America’s founders had several central convictions. One of these was that the center of the government’s (and therefore the law’s) view of citizens is that they are individuals who bear rights, and that one of government’s central roles is to guarantee these rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” In fact, they were so serious about these rights that they codified them in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which we know today as “The Bill of Rights.”
(“Inalienable” = they can’t be violated or taken away.”)
(Yes, I know the framers were thinking primarily of white males. Their limitations do not invalidate their genius. They got many things wrong, but the things they got right are the things that make the USA the great country that it is. And the things they got right enable their successors to correct the things they got wrong.)
It’s fine to say that citizens are individuals bearing inalienable rights. But what happens when the rights of one individual are in conflict with the rights of another individual? What happens when people disagree, for example, over the exercise of their respective religious convictions?
Fortunately, the framers knew all about the clash of rights in the context of a clash of worldviews, because they lived in a world just emerging from the shadows of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the most destructive war in Europe prior to WW I. Their answer to the clash of rights was pluralism, a system that ideally protects the rights of minorities while following the will of the majority in a deliberate, careful way.
SLATE STAR CODEX is a blog written under the pen name “Scott Alexander” (an anagram for “slate star codex”) by a psychotherapist based in the San Francisco area. This blog and its successor feature thoughtful, provocative discursions through philosophy, politics, medicine, AI, and human behavior.
In a brilliant post, “Against Murderism”, Alexander examines different types of racism, and how saying that you’re against racism is kind of like saying you’re against murder; comforting, but not necessarily meaningful. Or helpful.
Toward the end of the post, he describes the importance of pluralism to the American system, where it came from & why the framers cared about it so deeply. (He refers to pluralism as “liberalism”, but what he means by liberalism and what I mean by pluralism are the same; a system based on individual rights that protects the rights of minorities while allowing the will of the majority to guide the country [albeit imperfectly.])
The entire post is greatness, but here is the part that speaks most directly to our current hostilities:
People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.
And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”
You say we must protect freedom of speech. But would you protect the free speech of racists?
You say people shouldn’t get fired for personal opinions that don’t affect their work. But would you let racists keep their jobs?
You say we try to solve disagreements respectfully through rational debate. But would you try to rationally debate racists?
You say people should be allowed to follow their religion without interference. But what if religion is just a cover for racism?
You say we need to understand that people we disagree with can sometimes have some good points. Are you saying we should try to learn things from racists?
You say there’s a taboo on solving political disagreements by punching people. Are you saying that we can’t punch racists?
The argument goes: liberalism assumes good faith and shared values. It assumes that, at the end of the day, whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, you can still be a basically good person. You can compartmentalize a few special beliefs relating to the Pope, and your remaining differences can be dissolved by the universal solvent of Reason. After everyone does this, you can invoke the wisdom of crowds via a popular election, and even if you don’t like the results you can at least understand where the other side is coming from. Some people prefer liberty to safety, other people prefer safety to liberty, but if the voters choose the wrong one then at least they’ve erred in an understandable way by preferring one real value to another.
But if there’s some group out there who aren’t connected to normal human values at all, some group that’s deliberately rejected reason; if they’re willing to throw liberty and safety under the bus in pursuit of some kind of dark irrational hatred which is their only terminal goal – then the whole project falls apart. Dialogue based on mutual trust may be all nice and well when it’s supposed to help us choose the optimal balance between liberty and safety, but if you give a platform to the people whose only value is hatred, then they’re just screwing over everybody.
A few days ago, Noah Smith posted on Twitter about hearing some people say racist things. The comments went like this:
Ah well. They said a racist thing. Guess we’ve got to kill them.
And I agree with this chain of logic. Using violence to enforce conformity to social norms has always been the historical response. We invented liberalism to try to avoid having to do that, but you can’t liberalism with people who refuse reason and are motivated by hatred. If you give the franchise to green pointy-fanged monsters, they’re just going to vote for the “Barbecue And Eat All Humans” party. If such people existed and made up a substantial portion of the population, liberalism becomes impossible, and we should go back to just using violence to enforce our will on the people who disagree with us. Assuming they don’t cooperate with our strategy of violently suppressing them, that means civil war.
I don’t want civil war. I want this country to survive long enough to be killed by something awesome, like AI or some kind of genetically engineered superplague. Right now I think going out in a neat way, being killed by a product of our own genius and intellectual progress – rather than a product of our pettiness and mutual hatreds – is the best we can hope for. And I think this is attainable! I think that we, as a nation and as a species, can make it happen.