A friend of mine recently posted a prayer from Billy Graham that says America is sinning by rewarding laziness and calling it welfare. (If you’re nodding, please see my post on Meritocracy.) I think we’re fucking up by rewarding intellectual laziness and calling it faith or wisdom or family values or whatever else you’re selling.
My discussions with Christians on sex lately, along with reading Pam’s House Blend on ex-gay issues, on Feministing’s recommendation, have made me realize how much of the religious right’s arguments on social issues are founded on baseless generalizations and assumptions. Put aside for the moment the fact that they and I differ in our definitions of morality. Forget that I don’t believe in their God. Even if everything were peachy on those fronts, they would still have the huge problem that their arguments are ridiculous.
Whenever you make a claim that “all x are y” or “no x are y”, you are making a very strong claim. Not strong as in it can weather any storm, strong as in it claims a lot and is therefore very easy to disprove, if it can be disproved. All you need is one x that isn’t y, in the first case, or that is y, in the second case. It doesn’t matter if a million zillion x’s are y, as long as one isn’t, or vice versa. These people don’t understand that. Or, they understand that but think that they know every x in the world. Or, they realize they don’t know every x in the world, but they don’t want to get into little details like the fact that someone they don’t know could easily disprove them, because they want to think they’re right.
A lot of their arguments are of the form “X is wrong therefore no one should do it. If someone does it, they’re on their own, I don’t care if they suffer. Nor do I care if they suffer by not being allowed to do it, since it’s wrong.” A lot of their opponents’ arguments are of the form “If you don’t approve of X, don’t do it. But let other people do it, and since some people probably will, allow them to do it without having to suffer unnecessarily.” In these cases, X could be abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, premarital sex (with the legislation having to do with birth control, plan B, abortion, sex education, AIDS, HPV vaccine, pregnancy care, and probably more), probably marijuana, the laws against buying alcohol on Sundays in some states, and probably other stuff that I’m not thinking of right now.
It is the nature of these arguments to create an asymmetrical situation. In order to illegalize X for everyone, it must be shown that X is ALWAYS wrong. In order to illegalize NOT doing X for everyone, it would be necessary to show that not doing X is ALWAYS wrong, which would mean that X is NEVER wrong and ALWAYS right. But no one supports that stance. The stance they do support is the one that says we should legalize both doing X AND not doing X, so that each person has a choice. This does not require showing that X is always wrong, or never wrong, or any such strong claim. All it requires is showing that X is wrong in at least one case and right in at least one case, which is much easier. (Alternatively, it could be shown simply that whether or not X is right or wrong, it will not affect anyone besides the person who decides to do it or not do it, and therefore it should be up to them to condemn their own soul or save it, or what have you. Or that whether or not X is right or wrong, illegalizing X will have worse effects than letting some people do X. Or that whether or not X is right or wrong is a matter of opinion based on religion and the opinions of one religion should not be put in the law over the opinions of other religions that are also practiced, and allowed even if not currently practiced, in that jurisdiction.)
This makes arguing a lot harder on the conservatives than on the liberals. That’s tough. But it’s no excuse to either abandon argumentation and just hold signs of fake aborted fetuses, or to argue from axioms that could be factual (like I said, we’re putting the moral and religious differences aside), but that you just pulled out of your ass because it seems right to you. That’s not ok when my professor does it (here’s her story, paraphrased: So this other professor asked me for some articles on my teaching methods, since he knew I had tenure, and I showed him some, and he asked me where the data was, because I had never done experiments to back up my opinions. ::headdesk::), and it’s not ok when ex-gay preachers do it, or when my well-meaning friends do it, or anyone else. The fact that you don’t know anyone who ___ DOES NOT MEAN PEOPLE LIKE THAT DON’T EXIST. I’m sure you have lots of friends and all, but no. The fact that this feels right to you doesn’t mean everyone feels like you. You’re just not the center of the universe, and people vary widely, and you’re not the expert on human nature. So sorry.
So how should conservatives argue? They have to acknowledge (in these cases) that they can never positively prove their claim. So they would have to rely on the inability of their opponents to clearly disprove their claim. If their opponents did clearly disprove their claim, they would either have to find a flaw in their opponents’ argument, or admit defeat. They could then move onto another aspect of the argument – arguments like abortion have several levels and angles. But you can’t keep claiming that everyone suffers after having premarital sex if you find one person who doesn’t (and you accept that the person really didn’t). You could switch to a probabilistic claim, “most people suffer after premarital sex”, which would make you harder to prove wrong, but it would also make your argument “and therefore the effects of premarital sex should not be provided for” more difficult to support, because of the asymmetry I mentioned above. If people can go either way, the law should allow for them to go either way rather than work for most people and just suck for some people.
Oh, and one more thing: If I can have an entire argument with you on an issue without ever needing to explain to you why I take the stance I do on that issue, something is gravely wrong with your argument. Go edit for logical errors and relevance and get back to me. (I wish I was bitchy enough to say that to people in real life.)
Now that I think about it, there’s another asymmetrical situation between the right and the left when the issue of the separation of church and state comes up. People who want the lawbooks to read like Bibles (I shudder at the thought, knowing what the Bible actually says), we’ll call them theocrats, are pro-Christianity in the law. People who believe in the separation of church and state are anti-religion in the law. They’re not pro-Islam/Judaism/Shinto/Wicca in the law. They’re not even pro-atheism in the law, as much as the theocrats would like us to think that. I feel confident in saying that because I don’t think silence has a single meaning all the time. That’s why we need to make people realize that when they’re fooling around with someone and the someone doesn’t say anything about a sex act, their silence might very well mean no, and to be safe, it should be taken to mean no until further notice (hint: ask). That’s why some Australian aboriginal kids were misunderstood (well, that and racism) in a trial I read about in a linguistics class, because their silence meant something different than what the white jurors thought it meant. If our money and our pledge of allegiance and our alcohol-related laws and our marriage laws and our abortion laws and our family planning funding laws and our preferences for politicians and our official speeches were silent on the issue of religion, that would not necessarily mean they were anti-religion. When someone gives a speech without ever mentioning God, do you assume they’re an atheist? Don’t lots of Christians do lots of things without having to mention that they’re Christian? As long as there are no laws penalizing people for practicing religions (insofar as that practice does not interfere with anyone ELSE’S right to practice or not practice their religion, or with other human rights) or making it more difficult to practice their religion (no, I don’t think not being able to slip in a shoutout to God during the pledge counts as an obstacle to practice), then the separation of church and state need not be anti-religion or pro-atheism. So the assymetry lies in how one side is fighting on one level – Christianity as opposed to Islam, Judaism, atheism, agnosticism, and other religion-related belief systems – while the other side is fighting on a different level – separation from as opposed to bias towards or dependence on ANY religion-related belief system. I think it’s very telling that the theocrats try to make people believe the separationists are pro-atheism rather than simply pro-separation, as that would bring the separationists down to their level of picking a religious bias (besides the obvious reason the theocrats do that, which is to make Christians feel persecuted and rally them to their own little-needed defense, as if Christians were going to be burnt at the stake if the law didn’t prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sunday; remember, people prefer to think of themselves as on the defense than as on the offense).