Sunday, January 29, 2012

Buzzwords of Ignorance: Constitution

Credit goes to Don Baker and his "Buzzwords of Ignorance" series on The Atheist Experience for the inspiration of this post title. The idea of "Buzzwords of Ignorance" is to address words that are used primarily to evoke an emotional response as opposed to making a rational argument due to the ignorance of the audience being addressed, essentially making the word meaningless. Needless to say, this post has no connection to Mr. Baker's series.

   There are essentially three cases where I see the word "constitution" (and its derivatives) used out of ignorance:
  1. Policy X is unconstitutional.
  2. Policy X goes against the Founding Fathers' original intent of the Constitution.
  3. Politician X will restore the Constitution.
   #1 and #2 are actually much the same. The primary difference between the two is that #1 can be a legitimate statement from time to time, but #2 is almost always a statement of ignorance. So, I want to start with #2 and then work back to #1. The problem with #2 is all the original parts of the Constitution that we have done away with. Originally, slavery was legal, slaves counted as 3/5 of a person (and only for the purpose of determining the number of representatives of voters, which slaves were not allowed to do), the U.S. Senate was unelected (state legislatures picked the state's Senators), women were not allowed to vote, and much of the Bill of Rights did not apply to the States. (First, the Bill of Rights, though actually a collection of amendments, was written by many of the same people who wrote the original Constitution, so I think we can include that in the "original intent." Second, things like freedom of speech and separation of church and government were only protected by the Federal government; if States wanted to restrict these rights, they could have done so. In fact, they did. Many states had endorsed specific denominations of Christianity, restricting citizenship to non-Christians as well as Christians of the wrong denomination. Many states did voluntarily get rid of these restrictions, but they would not have to until the 14th Amendment...and even then not until the Supreme Court set some precedence on the application of that amendment. (Actually, some states, like North Carolina, still have statements in their state constitutions that contradict the Bill of Rights, but they are no longer enforced or cannot legally be enforced.))

   This "original intent" argument is a crap argument. There were a lot of flaws with that "original intent," many of which have been fixed, but the question that should be asked of anyone who uses that argument is if that is what they want to go back to? My guess is that they don't. They are using the argument primarily as an argument from authority. It is based on a legendary perspective of the Founding Fathers being near, if not, perfect individuals who could nearly do no wrong1. Thus, anyone who suggests doing anything differently must be wrong. It is a "short-cut" argument, if you will. The person making the argument disagrees with some sort of policy or policy proposal, and, instead of arguing rationally against what is wrong with the policy to persuade people to be against the policy (I'll go into the reasons for this later), they use arguments like this to provoke an emotional and irrational response instead. So be cautious when you see such an argument; chances are the presenter is trying to manipulate you emotionally.

   Getting back to #1, this can be based around the same idea of the Founding Fathers being near infallible as with #2, only their hand in the process may merely be implied or assumed in the argument as a whole. Or it may be an argument that assumes the Constitution itself is near infallible. Either way, it can be much the same crap argument as #2, attempting to provoke an emotional response as opposed to a rational one. The exceptions (to both #1 and #2) are going to be cases where a rational argument is presented as well or even as little as an additional statement that recognizes the fallibility of the Constitution or Founding Fathers. For example, "Policy X is unconstitutional, and correctly so" or "Policy X goes against the original intent of the Founding Fathers, which they got right." Such additions, though subtle, recognize that the Constitution has been wrong on other issues, but displays that the person making the argument thinks the Constitution is correct in this regard. Granted, a rational argument attached to this would be best, but at least it is no longer the fallacious argument from authority. Look for such subtleties when in search of a serious debater over a manipulator.

   #3 is basically the reversal of #1 (and #2 in many ways), only this time, the person making the remark is supporting an entire candidate over a policy. The argument is still an argument from authority, making the Constitution out to be a near, if not, infallible document. I currently see Ron Paul supporters make this argument a lot and Tea Party candidates were often using it in 2010. Much like with #1 and #2, the goal seems to be avoidance of discussing specific policies and making rational arguments in support of the candidates, but to instead spark an emotional response.

   Why, then, make such arguments?
  • First and foremost, people typically respond more easily to emotional arguments than rational ones. However, these arguments backfire on people like me...though I admit, I do sometimes respond emotionally—they piss me off. I fear, though, that people like me are too few in comparison to those who sucker for manipulative arguments, making such arguments worth while.
  • Second, the person may actually lack a good rational argument; I suspect this to be the case most times.
  • Third, some parts of the Constitution are open to interpretation. It may be that any rational argument also depends on a particular interpretation of the Constitution. Those who do not share that interpretation will not agree with the argument. Let's use Ron Paul as an example for this last point. He has claimed that Social Security is unconstitutional. Really? How so? Section 8 of the Constitution states "The Congress shall have Power To...provide for the...general Welfare of the United States..." The question, then, should be focused around whether or not social security falls under general welfare, but this is not what we get. We just get the "it's unconstitutional" without a clear explanation as to why. I suspect one reason is that Paul knows he'd lose that argument2 over meaning.
  • Forth, some people may just not be good at forming rational arguments or having a rational discussion. Such may be the case with a post I saw earlier in the week. The person actually has some valid concerns regarding Obama's use of executive powers. However, they used the "original intent" argument (in addition to references to the paranoia of Glenn Beck). If they'd actually made a case as to why expansion of executive powers is detrimental to the country, we could have perhaps had a productive conversation instead of me being pissy over the manipulative argument.

1 For this, I would suggest people read up on cognitive dissonance. This explains what people may do to deal with conflicting ideas. For this case, the conflicting ideas are that the Founding Fathers (or also the Constitution) are both infallible and fallible. Many conservatives want to have the view that they are/were infallible, but damn reality with its inconvenient facts gets in their way! One of the ways conservatives deal with the discomfort of holding such an unrealistic view is to minimize or deny those inconvenient facts or even make up "facts" of their own. On the slavery issue, for example, Michelle Bachmann last year claimed that the Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly to end slavery," which is untrue.

2 It may be that Paul's greatest issue with social security is actually lack of choice and not the issue of general welfare, but then let's discuss that. Instead, we get the emotional manipulation along with—if you watch the video linked earlier—falsehoods about the program being a "failure." Unfortunately, Paul is very good—or rather obnoxious, depending on your point of view—at avoiding the specifics.

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