28. March 2005 · Comments Off on Some Light and a Lot of Heat · Categories: General, Politics

That is the way of it, when a great question falls into the public debate, or at least, that’s how it will look to the outsider. The extremes on either side bash away energetically at each other, the op-eds and the commentaries are reeled out like so many furiously unfurled rolls of toilet paper, until either the issue is resolved definitively, or everyone is quite tired of it… or some great event crashes in unexpectedly and renders the whole thing absolutely moot.

In the meanwhile, the consensus one way or the other on the great matter tends to come from the great, conflicted, indecisive middle ground. It comes slowly, little by little; and those great heroic leaps forward beloved of the op-ed pages and the history books have usually had the way cleared for them by decades of discussion, as the great undecided middle thrashes out the matter, goaded by the needle-pricks of activists, cranks and the iconoclasts.

For you see, the thing is that most humans— like most animals— are wary of change. We are innately small-c conservative. Most of us prefer the known, the predictable, the well-established, because that is what we feel best-equipped to handle in our daily lives. Not that we are against change of any sort— it’s just that we prefer to have thought about it for a while, before leaping in. We would like to have considered all the foreseeable angles and alternatives, to have mapped out some of the possible divergences; in other words, to have some sort of idea on what we can expect to come out of these changes, and what course we might have to take, depending.

This advance thought-work takes time, however impatient those activists and visionaries may be; and it simply has to be accomplished if success is to attend on their great cause. There can be no shortcuts, no imposition by judicial or political fiat; unless a great majority of the center is at least tentatively convinced of the utility of it (or that no great and lasting harm will come).

Consider two historic quests in America— for powered flight, and for female suffrage. By the time the Wright brothers and their successors made the airplane a reality, there had been more than a century of experimentation, dreaming, fantasies and discussion about being able to fly. Once the Montgolfier brothers proved it could be done with balloons in 1783, the idea that men could fly like birds was in play as a future reality, and the tinkerers and fantasist went to town, and the rest of the common lump of humanity began to get used to the notion. Not quite a decade after the Montgolfiers’s flight over Paris, Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” sets the groundwork for considering a wider degree of political, economic and social freedom for women.

As shocked and horrified as the traditionalists were by the whole notion of women being able to vote, control their own income and their own bodies… the ideas were in play for the next hundred and thirty years. Just as the possibilities of flight were chewed over and digested, so was the advancement of rights and protections for women; in little incremental steps, so most thoughtful people could see that yes, that one little change didn’t mean the end of the world, it worked pretty well, and most everyone was happy with it, or at least not terribly unhappy.

I have often thought that the popularity of science— or speculative— fiction is our way of doing that think-work, in advance of the possibility; of getting ourselves used to the many entrancing possibilities: how would we cope, for example, should we encounter a telepathic race, or one that has three sexes (or only one), or even the vast dark and empty stretches of space between the stars. We need to think about the great matters of our time, and to talk about them reasonably, even when the debate is heated, even angry on the fringes.

In the center, we must still be— as my favorite news commentary site has it—engaged in “civil, well-reasoned discourse”. The radical fringes start the conversation, spur it on, frame the opposing sides, but eventually consensus comes out of the middle. Out of that ongoing discussion is a final resolution arrived at, eventually— here, and other websites and round-tables, over dinner tables and around the water coolers, as messy and indecisive and incremental as it usually seems to be on those days when we are all pounding away. It will be a bit, but good work can never be hurried. And it never hurts to be civil and reasoned.

(Later: Sean, the moderator at the discussion website www.volconvo.com, very much wants to promote the sort of civil and reasoned dialogue that I am encouraging here, as well as a more even balance of his existing community of contributors. Check it out.)

Comments closed.