It seems that political discourse has devolved into partisan shouting matches. When confronted with a controversial matter, especially one involving interference by the government with some amount of our assumed freedoms, it is natural to want to carefully argue and defend your position in the wild public marketplace of ideas in order to sway opinions your way and cause a democratic reversal of the apparently offending policies. However, when the position under debate is grounded in someone’s deep-seated personal convictions or even religion – ultimately stemming either from dogma, personal experience, or some interpretation in direct consequence thereof – such attempted level-headed arguments often fall on deaf ears. This failure to effectively argue a point often then is guaranteed because the premises of such an argument would tend to be fundamentally inaccessible to people that do not share the same underlying commitments. Such deep-seated disagreements often remain amicable; but nonetheless, the undercurrent of disagreement builds until such matters become territories over which opposing sides fight, even escalating into what we have come to call the culture wars.
If, as a person whose moral convictions stem from your personal opinions or religious beliefs, you considers that it may be impossible to use reasoning grounded in an opponent’s own convictions to sway them, because they simply do not share your convictions and are fundamentally incapable of receiving your argument, then you basically only have two fundamental choices when it comes to effecting some real change in public policy.
First, you can simply argue your points amongst people who do in fact hold the same personal or religious convictions as yourself and hope to win everyone on your side of the culture battle to the same viewpoint, then, amassing a majority over the opposing side, claim your rightful democratically marginal victory (per American tradition of course neglecting the more nuanced varieties of voting, like ranked choice). However this in no way solves the problem, as there would still be a large, though not total majority, group of people who still completely disagree with the change that has taken place and who will immediately undo your change if given the chance or the argument swings back in their favor. This is the kind of system at play in our modern two party political system, where the losing party will gain supporters over time through either active recruitment, a slow shift in the undercurrents of the culture itself serving to recruit from the middle, or by changing the party’s policies themselves, making it so the two sides both share approximately half the population each.
Second, you could give up the premises you get from your personal or religious convictions and compromise with your opponents, finding pragmatic arguments that both sides acknowledge as true and which allow for conclusions in agreement with your purportedly true, personally or religiously motivated goals. However, this approach is in no way guaranteed to succeed, as there simply may not be sufficient unbiased or neutral ground arguments available that agree with your personal or religious principles, and you may end up alienating the more fundamentalist members of your own side of the culture battle, thus potentially losing the attention of both sides of your conversation.
So, assuming that it is not necessarily going to be possible to compromise by abandoning your personal or religious premises entirely and only arguing from cultural common ground to achieve your goals, this then leaves the only sure option: barricading oneself in a polarized debate that really isn’t a debate at all as much as an arms race to see who can defeat the other side by sheer force of numbers (popular elections, majority opinions on the supreme court, legislative votes, congressional veto overrides, and farther down the system of checks and balances), thus descending into a full-fledged culture war. However, as I mentioned before, these culture battle victories are rarely permanent, and only serve to upset the opposition into trying harder and waiting long enough to try again when the tides have changed, as we see happening so often in today’s political and social climate.
Additionally, this tactic is questionable on the grounds of political ethics, i.e., just because one side is in possession of a better position or opinion on some particular issue, does that necessitate that it be forced upon people who fundamentally disagree? If so then that implies that whichever side can garner the most support is automatically correct, even in matters of religion or philosophy. But how are we to know that one side is right and the other is objectively wrong outside of divine revelation or incontrovertible evidence and its subsequent subjection to various interpretations?
I think that unless the factions in the culture wars stop seeing each other as the enemy and actually attempt some kind of rational discussion, then we will only see a continuously more and more frustrating and polarizing battle for the political majority. Sadly I think the ridiculous stances held by modern “politicians” like Donald Trump and and his imitators are just a foretaste of the ramifications that are going to come from our insistence on continuing to polarize every issue and keep the culture wars going without any second thoughts.
This was originally published as a letter to the editor of The Reflector at Mississippi State University on February 26, 2016, well before the fate of the U.S. election and its subsequently near-continuous backlash was determined.
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