Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own.
-- Sir James M. Barrie
To what extent can we know another's motives?
Are people opposed to same-sex marriage homophobic bigots? Or do they value tradition or religious beliefs more than allowing gay people to get married? Are they torn about the issue, pulled one way by their hearts and another by their religious convictions?
Are supporters of abortion irresponsible, immoral sluts who want to escape the consequences of their actions? Or do they believe that a woman has sovereignty over her body or that the costs of criminalizing abortion are too steep? Are they torn?
Are politicians whores who will say anything for a vote or idealists who are working within the system as well as they can? (Okay, probably whores.)
Lately, I've been reading some conservative-leaning blogs which routinely assume bad -- or bizarre -- motives for liberals' actions. They seem to assume liberals do everything out of misplaced guilt or a shallow desire to pat themselves on the back for being politically correct.
I've been making the same mistake about conservatives' motives. I've assumed that many vociferous opponents of illegal immigration are barely-disguised racists and that opponents of welfare and affirmative action don't care about the poor and minorities.
I think it's time we stop assuming. If someone does one thing and says another, we may point it out. If one admits to a motive we find reprehensible we should argue forcefully with them. But if someone takes a position without stating a motive, or claims a motive about which we are skeptical but have no counter-evidence, let's stick to the arguments presented rather than arguing about what's going on inside other people's brains.