I don’t need to call the recent article by Jacob Amos a, “paradox”, “oxymoron”, “nonsensical” or even, “downright stupid”, I will simply call it– wrong. It is wrong because Mr. Amos’ essay is internally inconsistent and also because, if taken seriously, his ideas would destroy the very discourses he’s trying to protect.
Amos states a few paragraphs in: “opinions are not facts…. While a fairly simple concept at its core, the distinction between fact and opinion is too often forgotten. Certainly most may understand, but that understanding is relegated to the abyss of abstraction without application.”
For Mr. Amos, opinions have gotten in the way of good argument and productive discourse. They have been used of late to create two separate objectives of discourse: “the desire to find truth and the desire to win the argument.” It seems Mr. Amos is right in line with reality on this one. Most coverage of the recent presidential debate yielded this response: Romney won, but did he lie too much?
However, Mr. Amos’ questioning the intentions of other participants in a discussion has an unfortunate consequence. If a person finds themselves on the losing side of a discussion, i.e. their points are met with stronger counter-points and their reasoning is being showed to be faulty, they may (after the example of Mr. Amos) contend that the other side must be operating purely out of a desire to win and dismiss their opposition as being unconcerned with truth. Mr. Amos doesn’t improve our ability to converse by drawing into question the motives of our interlockers–he limits it.
Yet, his abstractions only serve as an introduction to the main course of his essay, namely a comment on the ‘sin is sin’ v. ‘love is love’ controversy. As an MSUM student, this whole incident has been rather amusing to watch and particularly ironic given the lecture earlier in the year by Eboo Patel. From what I heard there, Dr. Patel still holds in high regard those with whom he disagrees–Mayor Michael Bloomburg, for example. Yet, it seems that those who have vocally opposed Rebecca Julius and her t-shirts don’t respect her so much as find her amusing. Writers in both this newspaper as well as on the SAGA facebook page give the indication that being nice to the ‘sin is sin’ crowd is like being nice to a petulant child. The move has been to a priori dismiss the relevant biblical discussion, because obviously “these extremists” (as Mr. Amos identifies them) can’t possibility be capable of making a good point. Hardly respectful interfaith dialogue if you ask me.
In his attempt to defend this dismissal of the ‘sin is sin’ crowd (remember this essay is about how bad opinions are), Mr. Amos offers this criticism:“They (the ‘sin is sin’ group) adopt a view of morality rooted dominantly—if not exclusively—in one textbook that happens to be thousands of years old, and have taken a position of moral absolutism that attempts to render unto all a mode of living that they deem righteous. Ironically enough, that mode stems from a deity that professed above all else the importance of love.” It seems odd to suggest that the Bible is wrong because it is old, so are the pyramids, Plato’s Republic and really good wine. Resilience through time usually merits praise and esteem, not dismissive scorn.
Though perhaps we are speaking of a different book, because the Bible certainly can’t be referred to as a textbook. Textbooks are usually written in chapter format with straightforward, report-like delivery and little thought bubbles at the end of each section. The Bible is more like a library of works with genealogies and poetry, history and art, the suffering of Exodus and the Love Song of Solomon, the Sermon on the Mount and the Letters of Paul, a full span of literature from creation to Revelation. Calling it a “textbook,” Mr. Amos is, I’m afraid, mistaken. Beyond that, disparaging “moral absolutism” as being a bad trait would require at least a book to argue thoroughly, yet here he referrers to it as a settled matter. In reality, we moral absolutists, with our principles, are the only ones who have ever gotten anything really done in the world. MLK, Ghandi, the Founding Fathers and Pope John Paul the Second (who undeniably helped topple Communism) all had an absolute moral standard against which they could not be swayed. Meanwhile, those who disliked absolute morality, the aforementioned Communists, the Romans, the Greeks, etc… all saw their empires come crumbling down.
The point is that Mr. Amos is not free from his own criticism, and his criticism is also wrong. While I certainly grant the possibility of opinions not being facts, I don’t deny that they could be. The thesis offered in “The folly of opinions” would be improved ten-fold by adding one word: opinions are not necessarily facts. It is the job of discourse to discover which opinions are in line with the truth of things and which aren’t.
It would be better to treat all opinions as facts and then undermine them on their own terms. If they can be undermined or showed false, then they never held any merit at all. But if these opinions stand up to the test of critical examination and logical coherency, then we have stumbled upon a new fact or a least a statement to which we may give assent. By assuming all opinions cannot be facts, Amos has undermined the very discourse he sought to protect. I may be free at any time to bow out of a particular disagreement and return to my pre-conceived notions, because the counter position is just “your opinion.”
I dearly hope not all Concordia students are so ready to build up their intellectual defenses with the shoddy walls of perceived superiority. By regarding all other positions as opinions, as Mr. Amos unintentionally does, dialogue comes crashing down. Neither Mr. Amos, nor myself want that to happen. I hope, dear reader, neither do you.
This letter to the editor was submitted by John Goerky, MSUM Advocate Staff Writer.