Friday, January 27, 2017

Debate Comes in Threes: A Primer on Abortion, Climate Change, and Incitement

In the news this week arose three topics in particular that both sides speak about as if there only is one side to the argument. My goal is to address each as succinctly as possible and hopefully show why each topic is not as cut-and-dry as many assume. I admit that I am not immune from speaking in absolutes about these topics, but if we acknowledge the nuances that define the arguments, we can work towards greater liberty for all.

Some people may argue that I have simplified these topics too much. But if an argument cannot be boiled down to a core axiom, then the entire argument falls apart by relying on a faulty premise. If I have misstated the central tenet of any argument, however, please feel free to correct me so that the discussion can be advanced.

FIRST: Abortion

This topic is one ripe for ideological differences, and it all comes down to a philosophical question: when does life begin, or better yet, when is a person a person?

The "pro-life" side provides a spectrum for when life begins, but it's all centered around protection of the unborn fetus. Whether "life begins at conception," life begins when there's a beating heart and other recognizable organs, or using some measure of viability--that is, the point at which a fetus could survive outside the mother--the pro-life side defends the right to life of this thing that cannot speak for itself.

The "pro-choice" side argues on behalf of the woman carrying this fetus to term. They, too, can fall along a spectrum--anywhere from saying the fetus is a part of the woman until birth, to the more extreme view that a fetus is a parasite living off the woman for nine months--but they come together to defend a woman's right to choose what she can do with her own body.

Because there is no empirical way to determine when a human being, fetus or no, obtains personhood--and thus, the rights to life and liberty that come with it--the debate often ends in a stalemate. Neither side is necessarily wrong; it just seems that they are talking past each other.

SECOND: Climate Change

The debate on climate change is a bit more difficult to nail down, mostly because it seems the boundaries of the debate continue to shift. The two sides to this, as I see them, are those who believe that humans have a direct effect on the earth's climate and action must be taken to reduce that effect, and those who think action is unnecessary. The latter includes people who outright deny the existence of humanity's effect on the environment.

But make no mistake: this is a debate about action, and typically, government action. Excluding for the purposes of this discussion those who outright deny climate change--because I'd rather not get into Newton's Third Law--the debate appears to center around a question of degree. (No pun intended!) The earth's climate is changing, but is it changing at a rate or pace that requires drastic action?

The proponents of government intervention argue that it is, and if we want to preserve this earth for future generations we must take steps beyond simple precautions now. They point to changes in temperature, global weather phenomena, increased wildfires and flooding, among other measurable data points as evidence that the situation is getting worse.

Opponents argue that the temperature fluctuations and other phenomena are natural and outside the statistical margin of error, or observational error. In other words, if the earth has been around for millions or billions of years but we've only been taking accurate temperature readings for the last two hundred or so, the sample size is very small and the margin of error is higher.

Complicating this debate is an insistence by proponents that "the science is settled," an interesting way of concluding an argument when science is supposed to be a never-ending search for answers. Because a vast majority of climate scientists (somewhere around 97%) fall on the side of calling for immediate action, many believe the debate should be over. But the debate roars on in other forums--along with the remaining ~3% of scientists--over precisely how much action is needed and how to implement such actions.

THIRD: Incitement

This is by far the area that interests me the most, so I will try my best to remain neutral in describing this debate. Two separate instances this week of a white nationalist, Richard Spencer, being punched by someone because of the message he promotes catapulted this topic into the news.

Free speech proponents argue that no matter Spencer's rhetoric, he should not be subjected to violent reactions. They take to heart Voltaire's directive: "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." The principles of free speech embodied in the First Amendment apply to popular and unpopular speech alike.

In contrast, Spencer's opponents say that his ideas are violent and he is the initial aggressor because of his views on white supremacy and nationalism. Because Spencer advocates for the elimination of certain people from American society, he is inciting violence and poses a direct threat to people who belong to those threatened groups. Many point to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany to justify the preemptive strike: if people fought back against Hitler's rhetoric sooner things might not have gone as far as they did.

This debate about incitement--and it's not just the one surrounding Spencer--is particularly interesting because the proponents and opponents can often switch sides depending on the identity of the speaker and his or her message. In 2015 and 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement marched and protested throughout the country. While most of the demonstrations were peaceful, a few erupted into riots. BLM opponents blamed the movement's rhetoric and anti-police sentiments for inciting violence.


As a society we face many issues that will divide us morally, ideologically, and politically. When we are absolutely certain there is only one answer to our problems, we must be able to remove the blinders we put on and see things from the other side's perspective. Only after we explore the premises of both our own arguments and our opponents' can we understand how deep the problem runs. At that point, we can work towards a solution that expands everyone's liberty.

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