One of the things that we often see — and often engage in ourselves, if we’re being honest — in political and religious arguments is the assumption that any disagreement over tactics is really due to a disagreement over goals. If we think an idea we oppose will lead to some negative result, we often presume that the person advocating that idea must intend the result, thus presuming evil or immoral intent rather than a mere disagreement over how best to achieve a goal or how to balance competing values.
Sometimes, of course, that assumption will turn out to be correct. Some people really don’t share our values and goals and their arguments against a policy we favor really are the result of a desire to thwart the attainment of that goal. But sometimes it’s going to be flat wrong and we need to be careful about making such an assumption without clear evidence to support such a conclusion. Let me give my own example.
I am a staunch opponent of “hate speech” codes on college campuses. I think they’re unconstitutional and a bad idea on pragmatic grounds as well. I have argued that the ACLU, which at least tacitly opposes such codes and has challenged them in court a few times, should devote serious resources to a project to bring them to an end, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has done (without nearly as much funding or clout).
I’ve written thousands of words in opposition to laws that criminalize hate speech in the name of human rights in Canada and many European countries, against laws that forbid Holocaust denial and so forth. I’ve criticized Canada, for example, over what happened to Stephen Boissoin, a pastor who published an anti-gay letter in a newspaper and spent years having to defend himself in a series of tribunals and court cases (he was finally exonerated, but it took years of time, money and difficulty to reach that point, for nothing more than expressing his opinion).
It would be easy for someone to assume that my opposition to such laws is rooted in some indifference to the plight of gay people or other minorities. Anyone who knows me or has read my writings at all over the last 9+ years would know that’s obviously not true, of course. I am a passionate advocate of LGBT rights and have actively worked in favor of it for two decades. Much the same is true of equal rights for other minorities that have long suffered discrimination.
But I’ve still had people who disagree with me on whether there should be hate speech laws declare that I must be indifferent or insensitive, particularly to the plight of the LGBT community. Because it’s a lot easier to just declare someone to be morally deficient than to engage in a good faith substantive discussion of the issue. It’s a cognitive shortcut that allows us to dismiss our opponents rather than engage their arguments on their face. And again, sometimes that cognitive shortcut will be correct. But we should not assume such a thing without evidence if we care about being reasonable.
And as in the case of several other similar posts I’ve written lately, I’m not just pointing fingers at others. I’ve done the same thing, many times. But it’s an intellectual lazy habit and it’s something we should all strive to avoid.