Friday, November 14, 2008

Some thoughts on debating courtesy

I just finished watching this Anderson Cooper 360 Proposition 8 "debate" between Dan Savage -- the sex columnist, writer and educator -- and Tony Perkins, writer and president of the Mormon "Family Research Council". (Bias: I'm pro gay-marriage, and a huge Dan Savage fan. I also profoundly dislike gleaming, smarmy apologists for authoritarian religions.)

That said, the exchange was depressing if you like the clash of ideas.

First, they constantly try and talk over each other and the moderator does nothing about it; Anderson Cooper's role can be kindly described as "completely supine". I've never really seen Cooper's show before (I try to avoid the next-to-useless US mainstream media) and I was very unimpressed. He's very pretty. And that seems to be it.

Second, I profoundly disliked Mr. Perkins' constantly complaining about being talked over when he was doing the same thing. (Frankly, I think that it's a bit of a microcosm of how the Religious Right operates in the US: it defines freedom and courtesy and the right to be heard as if they are things that only they are entitled to, but that's for another day.)

Third, I disliked Mr. Perkin's complaining about interruptions in specific light of one of his debating tactics: to keep talking and talking and not letting Mr. Savage get a word in edgeways. He just keeps rolling along, making point after point, never pausing, never stopping and then gets all self-righteous about interruptions when somebody tries to get a word in edgeways. It's the moderator's job to stop that sort of thing. (Still, points to Savage for noting that this fellow seemed to think that being interrupted was a far greater wrong being done than he and his type stripping fellow citizens of their rights.)

Fourth (and a sub-set of the third) is the insertion of deliberate of sequential falsehoods. If somebody is allowed to just roll along like Perkins does then one permits that person to erect a wall of their positions with the falsehoods inserted as supporting bricks in the wall of their assertions. Again, it is a journalist's job to be well-versed enough to know what's true and what's a fib, and that journalist-moderator's job to call people on it. Against such an opponent Savage had to repeatedly leap in and counter a falsehood resulting in even more crosstalk and protests about interruption.

Fifth, I notice that one of the most interesting thing about the Mormon Church's participation did not come up: taxes. The average Mormon's fiscal and personal participation in support of Prop 8 was mandated by their Church. It wasn't optional. Tens of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of foot soldiers for the lobbying and GOTV and related efforts were made obligations of the Mormon faith by the Church's hierarchy. Why isn't their tax-exempt status at issue? Savage had the principle grasped, at least, and called it at the beginning when he noted that American churches as a general rule want to have it both ways: they want to participate in the public arena but still retain a kind of benefit of clergy. Here there and everywhere they want tax-exempt status for not participating in the political process.... while still participating in the political process.

Sixth, I find it more than a little revolting that a church that started out as a persecuted minority turns so eagerly to persecuting other minorities. Then again, the Mormons have never been a tolerant bunch; they only admitted that blacks were as important as whites in 1978.

In the end, if I walked away from it disgusted it was for two reasons. There will always be Tony Perkinses out there, smoothly and sanctimoniously presenting lies about why their views must use law as a club to beat others of whom they disapprove. And I was stupid enough to watch something on American mainstream news. I totally deserved to walk away feeling ill.

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