Tuesday, December 13, 2005

How Did We Become So Polarized?

Over night last night Stanley "Tookie" Williams was executed by the State of California for murdering 4 people. And today the blog world is abuzz with commentary on the morality of the execution. I believe I would be safe in wagering a large sum on saying that it is a fact that approximately 95% of the postings are of the form, "The execution was a prime example the (worst crime)/(greatest service) a government can (perpetrate on)/(perform for) its citizenry because [insert mostly irrelevant and/or meaningless rhetoric here] and if you don't agree with me you are the densest moron ever to walk the face of the earth." Now for the most part, I try to avoid such blogs because they tend to be written by, well, for lack of a better phrase, some of the densest morons ever to walk this planet. But while browsing through the postings of some bloggers I generally respect and enjoy reading, I did come across a posting of this nature. I was surprised, and more, I felt like I needed to respond. Below is the text of my response in its entirety, though to really understand it, I do recommend that you click the link above and read the original post.
I'm not going to say a word about the morality of the death penalty in this specific case here, so perhaps in a lot of ways not a thing I say here is going to mean a whole lot, however I do feel that your presentation of Mr. Williams does call for a response to balance the scales. First of all, Mr. Williams was charged and convicted of ONLY 4 murders, because those were ones that the prosecutor had enough evidence to convict him on. In fact, as the founder and leader of the Crips gang, he was almost certainly directly or indirectly responsible for dozens of other killings. By literally fathering "modern" gang culture in the US he is responsible for thousands of deaths. Second, hundreds of people are nominated every year for Nobel Peace Prizes. It is almost completely meaningless to be nominated. Any politician or professor of history, sociology, or divinity is permitted to make a nomination and most of them do. Oprah gets nominated EVERY year. So does george Bush. The Nobel selection committee throws most of those nominations right into the dumpster. Finally, although he did indeed author many books for young people encouraging them to steer clear of gang life and what not, there is actually considerable evidence that right up to a very short time ago, Mr. Williams was still involved in and even directing the activities of the Crips in Southern California. He was, perhaps, not as reformed as he was often portrayed.

Does any of this mean that he deserved to die? I don't know. The death penalty is such a sticky, complicated issue. I don't agree that it is as cut and dry as you make it out to be. Obviously the words "State sanctioned murder" bring to mind terrible things - the words themselves are polarized. But war is nothing but State sanctioned murder on a huge scale, and as terrible as war is, no rational person can deny a State's right to wage war in its own defense.

Every civilized nation on this earth has "exceptions" to their laws against murder. Self-defense, defense of the life of another, Defense of the reasonable safety and well being of self or another, and the list goes on. The question is, are there times when we must except the State as well. In my opinion that is an extremely complicated question with no simple answer. And what astounds me is when seemingly perfectly rational people become so violently polarized on complicated issues like this one. As if there is one absolute, obviously correct answer; as if they possess the one real truth and anyone who doesn't agree must be stupid or blind. Because there isn't an obviously correct answer, and just because someone disagrees doesn't make them stupid or blind - it very possibly makes them thoughtful and worth talking to because geting other perspectives can often be useful in adjusting your own.


I'll come right out and say it now. I support the death penalty. I also believe capital punishment is a difficult, tangled issue, and I can appreciate that other people hold different opinions on this issue. I also think that executing criminals is an ugly, awful thing to do and in a perfect world there would be no such thing as the death penalty. Just as in a perfect world there would be no war. But we don't live in a perfect world, and I think that in the imperfect world we live in, the death penalty is necessary. I also think that way in which the death penalty is enforced in the United States is terribly flawed, almost certainly not equitable, and needs fixing. But I don't think it should be done away with. I think that the system should be fixed, not done away with.

That being said, I am not going to try to defend my position here. That is a subject for another post. Rather the issue I want to raise here is about the transition in the past 25 years (at least to my observation) in this country (and around the world apparently) in the press, in the media, in politics, and in society from a time when two individuals with opposing viewpoints on an issue could talk to each other; could reasonably discuss the contentious issue; could respect each other's point of view; could peacefully coexist, to now, when two people with opposing viewpoints feel compelled to condemn each other to eternal torment in the fires of hell in the loudest possible voices, if not do actual physical harm to each other. How and why did this happen?

Some of my very best friends oppose capital punishment. With nearly all of them I can discuss the issue calmly and rationally without calling them morons, without fear of them condeming me for my beliefs, with feeling the need to punch them in the face or shoot them in their heads for their beliefs. I can listen to their reasoning and appreciate it, and respect their opinions and AT THE SAME TIME, continue to hold my own beliefs on the matter. Why is this so difficult for the rest of the world?

Why, when a polician stands up and says we need to consider a new strategy in the war in Iraq do opposing politicians feel the need to call that man a coward and traitor? At the same time when a politician stands up in reasoned defense of the same war why does the other side do little more than shout out accusations of deceit, war profiteering and imperialism? How is it possible that a single woman in a vegetative state can literally reduce this nation to a civil war of violent, hateful, hyperbolic rhetoric? What happened to reasonable discussion and debate without getting angry or ugly or violent? I don't get it. But I'll tell you this - the loss in this country by so many people of the ability to respect those with different viewpoints is dangerous beyond belief. Slowly but surely the fabric of this nation is being ripped apart by this loss of civility and the consequences get uglier day by day.

7 Comments:

At 8:39 AM, Anonymous Piggy and Tazzy said...

Yay! I'm first!

I'm rather stunned to be mentioned in the same paragraph as morons! I know, I know, you didn't mean it that way.

It would also have been helpful if you posted my response to yours - I think it may help explain some of the reasons for my objections to such a penalty. Leaving your post as it is - without my response to yours - makes things a little one-sided, dont you think?

As I said in my comment responding to yours, my original post came out sounding a little differently to my intended meaning - I was in NO way intending to suggest that 'Tookie' Williams' life was any less rotten to the core than everyone understands it to have been. I was giving MY own personal opinion that clemency (for the greater good) in this case could have been an alternative. I hope that's not something that likened me to 'dense morons', but illustrated the fact that I consider there are alternatives to that which I object to - You have to remember the reason given by Terminator Arnie for proceeding with the execution was that Williams 'didn't say sorry'. In other words, saying 'sorry' may have saved his life. There was dense moron me thinking that execution was solely for the crimes.

Of course I accept that we all have differing opinions and debate is a healthy thing. If we all agreed then the world would be a very boring place. I would never take away the right of anyone else to disagree with me and hope that this was a reciprocal arrangement).

The death penalty is a very emotive issue, on many levels and always will be. But you know just as well as I do that there HAVE been cases whereby innocent men and women have been executed. There HAVE been instances whereby 'politics' has played a part in someones execution (if the mass of public opinion was anti-death penalty, Arnie would have granted clemency - and if you doubt that, then I would seriously doubt your intelligence) - I make no apology for saying that just ONE innocent person being put to death is too many. One guilty person being put to death for political reasons is too many.

For those reasons alone, the executions should stop.

Or do you consider a few innocents being murdered at the hands of the state is okay, so long as the majority are guilty? Far too often I've heard the excuse 'oh but there have only been a handful of innocents executed'. ONLY! So that's okay then? I most certainly dont agree. But I'm not going to fall out with anyone over the issue.

I still think your post unfairly highlited mine though!

 
At 12:10 PM, Blogger Faltanus said...

O.K., first of all, I can only say in my defense that I *THINK* I made this post before you had responded to my comment on your blog. It did occur to me that you would respond, but I also figured that if you wanted to, you could come here and respond right on my very own blog, which indeed is exactly what happened.

Of course you are right that while I mentioned you and morons in the same paragraph, I, in no way, meant to imply that you are a moron. In fact as I mentioned, I often read your blog and I enjoy the smart humor and the usually insightful commentary I find there. But your post on 'Tookie' Williams DID surprise and disappoint me because it was so polarized and vitriolic.

Much of the "reasoning" in your original post and in the response you gave here is specious. The fact that Arnold Schwarzenager is an idiot has no bearing on whether or not capital punishment is moral or ethical. Arnold didn't convict the man or sentence the man, he simply denied him clemency. And by the way, demonstration of remorse for crimes committed is a common requirement for granting clemency, so you can't fault Arnie for that either. Of course it's true that ONE of the reasons Arnie denied clemency was public opinion, but doing something for the wrong reasons doesn't matter-of-factly mean the action itself was wrong.

You are correct, innocent men and women have been executed in the past. In the rather recent past I'm sure. But I disagree that that is sufficient reason for abolishing the death penalty. If we use that as an argument for abolishing capital punishment we must use it as an argument for abolishing all penalties to all crimes. It is a moral absolute that innocent people should not be punished for crimes they did not commit. Now I know this is going to sound crass and unfeeling, but you know what? We don't live in a perfect world, and sometimes shit happens. Is it a terrible, horrible thing when an innocent person is executed? Yes. Is it a terrible, horrible thing when a man, wrongly convicted of rape spends 20 years in prison. Without a doubt. Is it a terrible, horrible thing when a man, wrongly convicted of burglary spends 5 years in prison? Hell yeah it is. Can we fix the problem with executions by not executing anyone? Sure. But we damn well better fix the problem of wrongful incarceration by not incarcerating anyone. And while we're at it, is it a terrible, horrible thing when a child is killed by a car after running into the street chasing after a ball? Damn right it is, and we can fix that too, by banning cars. And let's not stop there, because we can fix the problem of people falling down stairs and breaking their necks by banning stairs. And now my reasoning and rhetoric is obviously nonsense and the trouble is, in this case, so is yours.

You make the very correct point that this is a personal and emotionally held opinion: "I make no apology for saying that just ONE innocent person being put to death is too many." I absolutely respect that opinion, but it doesn't rise to the level of logical argument.

My problem with all of this is that you are trying to pass off your personally held opinions as a logical argument for abolishing the death penalty: "For those reasons alone, the executions should stop." Essentially your argument boils down to, "Because the death penalty offends me, it should be abolished." That's pure nonsense.

But what's even worse is that in your original post you condemn, in rather hateful phrasing, those that don't agree with you: To those 75% that support the death penalty, I say this: I would force each and every one of you to attend an execution. Force you to watch a human life being clinically extinguished (no need for you to worry about gore or anything - that’s all taken care of by knocking them unconscious and then paralysing their bodies with a cocktail of drugs before administering the final one which kills the person, so it all looks nice and calm), then see how you feel afterwards.
Even in a post where I was writing an argument defending the death penalty (which, by the way was NOT my original intent, nor is it my intent here), NEVER would I even dream of concluding with the words, "and to those of you who don't agree with me I can only hope that someday a member of your family is brutally murdered by a paroled convicted murderer, and then we'll see if you don't feel differently afterward."
I would do it, not just because it's pointless, hateful rhetoric that doesn't advance an argument, but mainly because I don't feel that way. If, after making my argument, my reader still isn't swayed, well then I respect that. I know both sides of the argument pro and con, and while I feel the weight of the logic, morality and ethics falls on the side of keeping capital punishment, I can understand how someone can weigh the very same arguments and come to the other conclusion. I don't hate those people. I don't condemn them to hell. I don't want to see those people hurt. In fact some of those people are my very best friends; some of the people I love more on this planet than any others.

That's all I'm saying. To quote Rodney King, "can't we all just get along?"

 
At 2:10 PM, Anonymous Piggy said...

I'll start as I mean to end. I hope we do all get along.

Erm, once again I agree with almost all that you say. But I'm finding it interesting that we both appear locked in our final opinions, despite agreeing with each other, to a certain degree, on some points.

It's fairly safe to say that I don't think we'll ever agree on this issue.

As we both agree, this is a very emotive issue. It's sometimes easy for me to forget that the U.S has far higher levels of violent crime than the U.K, a far higher level of weapons being used in the inceidences of crime, higher everything. And no death penalty - which sort of skews our views over here a little. We're catching up though, lucky us.

I'm sorry you were disappointed at my view, but there again the intention behind the written word can often be very different to how it's construed. I did make an attempt to sort of explain, but suppose I've ballsed that one up to. Ho hum. At the end of the day (gawd, I hate that phrase), I know what I was meaning and perhaps the words have come out very wrongly.

Arnie is indeed an idiot (yay! we agree!) and I know that any conviction or sentence is nothing whatsoever to do with him. But he could have granted clemency. Having to say 'sorry' requires an admission of guilt, as you said. Doesn't really help anyone proclaiming innocence though, does it?

But I'll come back, once again, to the point I was trying to make. It was not about Williams himself (although I exercised poor choice by using him as an example), but the penalty of death.

I'm puzzled WHY we have to execute anyone. Why can't they be locked up for the rest of their lives? If I was wrongly convicted of a crime, I think I'd much prefer to spend 50 bitter years in jail protesting my innocence and hoping beyond hope that something would turn up to prove my innocence, than be executed. To say thats illogical doesn't wash. Very few matters of sentencing policy are logical any more (life sentence for a third offence of stealing pizza, anyone?).

I'm in no way a pacifist. I'm very much against abortion, but fully respect the fact that it's a womans choice to do what she wishes with her body/unborn child. I'm very much in favour of euthanasia if it is a considered individuals choice, without coertion. These issues are very, very different and not related to capital punishment.

I'm intruiged as to what you consider 'hateful' about saying supporters of the death penalty should actually watch an execution? As I see it, it's a little like everyone buying nice chunks of packaged meat in the supermarket - how many would continue eating meat if they had to visit the slaughterhouse beforehand and watch Daisy the cow have her throat cut, then be sliced up into nice oven sized chunks before being handed one to take home?

Silly comparison, I know. Just as silly as wanting to ban cars because they knock down children, banning stairs to save necks or stopping sentences of imprisonment just in case of wrongful conviction.

I don't think my view on the 'necessity' of execution will ever change. I don't expect yours to change either.

The fact remains that, even if it seems otherwise, I respect your opinion even if I disagree. I just hope mine is respected too.

This is one of those issues where I feel we often use irrelevant arguments to back up our own strongly held opinions (we all do it) - no harm or ill-will is meant on my part. Poor choice of words, I admit, but ill-will, not.

I'll end as I started: I hope we do all get along.

 
At 2:28 PM, Anonymous Piggy said...

My words 'To those that support the death penalty, I hope you or your loved ones are never on the receiving end of it.' are VERY different to 'and to those of you who don't agree with me I can only hope that someday a member of your family is brutally murdered by a paroled convicted murderer'.

Nice to see a message of goodwill turned around on it's head to become one of malice. We both know that's not the sentiment I was trying to get across. Nasty comparison, that one.

 
At 10:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well...im suprised u support the death penalty...
that is one of the very select few things you ARE A MORON for, no really though, people fuck up, and sometimes fuck up bad, but u can't justify murder because of a murder.

People are raised, some raised in white collar conservative families, some in back alley gang infested ghettos. depending on the scenario of one's own results in a way of life for that one. Yes, choices are made, but just as easily mistakes. And in his lifestyle a mistake extends to a murder. If he agrees to retribution by the state i can understand, but what good is killing him going to prove besides "justice"? Let him live with what he has done and ponder it everyday until his natural death.
In my eyes, the state is doin him a favor.

"an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind"-Ghandi

 
At 12:12 PM, Blogger Faltanus said...

Hey Piggy, the truth of the matter is I think you are right - we agree on more than one might conclude from actually reading this back and forth exchange. All along, in my response to your post, in my own post and in the subsequent exchanges my point has always been that the extreme polarization that seems to be the norm today when discussing any issue is a really bad thing. It breeds intolerance; it breeds hatred; it breeds violence. It seems to have become the norm in the US at least (and I think around the world really) for people on one side of an issue to attack, in the most viscious ways possible, the people on the other side of an issue. People seem to now accept that as a matter of course. If you believe in a woman's right to choose, and I'm anti-abortion then apparently we are compelled to hate each other and worse we can use that difference to justify hateful words, actions and even violence. And the same is true for issues like the death penalty, gun control, the war in Iraq, and the list goes on and on. I don't believe it has to be that way.

None of what I've posted either here or in response to your blog was ever intended to be a defense of the death penalty. As I said in my original post, that's a subject for another post. At times I countered some of the "arguments" you were making, but I did so to demonstrate that your argument didn't hold up, and that in fact you weren't making an argument at all - you were using statements of opinion to describe a position and then passing that off as a logical argument. And I was simply trying to point out that that doesn't hold water. I wasn't trying to convince you that your position was wrong, only that your argument was invalid. I'm not at all disappointed by your opinion - I respect your opinion. I was disappointed by the way you tried to pass off an emotional response as a logical argument. Once again, I come back to your original words, "for those reasons [my moral outrage]alone, the executions should stop." And I was disappointed at the way in which you passed judgement on everyone who disagrees with you.

Now, those 3 final questions. Pacifism, abortion and euthanasia. You say that these are very different issues and not related to the death penalty. Yes and no. They are 100% related to your argument. You concluded your response to me on your blog with two sentences and suggested they formed the body and soul of your argument. I quote, "There is only one that should cease any life. And none of us are the one." But you don't really believe that, do you? You stated you are not a pacifist, so I assume you agree that homicide in self defense is o.k.? Possibly homicide in the defense of another is o.k.? And I assume you recognize the right of the State to wage war (again kill in self-defense)? In the case of abortion I take it from what you said you are morally opposed to abortion but would not want to impose your morality on a woman making the difficult decision to take the life of her unborn child (by the way, that is exactly my stand on this issue - so we agree!!! YAY!). Finally euthanasia - you agree that sometimes it is moral for one person to take the life of another. On the questions regarding pacifism and euthanasia you are willing to accept the fact that sometimes it is defensible to take the life of another. So you still need to answer my question, can it not be argued that there are times when it is defensible for the State to take the life of one of its citizens? I accept that you would answer this question with a "no" but I expect a reasoned argument as to why "no" is the answer, not an emotional response to the question. As far as the abortion question is concerned, you seem quite unwilling to impose your morality on an individual, but perfectly happy to impose it on the State. And my question here would be how do you defend that apparent contradiction?

One last thing. I never turned your comment of goodwill into one of hate. I've re-read my post and responses over and over again and I'm sure I never even commented on the words you placed in quotations there in your last comment. I'm willing to own up to rash statements are unfair criticism, but this time I'm pretty sure I didn't do what you are accusing me of there.

 
At 8:21 AM, Blogger ChrisChris said...

Hey there.

Adam
:)

 

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