I've accused the government of habitually abusing categorical rhetoric — selling the populace on the concept that certain categories of things are uniquely dangerous and therefore outside our normal scheme of individual rights (child pornography, for instance, or anything related to the Great War on Terrorism), and then surreptitiously trying to cram as many disfavored things as possible into those no-longer-narrow categories, whether or not those things logically belong in those categories or not. Hence you get government officials explaining to you that anti-piracy efforts calculated to protect Shrek from illegal downloads belong in the terrorism "box", with all the additional government powers and limits on citizen rights that implies. This approach eases the government's persuasive burden: leaders only need to keep the populace convinced of the legitimacy of the pure category (e.g., terrorism is very scary, and the government should have more powers to deal with it), and then smuggle stuff into the category under the noses of an inattentive citizenry.
But it would be wrong to say that this rhetorical dishonesty is unique to government. Citizens are guilty of it, as well — citizens employ categorical rhetoric, and therefore encourage our government to use it. Take, for instance, the trend of citizens advocating limits on free exercise of religion. Diana Serafin of ACT! For America, who protested to oppose the right of Muslims in Temecula, California to build a mosque, executes a picture-perfect abuse of the categorical worthy of any bureaucrat defending the scope of his power:
“As a mother and a grandmother, I worry,” Ms. Serafin said. “I learned that in 20 years with the rate of the birth population, we will be overtaken by Islam, and their goal is to get people in Congress and the Supreme Court to see that Shariah is implemented. My children and grandchildren will have to live under that.”
“I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion,” she said. “But Islam is not about a religion. It’s a political government, and it’s 100 percent against our Constitution.”
It's hard to argue for exceptions to rights or interpretations of rights. It's much easier to just argue about boxes. Thus Ms. Serafn and ACT! For America tries to sell us on the concept that Islam belongs not in the "First Amendment right to free exercise of religion" box, but in the "enemy government" box. Ms. Serafin's rhetorical move is rather reminiscent of that employed by the advocates of campaign donation restrictions who were infuriated by SCOTUS' recent decision in Citizens United v. FEC, who argue that donations to support desired candidates and measures don't belong in the speech box, and ought to go in the "interfering with elections" box instead.
In a world governed by karma, Ms. Serafin would find her preferred religious denomination reclassified and placed firmly in the Political Action Committee box rather than the free exercise box. But as watching the news for ten minutes will tell you, most karmic rewards must be awaiting wrongdoers in the next life, because they aren't getting them here. Besides, despite the temptation to respond to rhetorical abuse with rhetorical abuse, disingenuous categorical thinking about rights is self-perpetuating and threatens everyone's rights.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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