Consistency, anyone?

I don’t usually write about political topics, but a recurring theme has lately been… well, recurring, and I’m curious what others think.

I’m wondering why seemingly no one making political arguments is able to do so with any logical consistency.

It’s a meta-issue, really. I don’t really care whether you’re for the war or against it, pro-life or pro-choice, or whether your tea goes with “tax” or with “party.”

I’d just like you to have a little consistency when you launch your next barrage of political speech!

Is it really too much to ask?

Personally, in my second year as a law student, I’ve already become well trained at arguing all sides of an issue. (If you thought there were only two sides to an issue, there’s your first mistake.) But what I’ve also gotten good at (perhaps unfortunately) is identifying logical inconsistencies in arguments. And as those close to me would tell you if you could find them to ask, I tend to get more hung up on such inconsistencies than I do on the subject matter at hand.

Maybe that makes me weird.

Before going further, let me give you a few brief, concrete examples. In the political arena, neither side is inconsistency-free, so we can take our pick:

On the liberal side of the aisle, we could talk about affirmative action. Categorizations based on race are decried as bigoted, and it is woefully politically incorrect to speak of different groups of people being better at certain  activities—or, to take a controversial example, differing crime rates in different racial or ethnic communities. Yet when it comes time to talk about hiring, firing, or educating (and let’s not forget about both private and federal aid), then it’s time to make decisions about people (or groups of people) based on race.

Little bit inconsistent?

Don’t worry; I won’t spare the conservatives. One inconsistency up their sleeve is their mixed relationship with government regulation. In talking to most conservatives, you’d quickly get the impression that the best place for government is far, far away. Regulation is bad; the government is only here to provide for the national defense and perhaps the interstate highway system, and it certainly shouldn’t tell us what we can and can’t do in our private lives. Oh—but it should regulate the behaviors we don’t like: abortion, pornography distribution, marijuana consumption, and other things that (mostly) only liberals do.

Bit of a double standard?

My point here is not really to pick on either side. I’m sure someone with more knowledge (or, at the very least, fervor) than me could explain why these points, which I see as inconsistent, are not really inconsistent at all.

But aren’t they?

The point becomes especially clear when you carefully examine the way someone addresses two entirely distinct issues. If you look closely, you’ll notice that while they may defend a position in one situation on the basis of some dearly-held principle, they’ll refuse to apply this same beloved principle in a separate but related context.

Take the two examples above, for instance. The deeply important principle in the first scenario is that it’s wrong to judge people on the basis of race. To me, that sounds like a pretty good principle. So why not apply it when it comes to benefits as well as burdens? Similarly, whether you agree with it or not, the principle at work in the second scenario is that the federal government should intrude as little as possible in the private lives and decisions of citizens. Again, this is a tenable principle. So why throw it out the window when it comes to particular personal decisions?

To me, when you say, “This is a really solid principle… except here, here, and here,” your principled stand is in fact somewhat shaky—or, to splice a metaphor, rings very hollow indeed.

I had a conversation with someone today about two separate issues occupying the news. One, of which most of the nation is by now aware, is the construction of an Islamic community center near the site of the 9/11 attacks. The other, less well known, relates to a very large amount of funding—roughly $650,000—accepted by Harvard’s sociology department in recent weeks. Harvard’s acceptance of the donation was controversial because the man in whose honor it was collected and donated (Mr. Martin Peretz) had made some very unsavory remarks about Muslims. If you’re unfamiliar with the latter situation, The Atlantic has an informative article on it here.

My interlocutor’s position was that it was wrong of Harvard to accept the money from those honoring the Muslim-basher and it was wrong for anyone to speak out against the construction of the Islamic community in New York.

Digging deeper, I asked this individual whether he thought that the donors behind the New York project had the legal right to build the community center wherever they wanted. Unmistakably yes, he said. (I agreed.) Then I asked him whether Mr. Peretz had the legal right to say whatever he wanted about a particular group of people. Yes, he said—but with some reluctance.

I reminded him of a little thing we Americans like to call the First Amendment, and then he seemed more sure of his answer. Yes, he said, Mr. Peretz had the legal right to say whatever he wanted; that’s freedom of speech.

Just to round out the trilogy, I asked him whether Harvard had the legal right to accept the money. “Of course,” he said. “It’s a donation. There’s nothing illegal about it.” But again he seemed uncomfortable with his answer.

He explained that while Mr. Peretz had the legal right to disparage Muslims thanks to the First Amendment, it was neither tasteful nor prudent to do so. Similarly, he said, while Harvard certainly had the legal right to accept a donation collected in honor of Mr. Peretz, both prudence and good taste—not to mention respect for a large community of people—should have cautioned Harvard from doing so.

“Ah,” I said. “So let’s determine the operating principle here. You agree that even when someone has the full legal right to do something, there may be circumstances when they should defer to overwhelming concerns of prudence, good taste, and respect?”

“Yes,” he said.

“So what about our other situation—the one in New York? Is it possible that the Islamic community center, despite fully existing legal rights, should be built somewhere else due to just those concerns?”

“Well,” he said… [and in that hesitation all consistency was abandoned]

“… that’s different.”


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