Both Parties are Terrible

It’s unavoidable. Politicians are in the pocket of special interests. They say otherwise, but they’re usually lying. They need the special interests, otherwise they won’t get elected, but they also need to convince you that they’re pursuing the common good. Don’t be fooled: like all other people, politicians are motivated by self-interest. They need to get elected and re-elected, and they need to be liked. What this means is that they have every reason to conceal their true motives, and almost no reason to be transparent. Don’t trust them more than you have to.

I like it when people are critical of politicians. What bugs me is when people are critical only of politicians on one side of the aisle. This makes no sense. Just because someone says they’re on your side does not mean that they are on your side. Why shouldn’t they take your vote and pass legislation that hurts you? You probably wouldn’t even know, because who really pays attention to Congress?

The leaders of our country are not heroes, at least, they aren’t while they’re in office. If we look back on their legacies and decide that they were really great for our country, then we can mythologize and romanticize them. But as long as they’re in office, we should remain suspicious.

A Tale of Two Op-Eds

Last week, I unsubscribed from the New York Times after they published an op-ed advocating censorship. This week, a whole bunch of people (many of whom have blue check marks) have gotten upset about Bret Stephens’s first column in the paper, which said that claiming absolute certainty about climate science is counterproductive and dishonest.

Above is the tweet with the article. Below are some responses to the tweet:

musician

Chuck is a musician and blogger. He is also disappointed. NYT = fake news for publishing an op-ed that questions the value of asserting absolute certainty on climate change. Questioning the certainty of climate science = science denial.

erick

Erick writes at HuffPo, that paragon of journalistic responsibility. He has written hard-hitting pieces such as “Bernie Sanders’ Jumpshot Is More Impressive Than His Primary Win” and “Here Is President Obama’s 2016 March Madness Bracket.” How dare the NYT say anything about climate change that doesn’t reinforce what everyone else is saying all the time, namely, that if you deviate from the consensus at all, then you’re anti-science.

monica

I guess Monica is just some kind of writer. But she recognizes that Times readers don’t necessarily have much critical thinking ability, and that therefore they can only publish things that Monica agrees with, lest somebody be led astray.

What is unbelievable to me is that it doesn’t seem like Stephens is making a particularly strong claim. He concedes that the earth is growing warmer, and that humans are playing a significant part in contributing to the earth’s increased temperature. That is all the science really tells us, as Stephens notes. The main point of the article is not to deny climate change, but to question the strategy of people who want to pass legislation to counteract climate change.

And his point is obviously correct. The more dogmatically you hold to a position, the more you assert that you are 100 percent correct, the more likely it is that other people will think something is fishy. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. If you want people to listen to you, don’t tell them that they are stupid if they disagree with you. No one will want to engage with you, because you have made conversation impossible.

I can’t say for sure, but it seems like Stephens’s column provoked more outrage than Ulrich Baer’s op-ed on free speech, which I find quite disturbing. I base this on the twitter responses to the tweet above versus the tweet below. Thus, this claim might only apply to people in the media, who are disproportionately likely to be on twitter. Nevertheless, what this indicates is that the media is more committed to its claims about climate change than it is to free speech. They’ve got it totally backwards.

Anyhow, I liked Stephens’s column, and I’m glad the NYT published it. I won’t be renewing my subscription, but I will use up an occasional free article view on Stephens, I am sure.

The Jihadism of the Radical Left

In Islam, the word “Jihad” means “to struggle.” It is a word that describes Islamic terrorists making war in their own region or in the west, but it is also describes the internal struggle of non-violent Muslims against their own inclinations to sin and vice. The ideological left in the United States has adopted both forms of Jihadism.

I’ll start with the non-violent, more internally focused version. This form of leftist Jihad is relatively benign, but still pernicious. It consists in the radical left’s obsession with “checking their privilege.”* Supposedly, oppression is ingrained in the fabric of social reality, even in the very core of our being. In order to combat oppression, therefore, one must combat it even at the level of unconscious biases. When we do or say or think anything that betrays our privilege, we must repent. What’s more, we have to shout down anyone who questions the doctrines of SJWism so that they don’t lead us astray from the SJW religion. Hearing anything that doesn’t reinforce the dogma might turn us into nazis, so we can’t hear opposing viewpoints, nor can we allow anyone else to. No one can be allowed to “perpetuate a system of injustice,” which is what everyone except us (the SJW coalition) is doing.

The more violent form of left-wing Jihadism is a logical extension of the no-perpetuation rule at the end of the last paragraph. But the focus creeps from one’s own internalization of the systemic injustices committed by the infidels to the infidels themselves. It’s not only that we can’t allow the infidels to corrupt us. We have to intimidate them with threats of violence. Perhaps it won’t be long before the militant factions of the radical left will start actively seeking out victims instead of waiting for provocative speakers to have events nearby.

The Antifa have proven in the last week that they should be classified as a terrorist organization. Just this week, they have used threats of force to get two events canceled in two different cities. In Berkeley, they were able to stop an Ann Coulter event because the University and the police were either unwilling or unable to provide adequate protection for Coulter and her supporters against Antifa thugs. In Portland, the Rose Parade was canceled after the Antifa threatened to attack any participating Republican protestors. The reason they were taken seriously in these two instances is because they have engaged in violence before. When Milo Yiannopoulos went to Berkeley to speak several months ago, the Antifa mob set fires and threw stuff at buildings, making it too dangerous to hold the event.

As we know, you don’t negotiate with terrorists. These people have rejected the terms of any debate that might be had, because they reject debate as a phallogocentric tool of the capitalist fascist patriarchy. The only options available are to capitulate or to refuse to capitulate. We’ve seen what happens when we capitulate: we preserve peace, temporarily, but they win. What will the consequences be if we don’t acquiesce to the left-wing fascists?

Well, they’ll attack us. That’s what terrorists do when you don’t do as they say. They are advocates of lawlessness.

But that’s what the police are for. When people publicly and flagrantly break the law, the police should stop it. It might result in some people getting hurt, including some innocents. But the long-term consequences of rewarding the Antifa by doing as they say when they threaten us will be far worse. It’s like parents giving lollipops to their children every time the children throw tantrums. Don’t reward bad behavior if you want to have well-behaved children.

If we want to get rid of the Antifa’s thuggery, we shouldn’t reward it; we should punish it. Obviously, we have an interest in preserving public safety. But public safety should never be contingent upon the consent of a fringe group that rejects the fundamental principles of a free society. These people aren’t brave; they will stop being a serious problem if we stand up to them and vigorously defend our free institutions. So let’s stop giving them ground.

 

*Go to Everyday Feminism for a whole host of mostly unnecessary and ridiculous discussions about privilege and oppression, including such gems as “Can Having Genital Preferences for Dating Mean You’re Anti-Trans?” and “The Gender Non-Conformity of My Fatness.”

 

 

Person of Color

When I visited Columbia University in the fall of my senior year of high school, the tour guide there said that a significant percentage of the students at Columbia identified as people of color. My father later remarked to me that I am a person of color, as well.

Obviously, this is true. I have as much non-caucasian heritage as Barack Obama. My mother’s mother is Chinese, and my mother’s father is Filipino. I do, however, have light skin, and people have differing opinions on how Asian my features are.

It never would have occurred to me to identify myself as a person of color. Part of the reason for this is my light complexion. Another reason is that I don’t think of Asians as people of color, for whatever reason. And yet, I fit in this category.

This makes it sound odd to me when people describe people of color as a single group, particularly in the context of racial discrimination. While all the different ethnic groups falling under the umbrella term “people of color” have faced racism in the United States, they have faced it at different times to different extents in different places.

Indeed, I have faced no racial discrimination, except maybe for when I applied to college.* And I’m not even sure whether schools actually discriminate against Asians in the admissions process, so I’ll just round down to zero. If some people of color have not been “marginalized” for their race, then does the term even make sense? What characteristic is the term supposed to capture besides non-whiteness, if not the experience of being oppressed by white people? And if there is no other characteristic besides skin color, then why should all of us “people of color” be grouped together?

For this reason, I think the term “person of color” is not particularly useful, except as a way to sneakily draw an arbitrary line between white people and everyone else.

*The table below shows the relative disadvantage that Asians supposedly face in college admissions.race

Berkeley has Fallen

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Antifa expressing support for violent action against Trump supporters. “Bike lock” refers to the Antifa practice of bludgeoning people over the head with bicycle locks. “Red hat’ refers to the hats worn by Trump supporters.

The fascist Antifa (short for, ironically, “anti-fascist”) has taken over Berkeley by force. Because of this group of violent thugs, hosting even marginally controversial speakers at the University presents a threat to public safety. That’s what Chancellor Nicholas Dirks says, at least. Dirks released a letter today to the U.C. Berkeley campus community defending the University’s decision not to provide a venue for Ann Coulter to speak on campus tomorrow afternoon. The University offered to accommodate Coulter’s event at a later date, but Coulter refused. The later date would be during Berkeley’s “dead week,” and the event would take place in the afternoon, rather than in the evening. Thus, fewer students would be able to attend.

Coulter initially planned to go ahead with her event on the original date anyway, despite the University’s lack of support. Today, however, she canceled. With no support, she and anyone who wanted to hear her speak would be at serious risk of being attacked by Antifa thugs.

I don’t blame Dirks for not wanting to host Coulter at her requested time and date. I blame the Antifa. They are the ones who put Dirks in such a crappy situation. It is the Antifa who have taken it upon themselves to dictate what can and cannot be said by threatening to attack those who express opinions that they don’t like. This is a clique of wannabe Stalins, and it can’t be easy for administrators to figure out what to do about them.

If you’re skeptical of Dirks’s real motives in refusing to give Coulter a venue at her requested time and date, read the following paragraph from his letter:

In relation to the invitation made by a student group for Ann Coulter to speak at Berkeley this week, we have therefore to take seriously the intelligence UCPD has regarding threats of violence that could endanger our students, our community, and perhaps even Ms. Coulter herself. It is specific, significant and real. Yet, despite those threats, we have — and will remain — ready to welcome her to campus, and assume the risks, challenges and expenses that will attend her visit.  That is demanded by our commitment to Free Speech.  What we will not do is allow our students, other members of the campus community, and the public to be needlessly endangered by permitting an event to be held in a venue that our police force does not believe to be protectable.  If UCPD believes there is a significant security threat attendant to a particular event, we cannot allow it to be held in a venue with a limited number of exits; in a hall that cannot be cordoned off; in an auditorium with floor to ceiling glass; in any space that does not meet basic safety criteria established by UCPD.  This is the sole reason we could not accommodate Ms. Coulter on April 27th, and the very reason we offered her alternative dates in early May and September, when venues that satisfy safety requirements are available.

Maybe I’m naive, but I buy it. I don’t think Dirks is motivated by a desire to suppress Coulter’s speech, although I’m sure he’s no fan of hers. I think that these Antifa people are a genuine threat to public safety. It’s worth pointing out, though, that Dirks is essentially capitulating to the demands of terrorists.

In any case, Dirks’s response to the situation is far less significant than the fact that the situation even exists. The Antifa are powerful enough in Berkeley to censor controversial speakers. This is cause for serious concern. Mob rule is incompatible with the rule of law, which is one of the foundations of a free society, along with free speech. Indeed, the apparent purpose of the Antifa is to destroy the free society and create an equal society in its place.

Chris Hayes from MSNBC seemed to question the importance of recent events on college campuses on Twitter a few days ago:

For some reason, the significance of what’s going on in our colleges and universities is lost on Hayes. Berkeley, the birthplace of the free speech movement, has been taken hostage by the Antifa mob. We didn’t defend it against them, and they took it with ease. The same can happen to other universities if we don’t nip this in the bud.

Make no mistake, these people are at war with western civilization. If we ignore them, they will gain more ground. Let’s not let them.

 

Remembering the Confederacy

A handful of southern states celebrate Confederate Memorial Day. I’m not entirely clear on the purpose of the holiday for those who observe it, but my understanding is that it is to honor the confederate soldiers who served and died during the Civil War. Understandably, this holiday is controversial:

Are these fair assessments of the holiday? I’d say that, for the most part, they are.

The simple fact is that the Confederate States of America existed for the sole purpose of maintaining the institution of slavery, which is almost certainly the greatest evil in the history of the country. Southern apologists may tell you that the Civil War was about “states’ rights.” Don’t be fooled. The South wanted to extend slavery as far as it could, even into free states, if possible. At common law, before the zenith of antebellum sectional tension, slaves went free after residing in free jurisdictions. Southern states, however, stopped enforcing the common law, instead deciding that their own laws governed the status of slaves regardless of where they were. In other words, once a slave, always a slave, and the laws of free states could do nothing to change that. So much for states’ rights.

And if you don’t believe me, listen to the Mississippi declaration of secession:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world…

The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution, and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787, in regard to the Northwestern Territory…

It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion… [emphasis added]

The Confederacy was a self-declared nation committed primarily to the preservation and expansion of the perpetual subjugation of one race to another. There is no justification for regarding it with anything except horror.

But what about the individual soldiers who bravely “fought in defense of their homes, their families, their way of life, and their state”? After all, they are the subject of the holiday, not the Confederacy itself.

Some of them were undoubtedly admirable individuals. Nevertheless, they fought, killed, and were killed for the sake of perpetuating a grievous moral abomination. Why honor that? When good men are sacrificed for an abominable cause, there is nothing to celebrate.

That’s not to say, however, that the confederacy should not be remembered. But if we are to observe Confederate Memorial Day, it should be the same kind of observance as Holocaust Memorial Day. We should mourn our egregious moral failures as a nation and pray to God that we don’t repeat them. After all, we are always in danger of participating in grave collective evils, whether through our action or inaction, especially when we are willfully blind to the dark episodes in our history.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is instructive:

The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

To honor those who fought in the Civil War instead of grieving and repenting of the collective sins that led to the war is to flout the advice Lincoln gives in his speech. Both North and South justly incurred the wrath of God by their willful moral blindness. Today, we still have not yet come to terms with the grave evils our ancestors committed. Indeed, we cannot atone for this sin, which has become our sin. We cannot escape the responsibility to remember it with grief and horror, and to promise that we will guard ourselves from committing such atrocities in the future.

Bravery and valor are virtues when used in service of the good, but they are vices when used in the service of evil. Let’s not gloss over the fact that the confederate soldiers honored by southerners on Confederate Memorial Day were fighting to preserve evil, even though they may not have been evil people themselves.

Regressive Judicial Activism: Dred Scott v. Sandford

When you hear the term “judicial activism,” you probably think of Tea Party politicians decrying progressive Supreme Court rulings. Right-wing politicians want to use the letter of the law to oppress people, so they attempt to delegitimize the decisions of the Court by pushing forth the outrageous idea that laws should mean what they say. This seems to be the popular wisdom, at least. Originalism, adherence to the Constitution’s original meaning at the time its provisions were adopted, is taken to be a conservative judicial philosophy. Judicial activism is for progressives standing up for the rights of the marginalized.

The popular wisdom, however, is dead wrong. Judges have often imposed their personal views on the Constitutional text in order to take rights away from the little guy, not to give them to him. In particular, the Supreme Court did huge damage to the struggle for civil rights for blacks by interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment into oblivion in the late 19th century. In this series, I will explain some of the Court’s rulings that modern progressives and originalists alike can and should condemn. My point in doing this is to show that originalism is compatible with defending civil liberties, and that a living constitution is compatible with destroying them.

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

Dred Scott was a Missouri slave suing for his freedom. The legal basis for his claim was that he had resided for a significant period of time in a free state, as well as in a U.S. territory in which slavery had been made illegal by Congress. Under Missouri law, slaves were emancipated after residing in a jurisdiction that outlaws slavery. As a result of heightened sectional tension following the compromise of 1850, however, the Missouri Supreme Court overruled its precedents and declared that Dred Scott was still a slave.

Scott then sued for freedom in the federal courts. In order for the federal courts to have jurisdiction over Scott’s suit, Scott had to be a citizen of the United States. Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that Scott was not a citizen of the United States because he was black. According to Taney, blacks could not be citizens. No provision of the Constitution can be reasonably construed to support such a claim. Taney was abusing his power as a Supreme Court Justice and treating his personal opinions as if they were the supreme law of the land. The best he is able to do is give some bad historical analysis, which the dissenters in the case thoroughly refute. (Justice Curtis’s dissent in the case is particularly worth reading.)

Taney also held that Scott could not be a citizen because he was a slave, notwithstanding his residence in free jurisdictions. In order to defend this claim, Taney has to do some creative interpretation concerning the power of Congress to govern the territories. According to Taney, Congress did not have the right to prohibit slavery in the territories, because the Constitutional provision which authorizes Congress to govern the territories actually doesn’t mean what it says:

The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States. (Art. IV Sec. 3)

Taney gets around the plain meaning of the clause by saying that the word “Territory” refers “to the territory which at that time belonged to, or was claimed by, the United States, and was within their boundaries as settled by the treaty with Great Britain, and can have no influence upon a territory afterwards acquired from a foreign Government” (page 431 here).

In multiple instances, Taney conjures up constitutional principles out of thin air for the purpose of keeping Dred Scott and all other blacks in a state of permanent subjugation. This is judicial activism at its worst.

The decision of the Court in Dred Scott provoked a great deal of outrage in its own day, and is recognized today as one of the worst, if not the worst, Supreme Court decisions ever. You can say that the pursuit of justice is a sufficient reason to override the plain meaning of the words of the Constitution, but if you adopt that rule and apply it consistently, eventually someone who defines justice in a way you don’t like will get on the court, and you will likely be singing a different tune. The alternative to the rule of law is tyranny, and you can’t guarantee that the tyrant will be on your side.

Blogs I Read

There’s a lot of good content on the internet. There’s also a lot of bad content on the internet. Here are some places where I regularly find more good content than bad. They are mostly focused on law, but there’s also a lot of commentary on free speech and the campus controversies surrounding it.

Simple Justice

This is Scott Greenfield’s blog. Greenfield is a criminal defense lawyer. He writes about the Supreme Court and constitutional law, as well as campus free speech controversies, several times a day. I’ve been reading every post that goes up on the blog since I found it, and they’re always good.

Popehat

Popehat is a blog run primarily by Ken White, another criminal defense lawyer. White and the others who run the blog have libertarian leanings, and one of the main topics they write on is free speech. They also have some commentary on media coverage of legal controversies (journalists are usually bad at legal analysis), in addition to commentary on appellate and Supreme Court decisions. Every once in a while they publish something funny just for kicks.

The Volokh Conspiracy

Eugene and Sasha Volokh started this law blog in 2002. It has since moved to the Washington Post and gained a bunch more authors, most of whom are law professors. The blog is generally conservative/libertarian in its leanings, although many of the posts are focused on technical legal questions, rather than political issues.

SCOTUSblog

This blog is, far and away, the best resource for people interested in quick updates on what is happening at the Supreme Court. They have all the case materials available for download, including cert petitions and amicus briefs. They also have a calendar that indicates when the Court is expected to release orders or decisions, when oral arguments for different cases are happening, and when the Justices will have conferences. There’s also a lot of helpful posts that explain why particular cases are important and what the relevant legal questions are for those cases.

Done with the NYT

I cancelled my New York Times subscription today. Lately, they have been publishing too many awful opinion pieces for me to keep giving them my money. They had been on the line for a while, but I just couldn’t take it anymore. Below I list the articles and what I think is wrong with them.

This article makes a weak argument against originalism. Huge national media outlets undoubtedly have their pick of good op-eds, but they chose to publish this one for some reason. The author’s main point is that the founders didn’t intend for the Constitution to be interpreted according to its original meaning; rather, they intended for the meaning to evolve.

There are some provisions for which you can make this case. For example, the phrase, “cruel and unusual” is somewhat ambiguous, and can be reasonably construed as inviting an evolving interpretation. However, some doctrines in our constitutional law cannot be reasonably linked to any constitutional provision. For instance, the right to privacy is nowhere in the Constitution, but the Court has decided that it exists and is protected. Moreover, Mr. Levy offers no evidence that the founders intended the Constitution to have an evolving meaning besides the presence of ambiguous wording in the document.

The article also wrongly claims that Brown v. Board of Education cannot be justified on originalist grounds, even though the work of scholars such as Michael McConnell and Stephen Calabresi has shown this view to be false. The original meanings of the privileges or immunities clause and the equal protection clause rendered segregated schools unconstitutional. It was only as a result of the Court’s activism that these provisions were gutted, resulting in segregation and Jim Crow.

Linda Greenhouse blames the Republicans for breaking the Supreme Court. The Court, however, is not any more broken than it has always been. It has always made bad, political decisions, and it always will. What’s more, the Democrats are just as at fault for the continued politicization of the Court as the Republicans. Neither party cares much about the Constitution, as a general rule. They only pretend to do so in order to turn their policy arguments into constitutional arguments.

And then there’s the whole thing about the “stolen seat.” Yeah, it was kind of awful that the Republicans didn’t give Garland hearings. But still, they were acting within their rights, and it was smart politics. The most important thing to me is that politicians follow the rules. And the Republicans did, like it or not. Getting Gorsuch onto the Court instead of Garland is good for constitutionalism in the country, and the rules were followed in the process, so I’m not complaining.

The content of this article isn’t a problem in itself. The problem is that the Times neglected to mention that the author of the article is a terrorist, instead referring to him as a “Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” They have since added an editor’s note explaining this. It was grossly irresponsible of the NYT to not make the author’s identity clear from the beginning.

This is probably the worst offender (and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back). The author’s main point appears to be that allowing the discussion of evidence and reasoned arguments that contradict the experiences of marginalized people is equivalent to taking away their rights and denying their humanity. That anyone takes this kind of thinking seriously is appalling and terrifying. The author writes:

The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.

This paragraph gave me cancer. Free speech actually does mean “a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks,” with narrow exceptions for direct incitement to violence, fighting words, direct threats, and slander. The author casually refers to the “inherent value of a given view” as if we can agree on which opinions have value and which don’t. Newsflash: we can’t. The alternative to free speech is that someone, the one who decides which viewpoints have sufficient value, will dictate what can and cannot be said. Good luck making sure that it’s you!

* * *

Any publication that publishes illiberal trash like this does not deserve your money. Unsubscribe from the failing New York Times today!

Rules for Civil Discourse

People are bad at talking about divisive issues in a way that is productive. I think that the norm is for one of two things to happen when people discuss issues about which they’re passionate. The first possibility is that those around them will agree with everything they say, strengthening pre-existing biases. The second is that someone will raise a contrary viewpoint, resulting in an all-out war of words. Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic. I don’t know what most people are actually like, as I do not know most people; they might be much better at dialogue than I think they are. Nevertheless, this tendency toward polarization and toxic disagreement is real, and it is a problem. People need to be able to disagree without being at each other’s throats.

Here are some principles that I try to follow in order to avoid starting/exacerbating ideological flame-wars while still discussing controversial issues publicly:

Recognize that every opinion you express is an invitation for criticism or disagreement

When you say something about a controversial or politically charged topic, you should expect some resistance from people who disagree with you. This can be a sign that you have said something interesting that is worth engaging with. It can also be a sign that you’ve said something stupid. In any case, when you share an opinion, expect others to share contrary opinions. Even more, expect others to respond in ways that might annoy you or make you mad, and do your best to prepare yourself for it.

Attack ideas, not people

The quickest way to inject unnecessary drama into an argument is by calling one of the participants an idiot. Remember, smart people can believe dumb things. The way to convince people that your ideas are better than theirs is through reasoned argument, not through name-calling. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Ad hominem attacks are counterproductive; they make you sound like a childish fool.

Sometimes, it can be tempting to comment on someone’s critical thinking abilities (or lack thereof). This is a bad idea, even in cases when the person in question is demonstrating pretty severe deficiencies in critical thinking. When you tell someone that they’re thinking poorly, they will likely ignore everything else you say. In contrast, if you explain specifically what about their reasoning you think is wrong, they are more likely to continue engaging with you.

Don’t play to win, play to learn

Every disagreement is an opportunity to learn something. It’s possible that your views are wrong, and challenges to them from other intelligent people might lead you to change your mind. This is a good thing. Clinging to bad beliefs for the purpose of winning an argument is stupid (obviously).

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t make the best arguments that you can for your position. Productive debate requires that both sides make the strongest case that they can for their position. In the end, one side may or may not triumph over the other. Regardless, everyone will learn something. When you try to make a convincing argument, you need to think carefully about what you believe and to what extent the evidence actually supports your belief. Likewise, you need to consider the arguments of the other side and rebut them. As a result, you will think more clearly about the issue at hand.

Remember, you’re not as smart as you think you are

Arrogance is the enemy of learning. If you think you already know what you need to know, then you have no reason to listen to people who disagree with you. Chances are, many of the beliefs you hold are flawed or flat-out wrong. As a result, it might be a really good thing for someone to come along and change your mind. You get smarter by listening to other people, not by ignoring anyone who challenges your presuppositions.

*  *  *

I think that if everyone tried to follow these rules, then the world would be a much better place. Charity is sorely lacking in our political discourse, these days (not that it has ever been present). If we focus on pursuing the truth instead of demonstrating our intellectual or moral superiority over others when we discuss controversial topics, then we are far more likely to come to some kind of agreement. So let’s do that. Let’s argue vigorously, but treat people with kindness and respect. Let’s seriously consider contrary viewpoints in their strongest form. And of course, let’s change our minds when we’re wrong. Otherwise we’re doomed to stay as dumb as we are. Which is pretty dumb.