Monday, March 17, 2008

Reasonable Meta-Disagreement?

Can people reasonably disagree about what people can reasonably disagree about? Put another way: can we expect to achieve a reasonable consensus as to where the boundary lies between what we might reasonably dispute vs. what is completely beyond the pale? Or could there even be reasonable disagreement ("meta-disagreement") as to where the boundary lies?

That would be strange. Stepping beyond the pale disqualifies one from reasoned discourse; it means that one can no longer be regarded as a reasonable, respectable interlocutor. If we're unsure about this -- if we think there might be grounds for reasonable dispute there after all -- then it's no longer an automatic disqualifier ("beyond the pale"). But if another could reasonably dispute that some move really was beyond the pale, then it seems they could reasonably go there themselves. So the fact of reasonable meta-disagreement would immediately resolve itself: it entails that the first-order issue may indeed be reasonably disputed. By contraposition: if something really is beyond the pale, then it must be unreasonable to think otherwise. No?

I wonder about this because I recently came across a post from old blog friend Jim Ryan, accusing Obama of being a 'racist degenerate', which struck me as completely beyond the pale. As I explained in the comments, I can see some room for a reasonable conservative to judge Rev. Wright's sermons to be objectionable (personally, I think the fuss is overblown), and - supposing they're objectionable - there's room for reasonable dispute as to whether parishioners (incl. Obama) should have left the Church (again, I'm not convinced). So, there are some reasonable (if misguided) criticisms in this vicinity that could be leveled at Obama's private morality. But Obama has been perfectly clear in distinguishing his pastor's views from his own. Obama's own stance on racial issues is obviously less confrontational, more conciliatory. (Hell, he's written a whole book on the topic.) This is not in question, so it's simply dishonest to ignore these facts and assert that he is 'racist' nonetheless.

More generally, I don't see that the Wright "scandal" is of any genuine public interest. Delving into a candidate's church/community background might provide some weak indication of their views if we didn't have anything else to go on. But nobody seriously contends that Obama is an angry black nationalist (much though his slimier opponents might like to insinuate it). These "revelations" about his church are not enlightening. (It's well known that he joined the church for essentially pragmatic reasons, as a community organizer, to get closer to the community he hoped to serve.) So the only motivation for kicking up a fuss in this case is sheer partisan scandal-mongering: the subjective fact that it may serve to whip up outrage and opposition. There's simply nothing there that's of rational relevance to Obama's candidacy, even if the critics are right on every single point of reasonable dispute.

Everyone should be able to see this dialectical point, it seems to me, even if they disagree on some of the first-order questions. So I don't see how to avoid the conclusion that anyone who continues to charge Obama with 'racist degeneracy' (even after having the above pointed out to them) has simply lost touch with reality.


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