Environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben led a stirring climate change conversation on Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday. Regardless of your political leanings, the conversation is an interesting lesson in how debate and social claim is structured. One of the most fascinating elements of social claims making is that those who are for and against any social issue tend to use exactly the same arguments to make their point. Listen to how McKibben and those selected to debate him used almost identical arguments in the video below.
Climate change is just one example of a social problem in which claims are crafted from nearly identical arguments. For example, take something as contentious as abortion. The arguments for and against abortion are nearly always structured in exactly the same way and are grounded in human rights. On both sides, we are asked to appeal to our sense of human goodness, the right to happiness, and the reduction of suffering.
Climate change rhetoric is interesting in that it too employs very similar rhetorical style. Those who feel climate change is a serious social problem point to the risks associated with climate change and the ask us to act in protection of humanity. Those who dismiss or at least turn away from climate change do so for exactly the same reason. They, however, point to the risks of climate change legislation on economic stability and to our present way of life.
Over the past week, I have been discussing the structure of social problem debate with my students. The more I study these debates the more convinced I am that we as a society are much more similar than we are different. I take as evidence the reality that we base our claims on almost identical moral principles. If you have had a chance to analyze the 2012 presidential debates you will notice, for instance, that Obama and Romney speak at length about job creation and economic prosperity. Certainly these two disagree about how to achieve job creation and economic prosperity, but both men seem to agree as do most of us, that unemployment and poverty are things we should aim to avoid.
We most certainly have our differences and we should recognize them, but we are also quite similar. It seems to me that our similarities are addressed far to infrequently. Failure to recognize our shared humanity is likely to lend itself to greater contention. If our challengers are always something "other" than what we are, then denying them the same sorts of basic rights and respect we expect for ourselves becomes far easier. To me, that seems almost more dangerous than whatever it is we are arguing about.
Vincent M. Smith - PhD