Monday, January 15, 2007

Unstructured Politics

I was watching a show, on the National Geographic network, about multiple births that focused on their embryological development. The show does an excellent job of showing actual (and high-quality CGI) images of embryos as they're developing.

As I was watching it I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable. I had a very hard time looking at the images, which was odd since I'm not particularly squeemish about these things. In point of fact, I think that embryology is one of those genuinely fascinating topics that I want to know more about.

I took a moment to examine my feelings when it hit me. The source of my aversion wasn't the images, per se, it was the fact that 90% of the time I see images of embryos in the context of abortion protests which is one of my least favorite topics.

The irony, of course, is that the people who are trying the hardest to protect embryos have made them something that I -- a person who finds them interesting -- find difficult to even look at because, in my mind, they've become associated with a political topic that I don't find enjoyable.

This leads me to wonder what other sort of things we might be creating negative associations for by politicizing them. The one that leaps immediately to mind is the animal rights movement. I know quite a few people who have (what I think are) perfectly sane views on the subject of animal rights and our ethical responsibilities towards animals who, never the less, will immediately launch into self-defensive jokes about frying up critters and eating them simply because the topic is indelibly associated with PeTA, an organization that most people (animal lovers or not) can't stand.

I suspect that environmentalists have done the same thing. One can't even begin to discuss the importance of environmental protection without having to cut through layers of negative association brought about by radicalist organizations such as Earth First.

I think that this can be taken as further evidence that politicization tends to damage debate. Rather than promoting discussion of difficult topics, we resort to emotionalism and iconolization (if I may coin a word) which not only hampers rational discussion but which actually creates a sense of aversion in those who might be most inclined to discuss the topics, nor do such efforts ultimately help those who deploy them. The fact that I have developed a negative association towards embryos doesn't help those who want to protect them, nor is PeTA helping animals by making people feel subconsciously angry whenever they see a picture of a cow.

The terminal effect is that debate is ceded to the extremes and any hopes of moderation become lost in the shouting. Somehow those of use that don't find ourselves at the poles of a debate need to come up with a way to reclaim the center and to carve out a space for rational discussion.

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