Winds of Change.NET: Why does Brian Leiter Want to Kill Poor People?

Gentlemen & Politics:

The Armed Liberal over at Winds Of Change takes on "progressive" rudeness. It is done in response to this post celebrating harsh rudeness as, I gather, an effective means to persuade people. Mr. Leiter argues that one should slap down points of view that are -- well, he would say that they are uninformed and not worth taking seriously. By controlling what game is welcome on the playing field, then, you can have only arguments that support your basic worldview: you can argue about the proper expression of liberalism, but not about whether liberalism has the right answers to the underlying questions (or whether conservatism does, since either side can attempt this technique).

The only rules for discourse at Grim's Hall are that you must be kind to your neighbors, though you are free to disassemble their ideas if you can; and you must be willing to stand and fight for what you assert, rather than being hit-and-run spammers who won't engage with the other readers. I think that system works very well. I don't know how many of you have had your minds changed here about many things -- but I suspect that the influence of a polite debate among free men and women is stronger than Mr. Leiter believes it to be.

I think A.L. raises a very proper objection, by pointing out that the "easy questions" Mr. Leiter proposes are in fact very difficult questions.

One of them -- whether Bush's economic policies are good for "most" people -- I've written about, arguing the other side. Presumably Mr. Leiter would not care to discuss the opposite viewpoint, which is fine; I have no interest in talking to people who are going to be rude to me, or to my commenters. Still, there is a fully developed alternative understanding of the question, one that is based in real-world experience and deeply moving to many people. A political strain that flatly refuses to even consider it is going to do badly in a democracy, which underlines Armed Liberal's point about the problems Leiter et al have in politics.

That is to say that those Liberals among you who read Grim's Hall are better equipped for the political arena than the liberals who read Leiter, even if you're not persuaded at all. It's hard to persuade someone when you've never stopped to consider what they already believe to be true. Any persuasive argument has to start from the ground that the other person currently holds. You have to know where that ground is in order to figure out how to move them to the ground where you want them to be.

That is to say: you can't move a rock without pushing it, and you can't push against it if you don't really know where it is. Even if you actually are 100% correct, you can't persuade people you won't listen to.

Consider Doc Russia's post today, in which he proposes a compromise between Left and Right on judicial nominations: essentially, that we agree to set aside abortion entirely, not considering one way or the other what a nominee's opinions might be, and focus instead on the problem of Kelo. Here, he notes correctly, Left and Right have a common agreement about what we want from a judge, even if there is some difference in how we get to that position. We could, therefore, search for someone on whom we'd agree, rather than simply getting ready to fight over anyone who was nominated.

(An aside: The difference in methods may not be quite as great as Doc suggests. I think most of you would locate me on the Right, but my objection is as much about injustice and political corruption as it is about property rights. I adhere to the defense of property rights because it is so powerful a means to the end of protecting individual liberty, and restraining the powerful from injustice. I think the position on the Right doesn't stop with, "Well, because he owns it," but continues on to add, "and being able to be secure in your property is how good folk can build and defend the dreams they really care about -- home, hearth, family -- without being pushed around by the high and mighty.")

Still, Doc takes the time to understand the Left's position, to consider how it might braid with his own, and offers a compromise that would allow us to move forward smoothly in what is likely to be a difficult and nasty political dispute. That's exactly the kind of thinking that has worked in American politics through the centuries, and it's a fitting expression on Independence Day weekend.

That's not to say it always works -- frankly, I think it's doubtful that either side will let abortion go, and indeed I'm certain that there are many on each side who think it's far more important than any other issue at stake. But I think Doc is right to try to look for a way forward. Old Doc likes to call himself "Grunt" in his posts, and I've heard him say of himself that he's 'really just a thug.' But there's more wisdom in that thug than in some professors, and there's an end on it.

UPDATE: Ok, not quite the end. There's another thing. I appreciate intelligent prose as much as the next fellow, and my favorite writers -- Sir Walter Scott, for example -- can turn a phrase with anyone. But you ought to try to be clear about what you're saying, if only so you yourself realize when you're sounding like a crank. Leiter quotes a fellow who wrote to agree on the importance of shutting down debate:

I teach a 'comparative world religions' course, and chills run up and down my spine when we come to Christianity and must discuss such things as apocalyptic eschatology and substitutionary atonement, knowing what power such doctrines and ideas have held over the masses then and now, here and elsewhere. Reading your blog reminds me that not everyone has gone mad, that not everyone has succumbed to the 'pathology of normalcy' Erich Fromm diagnosed as lacking a disposition toward truth, in his words: 'the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.'
"Substitutionary atonement" means, in this case, "believing that Jesus could die to release mankind of sin." "Pathology" is "the study of disease and its causes."

The author of this piece might have chosen to write, "I teach a 'comparative world religions course,' and chills run up and down my spine when we come to Christianity. Many of my students are sick, because they believe that Jesus died for their sins. Thank goodness not everyone has gone mad, although millions of people share this mental disease." This phrasing is better, if only because it clearly prompts a question: Given that diseases require a cure, just what are you suggesting here?

The answer to that question is frightening enough that it cannot be spoken directly. That is the real reason for the use of jargon words like "substitutionary atonement" -- to provide a barrier between words and actions. The author says he is one of the few who have "a disposition towards truth," but in fact, he is afraid even of the truth of his own thoughts. He dares not phrase them plainly, so they might be understood, so they might require action.

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