Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Doing the Diversity Rag

with 4 comments

It’s been an odd few days out here where I am.  We’ve been listening almost nonstop to weather reports threatening Armageddon, which means the grocery stores have been full of people fighting over the last bag of potato chips and loading up on things like sour cream and onion dip. 

If World War III ever happens, or the Second Coming ever arrives on earth, trust me, the people of New England will be hoarding potato chips and chocolate.

That being said, I’ve been trying really hard over the last few days not to comment on the shootings in Arizona, or on the issues arising out of it. 

Part of that has been simply that I feel as if I’ve declared my position on things like this a hundred times before.

Part of it is that I just don’t feel like getting yelled at.

But the time comes for everything, and the time has come for this.

Before I start, though, I’d like to point out that we have been having trouble with people wanting to COMMENT ON THE BLOG, who then get error messages and can’t actually post.

This is a systems problem having to do with new anti-spam software, and we’re trying to work out the kinks.

If you have this kind of problem, e-mail us and we’ll put you in manually.

And write your comments in an e-mail to yourself so that you can cut and post them later when we get you straightened out.  I’d like to see the blowback on this one.

So, let’s get to the two main questions.

First, did “toxic discourse” on talk radio and at Tea Party rallies cause this guy to shoot up Congresswoman Giffords and her associates?


The man was obviously deeply mentally ill.  You could just as well say that he was motivated by his worship of Satan or his hatred of religion as he was by a hatred of government.

The man’s motivations were entirely biochemical, and if all the discourse in American politics had been unfailingly polite and moderate, he’d still have found a surface excuse to set him off.

The only possibility we have of protecting ourselves proactively from incidents like these is to strengthen the power of mental hospitals and mental health professionals to involuntarily commit people they think are dangerous.

And no, that is not something I would be willing to support.

Psychological is only a borderline science to begin with.  Clinical pyschology is not a science at all.  Giving “mental health professionals” more power to involuntarily commit people amounts to saying that we have the right to lock you up because some “expert” thinks you might commit a crime in the future–and, what’s more, to lock you up for an indeterminate time.

We went through all this in the Fifties, and found ourselves countenancing things like husbands getting their wives committed because the wives wanted divorces.  The courts quite rightly had enough by the mid-Sixties, and now the grounds on which we can involuntarily commit are very strictly construed.

I think we ought to keep them that was.  The DSM-whichever one it is now lists literally hundreds of “disorders,” many of which are only vaguely defined.   Handing over power to incarcerate on the basis of the “professional judgment” of people who think that people who get depressed when the weather is bad have some kind of “psychological disorder” is not something I want to risk.

So we get to second:  do we need to clamp down on “incendiary speech” and enforce “civil discourse” in our politics?


Let me say this one more time, and get the usual howls of protest one more time:

Free speech is free speech.  It is not “responsible” speech  It is not “civil” speech.  It is not “accepting” speech.

Free speech is free.  It is saying what you want, whatever that is.  It is using whatever language you want.  It is taking any position you want, on whatever subject you want, using whatever language you want.

Before we go on with this, though, let me bring in one thing that always comes up in discussions about free speech.

Well, people say, speech isn’t completely free.  You aren’t allowed to yell fire in a crowded theater!

Actually, yes you are.  That comment–that you are not allowed to yell fire in a crowded theater–was made by Oliver Wendell Holmes in the case called Schenk vs. United States in 1919. 

It’s always misquoted–Holmes actually said that you were not allowed to falsely shout fire in a crowded theater–and it was made to uphold a law which made it a criminal offense to distribute fliers opposing the military draft.

Think about that one for a moment.

What’s more, Schenk was overturned by the court in Brandenburg vs. Ohio, for reasons that ought to be obvious. 

Whether some speech is a “clear and present danger” is often in the eye of the beholder, as is whether some speech is “false.”

Certainly the endless screaming about George W. Bush as a “fascist” out to pull a coup to take over the country and void the Constitution was false–but we didn’t stop it, any more than we called for an end to nightly news talk about political “targetting” of Democrats by Republicans. 

Fox got one ofmy few nods of approval in its direction by spending nearly an hour the day after the shooting running clips of network news anchors and liberal pundits using pretty much the same terminology about aiming for Republicans as the Tea Party people have been using about aiming for Democrats.

If we went back a hundred years, we’d find a lot more.

Let’s try, for once, to get this straight:  we have “toxic discourse” in politics for two interlocking reasons.

The first is that we actually have real diversity in this country.

Real diversity.  Not the happy-crappy, we’re all going to appreciate each other’s differences kind.

Real diversity is not a bunch of different colored people sitting around enthusing at how interesting everybody else’s culture is.

Those people are not diverse, no matter what the color of their skins.  Those people are monocultural.  They all believe that their differences are secondary to their similarities.

In true diversity, however, people who believe that their cultures are absolutely right and that other peoples’ are absolutely wrong learn to live together, at least in part by learning how to leave each other alone on issues on which they are not neutral.

Real diversity is not happy, or pretty, or nice.

Real diversity is an angry and often hostile thing, and can’t help but be both.

And it has its dangers.

In a country in which issues are decided (at least more or less) democratically and in which government is allowed to make laws regulating the private lives of individuals and groups, the chances are very good that whatever group has the most children–and most clearly brings them to vote–will be the ones who set the rules for everybody else.

You may be in favor of gay marriage, but the voting public may not be.  You may be in favor of antidiscrimination law, but the voting public may not be.

There is absolutely no reason to assume that just because a country is democratic, it will also be socially liberal.

In fact, there are good reasons to think it won’t be. 

And that brings us to our second problem:  the idea that we have the right, through our laws and regulations, to regulate the private lives of people and communities.

There are actually two aspects to this, but let me clear out something else first.

If you think that you are not in favor of having the government regulate the private lives of individuals and communities, ask yourself these:

Are you in favor of laws against smoking?  How about laws to regulate the fat content in food?  How about a federal law banning traditional fund raising bake sales (cookies, cupcakes) in public schools? 

And I didn’t make the last one up.  It passed as part of a larger bill on child nutrition in the lame duck Congress.

Do you think that, if parents aren’t doing something about the “childhood obesity epidemic,” government has to step in?  

How about “hate speech?”  Or high school Christmas trees?  Or abortion?  Or protestors at abortion clinics?  Or a national curriculum for the public schools?  Or homeschooling?

Never mind.  I could go on for hours. The mark of a country with real diversity is that although we would all protest that we would never be in favor of allowing the government to pass legislation regulating the private lives of individuals and communities, we vigorously support just that when the issue seems to us unassailably right.

We used to have a method of dealing with this diversity–it was called federalism, and it meant that the states were allowed to make up their own minds about how the people within them would govern themselves on a whole list of issues.

During the Civil Rights era, federalism became “state’s rights,” and that got a bad name because the “rights” the states were trying to protect were laws that deliberately discriminated against some people for their race.

What’s more, there is no question that those laws should have been considered unconstitutional from off.  The equal protection clause says that the state and federal goverment must treat their citizens equally.

But what happened was that we transposed this argument to “all calls for federalism are bad and must be resisted,” and then we nationalized the debate on everything.

And it’s not just the Democrats and liberals who did it, either.

It’s the Republicans who gave us the No Child Left Behind Act–as William Bennett said, they might have run on the promise to abolish the Department of Education, but now that they were in power, hell, they were going to keep it and use it.

Of course our discourse is toxic.  Whoever wins this fight gets to force his morals down the throats of all his fellow citizens, no matter where they live or how they feel. 

And whoever that is won’t have to waste a lot of time worrying about the democratic process, either.  We’ve established an interlocking network of departments and bureaucracies, run by unelected and nearly untouchable functionaries, empowered to issue “regulations” having the force of law.

And when even that doesn’t work, we go to court and try to get our way that way.

A hundred years ago, if the people of Michigan and the people of  Mississippi didn’t agree on divorce, or smoking in public places, or whether they should call the big middle school concert in December the Holiday Show or the Christmas Show–well, they each went their own way, thought the other was nuts, and left it at that.

These days, whatever the issue is, everybody has to fight to the death every single time. 

Because we’ve got a choice–real diversity, which means people out there doing things that you thing are absolutely evil and unacceptable whether you like it or not, or monoculture.

And I don’t know how we get to monoculture from here.

It is simply not possible to impose a morality from above and suppress all anger and dissent at its imposition, and that includes American upper middle class morality. 

If you really want the “toxic discourse” to end, then you have to accept diversity as it really is, not as it is fantasized about in textbooks.  You have to accept that some states and communities will pass laws you find abhorent–they’ll refuse to recognize gay marriage or allow women to have abortions or not impose regulations requiring private businesses to be wheelchair accessible or whatever.

And along with accepting diversity you have to accept the obligations of democracy, which start with your need to convince a majority of the changes you want to make. 

If you think it’s more important to you to have the rules you want, well, you can have them–we’ve got them now, more than not–but what you will also have, and cannot avoid, is that unending “toxic discourse.”

Because when one side gets to impose absolute rules on the other, then each side must fight to the death.

I’ve said before on this blog that I’ve always thought that the hardest thing anybody can learn to do is accept the fact–and it is a fact–that other people simply do not agree with him.   They’re not racist.  They’re not stupid.  They’re not Communists.  They just believe different things.

And now, a second reminder–if you’re having trouble posting, send an e-mail to jane@janehaddam.com and we’ll get you in manually.

I’m going to go read a book.

Written by janeh

January 12th, 2011 at 10:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Doing the Diversity Rag'

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  1. I’m in pretty well complete agreement. My only caveat is that I suspect a monocultural rather than a federal solution will be imposed in the relatively near future–say 30 to 50 years. With a little luck, I won’t live to see it.

    I would like to note, though, that I find the attention given to the Giffords business–unseemly. We’ve had a LOT of Americans shot in the past year, and the year before that. Congress managed to go about its normal business.

    Of course, I also find it inappropriate to name things built with tax dollars after politicians still in office, to name warships after officials, and to put Presidents’ faces on our coins. The elected officials of a republic are its servants. If they were reminded of that, they might act a little less like rock stars.


    12 Jan 11 at 5:33 pm

  2. I am also very much in agreement. I moved from the US to Australia in 1971. It is difficult to get an accurate and unbiased impression of life and culture from this distance, but the changes I’ve seen horrify me. The level of hatred between “liberals” and “conservatives” seems excessive.


    12 Jan 11 at 6:42 pm

  3. “I’ve said before on this blog that I’ve always thought that the hardest thing anybody can learn to do is accept the fact–and it is a fact–that other people simply do not agree with him. They’re not racist. They’re not stupid. They’re not Communists. They just believe different things.”

    Well, the goal of Christian presuppositional apologetics is try and drag everyone down to the same epistemological level of not being able to claim actual knowledge of, well, anything — so that therefore all claims to knowledge reduce to claims of “belief” and therefore their beliefs are as good as the evil atheist “evolutionist”.

    This is, however, pure bunk. Evolution is a fact. Indeed for evolution to be “wrong” would require all of science to wrong. You know, the science behind the technology that makes this conversation possible. Everything is an illusion.

    Which is to say that Fundamentalist Christianity, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Fundamentalist Islam aren’t merely different people with “different beliefs”.

    They are groups of people who are factually mistaken about the very foundations of their belief systems.

    There are only so many avenues of learning about the world available to humans, and we all share them.

    Unfortunately we also share the same avenues of being incorrect about the world.

    The difference between myself and a fundamentalist of any stripe is that I’m aware of how I can be mistaken and am at pains to try and avoid those errors.

    The Fundamentalist uses them as his primary means of “knowing”, if it can be called that, and as a result has to fall back on all sorts of formal and informal fallacies of reasoning to defend his beliefs — and is self-immunized from recognizing the faults in his reasoning no matter how carefully spelled out.

    What that can be called other than stupid fails my powers of invention.


    24 Jan 11 at 5:53 pm

  4. But surely the measurement of a person’s tolerance of diversity in society is whether her or she is willing to accept the full membership and participation – including, in a democracy, participation in the political process – of people considered stupid as well as merely wrong? After all, the two categories – ‘stupid’ and ‘wrong’ overlap considerably.

    This is why tolerance is so difficult, and so controversial. If you think ‘well, members of that group aren’t so different from me under that skin colour and/or cultural practices’, you’re accepting, not tolerating. And if you think ‘members of that group are dangerous to my society and too stupid to be convinced of the error of their ways’, tolerance stops being a virtue and starts being a risk to survival of the society.

    But of course, it a western democracy, EVERYONE is supposed to be free to participate in society the way they wish, barring criminal actions that also apply to everyone, and trying to eliminate or limit some subgroup from such participation goes against the very foundations of a democratic society.

    Whether members of that group are stupid or wrong is really irrelevant to the question of whether their differences should be tolerated in a democratic society.


    25 Jan 11 at 7:28 am

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