Stupidity or malevolence

Originally published on Argus Leader Media’s Political Smokeout blog on Aug. 8, 2014. Expanded and reposted here.

With apologies to Thomas Jefferson, the concept of self-evidency is one of the most dangerous concepts in modern American political discourse.

When something is self-evident, it doesn’t need to be justified. It’s obvious to anyone in their right mind who thinks about it.

In contrast, things can be true without being self-evidently so. I believe it’s better for government to be as transparent as possible. Someone could rebut that government transparency should be limited because it threatens people’s privacy. That doesn’t change my mind – I’m convinced transparency is best. But I recognize that other points of view are at least potentially valid and don’t expect others to adopt my view because it’s obviously right.

But lots of people think their views about subjects like taxes, immigration, same-sex marriage or energy policy are self-evidently true. In some cases they may even be right! But even treating something as self-evident is toxic to the polity, because it chokes off debate and leaves people unwilling to change their minds even when presented with convincing evidence that they’re wrong.

A particular mindset emerges among people who believe something is self-evidently true when confronted with people who hold a different position on that issue. How do you explain differences of opinion when something is self-evident? There are only two options: the other person has to be either stupid or malevolent.

That is: someone who doesn’t hold a “self-evident” view is either too stupid or uninformed to realize the obvious correct answer, or they realize that obvious correct answer and yet willfully act on behalf of a position they know to be wrong.

This even applies to people who don’t even disagree with the self-evident-believer, but merely don’t share their outrage about the situation at hand. For someone who believes so strongly in the capital-t Truth of a particular issue, even staying on the sidelines is unacceptable – something that can only be the result of stupidity or malevolence.

Stupidity or malevolence is in most cases a false binary. In most issues, well-informed and well-meaning people can come to different conclusions about the best goal and/or the best way to reach the best goal. People can also have good, valid reasons for not sharing outrage (such as, I’ll humbly submit, trying to cover a controversial issue as a neutral journalist).

But, you might justifiably object, some things are self-evidently true. We shouldn’t entertain serious debate about subjects like the morality of genocide just for the sake of “civility.” And you’re probably correct. But the problem comes when you move from the clear-cut cases to muddier ground.

As human beings we’re fallible and prone to errors in judgement: We all know people who passionately believe true something we think to be ridiculous or wrong. We can even identify things we ourselves have been wrong about in the past. Are our current set of beliefs correct in a way that our past beliefs and others’ credos aren’t? It’s unlikely. This doesn’t mean the things we believe aren’t true or that we should reject them. All it means is we should, in holding to certain truths, acknowledge the possibility — however slim — that we’re wrong and our opponents are right.

Many things have a true answer to them, but only a few of those truths are self-evident. Confusing the two has poisoned our political debate.