One of the most singularly asinine claims that might be floated in any discussion is the one that follows the pattern that, “doing X will send the wrong message.” Characterizing such infantile twaddle as “asinine” is almost certainly an offense to all those statements in the world that are genuinely (but only) asinine. What makes such statements so unqualifiedly despicable is that they are all built around the fatuous presupposition that any act or statement is so unambiguously closed in its meaning that it can only send one, equally closed and unambiguous, message. Such childishness is of a piece with those who claim to take the Bible (or any other text) “literally,” as though the “literal” interpretation of any text were even possible in the abstract, much less actualizable in the concrete. I’ll have a few words to say on this latter topic at the end.
What brought this to mind was a brief news story on the radio this AM, that mentioned how the Illinois legislative branch was considering a measure to decriminalize (note: NOT legalize, because that would generate huge amounts of revenue for the state, and we can’t allow that to happen … ) possession of small amounts of marijuana (I forget how much exactly). In addition, the bill would specify how much THC one could have in one’s system to be considered legally impaired for driving. Several law enforcement and “concerned citizens” groups oppose such actions on the grounds that it would “send the wrong message” to our delicate and oh-so-easily influenced youth. Well, as soon as the “wrong message” meme surfaces, you know the persons throwing this claim about are either stupid, lying, or both. So let us look at stupid first, lying second, and finish (as promised) with “textual literalism.”
The idea that any act, statement, event, burp, fart, or bird turd, sends something as simplistic as a single “message” simply redefines the concept of ST00PID to the extent that the bar has been lowered past the “divide by zero” point. Nothing is ever that atomically, irreducibly, simple. Consider the simplest declarative sentences we might use. Were it Winter, my example might be “snow is white,” but as it is Spring let us use, “grass is green.” (But notice first how, even if I’d not made the preceding contextualizing remark, that contextualization would still be operative.) Yet, I glance out my window and I see the backyard, lush with grasses of many kinds, dappled with light and shadow, and neither “grass” nor “green” can be taken to mean any single thing. (And Aristotle has already pointed out, some 2300 years ago, that “is” is said in many ways.) Even if I go out and select a single blade of one kind of grass, and place it in an absolutely uniform position under an absolutely uniform light, I succeed only in flattering my lack of consideration to imagine that I’ve simplified matters any. That single blade still stands for the entire generic class of “grass”, that color (not even uniform on that single blade) is still pretending to represent all possible greens. No part of this is simple.
If I may be permitted a personal anecdote: Some decades ago (closer to 4 than 3) I was in a conversation with some family members about whether homosexuals should be permitted to work as teachers in a classroom. The “message” as my relatives – conservative Christians – saw it was, “What might the children learn in such a classroom?” I looked at my relatives, and without raising my voice very much I replied, “Well, they might learn tolerance.” Now, if you do the arithmetic above, you will realize that this conversation took place in the PF (Pre-Fox “News”) era, so it was still possible for conservative Christians to imagine that tolerance was a virtue. Obviously that era is long past, which is why those relatives and myself are no longer capable of communication at any level. Still, at the time, the example counted for them. They realized that what they took to be “THE” message, was only A message, and not even the most obvious or reasonable one. (Since then, in our lovely “post-Fox” era, those same relatives have informed me of such things as that the ACA, “Obamacare,” would require that everyone be implanted with an RFID chip. This led me to share some choice, although not especially scholarly, words.)
So what if it happens to be the case that the people spouting the above drivel are not simply ST00PID but have another agenda? Well, this is what is sometimes referred to (in the technical literature) as “lying.” So why would law enforcement and “concerned citizens” oppose decriminalizing some small degree of marijuana possession, on the assumption that they are not just and only ST00PID? Well, in a word that is not a word, the answer is:
Law enforcement agencies receive staggeringly large monetary grants for their participation in the “war on drugs,” while “concerned citizens” are often funded by the prison-for-profit industry. If one eliminates non-violent petty possession charges from the itinerary, than vast sums of money cease to be funneled into the lower echelons of the legal system for dealing with problems that aren’t problems, and aggressively punishing people who’ve done nothing worthy of punishment.
We see this again with the same people demanding zero-tolerance for those caught driving somewhat under the influence. The hypocrisy here is easily discernible. If these self-righteous defenders of what is Good and Right believed any part of what they were saying, they would also be demanding zero-tolerance towards those caught driving under any amount of influence of alcohol. Needless to say, they are making no such demand. (Hence, the use above of the word “hypocrisy.”)
And just to eliminate any possible confusion as to personal motivation on this topic, let me assert for the record that I really – and I mean I REALLY – do not personally care for the effects of marijuana. I dislike what it does to my head, and I detest the sensation in my lungs (like spiders crawling around in my chest) of smoking it.
Yes, I have tried it.
Yes, I have tried it more than once.
Yes, I inhaled.
And, no, I really do not like it.
But this is not about my personal tastes; it is about the logical cogency of the arguments being made. So my argument here is not about some personal agenda. It is about the idea that having a system of laws based on logic and objective reality would somehow send “the wrong message” to our helpless and delicate youngsters, who require the example of vicious and irrationally punitive laws in order to lead meaningful and upstanding lives as genuinely enfranchised citizens.
Which brings us, at last, to the idea of textual (typically Biblical) literalism. This really is an astoundingly absurd notion. Simple sentences like “the grass is green,” or “the cat is on the mat” (Which cat? Which mat? Completely on the mat, or just partially?) do not serve as examples of irreducible simplicity, yet we’re supposed to imagine that entire textual passages admit of only one, absolutely univocal interpretation (which is the “literal” one)? More than a few scholars are quite clear that the original authors of the Old Testament understood they were writing stories in the form of analogies and metaphors, not “literal” representations. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? In order to be “literal” one would have to know God’s mind completely, a presumption so extreme that it is forbidden by a commandment, the one about being so vain as to presume to take God’s name to one’s self. I’ve always found it curious that literalists never bother to take that particular commandment seriously. I guess they’re worried that doing so would send the wrong message.