Ruthless Ideology and the End of Debate

Some days ago, Josh Barro of the New York Times tweeted the following message: “Anti-LGBT attitudes are terrible for people in all sorts of communities. They linger and oppress, and we need to stamp them out, ruthlessly.”

It’s quite a statement for a public figure to make—for anyone to make—but especially one supposedly devoted to high-level journalism and policy. In a moment of “graciousness,” he clarified that he isn’t calling for anyone’s death, just that “we should make anti-LGBT views shameful like segregation. Not saying we should off people.”

Ryan T. Anderson, co-author of What is Marriage? and a noted exponent of traditional marriage engaged Barro, also via Twitter. At one point, Barro claims that Anderson’s views are simply unacceptable, the sort, apparently, needing to be ruthlessly stamped out, asking “why would you expect me to be civil toward you? You devote your life to promoting anti-gay public policies.” To this Anderson replies, quite civilly, “I think even in the midst of disagreement we should treat all people with respect. Apparently you don’t. sad.”

If you’ve ever been part of a conversation fraught with such tension, perhaps at a Thanksgiving dinner with relatives (or I’ve heard it can happen there), you know there’s a point where you have to decide to tone it back, turn the cheek, agree to disagree, or at least confine yourself to argument and debate rather than name-calling or flat-out meanness. Barro didn’t take that approach, instead doubling-down on his sentiment, asserting that “we should treat all people with respect? obviously not,” and that everyone thinks so, for there are some views, like segregation, which “obviously … render people unworthy of respect.”

 

To this Anderson—who is, in Barro’s judgment, obviously the bigoted one—responds: “people are always worthy of respect, even if their policy views are misguided. Nothing renders ‘people unworthy of respect’ wow.”

Perhaps the various commentary on the episode is unnecessary, making mountains of molehills. Social media is notorious for prompting incivility, and the 140 character limit of Twitter is not conducive to all the nuances and subtleties that intelligence demands.

Still, Anderson (and also Ross Douthat) are able to at least refer to more substantial argumentation present elsewhere, and Anderson quite obviously expresses a commitment and desire for moral seriousness and mutual respect, so it’s not impossible to disagree reasonably even in the staccato bursts of tweets.

And Barro doesn’t go gently, rejecting any notion of “magnanimity” in the dispute over “gay rights.” Apparently this was not merely a moment of ill-temper or incautious speech so much as an existential commitment to delegitimizing dissent and vilifying any who think differently, no matter how serious, calm, or sustained their arguments or willingness to dialogue. Those people? “we need to stamp them out, ruthlessly.”

Years ago, the political theorist Eric Voegelin wrote a prescient little essay, “On Debate and Existence,” explaining why it is that some interlocutors could not reach agreement, “or even an honest disagreement” about issues:

Rational argument could not prevail because the partner to the discussion did not accept as binding for himself the matrix of reality in which all specific questions concerning our existence as human beings are ultimately rooted; he has overlaid the reality of existence with another mode … called the Second Reality. The argument could not achieve results, it had to falter and peter out, as it became increasingly clear that not argument was pitched against argument, but that behind the appearance of a rational debate there lurked the difference of two modes of existence, of existence in truth and existence in untruth.

At several points in the Barro/Anderson discussion, Anderson asks for his argument to be considered—“Please read my book, the one Justice Alito cited twice. Or read my brief. we may disagree, but no need to be uncivil,” even referring to natural law, the “2,500 year old tradition of thinking that runs through Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, Kant MLK.” Barro is having none of it: “why would you expect me to be civil toward you?” When Anderson attempts to clarify that he’s really for marriage equality, but that the debate is about the definition of marriage, the rejoinder is ad hominem, with Barro opining that he’s “for equal rights and you’re [Anderson] for policies that disfavor gays and lesbians,” and that he won’t be taken in by “doublespeak” or refinements of argument, however robust the tradition.

This isn’t really a debate, in other words. While Anderson rather calmly, despite the invective thrown his way, makes his arguments, appeals to other sources, indicates a long chain of reasoning developed over the centuries, Barro simply claims moral superiority, discounting every counter-argument as just more tiresome evidence of Anderson’s ignorance. One gets the sense that Barro interprets every attempt to make an argument against him as proof that the other side is benighted and wicked, as if reasonability renders a position illegitimate. Worse: that to offer reasons in favor of such an obviously oppressive position renders the person illegitimate, not just the position. To argue, then, is to be proven wrong by the mere fact of making the argument.

According to Voegelin, such breakdowns of reason are relatively recent phenomena, the product of ideological thinking which emerged after roughly 1500 AD. Prior to ideology, debate occurred in an assumption that there was a truth about the good, and that we were beholden to it, even guarding the truth against error. In fact, that’s what debate was all about, guarding truth against error, even your own. To argue was to accept, and cherish, deep springs of truth at the center of reality, but for the ideologue reason was an instrument of power, a Promethean revolt against reality, and reason served our will. No longer would we seek to understand reality, but we would go to war against it, using all our cunning to bend and shape it to our fancy.

For the ideologue, the humility of a thinker attempting to live in the deep truth of existence is an affront, and they were not so much to be disputed within the great nexus of reality but destroyed. Stamped out. No wonder, then, that ideologues were behind so much of the great moral horrors of political violence of the twentieth century, for they used a boot rather than a syllogism to convince.

We see such ideology all around us. In the (usually) mindless retort that the adherents of tradition are “haters,” for there is no need to answer haters, they should just be silenced. In the (always) thoughtless claim to be on the “right side of history,” as if some historical process or Absolute Spirit simply marched with inexorable force on the side of “right thinking people.”

There is no such historical force. It is pure ideology to think so. And the notion of “right thinking people” begs the very question at issue, simply asserting a moral ultimacy that is not at all obvious. And no one is a hater merely because they disagree, although some do hate, and that’s a scandal.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Throughout his pontificate, John Paul II repeatedly analyzed the implications of severing freedom from truth, noting that when freedom was understood to be the sole source of value we would lose not only truth, but also intelligence. Even, in the end, true freedom itself. And he recognized that those who expressed allegiance to truth and the careful work of intelligence needed to understand it would be viewed as obscurantist and spiteful. In Evangelium Vitae he states, in the context of anti-life proponents,

Nor can it be denied that the mass media are often implicated in this conspiracy, by lending credit to that culture which presents recourse to contraception, sterilization, abortion and even euthanasia as a mark of progress and a victory of freedom, while depicting as enemies of freedom and progress those positions which are unreservedly pro-life.

Perhaps Josh Barro represents this, I don’t know. I do know that we shouldn’t be shocked if ideologues disparage debate. Our first task is always fidelity, including fidelity to the demands of reason, and so we must calmly argue on, not giving in to either despair or anger. And another task remains, always, which is to be the messengers of God’s grace.

Voegelin, however much I admire his analysis, left little room for grace in his explanation of the failure of debate. We can’t do that. There’s always grace, and thus there’s always graciousness, and to that we are called, always.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Charlie Chaplin as “The Great Dictator” (1940).

R. J. Snell

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R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

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