The Enemy Within Argument

There is a certain style of argument that has been bothering me lately and I think I may finally have a name for it.

It started at the beginning of this month over at Scienceblogs when the issue of framing science reared up again and created a blog tempest. Matthew Nisbet complained that critics of the anti-evolution movie Expelled were damaging their own cause by drawing too much attention to the movie.

What really irked me was the suggestion that some criticism was better than others. In particular, the strident denunciations of atheists like PZ Myers or Richard Dawkins damaged the cause of evolution, while milder criticisms that appealed to the ideological frames of the proverbial moderates was alright.

Over the weekend I read a sizable chunk of The Middle Way by Lou Marinoff. The first section of the book starts well, with a precis of the key ideas in the philosophy of the ABCs – Aristotle, Buddha, and Confucius. Marinoff argues that all of them shared a common theme of moderation in ethics, politics, belief, and thinking. So far so good.

The second section, and about ⅔ of the whole book, criticizes the extremists in our midst who are spoiling the wonderful world of moderation we could all enjoy. This is where the book falls down. Any book that caricatures Derrida and calls Ayn Rand “author of the monumental classic Atlas Shrugged” has some questionable definitions of moderation.

But even worse is the hectoring tone – the belief that if we just didn’t have these bad people on the extremes, these postmodernists, politicians, feminists, economists, teachers, racists, globalists, economists, and terrorists – then everything would be right with the world. It is a hopeful incantation – “I expel thee from my house” – in search of an enemy. It’s those people, the ones over there, who are causing all the problems. If we throw them out, get them to be quiet, reign in their anger, ask them to just shut up, then the moderates will come in and show us the way to utopia.

Moreover both Nisbet and Marinoff are self-proclaimed moderates. They may agree with the extremists, at least Nisbet appears to oppose Expelled, but the screechy behavior of the extremists concerns them. Why would anyone oppose the voices of moderation? Moderation is a good thing, right?

Nisbet and Marinoff are making the same rhetorical move. You, the reader, and them are the same; you both believe in evolution or moderation. How could a rational person, a philosopher, think otherwise? And up to this point I agree with both of them.

But lurking among the rationalists and philosophers are people whose viewpoints are too extreme. These dangerous people might get to the microphone and shape public opinion so we need protection from these extremists, and thus we have enemies within who must be ignored or silenced.