On Wednesday, BYU's Daily Universe ran a letter to the editor written by William Sheppard, a student from New York City. Sheppard made a fascinating argument about the Manhattan mosque controversy using a spatial/proximity topos. After telling us that he grew up eight miles from Ground Zero, he argued that
"My opinion and its eight miles should carry much more weight than the 900 miles between [Newt] Gingrich and this mosque, or [Harry] Reid’s 2,565 miles and especially [Sarah] Palin’s 4,336 miles."
According to this reasoning, public opinion--like exposure to radiation--should intensify or diminish relative to the distance from the business.
So what do the folks at the issue's Ground Zero think about the (two blocks from) Ground Zero mosque?
The NY Times polled New York City residents about the proposed community center and mosque and discovered that two-thirds of the residents would rather it was constructed elsewhere, even while they support the building in principle. I thought this bit of data was particularly provocative:
"Sentiments about the center appear to be heavily shaped by personal background and experiences. Those who have visited mosques or have close Muslim friends are more likely to support the center than those who have few interactions with Islam."
From a rhetorical standpoint, the "few interactions" describes the weakness of gauging public opinion from public opinion polls. (You're at the dinner table, a drumstick of fried chicken in your hand, when the phone rings. The person on the other side asks, "Do you support the building of a mosque at Ground Zero?") The end of public discourse ought to be judgment--in other words, an intelligent, ethical answer to the question, "What should we do?" We cannot come to such judgment, according to publics theorists, without what Hauser calls "vernacular" deliberation, the kind of back and forthness in which different perspectives have a chance to brush up against each other in a contest of good reasons.
What would such a deliberation look like in respect to the building of a mosque near the gravesite of over 3,000 victims of Islamist extremism?