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To Cultivate Civil Discourse, Encourage Intellectual “Polarization”

After the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, some left-leaning commentators were quick to suggest that the shooter must have been a right-wing Tea Partier. When this proved to be baseless, they retreated to the allegation that a vague “climate of hate” generated by right-wing political discourse had somehow created conditions encouraging violence.

The charge has echoed through the campus media. A variety of columns in recent weeks have condemned the “polarization” of political rhetoric. Some dwelled on the use of militaristic metaphors by Sarah Palin (such as her now-infamous map of congressional districts with Giffords’ district behind crosshairs), which could arguably be regarded as insensitive if the metaphors involved were not so widespread and cliché. But the examples that others cite, of right-wing positions on policy, reveal not a concern for sensitivity but a desire to silence legitimate political discourse.

Writing in Vanderbilt’s Inside Vandy, for instance, Matt Scarano cites as examples of political “radicalization” the following:

Republicans just took over the Senate on the platform that they will not compromise with Democrats. On the other side of the aisle, President Obama passed a healthcare initiative through regulation that was previously struck down in Congress.

Likewise, Chad Mohammed of the University of Florida’s Alligator listed as sources of this polarization most of the political issues dividing left from right:

Over the past couple of years, hot button issues such as immigration and health care reform coupled with a harsh economic climate led to a caustic political environment unseen since the Vietnam War. . . [T]he lion’s share of [the Republican party] is not inclined to calming the language and refraining from using pejoratives such as “Obamacare”, “anchor baby” and “death panels” in order to rouse their base into a frenzy.

But if this “caustic political environment” results from disagreement about the very issues that lead to the existence of distinct political parties in the first place, what do these critics want? A country in which nobody disagrees about anything?

Writing in 1971, philosopher Ayn Rand observed that when political disagreement is characterized as “polarizing,” those who make this charge might not want to silence all disagreement, but they do want to silence important disagreement. “It is principles,” she wrote, “fundamental principles—that they are struggling to eliminate from public discussion.” It is one thing to bicker about the particulars of health care legislation, these critics might claim. But, they say, it is polarizing to oppose health care regulation altogether (on principle), on the grounds that it represents government abridgment of individual freedom.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, disagreement about fundamental principles is precisely what we need to encourage “civil discourse,” the absence of which so many critics of today’s political climate lament. Rand’s case for “intellectual polarization” is compelling:

If clear-cut principles, unequivocal definitions and inflexible goals are barred from public discussion, then a speaker or writer has to struggle to hide his meaning (if any) under coils of meaningless generalities and safely popular bromides. . . . He must strive to be misunderstood in the greatest number of ways by the greatest number of people: this is the only way to keep up the pretense of unity.

In its present state, what this country needs above all is the clarifying, reassuring, confidence-and-credibility-inspiring guidance of fundamental principles—i.e., in modern parlance, intellectual polarization.

This would bring to our cultural atmosphere an all-but-forgotten quality: honesty, with its corollary, clarity. It would establish the minimum requirement of civilized discourse: that the proponents of ideas strive to make themselves understood and lay all their cards on the table…

If today’s political climate is distasteful, it is not because of too much “polarization,” but because of too little of the right kind. What passes for political debate today is usually nothing better than a series of personality attacks, charges and countercharges of hypocrisy, and endless appeals to emotion. What more can we expect when today’s politicians scrupulously avoid naming their position on the fundamental question of politics: whether government exists to protect the rights of the individual or to promote the alleged interests of “society.”

Instead of debating which if any political party a deranged shooter might have been inspired by, we should be debating which if any political party is right, and more importantly, what is the correct answer to that fundamental question? To demonstrate why persuasion and not violence is the proper way to transform society, we must rededicate ourselves to exemplifying political persuasion in its purest and most fundamental form: philosophical argumentation.

Valery Publius is a teacher living in the American South

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Valery Publius is the pen name of a teacher living in the American South.