We like black and white, we do. We don't like shades of gray. We don't like nuance. We don't like tension between competing ideas. Even when we pretend to embrace complexity, we scornfully reject it when it intrudes into areas we care about.
We believe in the zero-sum game — the proposition that something is all one thing or all the other, that you can't blame one person for a bad event without diminishing the blame of another.
But that's not the way the world actually works.
As an example, take the revolting attacks on the United States Embassies in Cairo and Benghazi yesterday.
Our tolerance for nuance and complexity dives to all-time lows after such barbarity. We're only human.
But complexity remains.
It's possible to say that there is no excuse whatsoever for this violence in response to speech you don't like, and that the angry mob should be condemned without qualification, and still believe — and say — that "filmmaker" Sam Bacile is a vile bigoted douchebag peddling contemptible hate-smut.
It's possible to say that the bigoted Bacile has an absolute right in the United States to make and distribute anti-Muslim propaganda (with very narrowly limited exceptions — for instance, showing it to an angry crowd gathered outside a mosque might be intended to cause, and likely to cause, a clear and present danger of imminent lawless action), and say say that his exercise of that right makes him vermin. He seems like a verminy kind of guy. Here's what he had to say about the murders in Benghazi:
Though Bacile said he felt sorry about the death of the American who was killed in the outrage over his film, he blamed lax embassy security and the perpetrators of the violence.
"I feel the security system [at the embassies] is no good," said Bacile. "America should do something to change it."
(The argument that Bacile is not legally responsible for mob violence is correct, the argument that he is not morally responsible for mob violence is persuasive to me, but the argument that the fault lies with bad security is the sign of a disordered mind.)
It's possible, on the one hand, to say that the international Muslim community has within it dangerous extremists who believe they have a right to use violence against innocents to enforce their religious orthodoxy on everyone else, and also, on the other hand, to say that there is simultaneously anti-Muslim bigotry characterized by betrayal of American values, lunacy, and dogged refusal to see Muslims as individual human beings.
It's possible to defy extremists who want to use the threat of murder to enforce their religious orthodoxy upon us — and defy those who would abuse official power to do the same thing — and also condemn bigots.
It's possible to say that some Muslims are, as a result of their beliefs, a grave danger to us, and also to say that we have engaging in deeply disturbing policies as a result.
It's possible to condemn the U.S. Embassy in Cairo's terrible statement whilst also recognizing that people are using criticisms of the statement cynically for advantage in the presidential race.
Certainly some expressions of "nuance" can be one-sided capitulations. I maintain that the Embassy in Cairo offered such a capitulation yesterday, for reasons I described in yesterday's post; compare those to the administration's subsequent statements that there is no excuse for the violence.
But on the whole, we are too wedded to the zero-sum game — to the notion that we must be on-message like a political flack, conceding no point that might detract from the message of the day.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Lady Justice's Occasional Friends - June 19th, 2013
- Easing Back In, With Ponies - June 18th, 2013
- Prenda Law: The Sound of One Shoe Dropping - May 20th, 2013
- This Is The Most Wonderful Legal Threat EVER - May 17th, 2013
- OMICS Publishing Group Makes A Billion Dollar Threat - May 15th, 2013