jasonbwatson

July 10, 2014

Listening to the Other Side

Back in May Janie B. Cheaney wrote a piece for WORLD entitled “The debate is never over.” I was reminded of it yesterday when I wrote about Amanda Marcotte’s rant against those who hold to the position that unborn babies have a right to life. Cheaney began her column by quoting Barack Obama’s assertion that the debate over the Affordable Care Act “is over.” She went on to explain why that assertion was false and also why the tactic of declaring a debate to be over in the midst of that very debate is a tried-and-true, although entirely un-American, strategy.

I am not going to elaborate on Cheaney’s comments about Obamacare; you can find and read her column if you’re interested. But she made a point near the end of her piece that pertains to Obama’s declaration in the ACA, to Marcotte’s declaration on abortion, to many evolutionists’ declarations on creation and to any other debate in which either side tires of the debate and simply decides to say, “It’s over. I win.” Here is what Cheaney writes…

The nation that began with shouting and guns has–with one notable exception–developed a talent for settling disputes without guns, though always with shouting. Violent argument in pursuit of reasonable law is what we’re all about. But as dead set as we are on our own opinions, we must make room for listening and responding to what the other side actually says. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). In this country, debate is seldom over. If and when that day comes, what will really be over is the United States.

Cheaney’s point is that the United States is built around the idea that opinions and beliefs should be freely and passionately argued in the pursuit of law. Those on either side of the political spectrum who would rather just tell the other side to shut up and then declare victory are not only attempting to become philosophical bullies, they are undermining the very essence of what it means to be American. So rarely do we stop to think about what it would be like to be on the other side! Amanda Marcotte would never suggest the debate is over if the law of the land currently prevented abortion. Barack Obama would never have declared the debate to be over if Congress had voted to de-fund Obamacare. Evolutionists would never declare the debate to be over if every school board in the country decided that creation would be taught in the classroom as well as the theory of evolution. That’s the way bullies work, though; as long as they are the biggest, baddest, toughest and meanest it’s their way or the high way. Let someone bigger and badder some along, though, and their position instantly does a one-eighty. So I would ask Mr. Obama, Ms. Marcotte and others to kindly recognize that the debates are not over.

At the same time, though, I would like to ask those of us on the other side of those arguments–myself included–to remember the same thing. We have to be willing to listen to and respect the positions of those who disagree with us if we want them to listen to and respect us. We do not have to agree with them. We do not necessarily even have to be willing to compromise with them. But we do have to be willing to listen and to show respect if we want the same in return. No, we do not have to welcome Ms. Marcotte’s potty-mouthed insults, and certainly we could insist that we will listen only if she is respectful in her speech and tone, but we must all remember that we have to be willing to show respect if we expect to receive it. Mr. Obama and Ms. Marcotte and others may not see it that way but, if anything, that is all the more reason for us to listen and show respect to them. After all, the Golden Rule does not say “do unto others as they do unto you.” No, it says, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Quite a difference, isn’t there?

April 17, 2014

The Uselessness of Stigma

An interesting article appeared recently on the web site of The Atlantic. The article, written by Conor Friedersdorf, was posted on the morning of April 10 and is entitled “Why Gay Marriage Opponents Should Not Be Treated Like Racists.” It was interesting both because of the way in which it addressed this issue and because of where it was published. I am not a regular reader of The Atlantic but I have certainly read its pages numerous times over the years and I have to confess I was a bit surprised–pleasantly–to find this article there.

Friedersdorf begins his article this way: “Liberals generally think of themselves as proponents of tolerance, pluralism, and diversity. Some liberals are also eager to stigmatize and punish opponents of gay marriage.” He then asks if this stigmatization is a betrayal of liberal values. Excellent question, that. In response, Friedersdorf writes that if it is a betrayal it is one that most liberals find justified, one that “is no more problematic than the decision to exclude white supremacists from polite society.”

In support of this position Friedersdorf cites an e-mail correspondent who said that objecting to a boycott of a company whose CEO gave financial support to California’s Proposition 8 (which defined marriage as between a man and a woman) was akin to finding the Montgomery bus boycott objectionable. Friedersdorf went on to cite Will Oremus who said, in Slate, “Opposing gay marriage in America today is not akin to opposing tax hikes or even the war in Afghanistan. It’s more akin to opposing interracial marriage: It bespeaks a conviction that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others.”

Interestingly, Friedersdorf agrees with Oremus that homosexuals should have the right to marry. He disagrees with him, however, in the comparison of gay and interracial marriage. Why? “Opposition to interracial marriage was all but synonymous with a belief in the superiority of one race and the inferiority of another,” Friedersdorf writes. But, he continues, “Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior, but it’s also commonly rooted in the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.” The end of that sentence is followed by an asterisk which refers to this footnote: “One thing I’ve noticed in this debate is how unfamiliar proponents of stigma are with thoughtful orthodox Christians—that is to say, they haven’t interacted with them personally, critiqued the best version of their arguments, or even been exposed to the most sophisticated version of their reasoning, which I find to be obviously earnest, if ultimately unpersuasive.”

Now it will not come as surprise to anyone who has read my opinions on this issue before that I absolutely disagree with Friedersdorf on the matter of gay marriage. I am wholeheartedly opposed to allowing marriage to be defined as anything other than the union of one man and one woman. I appreciate Friedersdorf’s recognition, though, of the fact that homosexual marriage is not a civil rights issue and is certainly not akin to segregation of public buses in Montgomery or interracial marriage. Friedersdorf believes just as passionately as I do that I am wrong, as are those who think like I do. Refreshingly, though, he recognizes that we can disagree for legitimately held beliefs and we can disagree without calling each other names. Referring to those who believe as I do he writes, “But it’s not credible to argue that they’re in the same moral category as the bigots who sustained Jim Crow, or that the narrow right they’d withhold has done similar harm and thus warrants the same response (even if you believe, as I do, that withholding the name marriage is wrong and harmful).”

Friedersdorf–again, refreshingly–also makes the point that the idea “that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others” is a position held by many people based on many factors and characteristics yet somehow only those who oppose gay marriage seem to be vilified by the political left. Why?

As he wraps up his column Friedersdorf makes a couple of very astute observations about the use of stigma as a strategy in what should be intelligent debate. First, “What I think, in fact, is that stigma is an overrated tool for effecting change, because once you’ve gotten to a threshold within a community where lots of powerful people will stigmatize a behavior, the point had already been reached where it would be defeated without stigma.” I don’t know that I agree with him that the behavior in this case–the opposition to homosexual marriage–would be defeated without stigmatizing it but I certainly agree that stigmatizing is not an effective means of achieving meaningful change. What I think is that stigma tends to be used most often and most loudly when there is no legitimate and coherent argument to be made in opposition. Thumper famously said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Those who wield stigma tend to abide by a different adage, one that goes like this: “If you can’t say something logical and effective to counter their argument, call them names and compare them to horrible people of the past instead.”

Second, Friedersdorf writes, “Those who rely on stigma are tied to a tactic that is employed most when needed least, often against groups already marginalized within a community; no wonder stigma is correlated more strongly with signaling self-righteousness than effecting change. That isn’t to say stigma is never appropriate—just that engagement and persuasion is almost always the better option, as it is on gay marriage.” Again, I disagree with Friedersdorf that those who oppose gay marriage are “already marginalized” but I agree entirely that engagement and persuasion is the better option. Not just with gay marriage, either. You will see the stigma attack unleashed by liberals in the evolution versus creation debate, too, among other examples.

So…what’s the bottom line? Conor Friedersdorf and I completely disagree on the issue of gay marriage. But we disagree respectfully and without calling each other names or attaching stigma. We might even, if we had a sit-down face-to-face chat, find other areas in which we agree. One thing we definitely do agree on is this: stigma is a wimpy weapon, one that brings nothing valuable to any discussion and, in fact, does more to demean and belittle those who employ it than those again whom it is being employed.

February 5, 2014

The Debate

On Tuesday, February 4 an historic event took place in Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati. It was attended by more than 800 people and it was viewed live through Internet streaming by more than one million. Odds are, you already know what I am talking about. As I skimmed through comments on Facebook last night after the event was over it seemed that many people were referring to it simply as “the debate.”

The Debate was just that, an intellectual exchange of ideas between Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” and Ken Ham, co-founder and CEO of Answers in Genesis. Nye is an evolutionist and Ham is a young earth creationist. Their debate, at the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum, was over the question of whether or not creation is a viable model of origins in today’s scientific climate. To no one’s surprise, Ham believes it is while Nye believes it is not.

No doubt many individuals far more articulate than I will dissect the various arguments and elements of the debate, and no doubt from both sides. I can assert with equal certainty that individuals on both sides will also no doubt make derogatory comments about the individuals and the arguments on the other side, though history bears evidence that far more of these will come from the evolutionist side than the creationist side. I will leave the analysis of most of the nitty gritty details to others, and I do not intend to call anyone names.

On the contrary, I would like to commend both Mr. Ham and Mr. Nye for their willingness to engage in such a public exchange of ideas, placing themselves literally and figuratively in the spotlight on an international stage. Regardless of one’s convictions, beliefs and training, being on the spot, live, in front of millions, tasked with defending a belief system held strongly by millions as their sole at-the-moment spokesperson is not a position many people would envy or be willing to assume. The event no doubt benefited both men and the organizations of both men. Answers in Genesis, for example, reported more than two million visits to its web site in the month leading up to the debate. So sure, publicity was no doubt part of the motivation on both sides. I do not believe, however, that it was at the heart of either man’s willingness to participate in the debate.

As Albert Mohler pointed out in his blog post today, “Nye was criticized by many leading evolutionists, who argued publicly that nothing good could come of the debate.” Criticism is never pleasant, and when it comes from your own camp it is even less so. Kudos, then, to Bill Nye for his willingness to stand on a stage beside one of the world’s leading apologists for the biblical account of creation, and to do it on the creationist’s home turf.

The debate was well planned, well executed and–in a rarity for many debates these days–well moderated. Ham and Nye were civil to each other and respectful. Nye even told Ham after Ham’s initial presentation that he had learned something. (Interestingly, he never said what that something was, though, and it may well have been that Ham holds even crazier ideas than Nye originally thought).

I am a young earth creationist, as is Ham, and I believe that God created the world in six literal, 24-hour days. Odds are good that if you have ever read my blog before that you already knew that. If you are a newcomer, there you go–full disclosure, I agree with Ham. Actually, if you want truly full disclosure, I am a charter member of the Creation Museum and have supported both the museum and Answers in Genesis financially. So it will come as no surprise that I agreed with what Ham said in the debate and disagreed with much of what Nye said. That I went into the debate with my mind made up puts in no small company, though; the same can be said of both Ham and Nye as well as many, if not the majority, of the folks who watched the debate. As Mohler wrote, “If you agreed with Bill Nye you would agree with his reading of the evidence. The same was equally true for those who entered the room agreeing with Ken Ham; they would agree with his interpretation of the evidence.” No one expected Ham or Nye to be convinced by the other or to change his mind. Neither, I suspect, did either man expect to change the mind of the other. One thing that came through loud and clear in the debate is that reason will not change the minds of individuals devoted to either position. Sure, there may be people who have not made up their mind either way, and they may have been swayed, but the debate was more a presentation of data and dogma than an effort to win votes or converts. Ham, by the way, admitted that he would never change his mind, since his beliefs are rooted in the Word of God. Nye suggested that he would if evidence was presented to sway him, but he almost simultaneously stated that such evidence could not exist, so his seeming openness to change was not entirely legitimate.

There were a couple of things that the debate made clear to me that I will comment on. One is that Bill Nye has apparently never read the Bible. His comments about it, and his apparent shock when Ham stated that some of the Bible is history, some poetry, etc, served as proof positive that he is, at best, unfamiliar with the Word of God. One point in favor of those with a biblical worldview is that they are willing to listen to and even study the other side in their defense of their faith.

Two, Nye’s own comments made it clear that the evolutionist position relies just as much on faith as the creationist position does. There were at least two times during the question-and-answer section of the debate when Nye responded to a question by saying, “We don’t know.” Translation: no proof exists for what he believe on this issue, we just believe it. Interesting, given how strongly Nye and others on the evolution side of the argument criticize Ham and those on the creation side for clouding their understanding of science with “beliefs.” Ham made the point early in the evening that the evolution position is just as much a “religion” as the creation position; I never heard Nye comment on that statement.

Three, Bill Nye seems scared to death that schools might actually consider allowing creation to be taught in schools, or at least allow evolution to be questioned or “critically examined.” There were times during the debate when he sounded like a political candidate, appealing to voters to save the United States from falling behind in the world. This was not a new position for Nye; in a widely-seen video Nye made last year he said of those who believe in the creation position, “[I]f you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can—we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.” In other words, Nye is suggesting, if you believe in the biblical account of creation you cannot be an intelligent, practicing scientist. You cannot accomplish great things within the scientific community. This position was why Ken Ham made such a point of quoting, mentioning and even playing video clips from accomplished scientists who hold to the creationist viewpoint, including the inventor of the MRI machine. I confess, initially I wondered why Ham kept including these references and dwelling on this point, because it did not seem to be a major tenet of the argument to me. As Nye went on though it became increasingly clear that it is a crucial part of the argument and Ham knew what he was doing. Oddly enough, perhaps, it had never occurred to me that someone would think that if you believe the Bible you cannot also be good at science. How naïve of me!

Albert Mohler concluded his blog post this way: “The central issue last night was really not the age of the earth or the claims of modern science. The question was not really about the ark or sediment layers or fossils. It was about the central worldview clash of our times, and of any time: the clash between the worldview of the self-declared ‘reasonable man’ and the worldview of the sinner saved by grace.” I really could not say it any better. Nye insists he is reasonable, and by default that Ham is not (nor are those who believe as he does). Interestingly enough, the Bible describes godly wisdom as “reasonable.” James writes, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). I am thankful that Ken Ham demonstrated wisdom from above in his debate with Bill Nye; my prayer is that Bill Nye will come to know that reasonable wisdom from above some day, too.

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