Essay / Culture

Misplaced Outrage

When friends or family have a heated argument, it is usually wise to get some space, let time pass and the smoke clear, so cooler heads prevail and lessons can be learned from the incident. The same is often true of public events that draw immediate outrage. Several months ago Ann Coulter said that if Jews became Christians they would be perfected or completed and it would be good for the world if everyone became a Christian. For present purposes, it is completely—COMPLETELY—irrelevant whether you like, hate or are indifferent to Coulter. Enough time has passed since the incident for cooler heads to prevail, for us to draw a lesson from the incident.

The Coulter incident was so sad to me that I was sickened by the whole thing. I am not referring to what she said. As I will show below, all of us agree with her remarks in the only sense relevant to the widespread public reaction to it. No, what sickened me was the ubiquitous public outrage, offense and criticism of what she said. Coulter basically said that followers of Judaism would be completed or perfected if they became Christians and, in fact, the world would be a better place if everyone did so. If we are going to have civil public debate about our differences, it is crucial that we observe the following: only ignorance of an important distinction can explain the behavior of those who were outraged by Coulter’s remarks. Let me explain.

The charge that someone is ignorant is not a demeaning one. We are all ignorant of many things. I know nothing about poetry, the stock market and so on. I suspect that most who reacted to Coulter’s remarks are ignorant of a fundamental philosophical distinction: the difference between factual and value aspects of moral, religious or political disagreements. Philosophers have long identified two components of such differences—a factual vs. a value aspect. Consider the political debate about social justice. Republicans and Democrats often agree about the same value—the state ought to promote social justice. But they disagree over a fact—what, in fact, is the correct definition of social justice—providing goods and services (e.g., healthcare) for citizens or preventing citizens from discrimination when they use their own efforts to secure goods and services. Consider the debate about abortion. Both sides often agree about the value “One ought not take the life of an innocent human person” but the disagree over a fact—is or is not a fetus a human person. Finally, consider the debate between monogamists and polygamists. Both sides often agree about the value “One ought not have sex outside marriage” but they disagree over a fact—how many wives there are in a marriage.

In all these cases, both parties accept the same value principle—they simply disagree over some fact, with each side thinking the other is wrong about that fact. Given this distinction, we see that everyone—including you the reader—agrees with the value statement Ann Coulter asserted. What was that value statement? Coulter asserted that she thinks her views about religion (ethics, politics) are true and important. Thus, the world would be better off if everyone accepted something she takes to be true and valuable. Who doesn’t believe that? When moral advocates (e.g., feminists, gay rights or abortion rights advocates), political advocates (e.g., Democrats, Republicans) or advocates of views about religion (e.g., atheists, Muslims) accept their own viewpoints, they believe others would be completed/perfected (they would gain moral, political, religious insight) and the world would be better off if they accepted the viewpoint. Those who criticized Coulter think this way. They believe people would be perfected and the world would be a better place if everyone refrained from thinking and acting like Coulter.

In all these cases, both parties of the dispute accept the same value principle. Where, then, is there room for outrage? I just don’t get it. Coulter is like all of us. She thinks her beliefs are true and important. Of course in all the disputes listed above, the parties have different factual beliefs (about the fetus, the nature of marriage, the existence of God). Each side thinks the other is wrong. I can understand someone who thinks Christianity is false and Coulter’s beliefs are wrong. I can’t get why anyone would fault her for thinking her beliefs about important topics are true and worthy of emulation. We all think that.

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