This week has been really rough for me. So much bad news! So much internet fighting! I'm taking a break now from most internet stuff, because I was lying awake half the night worrying and I really can't afford that.
I always used to think that it was just conservatives who engaged in toxic groupthink. I mean, when I commented on conservative blogs I sometimes got attacked by weird people who called me names like feminist harpy or hippy-dippy peacenik, whereas saying the same things on liberal blogs got me applause. But, of course, you never see the dark side of a commentariat till you say something they disagree with.
It started off, of course, with the Planned Parenthood shooter. My first thought (after "how terrible, I hope everyone is all right" of course) was, "Gee, maybe NOW the people I know will stop assuming that violent people on the fringe of a movement speak for the whole thing." Because I am so tired of hearing people say that because some Muslims are terrorists, no Muslims should be allowed in America. But within a day, I was terrified of the left's reaction. Where last week they were saying, "Fringe members of a group don't define it," now they were saying, "All prolifers are terrorists."
I'll admit, some prolife rhetoric is pretty inflammatory. But on the other hand, I am not sure there is a way to be prolife at all without saying inflammatory things. If you believe a fetus has the same moral weight as a newborn, you also believe that thousands of murders are taking place every day. That's something that is going to get people pretty worked up. You can remind them that the lives of adults are just as important so violence should never be used -- and people do say this -- but you can't get around that the position itself is one that involves admitting things are epically bad.
And in fact that's what the liberal commenters I was reading were saying. They said that prolifers should not be allowed to call a fetus a baby, because that's inflammatory. I shouldn't have gotten involved, but I've commented in these places and everyone was always nice so I thought it was okay. I said, "But does that mean prochoicers are no longer allowed to call abortion restrictions equivalent to rape and slavery? Because that's inflammatory too." The answer, of course, was, "No way, of course we will say that, because here's our reasoning for why it's literally true!" And then they called me a terrorist, disgusting, frightening, and vile.
To me, that sounds a lot like saying, "These military tactics are bad when our enemies do them, because they're bad guys, but they're good when we do them, because we're the good guys." But being the good guys doesn't give you justification for doing things you would disapprove of if someone else did them -- in fact, it calls into question your credentials as good guys.
If you justify inflammatory language because your side is right, you justify it for the opposition as well, because they think they're right too! "Who is right?" is the question the whole discussion is about; you can't assume the answer at the beginning of the discussion.
Good discussion tactics will help to weed out what is false and discover what is true. I am entirely in agreement that inflammatory language ("murder," "rape," "slavery") isn't going to do that. It just makes people angry, which makes them less rational and therefore less good at distinguishing between true and false things. I don't use that sort of language myself if I can help it, because I don't really see the point in stirring up people who agree with me to feel good about themselves for agreeing, while encouraging everyone who disagrees to click the red X and go find something else to read.
However, I don't believe that those who do use that sort of language are equivalent to terrorists. If your goal is to make people upset, and you make some people so upset that they go and shoot people, the shooter is still them, not you. I think this is true whether you're a prolife activist or a gay-rights activist -- that guy who shot up the Family Research Council claims that he did it because he had read it was a hate group, but I don't believe no one should be allowed to make lists of groups they think are hate groups. The whole principle of freedom of speech is the belief -- optimistic as it is -- that in a free marketplace of ideas, true ones will win out over false ones. I still believe that, though it's definitely not something that will happen without conscious effort.
I just wish that everyone would take a moment to step into other people's shoes and realize that people who disagree with them mostly feel the same way they do, just about different things. An average prolifer believes that abortion is a serious moral issue, equivalent to murder, which someone would have to be evil or blind not to recognize. And an average prochoicer believes that banning abortion would be equivalent to slavery, and someone would have to be evil or blind not to recognize. Sometimes, in their incredulity that someone could think what their opponents claim to think, they make up other explanations: "they just hate women," or "they're trying to rid the world of black people." Because no one could actually truly believe that something so obviously wrong is right!
Think about that, and you're forced to acknowledge that it's not so obvious as you thought, that smart and good people might come to another conclusion than you. It doesn't mean you're wrong, necessarily, but it means that it's difficult and you should treat those who disagree with charity.
And then, the final conclusion is this: use the sort of language you would like your opponents to use. The perennial problem I see is that Team X sees Team Y use some dirty rhetorical trick, like inflammatory language or fudging statistics. First, Team X condemns Team Y for doing it, because that's just the sort of thing Team Y always does, aren't they awful? Then they start doing the same thing, and if you call them on it, they say, "Well, we have to, because Team Y is!" That's exactly how the cycle of violence goes -- everyone thinks they're the good guys because they're just defending themselves against those awful bad guys who treated them badly first. In warfare, it leads to a never-ending cycle of death and destruction. In discourse, it just leads to the plummeting of standards till we're all screaming at each other. In both cases, the cure is the same -- to do as you'd like to be done by, even if it temporarily puts you behind. When people are no longer threatened by you, or using your behavior as a justification for their own bad behavior, they feel free to act better themselves. This is a good explanation of what I mean.
While I think speech should not be policed by law, that doesn't mean that I think it's without a moral dimension. There are morally right and morally wrong ways to argue, to talk about people with whom you disagree, and to stir up those on your own side. And if your takeaway from this is, "Yeah! Those people I hate really need to talk better!" I think you're missing the point a little bit. It's the people that you like that you really need to worry about, because sometimes it's hard to see past the fact that you agree with them and realize that they're not necessarily acting very well either.