I'm becoming increasingly convinced that one of the problems in discussions of substance is that so many people, even educated, intelligent, erudite folks, see things only in terms of black or white. Either you are for something or against it. I am very surprised to be noticing this, because when I was younger I thought it was one of my own problems, and that when I overcame it I would be immersed in an intellectual world of enlightened thinkers who did not suffer from it. Now I've grown up and I'm left wondering why 90% of the world hasn't.
Let me offer a few examples.
The city of Dallas has been considering a total smoking ban in all Dallas restaurants and bars. (The bar part is especially silly. Remember as I say that that I'm anti-tobacco and a non-drinker.) Unfortunately, most people view the discussion as centering around two alternatives: either you believe smoking is bad and you support the ban, or you believe smoking is good and you oppose the ban. Under this way of thinking, if someone opposes the ban, it's because they don't realize smoking is bad and you must convince them. (Usually by reciting results of studies over and over again, or simply trying to shout louder.)
Infantile! It's impossible to have a reasoned discussion with these people! Everyone knows smoking is bad ("harmful" is a better word, with less value judgments). I am very anti-smoking and have been all my life. It's not simply a matter of comfort with me: I am a severe asthmatic and also allergic to tobacco. I am thrilled to see declines in smoking rates, worried to see that they are on the rise among young people (I guess the old people are just dying), and I despise tobacco companies and hope they fail some day through lack of demand for their product. (Note the libertarian desire to see great economic harm come to them without legal interference.) I have been increasingly pleased all my life to watch market forces change smoking sections from tiny rarities buried in the back of smoke filled rooms to the norm everywhere. If the smoking ban passed, I'd probably in some sense be happy in that I could personally enjoy not having to endure smoke in restaurants. Nevertheless, I only see one issue here: property rights. As long as smoking is legal, the only person to decide whether or not you should be allowed to smoke on a piece of property is the owner of the property. But woe to those who try to explain this to the non-smokers of Dallas! It's not a simple matter of disagreement. They refuse to listen to another point of view, because your point of view is not worthy of consideration since it supposedly starts with the false premise that "smoking is not bad."
Another example: a toymaker making parody dolls of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein has gotten angry letters from American Muslims criticising them for "vilifying an entire religion." Whoa! If bin Laden and Hussein were claiming to practice my religion, I'd be trying to distance myself and my faith from them as much as possible. Most Muslims I know do. I personally seem to spend time every week repudiating the crusades, Calvinism, original sin, government enforced "Christianity," the Catholic Church, and the Protestant Churches as not being part of the religion of the Bible. Can't we all agree that civilized people of any religion don't do what was done on September 11, even if some of us are Muslims and some of us aren't, and some of us support the war and some of us don't, and some of us are pacifists and some of us aren't, and some of us understand the economic and political conditions that make terrorists so desperate and some of us don't?
But with these folks, it's black and white. One angry letter asks, "How can you expect to hate and not be hated in return?" For crying out loud! Osama bin Laden killed thousands of people. That's hard to forgive in a year. These people see "pro-Muslim" and "anti-Muslim" viewpoints, and apparently are so black and white on the subject that even making fun of Osama bin Laden shows that you must be clamoring for new crusades against the entire Muslim world. The whole middle east problem since Sept. 11 has polarized in some very strange ways. It's impossible to believe in war against al Qaeda without automatically being a supporter of war in Iraq. It's impossible to believe this situation must be resolved by force without being a war-monger and imperialist. It's impossible to believe Israel has some changing to do without being anti-semitic. It's impossible to believe bin Laden and/or Hussein are genocidal maniacs like Hitler that must be stopped at all cost without believing in turning the entire Muslim world into a radioactive glass parking lot. Grow up, people! 13 year olds take positions like this. Real adults have more complicated thinking that doesn't always neatly fall into one of two categories.
[If you've read all that and think you know which "side" I'm on in the middle east/Al Qaeda/Iraq issue, you have completely missed my point.]
A final bonus example. I'm a firm believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But to most people's minds, a whole host of other issues are automatically decided when you make that commitment. It's unfathomable to atheists and Christians alike that I don't believe in school prayer, believe in total freedom of religion, believe in total freedom of speech, and think people have the right to work on Sunday (or Saturday, or Friday) if they want to. Oh, and that I don't believe in leading the entire nation into a river like Charlemagne or Vladimir and forcibly baptizing them. There's not just two viewpoints on these issues! It doesn't boil down into black and white! "For" Christianity doesn't mean "for" coercion, any more than "anti" tobacco means "for" smoking bans.
I just keep seeing issue after issue where I'm shut out from talking to people because I have to explain millions of shades of red, green, and blue to binary, color-blind people.