Assumptions Hinder Civil Debate
Micah Watson, Assistant Professor of Political Science & Director, Center for Religion and Politics
Oct 9, 2009
Ezekiel Bulver, a 5-year old boy, sat at his breakfast table listening to his parents. His father, scribbling diagrams on a sheet of paper, was insisting to his mother that any two sides of a triangle will always be longer together than the third side by itself.
Looking back on this event as an adult, Bulver described his great discovery: "At that moment there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall."
Ezekiel Bulver is, of course, fictional. He is a creation of C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame in a little-known essay entitled "Bulverism." But while Bulver the person is fictional, bulverism the phenomenon is all too real, and what Lewis warned against in 1941 has become so prevalent today that one need only observe everyday conversation for a moment to recognize it.
"He's only in favor of the war because he's in ROTC."
"She feels abortion is wrong only because she's Catholic."
"They're religious because they need a crutch to get through life."
"He is against gay marriage because he is homophobic."
Thus any sort of proposition or argument is rendered superfluous. We can explain, or better yet, label, the psychology, and so we don't need to engage an idea.
The last statement above is perhaps the premier example of contemporary bulverism. Rather than admit that reasonable people can differ about the morality of human sexuality and public recognition of various sexual relationships, some will employ the "homophobic" label for a broad swath of people from the truly homophobic (e.g., shock jock Michael Savage) to those who believe that though homosexual orientation is a sort of disorder and homosexual actions are morally wrong, gay men and women still are made in God's image and deserving of respect (e.g. Pope Benedict).
Of course, how that dignity and respect translate into public policy with regard to marriage and the like is at the heart of the debate. But good-faith debate is hobbled from the beginning by the description of one entire side as suffering from a phobia. And to have a phobia is, by definition, to have an irrational fear. Another, less polite, word for irrational is "crazy." One doesn't debate crazy people. One ignores them, or discredits them, or has them medicated.
Bulverism is an equal-opportunity phenomenon. The conversational examples listed above bulverize more conservative positions, but conservatives can be equally guilty in psychologizing and dismissing liberals. It is not the case that every complaint about George Bush was driven by wild hatred. Pacifists are not necessarily cowards. Criticizing the war does not mean one secretly wants the terrorists to win. Of course, it may very well be the case that some pacifists are cowards, and some who oppose gay marriage really do have an irrational fear and hatred of gays.
Yet when we bulverize, we undercut the civil discourse necessary for the health of any democratic society. We treat those with whom we disagree as mere subjects of our amateur psychologizing rather than as persons with ideas in their own right. It may very well be that upon reflection, we will conclude their ideas are false, or misguided, but we will not know unless we give them a fair hearing, and in the process we'll likely learn more about our own positions. More important, we'll engage in the sort of argument that can produce light and not merely heat.
Article originally published in the Oct. 9 edition of The Jackson Sun