Honour for abortionist a disgrace to university

From the Web site of the University of Western Ontario (aka “Western”):

On Thursday, June 16 at 10 a.m. Western will confer an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a humanist leader who has promoted the idea that people have a right to control their own sexuality and reproduction, without interference by the state.

He founded the first abortion clinic in Montreal in 1968 and in the year that followed he challenged the criminal code by providing safe abortions for women in his clinic in Montreal.

His belief in a “Woman’s Right to Choose” eventually led to a change in the law.
Perhaps I had better provide a little more background. A blog is an international forum, and this is first and foremost a Canadian story. That said, anyone interested in the continuing controversy over abortion is likely to be stirred up by the story.

In the 1970s and 80s, Canada had a law which permitted abortion in hospitals, but only if certain criteria were met. Dr. Morgentaler decided the quickest way to legalize abortion on demand was to flout the law. He opened clinics in several provinces and offered abortions without regard to the legal criteria in place at the time. Inevitably, Dr. Morgentaler was charged with having committed a crime, just as he had planned.

After several legal battles, the case made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988. In R. v. Morgentaler, the court ruled that Canada’s abortion law constituted an unjustifiable violation of section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which reads,

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.
The court commented, “Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a foetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus an infringement of security of the person.” Thus the court struck down the abortion law.

On the other hand, the court recognized that the state might have a legitimate interest in the protection of the fetus. A different law might be deemed acceptable, providing that it achieved a better balance between the competing interests at stake:  the woman’s right to security of the person and the state’s interest in protecting the fetus. In particular, the state might justifiably limit access to abortion in the later months of a pregnancy.

The Canadian legislature made one attempt to replace the abortion law but could not achieve adequate support among Members of Parliament. In Canada there is presently no law prohibiting abortion at any stage of a pregnancy. Much of the credit (if that is the right word) for the situation must go to Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

Not surprisingly, Western’s decision to confer an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Dr. Morgentaler is quite controversial. According to TheStar.com:

Joanne McGarry, a Western graduate and executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, said her organization is asking disgruntled alumni to register their displeasure by stopping their donations to the university.

“This man’s sole contribution to Canada has been the taking of life in unprecedented numbers,” said McGarry.
Western has also faced criticism from within its own faculty. Don McDougall, the Chair of UWO’s Board of Governors, wrote an open letter to the university community. In the letter, Mr. McDougall comments, “For the past several years, [Dr. Morgentaler] has advocated abortion as a means of reducing poverty and criminality and removing unwanted children from our midst. This form of eugenics should offend most people in our academic community.”

UWO alumni have started on online petition to protest the decision to honour Dr. Morgentaler. To date, they have collected 11,261 signatures.

Here is my take on Western’s decision, as expressed in an open letter to UWO’s President Paul Davenport. (I sent the original via e-mail on June 17, 2005. I haven’t received a reply, but I don’t presume that Western is under any obligation to reply to me.)

President Paul Davenport:

This e-mail should probably be directed to the Senate, since that is the body that awards honorary degrees. I couldn’t find an e-mail address to contact the Senate, so I am voicing my objection through you.

Dr. Morgentaler represents different things to different people. For people who reduce abortion to a woman’s choice, Dr. Morgentaler is a symbol of a great social good. But for people who are mindful not only of the woman, but also of the child whose life ends at abortion, Dr. Morgentaler is a symbol of a great social evil.

You comment, “Research universities like ours attach a very high value to encouraging differing points of view and debate.” But how does the decision to honour Dr. Morgentaler “encourage” the alternative point of view on abortion?

As you know, Canada has had no abortion law since Dr. Morgentaler’s personal victory in 1988. Over 100,000 pregnancies are aborted in Canada every year; to my mind, this is a horrific statistic. There is no law against third-trimester abortions. The child is not recognized as a person but stripped of his or her rights in law. Thus no attempt is made to balance the rights of the child and the mother.

That is what Dr. Morgentaler symbolizes for me. A very great social evil, indeed.

Some day, perhaps, another figure will emerge and achieve some kind of compromise which acknowledges the child as a party to the abortion. That figure may deserve to be honoured by Canadian institutions and individuals.

But Morgentaler? The Senate’s decision to award him an honorary degree is a disgrace to the University of Western Ontario.

I could offer a further explanation of my opinion, but I think it’s better to turn things over to you, the reader, at this point.

All points of view are welcome here, with a proviso that should be clear from my previous post. Present your position, defend it vigorously, but please … don’t stoop to personal insults. Ad hominem arguments can only diminish your credibility.

Debating etiquette, part 2:  Diversionary tactics

The story thus far …

Debating etiquette serves two purposes: it minimizes unnecessary offence and it improves the quality of a debate. Skilled debaters can tackle complex and emotionally-loaded issues constructively, and make incremental progress toward Truth.

In our last installment, we looked at assertions. There can be no debate without them. If you want to improve your debating skills, begin here:  be precise in wording your assertions and reduce them to their essence before setting out to defend them.

On the other hand, a series of assertions and counter-assertions is not sufficient in itself to constitute a debate.

Today we will explore a negative theme, as we turn our attention to diversionary tactics. If your goal is to win the debate, diversionary tactics are your friend. But if your goal is to discover truth — I hope this is your goal! — diversionary tactics are an obstruction to be avoided.

For the purposes of formal debate, logicians have identified dozens of logical fallacies. (I know, it’s an oxymoron. Fallacies are illogical, not logical. Nobody ever said logicians were … well … logical.)

A logical fallacy will sidetrack your argument. It’s like taking the wrong turnoff from a highway:  when you reach your destination, you discover you aren’t where you intended to be. If your destination is Truth, logical fallacies are a shortcut to la-la land.

Believe it or not, some people will deliberately introduce logical fallacies to the argument. Their only goal is to win the debate, and they don’t care if Truth is sacrificed in the process.

(You thought human beings were inherently good and decent folk? I regret to inform you that you were dead wrong.)

Everyone has heard of some of the classic logical fallacies. These include:

Circulus in demonstrando (circular reasoning)
This occurs when someone uses the very thing they are trying to prove as part of their argument to prove the thing.

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc (mistaking correlation for causation)
This is the mistake of thinking that because two things occur together, one must be a cause of the other.

Non Sequitur
Reaching a conclusion which does not strictly follow from the premises.
If debaters use any of the above, they may be guilty of nothing more than sloppy thinking.

I want to turn our attention to something more sinister:  diversionary tactics. An unscrupulous debater will deliberately introduce these logical fallacies to deflect you into an eccentric orbit. Here are some examples:

The red herring (speculation on the origin of the phrase)
This is the very model of a diversionary tactic. It involves presenting relatively unimportant arguments which will capture your attention like, say, a streaker at a football match. You waste precious energy beating an irrelevant argument into the ground and feel good about yourself the whole while. (Man, I am destroying this guy’s position!) When you recover your senses you realize — too late! — that you haven’t addressed the core issue of the debate.

The straw man (etymology of the phrase)
This involves creating a caricature of an opposing argument, which is therefore easy to refute. The straw man tells us nothing about the merit of the debater’s actual position. Virtually any position can be made to look foolish by pushing it to a ludicrous extreme.

Argumentum ad misericordiam (appeal to pity)
Any argument designed to appeal to people’s emotions instead of their reason. However moving the debater’s rhetoric may be, his or her idea may still be unaffordable, impractical, unjust, or objectionable on some other legitimate grounds.
All of the above fallacies are regrettable, since they may deflect us from our goal. But there is one diversionary tactic I despise above all others:  the argumentum ad hominem. Such arguments are directed at the person (homin- means man) instead of the person’s opinions.

Ad hominem arguments are especially objectionable because they are demeaning and unnecessarily hurtful. In my opinion, debaters should unfailingly treat each other with respect.

Some people are downright nasty in the comments they post on blogs. I think it must be due to the anonymity of the experience. All of us need a certain amount of social pressure to keep the darker side of our natures in check. But we aren’t equally reliant on outside controls. Some people have an inner moral gyroscope that tends to keep them upright, while others are entirely dependent on external authorities to set appropriate boundaries.

Anonymity puts us to the test. If a person is kind and patient in person, but nasty when posting a comment on a blog, which kind of person is she? — the nasty kind. In the absence of social pressure, she reverts to her true nature.

If I am faced with an aggressive and condescending blogger, I will go through a series of steps with him (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll assume the blogger is male):

  1. I’ll try to improve his conduct by setting a good example for him. In my experience, this is surprisingly effective. When people are treated with respect, and presented with a reasonable argument, most of them will rise to meet you at your level.

  2. If that approach fails, I’ll point out the objectionable behaviour, using the most neutral language I can craft. That’s one of the reasons I am writing this series of posts on debating etiquette. It will enable me to sidestep the incipient personality conflict and refer the blogger to a neutral standard.

  3. If that fails … I still won’t sink to his level and respond in kind. Two better options remain open to me:

    (a) I can stop communicating with him. He may be keen on playing tug-of-war, but I don’t have to pick up my end of the rope. This option requires a lot of self-restraint:  I’ll be giving him the last word unless I take the extreme measure of blocking his access to my site.

    (b) I can take advantage of my superior intellect. (I must be smarter than this guy, since he can’t engage me in meaningful debate.) I can slice him and dice him with surgical precision, exacting my pound of flesh without spilling a drop of his blood. To paraphrase a close colleague of mine, The Referee, I don’t have to play the goon; I have talent.

Humour is a particularly effective weapon here. Your adversary is self-important and too earnest by half. Laugh at him and he will quit the field — he won’t be able to cope with it.

Here’s a wonderful example from Bystander, a British magistrate:

Jonathan Miller has followed up his earlier email thusly:-

You know perfectly well that magistrates get jobs via party lists – so why dissemble?
What a poltroon you are! But jumped up, all the same. Your little web notice claiming to be engaged in the business of law is frankly pathetic. You are not a lawyer. You are a lackey.
Yours with customary disrespect,

I am becoming a little worried about Mr. Miller. I think that he might need some attention to his sense of proportion. Still, at least he didn’t call me a drink-sodden popinjay, although that might at least have been more accurate then the rest of what he says.

Commenter #1
I always viewed Miller as somewhat over rated. The only way he gains any real stature is by standing on the shoulders of his own self opinion.

Commenter #2
Wear this dickhead with pride, you’re no-one until you’ve got a single-issue lunatic on your back.
Miller stands one pound lighter, and — OK, maybe there’s a little blood on the floor. Commenter #2 stoops to gratuitous name-calling (“dickhead”). But Commenter #2 also illustrates a key point I’m trying to make:  he refuses to let Miller get under his skin. He laughs him off (this guy validates you, Bystander — wear him with pride).

This is the most effective way to deal with an aggressive and condescending blogger. If you lash out at him, he will just keep coming back for more. But if you laugh at him, he will quit the field.

Next up is my bound-to-be-controversial post on abortion. After that, I will proceed to “Debating etiquette, part 3:  arguments”.

If you’d like a fuller description of argumentum ad homimem and other logical fallacies, this site impresses me as a good place to start:  logical fallacies. I don’t entirely agree with the source’s philosophy, but that’s because we’re writing for different purposes. (He is writing with a view to formal, competitive debates.)

Debating etiquette, part 1:  Assertions

Within the next few days, I intend to post on a controversial topic. I think I’ve figured out a way to piss off people on both sides of the abortion controversy. It’s just possible that this will lead to some heated exchanges.

Before sticking my neck out, I would like to discuss some rules of engagement. I intend to explore the etiquette of debating in a series of posts. After this post on assertions, I will turn my attention to diversionary tactics, arguments, and premises.

Debating etiquette serves two purposes: it minimizes unnecessary offence and it improves the quality of a debate. Skilled debaters can tackle complex and emotionally-loaded issues constructively, and make incremental progress toward Truth.

For me, Truth is a kind of holy grail. I believe that Truth and Ideology are often at war with one another, and my allegiance is to Truth.

Every debate begins with an assertion (or proposition). If the subject is controversial, someone is bound to respond with a counter-assertion. For example,
    • “The war in Iraq was necessary”;
    • “The war in Iraq was a mistake.”

Assertions are important: there can be no debate without them. In fact, if you want to improve your debating skills, this is the place to begin. Let me offer two tips, taken from the university setting.

First, university students are taught that every essay must have a thesis:  a simple statement (= assertion) that the student will defend in the body of the essay.

The same principle applies outside the university setting. Before you defend your position, you need to carefully define it. If your thinking is sloppy at this point, everything that follows will be confused and unpersuasive.

Second, university students are taught to reduce the thesis to its bare essence. When a first-year student presents the professor with a thesis statement, the professor invariably responds the same way:  “It’s too broad. You need to narrow your focus.” For example,

“Saddam Hussein was a sworn enemy of the United States. He might have had weapons of mass destruction and the Americans just haven’t found them yet. Even if he didn’t have any, he was going to develop some and then he would have presented a direct threat to American security.”
(Poor thesis statement.)

“Saddam Hussein had to be removed from office before he found a way to strike the USA.”
(Better thesis statement — although I personally think the war in Iraq was a mistake.)
The first example is open to rebuttal at several points. Remember that any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. An effective debater will focus on your most vulnerable point and immediately put you on the defensive.

So drafting a good thesis statement is trickier than you might suppose. To be effective, your assertion must be precisely worded and reduced to its essence, like sap boiled down into maple syrup.

But there is more to a debate than this.

Judging from what I read in the blogosphere, many people mistake assertion / counter-assertion for debate. The worst blogs sometimes remind me of Monty Python’s “argument booth” sketch.

For those of you who aren’t Monty Python fans, I should explain the (typically absurd) premise: a client enters a business establishment where he pays someone to argue with him. (I downloaded the script here, presumably in violation of copyright law.)

[The client enters the room. The professional arguer is seated at a desk.]
Is this the right room for an argument?
I’ve told you once.

No you haven’t.
Yes I have.

Just now!

No you didn’t.
Yes I did!


I’m telling you I did!

You did not!
I’m sorry, is this a five minute argument, or the full half hour?

Oh … Just a five-minute one.
Fine. [makes a note of it] Thank you. Anyway, I did.

You most certainly did not.
Now, let’s get one thing quite clear. I most definitely told you!

You did not.
Yes I did.

Yes I did.

Yes I did!!

Look, this isn’t an argument.
Yes it is.

No it isn’t, it’s just contradiction.
No it isn’t.

Yes it is.
It is not.

It is. You just contradicted me.
No I didn’t.

Ooh, you did!
No, no, no, no, no.

You did, just then.
No, nonsense!

Oh, look, this is futile.
No it isn’t.

I came here for a good argument.
No you didn’t, you came here for an argument.

Well, an argument’s not the same as contradiction.
It can be.

No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.
No it isn’t.

Yes it is. It isn’t just contradiction.
Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.

But it isn’t just saying ‘No it isn’t’.
Yes it is.

No it isn’t. Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.
No it isn’t.

Yes it is.
Not at all.

Now look!
[presses the bell on his desk] That’s it. Good morning.

But I was just getting interested.
Sorry, the five minutes is up.

That was never five minutes just now!
I’m afraid it was.

Now they have arrived at a different assertion (the five minutes is up) and counter-assertion (that was never five minutes!), but the dialogue is still stuck in the same rut.

The point is this: every debate begins with an assertion, but a series of assertions and counter-assertions is not sufficient in itself to constitute a debate.

Next time, we’ll look at diversionary tactics, with particular reference to ad hominem arguments.

Belated haiku

The contest is over and a champion has been crowned. (See the low down on haiku). But here is a belated entrant to the field:

Long weekend, big plans
Mother Nature squats and sprays.
Cancel the parade.

The low down on haiku

A haiku is a poem consisting of three lines with a specific pattern of syllables: five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third.

You knew that! But there’s more to it than the 5/7/5 pattern.

Here’s a link to an interesting haiku story. (The story is worth reading for its own sake.) The author is a Jewish man who took a creative writing class with his wife, where he learned that a true haiku must:

  • express something about nature;
  • use very concrete terms, never generalities;
  • deal with the here and now; and
  • be composed of strong nouns and verbs. (It should rarely be necessary to use a modifier, like an adjective or an adverb.)
  • each line should contain a complete thought;
  • often the three lines are split into two parts, by a colon or a dash, with an imaginative distance between the two sections; and, finally,
  • the whole haiku should have a twist that conveys some insight by means of juxtaposition.
Ooh, a challenge! The gauntlet has been thrown down! Now I am compelled to compose a haiku of my own:
Five senses:  lovers’
portal to transcendent realms;
Earthy and sublime.
OK, I cheated, particularly by breaking up the first line. (Rule #41: each line should contain a complete thought.) But I conveyed an insight by means of juxtaposition not too badly, I think.

Form and content stand in uneasy tension with one another — that’s where the challenge lies. The poet who perfectly executes both achieves nirvana on the spot.

Are you up to the challenge? Do you have the IQ for haiku?

Wisely ignorant

Socrates is reputed to be one of the wisest men who ever lived. Paradoxically, it was his ignorance that made him wise.

(Note to the reader: I am using the word ignorant in its original sense, “lacking knowledge, uninformed”: not in its colloquial sense, “ill-mannered, uncouth”. Socrates was aware that he lacked knowledge, which made him wise.)

There used to be a television show called “Kids say the Darndest Things”. But I think adults say the darndest things, too. People sound off on subjects they know nothing about. They assume they know something: but based on what? They haven’t studied the subject and they haven’t trained themselves to think through issues in a methodical way. But they have an opinion, and they know they are right.

In person, I am cautious about expressing an opinion. (You might have formed a different impression of me, based on my blog!) As a result, I often find myself shut out of conversations. While I pause to think, someone else seizes the conversational ball, and I go back to listening.

I wouldn’t mind, if only the other person had something thoughtful to say. But too often, the confidence with which people express an opinion is inversely proportional to how much they actually know about the subject. I end up wasting my time, listening to a foolish monologue.

Very few people can speak intelligently on a wide range of subjects. Most of us would do well to listen more and speak less.

Epictetus (an ancient Greek philosopher) put it this way: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” A proverb attributed to Solomon says, “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge … even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise” (Proverbs 17:27-28).

But I began by speaking of Socrates. Here is his account of himself, when he was on trial before his fellow Athenians. The sentence structure is a little convoluted for a modern reader, so here’s a brief summary: (1) The oracle at Delphi says there is no one wiser than Socrates. (2) Socrates is aware how little he knows, so he thinks the statement is absurd. He sets out to prove the oracle wrong. (3) Socrates learns that his ignorance is the very thing that makes him wiser than his fellows.

Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him…whether anyone was wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself; but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of what I am saying.

Why do I mention this? Because I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name.

When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? And what is the interpretation of his riddle? For I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What then can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god, and cannot lie; that would be against his nature.

After long perplexity, I thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.”

Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him — his name I need not mention, he was a politician; and in the process of examining him and talking with him, this, men of Athens, was what I found. I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.

So I left him, saying to myself as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really worth knowing, I am at least wiser than this fellow — for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this one little point, then, I seem to have the advantage of him.

…The truth is, O men of Athens, that god only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; although speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.

[excerpted from Plato’s Apology]

A challenging message for those of us who blog!

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