Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Hurting the cause

Infidelis Maximus' criticizes Brian Flemming's endorsement of the video game, Super Columbine Massacre.

Full disclosure: I lived in Littleton, Colorado at the time of the Columbine Massacre; my own children were in middle school, about two miles from Columbine High. I knew (slightly) some of the victims. I've favored, since many years before the massacre, very strict gun control; I consider the idea of unregulated gun ownership for the purpose of self-defense to be patently ridiculous. But this post isn't about Columbine or gun control.

I agree completely with one of Infidelus Maximus's opinions: I think Flemming is completely full of shit to endorse this video game. Regardless of the quality of the game (it appears to be poor), I think the premise itself is in abysmally and unacceptably poor taste.

But at another level, I have to disagree with Maximus: "When our antics spend most of their time on the tasteless side of the fence, we risk alienating the very people we claim to want to reach: the great undecided middle." Maximus clarifies in his comment:
[Brian] risks alienating the very people he hopes to reach with some of his work. If we truly want the world at large to see our side on the issues (religion, politics, whatever), common sense tells us we need to stop doing things that are inherently and patently offensive to most of them.
I think Maximus's stance here is wrong on a couple of levels.

I don't see atheism as at all a mass movement. The lack of belief in God is simply too thin around which to base any sort of movement. The "mass movement" I'm interested in is rationality, truth and the freedom to learn the truth. I think it's good to be an atheist, but that's not why I'm an atheist; I'm an atheist because I think the truth is good, and atheism is true (or so I've concluded).

I don't think it's polite or civilized to be gratuitously or insincerely outrageous or shocking. Not because doing so hurts any particular cause, but rather because gratuitous outrageousness hurts civilized discourse in general. But I see no evidence—and, more importantly, Maximus presents no argument—that Flemming is being gratuitous or insincere. Offensive, yes; Stupid, perhaps; gratuitous, no.

Maximus appears to argue, though, that we should not risk alienating the "undecided middle" by discussing topics we know they will find outrageous or shocking. The most charitable interpretation of his remarks appears to invoke the categorical imperative: "When our antics spend most of their time... We regularly drive them..." He thus appears to argue against even broaching too-controversial topics.

I have to disagree.

Slippery-slope arguments are, well, slippery, but I think a slippery-slope argument is warranted here. At what point do we decide an issue is too controversial to even discuss? I'd like to say it's when a controversial position is obviously false, but obviousness is refuted by even the hint of dissent. Should we go by the level of outrageousness? Who decides? Calling belief in God a "delusion" is itself outrageous and shocking: Witness how often Richard Dawkins (a soft-spoken man, the model of British politeness) is called strident and even militant.

People in the specifically political sphere—politicians, diplomats lobbyists, political activists, i.e. people who are trying to pass laws or otherwise directly affect the workings of a democratic government—have to be circumspect; their job is to create compromises. But crafting compromises is not our job as ordinary citizens. Our job is to be the ones between whom compromises are crafted. And if we do not sincerely speak our minds, controversial or not, no compromise can serve our interests.

If we have any primary duty as citizens it is not to the polity but to the truth and the sincere expression of our own conclusions about the truth. We have not only a right but a duty to participate fully in the great dialectic that is human discourse. If we're wrong, we deserve criticism for being wrong, but we do not deserve criticism for daring an argument.

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