another to pieces with our extremist passions.

Bombs Away?

The recent spate of mail bombs sent to prominent Democrats was abhorrent. Sadly, those who are angry—and likely isolated and delusional—can terrorize us in a variety of ways, but attempting to murder others with anonymous bombs is particularly cowardly and awful.

Thankfully, law enforcement has already identified and arrested a suspect, and one can only applaud the incredible work of the FBI and others who worked so skillfully and quickly to apprehend him. We are lucky indeed that no injuries resulted from these explosive devices, and continued investigation will discover whether others were involved with these criminal actions.

Now let us take a step back, count to ten, and watch the actions of a dangerous and disaffected looney become immediately tangential to the political blame game that will blaze through the media between now and the midterm elections—and likely far beyond.

This is the sad and divided nation that we live in today. Rather than simply be grateful that an obviously crazy individual was captured and no one was hurt, we are going to have to portion out the blame for a crazed bomber to one party or politician based upon our own blame-filled political beliefs. How fortunate we are that the period between now and the midterm elections can be packed with some extra bitterness and bile beyond that which already is poisoning our national dialogue.

For the record, it is my belief that trying to find a logical reason to explain the actions of those who are clearly mentally unstable is itself just a bit crazy. Keep in mind that President Reagan was nearly killed in 1981 by a cuckoo who believed that political assassination was the ideal way to impress a famous actress—these oddballs aren’t renowned for their logical and linear thinking. The history of political violence throughout our world’s history is basically a parade of lonely losers who were deluded enough to believe that killing a leader would somehow redeem their miserable and empty lives.

It would certainly be for the best if all our pundits and politicians could refrain from riling up their viewers and supporters in their eternal quest for ratings and votes, but this will never happen. Conflict is, perversely enough, a winning strategy; to pretend otherwise would be both foolish and naive.

Moreover, because we quite naturally revel in hearing that the viewpoints and actions of others prove our own moral and intellectual superiority, our increasingly partisan news and information systems have ready and credulous audiences. More and more hearing and reading no thoughts other than those that match our own, daily tailoring what we hear and read to match our preconceived notions about the “reality” of the world around us and those who inhabit it, creates an intellectual echo chamber that only further narrows our already narrow minds and hardens our hardened hearts.

The word bombs that destroy our tattered unity will only become worse if we do not take action. Therefore, I suggest that we consider reviving an updated version of the Fairness Doctrine, a federal policy that we heedlessly and needlessly discarded in 1987 which required news and information programs to present contrasting viewpoints regarding the issues of the day. This policy was not a perfect solution—and discussions about implementing any similar policy will crash into today’s enormously complex and interconnected digital world—but it did provide for some welcome and necessary measure of balance regarding the presentation of news and opinion.

Our nation and its citizens are poorly served by the hyper-partisanship of our media today. The very existence of, for example, a super conservative Fox News and an abundantly liberal MSNBC—both sneering at the sheer stupidity of the other side—contributes little to creating the bipartisan consensus that is necessary to govern a country as diverse as our own. Each monocular and insular side of our national dialogue is equally culpable for creating the anger and divisions within what is perhaps now ironically called The United States of America. We are anything but united at the present time, and it will be a long and difficult road back from the chasm where we now stand—suspiciously staring at one another.

For any improvements to occur, we will also need to surrender that which is so precious to so many: a smug and intellectually lazy sense of our own correctness. As hard as it might be, admitting we can be wrong is the necessary first step to national reconciliation and unity.

Opinions Will Always Vary

I have been puzzling over the stark and seemingly insurmountable political differences that divide our nation these days, and I see some cause for hope—as faint as it might sometimes seem—in the current crop of more moderate candidates running for office across our nation today. Perhaps we are finally growing weary of shouts and insults as a proxy for policy discussions.  Accusing those with different views than your own of all manner of moral and intellectual failings—in the most caustic terms possible—tends to excite the excitable, but it also forestalls any opportunity for the sometimes inelegant compromises that keep the wheels of our nation going round.

There are obvious differences between the policies of our two major political parties. The clashes between the capitalists and socialists, those who favor open borders and those who do not, and the advocates of Big Government vs. fewer rules and regulations are both never ending and necessary.  The debates between diametrically opposite points of view sparks the synthesis that provides the solutions that we need to solve our problems.

However, our focus upon surface differences often ignores the morals, values, and judgments that inform our individual opinions.  Characterizing others as either “good” or “bad” based solely on the degree to which they agree or disagree with us neatly avoids the messy and occasionally maddening business of discussing the ethical, religious, and personal values that inform our decision making on a range of matters.  This failing enables the facile insults that now are the most prominent feature of our daily political and social discourse.  The shocking ease with which we demonize those whose ideas differ from our own often seems more like the rude and immature chatter in a middle school lunchroom that a discussion between reasonable adults.

Although we are often far from agreement on many issues, perhaps we also sometimes fail to understand how our differing priorities both divide us—and also have the potential to bring us together.  Think of a great many hot-button topics, and you will find the debate typically falls along familiar lines: Liberals will focus more on “rights”, and conservatives will be more preoccupied with “responsibilities”.

However, rights and responsibilities are simply two sides of the same coin because every right comes with an equal responsibility to use that right wisely and reasonably.  When we recognize this fact, we can better attempt to search for common ground regarding a variety of issues—and hopefully engage in a dialogue that will lead to less rage and more actual discussion.  Whether we are talking about issues as varied as law enforcement, housing, immigration, healthcare, education, military spending, or pension security, we can possibly have more polite and productive conversations that can lead to policy proposals that will solve problems rather than prompt yet more discord—if we remember the linkages between our rights and responsibilities.

There is also one further connection between rights and responsibilities than warrants our attention.  We have the right to disagree with others because our own values, priorities, and judgments lead us to different conclusions; however, we also have a responsibility to respect opinions and ideas that are different from our own.  We may believe what we do with all our heart and soul, but there is a very good chance that someone believes otherwise.  Their opposing ideas are not a signal that they are evil or deluded—or a ready target for our anger.  We are instead face to face with an immutable fact of life: Opinions will always vary.

We are welcome to advocate and attempt to swing others to our viewpoint through reasoned discussion and debate if both parties agree to engage, but we must resist the human urge to heedlessly denigrate—or ruthlessly attack.  We live in a big nation within a far larger world, and sometimes we are going to need to live by rules that conflict with our own because we assume certain responsibilities as members of a broader society.  We have the right to dissent, to support political candidates whose ideas align with our own—or even run for office ourselves.  However, we must always be keenly away of our responsibilities to others—and be aware that there is no “right” to be selfish, self-centered, or sneering.  This might be a tremendous disappointment to those who enjoy attacking others, but perhaps these are precisely the sort of individuals who are deserving of far less of our support and attention in the future.