Monday, August 17, 2009

Of Whale Watching and Navel Gazing

So I did it. I watched an episode of “Whale Wars” on the Discovery Channel.

I tried not to. I avoided it for almost a year. But on Saturday, I got sucked in.

You might ask, “Who cares, and what does this have to do with rhetoric or peace or anything like that?”

Well, for starters, I promised myself that I’d make an effort not to have this newest blog not just be pseudo-academic or faux-pundit stuff, but actually require some self-reflection on my part, and an attempt to integrate abstract stuff with personal observations.

Plus, my favorite academic-y blogs are ones that blend the academic and the personal. Ideally, these shouldn’t be two different worlds. If you want a sample, one I like a lot is “Bitch Ph.D.,” which is worth a click just for the photo in the banner.

When I was a tyke, one of the books my dad would read to me at bedtime was one called “All About Whales” by R. C. Andrews, the guy who supposedly was the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones.

From at least that time on, I’ve been fascinated by whales and repulsed by the notion of whaling. When I read Moby Dick, I was rooting for the whale.

So I knew if I watched “Whale Wars” (about a group that harasses Japanese whaling ships in an attempt to save whales) I knew I’d get worked up.

As the episode unfolded and I saw a grenade-tipped harpoon fired by a gun into a whale, obliterating its internal organs, but not killing it outright. For more than 20 minutes (thankfully shortened by editing to just a couple of minutes of screen time), the doomed whale thrashed and struggled, suffocating on its own blood, as whalers repeatedly shot it with a rifle.

And sure enough, I found my heart pounding.

I remembered the daydreams I had as a child. They went something along these lines: some eccentric billionaire environmentalist would purchase a WWII-era surplus submarine and scour the earth for a crew of kids who had just the right combination of passion, smarts, and moxie to crew this sub on its mission of disrupting illegal whaling across the seven seas. This rag-tag bunch of scrappy do-gooders would force whalers to strike their colors and abandon ship, allowing them just enough time to board life boats and radio for rescue before sending the blood-soaked kill ship to the bottom.

And since this was my daydream, after all, you can guess who was the kid looking through the periscope calling the order to fire a salvo of Mark IV fish into the side of the whaler.

I’ve sometimes thought of turning these childhood fantasies into a young-adult novel. And since I know there are writers among you, let me simply say it’s MY idea!. All rights reserved. Patent Pending. Copyright 2009, Remingtomes Books. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

But watching the show and doing a sort of self-inventory of the feelings it brought up reminded me of the tension between self-righteous anger and the desire to get along. Neither of these drives, in my mind, is good or bad. There are situations when almost the only rational response *is* anger—or at least the drive to take action to remedy the situation. And when being peaceful becomes nothing more than passivity, it ceases to be a virtue.

The trick is knowing where this line is. If one grants that whaling is a gruesome, immoral act, to what lengths should one go to end it? Taking violence against human beings off the table as self-evidently and categorically wrong, what about violence against property? What about causing fear?

I don’t know.

Obviously the issue of whaling is a metaphor. The larger issue is one that we each encounter on a nearly daily basis. Or at least I do.

The situations aren’t anywhere near as dramatic, but let me give you an example of what I mean. I believe passionately that in a country as wealthy as ours, it is morally inexcusable to not have guaranteed, affordable healthcare for every citizen. I’m not alone in this. As a matter of principle, polls consistently show that the majority of Americans want universal healthcare and would even be willing to personally pay more taxes if that were necessary to make it happen.

But of course not everyone agrees, and even those who agree in principle often balk when a specific plan is proposed. The minority who opposes it on ideological grounds will seize on specifics (real or imagined) that they feel will persuade those who *do* favor universal coverage to not support the given plan.

That’s why you don’t hear many against healthcare reform arguing that universal healthcare isn’t a worthy goal, or even arguing that the government shouldn’t be involved in providing healthcare. Instead, you get silliness like “death panels” and suggestions that instead of your doctor making healthcare decisions with you, some faceless “government bureaucrat” will call the shots (as if we weren’t ass-deep in bureaucrats making healthcare decisions for us; I don’t know about you, but I have pretty good insurance and I still get told what doctors I’m allowed to go to and what procedures I can have done).

So, I believe strongly in this issue—it’s one that directly affects the well-being of me and my fellow citizens. The case seems so self-evident to me as to almost need no defense—every moral and spiritual code I can think of is on the side of caring for those who are sick.

Yet I’m keenly aware that many people—including people whose intellect and morality I respect, people who are devoted followers of one or more of the moral codes that seem so self evidently on my side—aren’t in agreement with me.

Part of me thinks, “Well, not a one of us has access to objective Truth in its totality. I have my point of view; others have theirs. Can’t we all just get along?”

But another part of me, the part that is still that little kid who dreamt of confronting merchants of death on the high seas in the name of a transcendent good, feels compelled to challenge, critique, and attack what I perceive as ignorance, moral blind spots, narrow-mindedness, etc.

When it comes to public officials, there’s obviously no conflict—expressing oneself is fine and dandy, as long as one isn’t impinging on the rights of others.

But what about when you’re dealing with friends, family, colleagues? Is the drive to engage in debate—even friendly debate—with such people a good thing or a bad thing? A sign of sincere desire to search for the truth, or just a pathetic need to engage in rhetorical one-upsmanship? If I see an someone on Facebook approvingly post a screed by Ann Coulter or make a factually inaccurate argument about Obama’s “socialism,” is my nearly-reflexive desire to provide the other side, to “correct” them, to explain why their point of view is so disturbing and (to my mind) damaging to our collective world . . . is that desire coming from a good place or a bad place?

Again, I dunno.

One of the things I’m hoping to work toward in my own mind is a concept of rhetorical engagement which transcends the idea of “argument” in the narrow sense of being pro/con. There’s already been some work on that done (e.g. “Rogerian” argument), but it still has a long way to go.

In the meantime, I’ll keep dealing with my conflicting desires—the one to jump aboard my discursive Zodiac boat and aggressively harass those who would seek to harpoon the Truth as I grasp it (in my admittedly limited way), and the part of me that thinks it would be more congenial and decorous to simply lie on the beach and have another Mai Tai.


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