When Good People Hold Abhorrent Views

First this happened:

Then this:

Duplass might have made an error in saying that Ben Shapiro is a good person for left-leaning folks to follow. He should probably have started with some less provocative commentators, preferably ones who haven’t built a career on triggering snowflakes and drinking leftist tears. That said, Ben Shapiro has a lot to say that’s worth listening to. He also says a lot of stuff that’s wrong, even abhorrent, but that doesn’t mean he’s not worth engaging.

The attacks on Duplass following his endorsement of Shapiro were based mostly on overblown claims that Shapiro is unashamedly hateful. Shapiro is not hateful. He is a provocateur, which is generally not a particularly helpful thing to be (at least insofar as you’re interested in “reaching across the aisle”). He has also said extremely insensitive things, which he (to my knowledge) has not apologized for. These (and others) are valid reasons to criticize Shapiro as a pundit. But when left-leaning people flip out at the suggestion that Shapiro might be a decent person who is worth listening to on at least some points, they reinforce the increasingly popular perception that the left writ large cannot abide any departures from leftist orthodoxy whatsoever. It is this perception that fuels Shapiro’s career as a pundit.

Much more useful is the approach of Eric Weinstein, below:

I’m not sure how willing Shapiro actually is to “cross the aisle.” Perhaps there are some clips out there of him entertaining the possibility that socialized medicine doesn’t entail enslaving doctors. Or maybe he, at some point, expressed openness to the possibility that black people are more likely than white people to be mistreated by the police. I don’t know. But Weinstein actually knows Shapiro, so there’s probably at least something to his claim in this tweet.

What I appreciate most about Weinstein’s tweets is that they show how you can criticize someone without denouncing him. There is an important difference between criticism and denunciation. Criticism is directed at a person’s ideas, arguments, behavior, etc., while denunciation is directed at the person himself. There just aren’t many situations in which denunciation serves the common good. People denounce primarily because it helps them to demonstrate their ideological steadfastness and moral purity to sympathetic onlookers, not because it actually advances their ideology by persuading the undecided. Whereas criticism can encourage a person to refine his ideas or change his behavior, denunciation encourages people to double down on whatever it is they got denounced for in the first place.

An example of this going the other way: advocates for abortion rights hold beliefs about the unborn that I find positively repulsive. I believe that there are compelling reasons to regard unborn persons as persons and to respect their right to live, and that a refusal to acknowledge the personhood of the unborn for the sake of convenience is just as morally evil as denying the personhood of any other class of persons for the sake of convenience. But denouncing people who are in serious error about the evil of abortion does nothing except demonstrate the purity of my commitment to the pro-life cause. If I actually want to persuade people that abortion is evil, I need to engage them, not denounce them.

The fact is that decent people believe and do abhorrent things. This is the norm, and it always has been. If you want to get rid of abhorrent beliefs and prevent people from committing abhorrent acts, then you can’t settle for denunciation. You have to do what Weinstein is doing and make a good-faith effort to persuade people that their ideas and actions are wrong. Of course, some people know perfectly well that what they’re doing is wrong. Right knowledge does not lead to right action. But even in such cases, a virtuous friend is more likely to correct that person’s behavior than mass denunciation from strangers on Twitter.

Sometimes I like hearing Ben Shapiro’s takes on current events. He’s smart, and he can articulate conservative ideas pretty well. But the “own the libs” persona he has cultivated, plus his bad takes and insensitivity on issues like race and gender dysphoria, makes him really hard to listen to, at times. If Weinstein’s criticism is effective in improving some of Shapiro’s ideas (and making him less of a flamethrower), then we all win.


Ownage and that RBG Trailer

“[Insert activity here] to own the libs” is one of my favorite internet memes, mostly because it’s just so true to the times. People disregard their own interests, their own beliefs, and basic facts as long as doing so allows them to triumph over people whom they consider to be enemies, whether that’s liberals, conservatives, the swamp, etc.

This type of behavior is especially common on Twitter, where character limits make any kind of deep discussion more difficult. People generally aren’t looking to say something interesting and insightful; they usually just want to “dunk on” people, which is another way of saying to “own” them. However, the phenomenon is not limited to Twitter. Sometimes it makes it into movies (or at least, movie trailers).

Here’s an illustration of attempted ownage and its costs to society (relevant clip begins at 2:14 and ends at 2:24):

In this clip, we have RBG “own”ing a judge by saying that the word “freedom” doesn’t appear in the Constitution. Of course, this simply isn’t true (see the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech”), and people have been criticizing the trailer for the line:

Basically, in an effort to have RBG “own” some white male judge, the screenwriters have her making a false claim about the content of the Constitution. This is not a good move. I echo Adler’s hope that the producers fix that line.

(n.b. Some people have tried to defend the line, saying that “the Constitution” in this context should be interpreted to mean “the unamended Constitution” or “the original Constitution.” But there is no reason that a lawyer arguing a constitutional case before a court would mean “the unamended Constitution” when referring to “the Constitution,” because the unamended Constitution is NOT the Constitution. Not anymore, at least.

You might make the case that the RBG character in the film is making the point that the Constitution need not explicitly mention a thing to protect it, which is all well and good. The problem is that she could easily make that argument without making the false claim that “freedom” doesn’t appear in the Constitution, and even if the unamended Constitution didn’t include “freedom,” it did include “liberty,” which kind of undermines the argument above, and also the analogy between “woman” and “freedom” has limited utility, since “woman” is a class of persons and “freedom” is not, etc. Basically there’s no reasonable way to interpret this line that doesn’t make the screenwriters look silly. That’s because the screenwriters specifically chose to sacrifice clarity, and perhaps also truth, so that the line would deliver more ownage to RBG fans.)

The RBG Movie Was Good

Tonight I saw RBG, a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I am not what you would call a fan of Ginsburg, but I am a fan of the film. It showed me what Ginsburg was like as a person and portrayed her career (especially her career as an advocate, prior to her appointment to the bench) in a way that even conservatives like me should be able to appreciate. Much about her story is inspiring, from her relationship with her husband to her admirable performance in law school (which she did while taking care of a young child and her sick husband) to her career of legal advocacy with the ACLU. While I don’t care for Ginsburg as a judge, there is a lot about her as a person that I think people should try to imitate.

My favorite parts of the film related to Ginsburg’s marriage and family. Her husband, Martin, whom she met when she was 17, played a significant role in supporting her as she pursued her judicial career. Despite being one of the best tax lawyers in New York, he moved down to D.C. when she received an appointment to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. In spite of his own brilliance, he had no trouble taking a backseat to his wife. I find his commitment to her admirable, and hope that I will be similarly supportive of my future wife.

When Ginsburg was in law school, her husband became ill with cancer. She had to take care of him and their young daughter while completing her coursework… and helping him with his own. Despite these complications with her family, Ginsburg made law review at Harvard solely on the basis of her academic performance. Whatever disagreements you have with Ginsburg philosophically, and I have many, you must acknowledge that she was brilliant and indomitable.

What strikes me about Ginsburg is that, in many ways, she breaks the feminist mold. She had a child before attending law school. We are often told that women need to postpone having children in order to pursue education and advance in their career, but Ginsburg appears to prove that wrong. Moreover, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law so that she could be with her husband when he graduated and got a job in New York. The difference in reputation between Columbia Law and Harvard Law was not as significant then as it is now, but that was still a sacrifice that she chose to make for the sake of her marriage.

Besides her family life, I enjoyed learning about Ginsburg’s career as an advocate for women’s rights. Ginsburg argued six cases before the Supreme Court and won five; all had to do with sex discrimination. Her arguments generally had to do with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. I’m not super familiar with the cases she argued, and I’m generally skeptical of trying to effectuate political change through litigation, but I appreciate the work she did to ensure that women and men receive equal treatment under the law. Generally speaking, I think that a straightforward reading of the Fourteenth Amendment requires our laws to treat men and women alike (with some exceptions that might apply only in contentious cases).

I will never be convinced that Ginsburg deserves the worship that she receives from progressives. Nevertheless, I believe that she is a model citizen who played a significant role in the development of the women’s rights movement, and that there is much to emulate in her life. Films like RBG help us in these hyper-partisan times, as they show us how much there is to admire in political figures (which Ginsburg certainly is a political figure) that has nothing to do with politics. Ultimately, I think that may do our republic more good than anything Supreme Court Justices do. When Americans who hold varied beliefs have virtuous role models, everyone wins.

Private Wealth and Politics

Disclaimer: I am not a socialist.

Elizabeth Bruenig writes, “As more left-flank challengers face off with center-left incumbents and more democratic socialists begin looking toward public office, beware: You will all be called champagne socialists or yacht communists, the ritzier and more radical counterparts of limousine liberals.”

This is probably true. A substantial number of conservatives have an adolescent fixation on “owning the libs.” One of the best ways to “own” people is to “expose” their “hypocrisy.” And what is more hypocritical than a socialist with a yacht?

But Bruenig’s bigger point in her article is that the moderate affluence of some socialists shouldn’t count against them. To a degree, I think she’s right. You can be a person of means and still sincerely believe that inequality is a serious problem that can best be solved by socialistic policies. Politicians are always partially motivated by self-interest, but they’re also motivated by their respective visions of the common good. If you’re trying to criticize a candidate as young as Ocasio-Cortez (who is just 28), then you should presume that her platform is more a result of youthful idealism than of hypocrisy and cynicism. Criticize her because her proposed policies won’t work, not because she’s putting on a show to get votes.

At the same time, though, I do think that we should expect socialists to live modestly. Indeed, I think we should expect everyone who cares about the common good to live modestly. Individual persons have a specific obligation to the poor that is distinct from our society’s collective obligation to the poor. You can’t blame people for questioning someone’s commitment to the latter if they don’t demonstrate a similar commitment to the former.

It’s just as important, however, to make sure that advocates of small government demonstrate this commitment. In fact, for a proponent of small government to neglect his personal duties to his less fortunate neighbors is even more of a problem than for a democratic socialist to do so. The socialist (mistakenly) thinks that the only sufficient solution to poverty is government action, so it makes sense for him to push for government policies instead of giving to charity. The fiscal conservative, on the other hand, is skeptical of the capacity of government to fix things, and points to private charity as a better alternative. If, then, he doesn’t give, how are we supposed to trust him when he says 1) that he cares about the poor and 2) that private charity is better at alleviating poverty than the government?

I instinctively favor small government, mostly because I think that governmental bureaucracies tend to be poorly run and wasteful. I also don’t want the state to wield too much influence over the lives of everyday Americans. But small government only works if the people are willing to pick up the state’s slack. If we’re not going to have a gigantic welfare state, then we’re going to need people to actively care for one another.

TL;DR Everyone should be less focused on themselves and more focused on the common good. If you want the state to decrease inequality, then get a head start by giving your own resources to help the poor. If you want the state to remain as small as possible, then prove that we don’t need a larger welfare state to care for the poorest among us by caring for them yourself.

Hypocritical Pro-Lifers

You see claims like the one above pretty often. My first problem with such claims is that they’re not necessarily true. There are obviously “pro-life” people who aren’t actually all that pro-life. At the same time, many pro-life people do care for the poor, the fatherless, the abused, etc. And they do so for the same reason that they advocate for the unborn: they respect the dignity of every human person. If comments like this are aimed at the pro-life movement in general, then they are just wrong. If they are aimed at hypocritical pro-lifers who aren’t willing to fully affirm the dignity of all persons, then they should make that clearer.

My second problem is that these statements often come from pro-choice people who are trying to delegitimize the pro-life position by attacking the character of the people who hold it. This is what is called an ad hominem. The character of the people who hold a particular view has no bearing on whether the view is true. Even if most pro-lifers are hypocrites who don’t really respect human dignity, it’s still evil that our law treats fetuses as non-persons who can be killed at will.

I occasionally see pro-lifers say similar things in a way that I find much more helpful:

This appears to be true. Moreover, rather than calling pro-lifers hypocrites, the tweet says that they have failed to love their neighbors in a specific way that has undermined their credibility as advocates for the unborn.

I don’t agree with everything in the thread that follows Pyle’s first tweet. People tend to assume that if you’re against a particular government policy that’s supposed to reduce poverty, then you don’t care about reducing poverty. But it’s not unreasonable to think that a large welfare state crowds out civil society, and that the church and charities should be leading the charge to alleviate suffering, rather than the state. Nevertheless, I do agree that pro-lifers sometimes fail to grasp what it might mean to affirm the dignity of every human person, and that this failure makes it harder for outsiders to see why we care so much about the unborn.

The pro-life agenda is not just to make abortion illegal, but to make it unthinkable. And the only way to do that is to show people what a comprehensive ethic of human dignity looks like. This means that being pro-life needs to mean more than just wanting to criminalize abortion. All people are made in the image of God. Let’s act like it.