Often, neoconservatives declare that ‘we’ needs to have the confidence to assert our own values, and not display an exaggerated deferrence to rival values.
And often, anti-abortion activists say that it’s necessary and appropriate to go outside the law and use aggressive or harassing methods to advance their cause, because of the ongoing large-scale murder of the innocent.
Frequently, fascists say that the sphere of genteel liberal debate and discussion has its limits, and that less pretty forces operate outside it and need to be confronted outside it.
Almost constantly, militarists and war criminals say that sometimes regrettable things happen in conflict, and we need to accept that.
And almost everyday, senior members of the British conservative party drink tea.
The thing is, all of these things can be true. And someone can say all four them, while drinking tea, without either being a neocon, anti-abortionist, fascist, war criminal or tory, or even being their moral equivalent.
I say this in response to this thread at Feministe, on a post whose essential point was that animal rights activists used some of the same tactics as anti-abortionists (not, obviously, the one of murdering people, but various forms of harassment and intimidation). Or rather, the essential point was that because they used the same tactics, they were in some sense ‘just as bad’. It ended with the telling line “liberals can do better than this”. I do like liberals most of the time, but sometimes I get a bit irritated.
Because I knew this was going to happen. I could tell from the discussions around George Tiller’s murder that one response would be stringent tactics policing: you can’t do anything that looks at all threatening, because then you’re just like them. That was at the back of my mind when I wrote several recent posts, all themed around this issue of means and ends.
It’s an interesting procedure, how people decide that means are the most important thing. As I read it, it starts from the perfectly reasonable observation that people are fallible and may turn out to be wrong in their political beliefs – which, as discussed in the third post linked above, is a major reason to care about the means used, because they’re more definite than the ends promoted.
But that observation can prompt a one-sided and extreme reaction in which someone attempts to get away from and evade the fact that they have strong beliefs that might be wrong. How do you do that? Whenever you look at a difficult political question, you abstract away from, uh, the truth. You abstract away from whether the muslims really are plotting to out-breed us, whether meat really is murder, whether abolishing capitalism really will cause famine.
And then, in this abstracted world, where everyone holds simply ‘a belief’, you can distinguish them by the tactics they use.Those who use ‘moderate’ or ‘civilised’ tactics are the good guys (or at least, the not-so-bad bad guys), while those who use ‘extreme’ tactics are, well, ‘extremists’. Also ‘terrorists’. Of course, usually both those terms are strictly accurate, in their official meaning which makes them neutral terms applying to, well, most of politics across the world, but their real meaning is ‘bad bad scary person’.
This produces, among other mild oddities, people saying that all rioters, and all militant anti-fascists, are in fact…fascists. Because ‘fascism’ is to be opposed simply as ‘violent thuggery’, simply as the willingness to use force. The actual content of the beliefs and the programs and the goals and the targets is set aside: everyone who throws a punch is ‘fascist’.
What’s most irritating is that this way of looking can always be maintained – as long as you always perform the switch, always say ‘how would I react if I were them and they were me?’, it will always make sense to prioritise adhering to strict rules of engagement over getting stuff done. It’s like talking to someone who can re-interpret any piece of evidence to fit their preconceived views. A lot of issues are like this in philosophy.
Of course, the abstracted space where all views are just ‘views’ is always established by law and its hidden violence – it’s rare to see people say “I totally oppose violent methods of protest, but I also don’t think the police should stop people who are using them”. And of course it easily becomes contradictory, because belief in non-violence and respecting alternative views is itself a view, and tbh most people disagree with it in some form, for some people.
Anyway, the point is this: you don’t get to abstract away from what you think is true. Obviously you need perspective and you need to be aware of your own fallibility, but it is just not an option to completely escape the unfortunate situation of believing things.
So with anti-abortion and anti-vivisection campaigns, you don’t get to put your actual opinions about abortion and vivisection on one side, which I think is what people (the feministe thread is a good example) try to do. They try to construct a worldview in which both anti-abortionists and pro-abortionists can condemn anti-abortion terrorism purely for its tactics, and where both anti-vivisectionists and pro-vivisectionists can condemn animal rights terrorism purely for its tactics.
But guess what? It won’t work. Your attitude to these group’s actions is going to depend on what you believe about animals and foetuses and bodily autonomy. If, like many of the people at feministe, you support abortion and vivisection, then guess what – anti-vivisection harassment campaigns will look quite similar to anti-abortion harassment campaigns, since they’re promoting a wicked cause. If, like me, you support abortion and oppose vivisection, then one will be very different to the other. And I won’t necessarily be able to convince the former person that they’re different without convincing them that animals have rights.
And that’s ok. The world is a scary chaotic dangerous confusing place. We have to accept that either way, so why invest in some hypothetical agreement that’s never going to come anyway. Of course social peace is valuable, of course it shouldn’t be thrown away needlessly. But it’s only ever a partial peace – many many people don’t live in that world, and we should be focused on them.
You believe things to be true, and others disagree, and you may be wrong. It sucks, but we have to live with it.