August 24, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)

The Adversary System

The true aristocrat is a person who knows his own rights and the rights of everyone else and observes those rights without external compulsion -that is to say, he passes his own laws and obeys the just laws his neighbors pass.

Don Marquis, 1927

The way that our society deals with controversy is with the adversary system. It assumes that there are only two sides to every question and that the way that disagreements are resolved is to let both sides at each other.

The adversary system doesn't work badly if all of the conditions are right. What are those conditions?

First there must be only two sides. If there are three or four or many sides you might as well forget it. What kind of question would have a lot of sides to it? How about, "What kind of culture should the US adopt?" In the Canadian province of Quebec, this is a crucial question with clearly polarized sides. One group wants a French culture and the other an English culture. If there were a large influx of Arabs and Asians, it would defuse the issue.

In our country there are so many groups that you could never begin to choose up sides. I happen to like it that way. It seems to me that the only way to avoid holy wars is to have so many religions that they can never choose up sides. If people can't be polarized on two clear-cut sides of an issue, you can't have a war. As a child in a Bill Mauldin cartoon said, "I conclude that war is impossible unless both sides are right!"

The second necessary condition, for the adversary system to work, is having an impartial person or group that will pass judgment on the validity of the arguments of the adversaries. In a court, it is either the judge or the jury that does that. In a public controversy, it is the electorate. If there is no middle force to adjudicate the issue, we get a schism between the opponents and the creation of two nations, or a war.

In short, unless we have two clearly defined positions and a middle group that will adjudicate the issue, the adversary system results in a conflict where either each side goes its own way, or one side tries to annihilates the other.

Another vital element is that both sides have to willing to accept, albeit reluctantly, the decision of the judge, jury or electorate. If this doesn't happen, the adversary system has not solved the problem.

One problem is that both sides in such a controversy expect to win and sometimes are unwilling to accept a decision that goes against their side.

The abortion issue is clear cut. Should abortion be allowed in all states? The Supreme Court has made that decision. The anti-abortion people would like it to go to a new Supreme Court in the hope that the decision will be reversed. The issue is not likely to die in the foreseeable future. Like the issue of civil liberties, it is one that is likely to be with us for a very long time since both sides are not likely to give up.

The proponents of the extreme positions on the timber issues (preserve everything vs. complete laissez faire) would like to convert the whole business into two clearly defined positions. This is not likely to happen. While these sides are fighting one another, there is a very large middle force that is saying we want both lumber and forests, and they are likely to prevail. While the issues may be clear with regard to a particular patch of woodland, they will remain fuzzy with regard to a general policy.

One great problem with the adversary system is the tendency of the extremes to exaggerate their position in order to make their point. I am being very polite; what I mean is that they all lie like troopers or fishermen. If the middle folk get fed up with the lies, they may say "A plague on both your houses!" What some fanatics seem unaware of is the fact that you can push people too much and that there is a limit to how much baloney people will take. I find that I get angry when I think that I am being pushed; even by people with whom I sympathize.

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