What’s In Your Palette?

I am not generally given to the use of analogy in debate. Centuries of writings on the fallacy of false analogy have rightfully put that old dog down for its uselessness as proof – though I have yet to understand how formal logic, which exists only as an abstract construct in this reality simulator we call mind, is anything but an analog of the real world. This does not mean that analogy is not a useful tool for clarification. Indeed, analogizing underpins much of cognition. After all, how would we recognize and classify the range of everyday objects, from faces to ferns, if not for the powers of comparison? As a process, it is wrought with faults, but I am convinced that a great many of its strengths are intrinsic, rather than ancillary.

Bearing that in mind, I wish to share with you a realization I have just had that, at first glance, may seem merely analogical. However, I believe the idea behind it is so universally applicable to our approaches in thought and perception – critical or otherwise – that it is a fair analogy. Now, I invite you to look at the following photograph:

You don’t get any more black and white than that. And that is precisely what I am writing about today: the value of seeing things in many shades and colors, rather than these two simple and opposing tones. As examples, I offer two points of contention that have been marring civil discourse in the United States. One has been around for a while. The other is quite recent. Both, however, stem from a difference in how one perceives the operation of the world and the classification of its countless particulars.

The older of the two examples is the debate over the ethicality of abortion. There are, of course, many stances one can take on the issue. However, there are two extremes which, as the basis of all the other possible stances, form the endpoints of a line – namely, that aborting a fetus is either always an immoral action or never an immoral action. There are, of course, many other factors, such as the health of the mother and/or the fetus, the origin of the pregnancy (rape, incest, etc.), the degree of consciousness and capacity for suffering present in the fetus, even the existence or nonexistence of the soul. When all relevant factors are taken into consideration, that simple, one-dimensional spectrum quickly becomes a multi-dimensional space in which the ethicality of a given pregnancy’s termination can better be determined. This space, naturally, must also take into account those variables that are less well-established and whose certainty can only be based upon consensus rather than an established body of facts. Though often more akin to belief than knowledge, such variables do matter and have weight to add to the scale of right and wrong.

The problem with this scenario is that a good deal of the population sees only the simple line. More to the point, they see only the two endpoints of that line, each bearing a symbolic color: white for moral and black for immoral. I am speaking, of course, about those who call themselves pro-life. For them, like the picture above, there are no shades of gray complicating the issue. There is only the stark whiteness of their side and the abyss-black damnability of the other. No matter how closely one looks, the dividing line between black and white is eternally fixed and definite, unmarred by doubt or thought. To even entertain such a possibility is to admit grayness exists, to allow that there might be some white mingled with the black and, Heaven forbid, some black lurking amid the white.

The name, pro-life, implies that the opposition must be pro-death, which further implies that the preferable (and accurate) moniker of pro-choice is, at heart, a lie. This is ludicrous, as it is easy to find mothers who have been pro-choice prior to, during, and after the birth of their children. And while antinatalism may exist, I wager you would be hard-pressed to find many who would force that choice upon others, whether through legislation or violence. The vast majority of pro-choicers and antinatalists would find such a philosophy, and its practical application, as execrable as would any pro-lifer. In the end, to hoard the mantle of pro-life is to be anti-choice. In so doing, one shrinks the shady field of all possible movement down to two, constricting squares – one black and one white.

Recently, another battle has arisen in the political arena, a battle in which the colors are being laid in a remarkably similar fashion. It is the debate over whether or not the government (city or otherwise) should allow the Park51 Islamic community center to be erected near Ground Zero. Many – a great and telling many – of those against the center’s planned site are also pro-lifers and they carry the fallacious logic of one debate into the next. So it is that they see any of those in favor of the center’s construction as being pro-Islam. They do not recognize that other variables could possibly be in play. For instance, they refuse to admit the nigh-absolute authority (barring further Congressional amending) of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which is quite clear on the issue:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The irony, of course, is that this is the same law allowing them to publicly voice their opposition to what they refer to as the Ground Zero Mosque. In the first few days of this debate, there was wounded insistence from the dissenters that their only motivation was sensitivity toward those who lost loved ones when the Twin Towers were attacked and destroyed on September 11th, 2001. Indeed, no reasonable person denies the lion’s share of guilt that Islamic extremism owns for the horrid events of that day. However, as the debate continued, it was revealed that the so-called mosque was, essentially, nothing more than an Islamic YMCA, which is to be built two blocks from Ground Zero. Furthermore, not only will Park51 not be visible from the site where so many needlessly died, it will be a place of interfaith unity, open to people of all beliefs or lack thereof.

Knowing this, only willful ignorance can prevent one from seeing that the picture before us clean, easy, fear-inspired is not a clean, easy, fear-inspired monochromatic, but a complex wash of gradation:

We are now several weeks into this ridiculous example of deliberate, political agitation and tensions have risen in step with disinformation. Some proposed mosques around the country have now become the targets of protest, vandalism, and, in one case, arson. Not even President Obama is safe from this far-reaching paintbrush of binary thought; fringe accusations of him being a crypto-Muslim have bled into much of the red constituency. This is the thanks he gets for upholding the very constitutional guarantors protecting the speech and forms of worship of those who would deny his.

As a skeptic, I am amenable to changing my position when presented with a reasonable argument, especially when that argument is bolstered by evidence. It is this skepticism that has led me to take the position of atheism on the question of the existence of gods. While atheism implies nothing else beyond my answer to this question, I also believe – again, based upon evidence – that places of worship are pointless wastes of resources. I would prefer Park51 not be built only because I would prefer no religion-based institutions be built. However, if I hold anything sacred, it is the power of thought and the freedoms necessary to utilize that power. The right to believe in what I am convinced are fairy tales is identical to the right to think as one chooses. For this reason, I am for the construction of the Park51 center – provided no proof is offered that it is secretly intended to be a training ground for terrorists. Even freedom of religion has its limits.

Now, having read my position on this issue, is their any reason to think that I am pro-Islam? If your answer is yes, I politely request that you put down your paintbrush and look at the photo below; you could learn a thing or two from reality, of which you too are a part, for it is the truest painter I know:


About Buck O'Roon

Buck O'Roon [buhk oh-roon] –noun 1. a southerner of skeptical stripe, recognizable by his deeply furrowed brow and increasing lack of patience for institutionalized horse manure 2. curmudgeon-in-training
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