Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ann Coulter vs. Human Rights

I don't know anything about Ann Coulter. I have seen her on TV for maybe 5 minutes, and I've heard of the titles of a couple of her books. Other than that, I just know of the occasional controversial quote the media pundits pick at for a few days. She seems to be a religious and political nut, but I'm in no position to make that judgment.

She should be able to say any nutty thing that she wants to: hateful, disrespectful, idiotic, etc.

Believing that you're right, and being unwilling to open the issue up to discussion is just saying "fuck off" to anyone who happens to disagree with you. How does that encourage people to open their minds, let alone change them? The way we deal with these people today is to institute oppressive laws, to vilify the individuals and to treat their ideas as taboo and "just plain wrong". When we vilify them automatically for their ideas, we're pushing them into a defensive position that causes them to strengthen their resolve on the ideas even more than if we just ignored them and let them be. When we decide an exchange of ideas is no longer necessary, we can expect good speech to be limited as well, and that only helps the spread of bad ideas.

We should be doing the opposite. We should focus on the ideas and not the individuals. The bad speech should be drowned out by good speech. The debate should be open and accessible for all, so that any listeners should never have to rely on the bad speech they hear as the only speech they hear. The answer to bad speech is more speech.

Beyond that, we should enthusiastically engage the individuals who hold these unacceptable views, and offer them the chance to share their ideas with us and to listen to ours. When we invite them into an intellectual discourse, we're inviting them to share our viewpoint and to change--or at least to be less hateful to those of us who see things differently.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant; we should be bringing bad ideas to the forefront, exposing them as flawed and offering our peers an opportunity to change their minds. Isn't that better than "fuck off"?

A little off-topic but shares my broad concept of the free market of ideas: watch Penn Says: Love of Truth and a Little Bullshit. I believe it's not only bad--intellectually bad--for people to believe in bullshit and not engage in the free market of ideas, it's also intellectually wrong to believe in something so obviously right and close the door on exchange of ideas. Al Gore likes to say, "the debate is over"; the debate should never be over.

"When you announce that you believe in something that you feel but you can't prove, you're just saying "fuck off" to everyone who doesn't happen to feel that....Questioning things that others have faith in is just another way of saying, "I'd like to share this feeling with you, give me something we can test in this world we agree to share." -Penn Jillette

Monday, March 22, 2010


I'm very troubled by the way government works to pass laws. The US health care reform was a great example of that. Forget the backroom deals, the hundreds upon hundreds of pages of legalese that nobody actually read, the reconciliation process and all the rest of the ugly mess that is democracy in action in the US Congress.

I'm annoyed to see a divided issue like this settled with growth in government. The issue of health care was fairly evenly split. There was a slight favour among people towards not passing the bill, but let's just call it even for all intents and purposes here. The Congress is made up of representatives, including the aptly named, House of Representatives. Supposedly, democratic government is all about representing "the people". But when an issue is divided as the health care issue is in the US, how do you possibly represent the people? Half want more government, half want less. The Congress cannot represent the people's will with either an increase or decrease of government intrusion, nor can the even keep it the same or balance it out.

The conventional wisdom would be to compromise. Both sides can choose their battles and both can get some benefit from compromising, so goes the theory. But even for the sensible tone and spirit of working together, compromise is ridiculous. That compromise is the solution assumes that both sides have equal legitimacy (turning issues into only two-sided affairs is a bit simplistic, but it's for simplicity's sake). Both sides aren't equally legitimate. If some people want more government, they need to impose their will on those people who do not want more government. Those wanting less government are not imposing their will on anybody to achieve that goal, they are merely deferring to private contract any additional particulars that the 'more-government' people might like to have. And what's more, even just keeping things the same, which seems like the reasonable thing to do in most cases, is in fact illegitimate versus reducing government. Once again, to keep things the same means to impose your will on those who want less government burden.

This brings up a lot of questions now about when a suitable majority is reached. If 75% of people want more government, then certainly they have a sufficiently-large majority over the rest to enact their goals, right? Well, for me that is certainly false. Nobody has the right to impose his or her will on another person, no matter how many people agree with him/her, or how few people agree with the minority. With 99% of people desiring one thing, the tiny one percent is no less entitled to be free from the majority than if it were 51-49 or even.

For the purposes of this blog, I don't need to get into this issue though. My point is that we should at the very least be discussing what a suitable majority is. For people like me, it is 100%, and though others might disagree with that, would they disagree that a representative government has to have the support of more than just 51%? 60? 70? 80? I hope most people would concede that 51% is not sufficient.

On the second point, it bothers me that the margins of success were so small in both chambers of the Congress on the health care reform. For the House, a body of 435 members, the vote was decided by less than ten votes--approximately 1.5% won the day! We may not be able to accurately determine public opinion on any given issue. Due to the fact that health care reform was high profile, multiple polls were conducted to help us get a reasonable estimate of where the people stood. On smaller issues, and other more technocratic issues on which many people will not be well-informed and which the media are uninterested in, such polling may never take place. In these cases, it's expected that the voter's have elected the right person to cast the right vote. And again, is 51% support enough to justify a law that burdens 100% of the people? I don't think so.

This also brings up a corollary with regards to repealing laws. If, for argument's sake, we determined a 75% super-majority to be necessary to pass a new law, shouldn't we similarly require only a 25% minority to vote favourably to repeal an existing law?

To sum up, shouldn't we be tweaking our government processes? Are they really working for us in the spirit of "representational government"?