The Saturday Paper ran an article by Barry Jones on the subject of the death penalty. The death penalty, says Jones, is bad and Australia ‘must pursue the cause of abolishing the death penalty internationally.’ Jones wheels out tired old arguments against imagined opponents, littered with half random quotes to give the whole thing an intellectual air.
The message you should take away from Jones’ article is that it doesn’t matter why 52.5% of people support the death penalty, they’re wrong. It doesn’t matter why they’re wrong, they just are and a lot of clever people agree that they’re wrong.
There are two key problems with Jones’ position which I think are common to a lot of contemporary commentators. The first is the unwillingness to try to convince people who disagree with him that he’s correct. Jones never tries to understand the popular opinion on the issue and rebut it. Let’s not kid ourselves: the popular position in favour of the death penalty is not particularly sophisticated. It’s based on a primitive intuition about vengeance and inflicting harm on a person for the sake of punishment. I’d even argue that it’s based on a concept of ‘toughness’, with people worried about seeming ‘soft’ or ‘weak’. Jones never entertains that they might be right — or, at the very least, that they might have an understandable position. He just ignores them.
The second key problem is Jones’s unwillingness to engage with the best arguments that disagree with his position. He point blank refuses to believe that there are any intelligent positions that counter his own, despite the elites – political, legal, judicial, medical, philosophical, creative – who support the death penalty for not-stupid reasons. It’s far easier to simply ignore them while presenting a fairly weak sauce polemic about why you’re correct.
These two problems are identifiable in other public debates where — usually progressives — simply cannot fathom a reasonable alternative to their position. The abortion debate springs immediately to mind. Article after article is produced which both fails to engage with popular opinion (often characterising opponents’ views in the most malicious way possible), and fails to to engage with the best possible alternative position. I’m pro-choice, but it’s not particularly edifying to read articles which mischaracterise every pro-choice position as moronic halfwittery.
But see also discussions about climate change. Sure, positions which state that anthropogenic climate change are nonsense, but the discussion rapidly shifted to a slinging match between climate change deniers and scientists, when the real discussion was about our policy responses to climate change.
See also discussions about asylum seekers, or university funding, or the Israel-Palestine conflict, or &c., &c., &c.
Why do we fuel this kind of public discussion? If we can’t acknowledge the fact that reasonable, sensible, intelligent people can, in good faith, disagree with us, why bother engaging with public debates?