Wednesday, September 22, 2010


We used to at least try. The failure to repeal DADT is yet another instance of untrying, which currently seems to be the norm, when not outright aggressive bigotry that makes no attempt to conceal the untrying. The untrying is not just a moral failure of fairness, justice, equality, and basic human decency. Neither is it simply a failure of legislators to honor the constitutional principle of equal protection. It's yet another failure of public reason.

I recently taught a graduate course in policy and ethics that included a few mid-career students from the Defense Department. Contrary to common perception, these folks are usually rather thoughtful and diverse in their beliefs. Yet, one of these students decided to write his term paper on "homosexuals in the military," wanting to argue that gays in the military is a bad idea. Term papers, of course, have to consider counterarguments and so on in order to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each. This includes assessing the reasons supporting one's own argument or view, which in the course of writing the paper often ends up having to be heavily refined or completely reconsidered in light of strong counterarguments.

At the final class meeting a few days before papers were due this particular student asked, "My conclusion in the paper is that gays shouldn't be able to serve in the military. But what if I find that the arguments against my position are a lot stronger than my own argument?" I asked, "so, you're asking how to defend a view that you don't have good reasons for holding?"

Yes, that's what he wanted to do. And that's where we stand. Public figures don't wish to address journalists because they can't adequately defend the positions they hold. Senators knock down the proposed DADT repeal not because there are good reasons to do so - or even politically prudential reasons - but because it seems politically risky. Public mobs protest against what is essentially in their imaginations, their own ignorant and bigoted view of people unlike themselves.

I constantly hear variations on the theme of "It's just my opinion," where this statement is supposed to finish an argument between differing views. It's supposed to indicate (to the speaker) a kind of magnanimous tolerance for other views (and "that's just your opinion") and even the intellectual modesty that one's view might be wrong. But it doesn't actually do this because the assertion essentially says that either I have reasons you can't understand or I don't care whether you understand or I don't have good reasons at all, but in any case don't wish to or can't think about it further or elaborate.

In essence, it's not an expression of tolerance, but an expression of potential bigotry because the flip side is that I have no interest in understanding you any further either. And if I make some wild claim about you, it doesn't much matter whether it's refutable or not because "it's just my opinion" and you ought to respect that. This is how people can be overtly anti-Muslim bigots yet be offended at accusations of bigotry directed at them.

This subjectivist statement of "opinion," setting aside the fundamental philosophical problems of subjectivism, is at root simply a descriptive truism - we have different views. It is an expression of avoidance of the actual hard work of trying to figure out what is indeed better or worse, right or wrong, true or false, valid or invalid, etc.

A lot of the time it really doesn't matter much (is vanilla or chocolate the tastier ice cream? Will the mail arrive at 2pm or 2:05pm?). But when it comes to ethical decisions or policy decisions the hard work is essential. We're not doing it, but somehow remain self-satisfied at the same time. We're all Sarah Palin now.

1 comment:

MT said...

When more discursive people urge or defend an exception to a beloved principle, usually it's by appeal to pragmatism, isn't it? "It's just my opinion" could be the remark of a cynical pragmatist as well as the posturing of a lazy ideologue.