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Just Wars on the Battlefield of Ideas

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

I am going to take some liberty with this week’s Monday Reflection to address disturbing trends in American political discourse. We find ourselves in the midst of a remarkable 2016 presidential election. Celebrity businessman Donald Trump has locked up the Republican nomination. The tone of Republican primary campaign was acerbic, largely driven Trump’s controversial policies and mocking attacks. The Democratic primary between former Secretary Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) is grinding toward an increasingly bitter June conclusion.

To be sure, electoral politics is always a rough-and-tumble exercise. Other periods in American history have also endured an acutely coarse political tenor. But over the past 25 years, American political discourse has noticeably deteriorated. The deluge of vitriol in this election cycle has me thinking about the ethics of argumentation. That, in turn, has me thinking about the moral, ethical, and legal frameworks we apply to physical violence. Those structures may help organize our thinking about the rhetorical violence of political debate. 

In my first article on Just Security, I situated Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and President Obama’s proposed response to it, in the framework of Just War theory:

Just War theory has been a part of Western European culture at least as early as St. Augustine’s writings around 400 A.D., although some scholars trace it as far back as Cicero’s work, De Officiis. Traditional Just War theory addresses the morality of armed conflict, either offensive or defensive, in terms of: (a) whether use of armed force is justified (jus ad bellum) and (b) what means of force are acceptable (jus in bello). Put another way, one asks whether it is okay to take a swing and the other asks whether you’re fighting dirty. I will put to the side for now the more modern contribution to the theory, jus post bellum, which addresses post-conflict resolution.

Use of chemical weapons in Syria represents a classic transgression of the norms of jus in bello governing the means of war.  According to war historians, during the Peloponnesian War there was a prohibition against burning olive trees during an invasion due to the unwarranted effect a slow-growth tree recovery would have on civilian populations. So, too, formal international condemnation of the use of chemical weapons moved from a parchment barrier to an established international norm after the horror that typified the trench warfare of the First World War.

The goals of an armed conflict usually loom larger than the methods by which they are undertaken. After all, war is hell. However, the world has decided that the ends do not always justify the means in matters of war. Human morality requires regulation of the means of armed conflict even in pursuit of just ends.

There are great moral stakes in the means we by which we choose to respond to a particular provocation or threat — be it nuclear weapons, carpet bombing, guided missiles, landmines, flame throwers, biological agent, guns, knives, or fists.

The same is true for the arguments we make before a court or in the court of public opinion. Our cause may be just, but the rhetoric we deploy represents a choice of ethical consequence. In politics, moral principles may counsel argument for great acts of martyrdom and civil disobedience. At times, progress depends on it. But that is exceedingly rare. Disobedience, too, is a choice of ethical consequence: It may challenge the legitimacy of an otherwise good system, it may incite others to engage in unfounded lawless acts, it may dishonor the legitimate democratic rights of others, and it may risk vanquishing the good in pursuit of the perfect.

If your Twitter and Facebook feeds are anything like mine, you see there is a lot of anger out there. Anger itself can be legitimate and authentic. But it does not absolve us of the ethics of argumentation. Across media platforms and campaigns, we see all sorts of dubious methods of political argumentation: ad hominem attacks, bullying and silencing tactics, straw men, anecdotal fallacies, continuum fallacies, appeals to ignorance, incivility, and rank dishonesty.

President Obama is concerned. He gave striking companion commencement speeches this year. Both speeches contained charges to the graduates directed at the methods — the jus in bello — of political debate.

Obama gave Howard University graduates advice on how to bring change and progress to address continued injustice. A large portion of the speech was devoted to healthy methodology for change:

And finally, change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise…. And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. And that’s never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.

Obama advised the students not to try to silence political opponents but to engage them in constructive dialogue informed by passion and reason. He concluded, “Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”

Similarly, at Rutgers University, Obama spent much of his speech extolling the virtues of scientific method, prior experience, and rational debate in our politics. It was rightly reported as an extended critique of Donald Trump and Republican climate change denial. However, like at Howard, Obama also emphasized the need of his allies, as well as adversaries, to encounter opposing views with civility:

And if participation means voting, and it means compromise, and organizing and advocacy, it also means listening to those who don’t agree with you…. I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other. I believe that’s misguided. If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Make them defend their positions. If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it. Debate it. Stand up for what you believe in. Don’t be scared to take somebody on. Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities. Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words. And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments. And maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don’t know everything. And you may have a new understanding not only about what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe. Either way, you win. And more importantly, our democracy wins. (Emphasis added.)

The bolded sentences in President Obama’s speech embody the concept of humility that is an essential underpinning of human ethics and democratic legitimacy. We are imperfect, rooted in our personal experiences and makeup, mired in a particular political context at a particular time. We are limited to own vantage point and other people’s perspective may contain truth heretofore invisible to us. In the Howard speech, Obama used Zora Neale Hurston to make the point:

“Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.” Think about that. That’s why our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule.

We give practical recognition to our limitations by making an effort to walk in another’s moccasins or trying to follow the Golden Rules of Hillel and Jesus. Democracy has legitimacy because it reflects the consent of the governed as a polity. But it also requires each individual to compromise in ways that honor the legitimacy of individual preferences even when they differ from our own. Being open to learning something from an opponent — even if our experience tells us it is rare and her argument is abhorrent — is an important posture to take.

Am I arguing in favor of a chemical weapons ban for political argumentation? Of course not. That is antithetical to the model the Founders set for political dispute when they erected the First Amendment. But the values of the First Amendment presume that the marketplace, or battlefield, of ideas have ethical planes as to means and ends. Self-government is not merely another word for democracy. It is in some personal sense about governing ourselves.

In On War, Carl von Clausewitz wrote that war is “the continuation of policy with other means.” I am concerned about the inflammatory political rhetoric as it manifests in the digital age given the specter of Clausewitz’s “other means.” As we start this week, at this time, I offer this reflection: Why we fight usually matters more than how we fight. But, how we fight is important nonetheless.

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About the Author

is a professor at Savannah Law School and former Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office. Follow him on Twitter (@AndyMcCanse).