Truth-Seeking, An Engaged Citizenry

We should always take seriously the views we disagree with. Dismissing or ridiculing is a bad habit to get into. If we leave a claim unchallenged, it remains powerful. We should stand up for our convictions and we should give respect to the convictions of others, especially when there is conflict.

An example of this is the Right’s view of sexuality and family values, a set of very emotional and polarizing issues. I’ve heard the argument that the decline of the Roman Empire correlated with an increase of homosexuality. This is taken as an assumption, but it is a serious argument that shouldn’t go unchallenged. I know a variant of it can be found in some history books. There apparently were some people in the late Roman Empire, as it became Christianized, who began to complain more about sexual deviancy.

The problem with this argument, the problem we should point out again and again, is that there is no actual data that homosexuality was increasing. Also, we should endlessly repeat that, either way, correlation isn’t causation. An increase of allegations isn’t the same thing as an increase of what is being alleged. Nor does it say much about the real reasons of societal decline, which were complex and about which there is little consensus.

This kind of argument is also applied to our own time.

These past decades saw an increase of fear-mongering about violent crime even as violent crime was decreasing. A culture of fear-mongering and scapegoating rarely has much to do with objective reality. For this reason, we should never let such unjustified paranoia and blame to stand unchallenged. The point is to be persistent and stubborn, even to a fault. We should never back down when it comes to false claims. But if we believe a claim is false, it is up to us to prove it. And we should do so loudly and publicly.

That is the responsibility of every citizen in a democracy, if they care to keep the democracy they have. We should never underestimate the enemies of democracy, no matter where it comes from, whether from our opponents or apparent allies. We have to hold ourselves up to a higher standard and maintain the moral high ground.

It isn’t just about rhetoric and persuasion. We must put truth before all else, and we should follow truth wherever it leads. And if what we assumed to be true turns out to be false, we should admit to that loudly and publicly. That is the only way we can have a positive influence. We should never be afraid of what we know and what we can’t be certain of. Intellectual humility is a strength, not a weakness.

We must demand this of others, as we demand it of ourselves. It is necessary that we strive to model our own ideals. Democracy means little, if not taken as a personal set of values to live by. Principled conviction is only a moral good when based on honesty, when putting the public good before mere self-interest. What is the point of winning a debate when you lose your own integrity?

Any public good worthy of the name is based in truth and honesty. When we collectively prioritize such public good, we will finally have a democracy, not just in name and form but also in substance. The public good doesn’t necessitate agreement about everything. Disagreement can actually be useful when based on fair-minded public debate. That is what is called an engaged citizenry.

4 thoughts on “Truth-Seeking, An Engaged Citizenry

  1. I was thinking about “enemies of democracy”.

    I don’t think anyone, other than maybe psychopaths, are inherently enemies of democracy. More accurately, someone is only an enemy of democracy when they act contrary to democracy, when they contribute to the undermining or even outright destruction of democracy or any aspect of democracy.

    So, we all have the potential to be enemies of democracy. The most dangerous enemies of democracy are those we don’t see coming because they act or think like us, they say all the right things, or seem like good people.

    The worst enemies of democracy, for certain, aren’t foreign terrorists or lazy immigrants. To destroy a democracy you require a significant support from the native-born population. This is why Christian fundamentalists are more dangerous to American democracy than are Islamic fundamentalists. But in an Islamic country, the reverse is true.

  2. There is great importance in demanding careful thought. It is too easy to make baseless accusations and unjustified generalizations.

    Violent crime and mass incarceration is a perfect example. Some people would like to blame the increased incarceration on increased crime. However, it is crime that has increased, but the criminalization of behavior by changed laws. Most of the people being imprisoned are because of the drug laws and most of these are from personal possession, certainly not because of violent crime.

    So, it is meaningless to state that supposedly increasing homosexuality is destroying society and has destroyed past societies. It’s not just meaningless. Democratically speaking, it is a very dangerous way of speaking. This kind of paranoid bigotry, this fear-mongering and scapegoating, is what is always behind authoritarian governments. If we are worried about the destruction of our (democratic) society, it is this type of rhetoric and the policies that go along with it that we should be worried about.

    I don’t care if someone wants to make a politically incorrect argument. But if they don’t want to be publicly shamed, they better make sure it is an honest truthful argument based in facts. I’ll take any such argument seriously, not that they come along that often. To be taken seriously, an argument has to be worthy of being taken seriously.

    • I always want to think and speak clearly. As such, I don’t mean that an argument is ever bigoted. It is the intention behind an argument that is bigoted or not.

      So, the argument about homosexuals destroying society isn’t necessarily bigoted, not exactly. But it is hard to imagine why someone would make such an argument except for reasons of bigotry. The only other reasons I could think of is some people might be mindlessly parroting what they heard others have said or they could just being contrarian. Even so, it probably doesn’t speak well to the individual’s character.

      I’ve had this debate with myself before. A related issue is racism. I’ve written a number of posts about what makes someone racist, and so if and when it is accurate/fair to call someone a racist. How do we know someone’s intention? Should we hold people accountable for when they make stereotypically bigoted statements?

    • There is a personal reason I wrote this and so a personal struggle in my thought process. I know someone personally who has made such arguments as the one about homosexuality.

      I wouldn’t call him a bigot and he is a well intentioned person who goes to great lengths to do good for others. However, he grew up at a time when bigotry was the norm and that background is part of what seems normal to him. He doesn’t see it as bigotry, of course.

      Still, I feel that is all the more reason people like this should be held accountable. It’s not their fault for having been born at an earlier, less enlightened time. But it is their responsibility to be, not just well intentioned, but also well informed. This requires growing self awareness and social awareness, a difficult thing for people to do as they age.

      We all fail to live up to democratic values from time to time. So, it isn’t simply blaming certain people. It is our shared responsibility to hold each other accountable, even when or especially when it involves those personal relationships where we can have the most influence.

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