Two big arguments were enflamed this week, both old and both unending.
The slaughter at Virginia Tech rekindles an argument about controlling firearms. The decision by the Supreme Court to uphold a Congressional ban on what that law calls partial-birth abortion will fire up the debate about controlling female bodies and fetuses. These are not resolvable arguments in our society. Resolution requires some common ground, a shared moral vocabulary, values that can be weighed on the same scale. We don't have that.
The vehemence of the gun control and abortion arguments in America is extraordinary. That vehemence — the volume and intensity of hostilities — will get worse, temporarily, in the wake of an extraordinary cruel and sick crime and in the wake of a landmark Supreme Court decision. Gun rights advocates will feel threatened; abortion rights advocates will feel threatened.
But it is important, to my mind at least, to recognize that as frustrating and ceaseless as these debates are, they are not skirmishes in a culture war and they are not signs of a polarized polity acting out. That is how the dominant narrative of our politics describes our politics, our redness and our blueness. It is narrative that contributes to the belligerence and recalcitrance of our obnoxious style of political argument.
The culture war model is too superficial. We are way more complicated than that. And way more confused. We aren't polarized, we are pluralized.
That pluralism runs deeper than diversity, than being a country with lots of creeds and colors. It is a pluralism of values and moralities, of competing and colliding ethical worldviews. There aren't just two, red and blue. We Americans, above all, it seems, are consumers — pickers and choosers. Our beliefs aren't exempt from that. One can be red on gun control and blue on abortion; many are.
Some issues are vehemence-magnets. Abortion and guns are at the top of the list.
The common language we have for sorting out this cacophony of interests is Constitutional law. It works well in the big picture. These big disputes are weighed and carefully balanced, all sides are heard from, the process is fair and transparent and the system is stable. But from a different angle, legal arguments don't settle or even calm our arguments. They can't.
Indeed, rights talk hardens positions for most people. An argument about the Second Amendment will get hotter faster than an argument about the practicality of gun laws. An argument about a Constitutional right to privacy calcifies in the same way. On some level, gun rights advocates are from Mars and gun control advocates are from Venus. Abortion rights advocates are from Saturn and anti-abortion rights people are from Jupiter. Our view of rights does not exist in the Platonic vacuum of constitutional law.
This is apparent in the Supreme Court opinions on this abortion ruling. Justice Kennedy, in upholding the ban on this abortion procedure, said the ruling shows that "respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child." In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg wrote that "this way of thinking reflects ancient notions of women's place in the family and under the Constitution — ideas that have since been discredited." Worldviews collide.
The gun control debate will simmer down soon. One of the ways the political culture digests atrocities like Virginia Tech is to rehash the gun fight. It has an aspect of ritual to it.
The abortion debate, on the other hand, will stay hot — perhaps hotter than at any point since Roe v. Wade. Despite that heat, it is important to note that the legal debate argument will likely never end for good. And few political arguments will be settled and reconciled.
My advice is to listen least to the loudest.
Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer