Sometimes diving into a heated issue, in this case opposing the California Proposition 34 to end the death penalty, can be a surprising source of insight. It was not to come in response to my arguments, addressed specifically to those who are referred to as being "socially liberal" as there was a willful avoidance of addressing them. That is until it was picked up in a letter printed in the L.A. Times, that rather than a point by point rebuttal, the response was outrage that I supported this "barbaric" punishment.
Realizing that appeals to reason to the defense appellate lawyer who excoriated me was useless, I started thinking more about the intensity of her reaction. In an instant, the appearance of my letter had turned me into the enemy, one who deserved the full hatred directed to those apostates of all stripes who abandon the fold. While civilized people, like us --perhaps, do not really stone to death those who abandon our deeply held beliefs, we do maintain the precursors to such violence. They are nurtured, not in the mosque or midnight torch-lit rallies, but in a visceral contempt for those "unfaithfuls."
Taking of another human life elicits powerful conflicting emotions. The first is inhibitory, a constraint against acting on impulses that could destroy the cohesion of the group. The paradox is that this inherent inhibition to kill is poised against the equally essential imperative to commit the same violence to defend the group. This killing of enemy outsiders or internal traitors is mandated at every scale, from street gang to nation. The unleashed anger over the death penalty issue, solves a puzzle for me, connecting the individual with the political, organism to super-organism.
It becomes clear there is common element of the two most divisive issues of our cultural divide, capital punishment and abortion-one that may not be evident, or even comprehensible to those who are most passionate about them. In both cases a human life is being ended, either it being one in utero-- or an adult convicted of a breach of the most central tenet of the group, which we define as murder.
Human cognition is not a linear algorithm, rather it evolved from our phylogenic ancestors who had to deal with lethal competitors with a brain of far less processing capacity than has eventually evolved. It does not work by first assessing all the variables, and then calculating the most viable course of action, as by the time we had done that our pre-human precursors would have been dead. Rather they formed an instant picture, what is now called a "gestalt" that identified, categorized and triggered an energizing reaction that played itself out, either by escape, or by vanquishing the threatening individual.
As tribes evolved into larger groups, human culture was largely the process of defining individuals into friends or foes, those who we may kill and those whom we must protect from death. Such labeling, whether by the tattoos of street gangs or the epithets cast at political opponents are only thinly disguised representations of such primal instincts.
And so the social-liberal recognizes no contradiction in dehumanization of the organism who has yet to emerge from the womb, while identifying with the humanity of one who has violated the central core value of his society. The semantic trick of objectifying such fetuses works because it seems to obviate the contradiction. So liberals always use the sterile word "fetus" and conservatives depict those to be killed as "monsters."
This paradox certainly extends to the generic social conservative, who has conceptually banished such murderers from the fold, his execution being the natural culmination of his inhumanity. Yet, for this conservative in spite of the fetus having none of the cultural cognitive attributes of personhood, he is viewed as a member of society to be protected from harm.
There is one more aspect of this analysis, which is that culture, its use of language to evoke primal emotions, has the capacity to become a force unto itself even in the absence of the dangers that formed the primitive responses. In the United States, to be a conservative or a liberal is to espouse its core values, which define perceptions that override the weak effect of reason on human affairs.
As such, today's conservative incorporates an identifying article of faith that opposes killing a fetus, even though it was universally accepted in the English speaking world before the first trimester until the mid 19th century. And certainly capital punishment was equally accepted at that time, as among our founders there was no opposition to referencing it specifically in the Constitution. These were a group of men who internalized the enlightenment values of their era who never entertained the conceit that a world without those who deserved to die for their crimes would ever exist.
What these writers of our Constitution did understand to a person, was the dangers of what they called factions and what we now refer to as political parties. These men, some from slave holding states and others who abhored the institution, some from agricultural areas and others commercial, some Christians and others agnostics, still were able to forge a uniting document.
They so feared factions that they tried to make their formation structurally impossible, assuming or hoping, that the person who came in second in the election for president would would share enough values to become the vice president. They must have understood that factions not only reflect differences, but that they thrive on them and must create them when they do not exist. Their fears have been shown to be correct.
My carefully crafted essay pointing out un-noted adverse consequences of the proposed law that would end the death penalty was never to be evaluated on its merits, but like all things in the ever increasing domain of partisan politics became an identifier of my substance, whether I was a friend or a foe, with the emotional reaction that has little to do with the actual points that I made.
I will try not be affected by the antipathy of those who feel that I am no longer a member of their club, any more than I welcome the affiliation of those who see the sharing of rejection of this particular proposal as making me one of them. I embrace anyone who addresses my observations, who then refines them by either support or refutation. If I identify with anyone, it is with those who are attempting to find a way out of our descent into an ever more hateful politics of personal destruction..
Benjamin Franklin, when asked about the nature of the constitution he had just helped craft, famously described it as, "A Republic, if you can keep it." It was a cryptic comment that many have thought and written about. For the first time, I think I know what he may have meant.