Much Easier to Fight Caricatures

I see quite a few comments like this one — from all points of view — so I thought I’d mention the problem:

[An earlier commenter wrote:] “Do you even remember 2004-05? The pro-life people were pretty outspoken on the Schiavo case.”

[The response:] I remember that case. Her legal husband said that he knew what Terry wanted and so decided to remove the life support, and we all know that those who support the sanctity of marriage would never interfere in such a decision. So we do know that all the pro-traditional family types were completely fine with his decision and made no attempt to insert themselves into an intimate family decision.

It’s always easy to attribute to your adversaries the most extreme, unlimited version of their arguments, and then argue that they’re hypocrites because their positions are inconsistent with your caricature. But it’s not actually a sound argument.

I don’t know of any people “who support the sanctity of marriage” or who are “pro-traditional family types” whose moral principles actually require them to value spouse’s decisions about the other spouse above everything else — either in general, or in the specific context of deciding on whether to disconnect the other spouse’s feeding tube. Perhaps there are a few such people, who take those principles that far, and who at the same time took a different view as to Schiavo. But even if there are, I doubt they are representative of the broader movement that the commenter is trying to criticize.

Most of us, whether “pro-traditional family types” or any other “types,” have many principles that usually guide our actions but sometimes conflict with other principles. We don’t extend our principles to their most extreme possible conclusion, with no regard for countervailing factors, nor do we adopt the most extreme possible version of those principles. We should recognize that our adversaries needn’t do that, either.

Now of course if one can actually identify a real inconsistency between the someone’s specifically stated general views — not caricatures, and not those views read in isolation with no regard to sensible limiting principles — and that person’s specific actions with regard to a particular case, it’s certainly fair to point to that inconsistency. If many people in the movement are inconsistent in that way, it’s fair to point to that as well. And if you think you can persuade others by appealing to their deeply held views, and explaining how they should point in a particular direction, that can be pretty effective.

But that’s pretty far from the sort of caricature that I quote above, and that I’ve too often seen.