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Talking politics

Peter Wicks | Thursday, March 23, 2006

There comes a time in every pundit’s life when he seeks to rise above ephemeral opinion-mongering and make a permanent contribution to political thought. I have decided that the time has come to unveil mine, which I call, without even the pretense of modesty, Wicks’ Law. Here it is: (Since print technology has not yet reached the point at which it is possible to embed sound effects in text, please provide your own fanfare before proceeding to the next paragraph.)

Wicks’ Law: Whatever you believe, some damn fool will agree with you.

Okay, so perhaps that isn’t exactly an Earth-shattering insight, but Wicks’ Law does have an important corollary, which is that you cannot refute a person’s belief just by showing that someone else who holds the same belief is a damn fool. That too may seem elementary, but it’s a point that is nonetheless frequently ignored.

For example, I believed (and continue to believe) that the United States was right to use military force to depose Saddam Hussein. When I tell this to people who take the contrary view I have often found that they often respond – not always, but frequently – by denouncing some argument made by someone else in favor of the war. It is as if I am expected not only to argue for my own position, but defend any other argument that has been used to argue for that position. The belief that the United States was right in its decision to use military intervention in Iraq is something I have in common with Ann Coulter, but the mere fact that we agree on that point doesn’t mean we have entered into any sort of political coalition and it certainly doesn’t commit me to defending either the style or the content of Coulter’s arguments.

There was a morally serious, knowledgeable and politically pragmatic case against the war. I heard it made by friends, colleagues, and professional political commentators. The fact that the war was also opposed by the likes of Michael Moore (whose views on the matter I would be inclined to dismiss as a paranoid fantasy were it not for the fact that they lack the internal coherence characteristic of a paranoiac’s delusions) does nothing to undermine their position.

When confronted with a difficult and contentious issue it is always tempting to persuade ourselves that it is not a difficult and contentious issue at all. One way of doing that is by only paying attention to those on the other side with obviously flawed arguments (and ideally with clear ulterior motives and glaring moral defects too). A second way, every bit as popular, is by clouding what’s at stake with euphemistic and evasive rhetoric.

Last semester an initiative was proposed in the Faculty Senate to increase the “cultural competency” of Notre Dame’s student body, possibly by means of a class requirement. When challenged as to the vagueness of the term, Rhea Boyd, chair of the Minority Affairs Committee, replied that a cultural competence committee should be formed and it would be their job to determine what the meaning of “cultural” should be. The creation of that committee was approved earlier this semester, so I guess that the first item on the committee’s order of business is deciding for themselves what it is that they are supposed to be doing.

Overall, Boyd’s stated position seemed to be that neither she nor anyone else involved in proposing the initiative knows what cultural competence is, they just know that it’s very important and we need more of it.

There is another possibility, however. I suspect that they do know what cultural competence is, but don’t want to explain it in terms that have a chance of being understood because they realize that to do so would be to risk saying some condescending and inflammatory things about Notre Dame’s students. Sticking to abstract terms sterilized of meaning is an altogether safer way to go. Personally, I don’t believe that cultural competency can be taught in a classroom, but those wishing to learn how to successfully navigate within the culture of a large and bureaucratic organization such as a university could learn a lot from studying the rhetorical strategies of the cultural competence committee.

This is just one of a thousand possible examples of a general temptation. The flight to lofty abstractions makes it easier to blind ourselves to the tragic nature of politics and engage in what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera called “political kitsch.” It makes it harder to recognize legitimate grounds for disagreement (“Are you saying you’re against diversity and raising awareness?”).

Almost fifty years ago, Isaiah Berlin wrote “Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.” His point was that politics is about difficult choices between different and sometimes competing goods. If, for example, you are faced with a trade-off between privacy and national security we must avoid the temptation to obfuscate by saying that privacy and national security are really one and the same thing. On the other hand, we live in a culture where obfuscation is a valuable skill. Perhaps we should teach it. Perhaps we already are.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. Some of his best friends are diverse. Peter can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.