What Comes Naturally

I often find myself uncertain where to begin when addressing social and political issues, not only when I lack complete confidence in my own opinion but even – perhaps especially – when I do not.  There are two chief reasons for this.  The first is that in places my opinions and ideals have diverged from those I was instructed in: some differences are barely more than semantic quibbles, while others are issues on which I have drawn different conclusions either from the same apparent starting point or by accepting at least a tentative validity of different premises.  But the one that chiefly concerns me here are the strangest cases, where my position remains unchanged, but I would justify my conclusion quite differently from many who might “agree” with me.  This chiefly affects the extent to which I believe various social norms should be enforced – areas in which I differ both from my past self (as far as I remember those opinions) and from many conservative activists and commentators.  In most cases, I remain still less with many or most progressives I have encountered.

A while back I discussed the three principles underlying my social and political opinions.  Here I am going to discuss how and why to apply them.  The essential principle of social (which is to say, informal) and especially political (which is to say, formal) rule-making and standard-setting for a society is that the rules ought to match those things which actually are the case.  I mean this in two main senses.  In the first place, rules and laws ought to reinforce the way human societies naturally work.  To follow this, rules and laws ought not to be imposed impractically – a law (but even a social habit) should not typically be enacted the enforcement of which would impose coercion upon a large portion of a society.  It is crucial to remember – or rediscover – that the formal mechanisms of government are only a part of the way a society orders its habits.  The mockery of society under which it becomes the entire mechanism of ordering humanity we generally call fascism.

In contrast, I see in the United State today both progressives and conservatives pressing for laws which reflect neither natural human society nor positions held near-unanimously by society.  Progressives tend to champion policies which reflect a sometimes outrageously unrealistic egalitarian ideal, while conservatives go on attempting to maintain the status quo as an “American” dream or a “Christian” society.  Few on either side pay attention to what was for millennia the standards of appeal (however variously interpreted at times): observation of reality, both in its philosophical or logical form as the “natural law” and also as what would develop into scientific principles.  We might put this in the form of two questions.  How in fact do societies best function?  On this count progressives ignore all evidence: they seem particularly uninterested in the historical facet of the question, the problem of which societies following what policies have been the most free, content, safe, etc.  How in fact does our society function?  To this question many conservatives appear not to care about the answer: some are rhetorically resistant to admitting any validity to even the existence of changes.

Let me take an example case – which I will here sketch briefly, not in detail – the question of a homosexual relationship being formalized as a “marriage”.  The progressive egalitarian ignores all history, the reasons societies have restricted and formalized marriages, and even the facts of human reproduction in pursuit of a loony refusal to distinguish socially between the human sexes even where reality demands distinctions.  On the other hand, many conservatives insist on binding a growing dissent on the subject to a conception of marriage their fellow-citizens do not believe in.  Further, many arguments they made have been ridiculous: I have in mind particularly the ludicrous objection that, “If gays can marry, then we’ll have to legalize polygamy too”.  This reveals the speaker as not even dedicated to a coherent Christian faith: polygamy is in the Bible arguably discouraged even in the Old Testament and pretty clearly banned for Christians but always treated as legitimate marriage.  It merely exposes his own prejudices – and these two clearly have little bearing on reproductive facts, as polygamy is treated as somehow beyond, more unnatural, than homosexuality in the context of marriage.

Moreover, neither side tends to have any idea of how to resolve the question other than the use of governmental legal coercion.  The progressives demand such “marriages” be legalized, while the conservatives demand they be banned.  The conservative is perhaps willing to compromise, either by calling them “civil unions” or by passing laws allowing him to stand aside.  The progressive decries any restrictions as – well, dressed up in a number of ugly names, but oppression, all the while generally even refusing to allow any room for dissent.

I believe reality – deliberately saying nothing invoking my Christian faith – indicates marriage as a social form is necessary for men and women and necessarily restricted only to the heterosexual union: in both cases, because of the resulting children and on their account.  But when I look at society today, I see a range of opinions so wide that putting government coercion behind any particular viewpoint is practically guaranteed to be the wrong answer.  I am not well-informed on the history of government regulation of marriage.  At the present time, however, the government can do nothing useful about it – one way or the other – without extensive use of force.  I would argue, then, that this is an issue from which governments should (at least for the time) withdraw, enforcing nothing and leaving the issue to be resolved socially.  Of all states, as far as I know only Alabama has actually tried to make this change, and the bill is stuck in the legislature.The current model is on any question for one side to carry the issue by fiat of legislative or judicial numbers, and then append just enough “protections”, exceptions, and exemptions to placate the loudest voices on the “other side” and, incidentally, irritate virtually everyone.  The kind of reasoning I have outlined above, where we step back and admit that a social question has multiple sides represented forcefully within society, and then consider how to best address issues peacefully, should be applied more widely.  I will add a final general note: when libertarians (and various other parties) make appeals for “deregulation”, this is I believe what is normally in mind – situations where governments have (with what we can at least assume are good intentions) put the weight of government force behind rules that are not in fact useful or widely agreed with.  In other words, if we start looking for ways to solve social problems without coercion and with cultural coexistence, I expect that as a side-benefit we would in fact achieve a great deal in disassembling vexatious governmental machinery.

Charity in Politics

Apart from his science fiction itself, author Arthur C. Clarke is probably best known for a description of one of the common rules of the genre, which he called Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.  In science fiction, sufficiently technologically primitive cultures can be expected to attribute technology they do not understand to supernatural forces.

A parody, normally known as Grey’s Law, but which I have also seen cited as the Third Law of Social Dynamics (after the Laws of Thermodynamics), or Dilbert’s Third Law (after the comic strip), states, “Sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.”  Ignorance, bad luck, or even outright stupidity are not morally equivalent to intentional harm – but the effects can at times look similar.

An observer of politics in almost any age might have coined the following variant: “Any sufficiently disputed policy will be attributed to malice,” – or on a personal level, “Any sufficiently unpopular politician will be described as evil.”  The current American election-year shenanigans, as well as recent policy decisions, have given us more than enough of this kind of rhetoric and I will not bother giving examples here.

This kind of political discourse has four main drawbacks.  In the first place, it is in the vast majority of cases not true.  In the second place, because it is largely not true, it contributes to political distrust especially between opposing parties which generally are all attempting to find the best policies for society and merely disagree what those are.  In the third place, vilification of political projects and especially persons distracts from any serious discussion about policies.  When these attacks are commonplace, serious criticisms are themselves often shouted down or ignored because any challenge is assumed to be this sort of nonsense.  Finally, when politicians or political regimes do deserve outright condemnation, that condemnation can be hard to tell apart from the rest of the shouting – and people may be slow to believe that there is anything more serious than one more silly problem to deal with.

Variations on this childish level of discussion are probably infinite, but I make here five claims:

  1.  Your political opponent is not intentionally doing the wrong thing.
  2. The policy you oppose is not designed to harm society.
  3. Someone who disagrees with your opinions and beliefs does not hate you.
  4. Someone who disapproves of your personal behavior or political tactics does not hate you.
  5. Someone who understands your identity or place in society differently than you do does not hate you and is not trying to belittle or dehumanize you.

The first two treat society generally; the last three deal with more personal issues.  I recognize that exceptions exist: there are evil persons in the world, and a much larger number who individually or by social encouragement have bad, even wicked, habits.  But I urge you not to jump to the accusation of ill-will immediately.  Perhaps more importantly, please apply these standards to media as well.  Does a piece you may otherwise find convincing, or which awakes your sympathy, violate one or more of these rules?  Then it is probably not really a positive contribution to our social problems.  (At the very least, a piece making such accusations should back its claims up carefully and convincingly: it should present evidence, and not skate by on the assumption the reader or viewer will “already know” the target is a bad person.)  I ask all persons who try to act in good faith to consciously limit their exposure to such material, and especially – given the reach of social media – to do our best to avoid sharing such pieces.