As most people know, the word “argument” can be used in two ways. More commonly, we talk about “having an argument,” by which we mean a heated exchange that generally starts with a strong emotional response such as hurt feelings. When we’re having an argument, it’s often harder to see the real source of conflict clearly because our reason is clouded by overpowering emotions.
But when we say “she made a really good argument in favor of the budget proposal,” we mean the other kind of argument: a carefully worded, logical explanation for a position you hold, backed by evidence and intended to persuade others that your viewpoint should be adopted.
In our public discussions of important issues, we need a lot more of the latter kind of argument, and a lot less of the former.
As my case in point, let me cite Dana Parker’s commentary from April 27 (“A different internment lesson”), where she takes issue both with New Times and with Eva Ulz, executive director of the History Center, for suggesting that Japanese internment was wrong and for drawing comparisons between internment and present-day stances against Muslim immigration.
I applaud Parker, as I would anyone else, for taking the time to articulate a strongly held viewpoint, but I give her a failing grade for critical thinking.
Parker cites numerous acts of violence performed by the Japanese government, all of which are a matter of historical record; but she uses these examples as evidence to suggest that it was correct, or at least forgivable, for the U.S. government to round up citizens of Japanese descent and place them in prison camps.
If indeed, as Parker herself claims, the Japanese government during and before World War II “inhumanely decimated enemies and civilians,” then it is an especially cruel injustice to suggest that those like Haruo Hayashi’s father, who sought a better life in the U.S., should be punished for doing so.
But I don’t think Parker has thought it through quite that far. Instead, she vaguely joins together the acts of a cruel regime and the inherent nature of a group of human beings who are linked to that regime only by a common heritage. There is more than one word for that kind of thinking, but the word I want to emphasize is ignorance.
In our present day, it seems to some people self-evident that when a few people of Muslim descent commit violent acts here and abroad, all Muslims are guilty of those acts by association. But that claim, just like the link between the Japanese regime and Japanese Americans, has no logical basis.
Instead, it’s the result of a type of convenient thinking that oversimplifies difficult problems so they appear easier to solve. It would indeed be easier, in a way, to pretend that entire groups of people are inherently evil, and that you can tell they’re evil because of their skin color, their accents, or their last names.
But the real world is not that simple. No group of people has any one inherent nature. Within the global Muslim population, there are many groups and factions, and millions of human beings who are neither all good nor all bad but, like the rest of us, mostly somewhere in between.
One thing that ordinary Muslims and Japanese share with ordinary red-blooded Americans is the ability to become the victims of violence and injustice. In the case of Japanese internment, we were the perpetrators, and we are only stronger for acknowledging that fact plainly. In the case of a country like Syria today, ordinary Muslims are being victimized by another cruel regime. We face a great moral challenge in deciding whether to help or hinder that victimization, and in so doing we also decide whether we can learn from our own history.
Damian Rollison is a fan of logical arguments who lives in Arroyo Grande. Send comments through the editor at email@example.com or write a letter to the editor (250 words) or a commentary (800 to 1,100 words) and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.