Monday, July 23, 2012

5 tips for creating civil discourse in an era of polarization

In an essay for The Seattle Times, Charles C. Camosy proposes five practices for moving beyond the polarization which currently dominates our public discourse:

Congress is now more polarized than at any time since Civil War Reconstruction. As we barrel toward a nasty presidential election, things will get even worse.

Whether it is the news channels we watch, the blogs we read, the people we follow on Twitter, our physical neighbors, our Facebook friends, our churches, or the people with whom we socialize, most of us consume information in communities which do not invite us to critically examine our positions.

The polarization is particularly powerful during those increasingly rare times during which we are forced to engage ideas to which we are seldom exposed: say, at Thanksgiving dinner, or in a required course in college or while watching a presidential debate. When we do have our safe, comfortable views directly and thoughtfully challenged, we are often unable to come up with something other than a polarizing response.

Happily, there are signs that we can do things differently. A recent international conference on abortion that I planned at Princeton University called "Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-Minded Words" brought several dozen academics, public figures and activists from all sides of the debate together for dialogue.

We talked honestly about our differences, but also explored areas where some of us might be able to come together: protecting the consciences of workers and institutions, the implications of a later-term fetus' sensitivity to pain, and giving women the resources to choose their pregnancies and provide for their children.

I also started an annual dialogue between a group of young theologians dedicated to getting beyond the liberal/conservative polarization in the Catholic Church, and have just released a book which details my conversation and personal relationship with perhaps Christianity's most infamous opponent: atheist philosopher Peter Singer.

On the basis of these experiences, I propose five practices for moving beyond the polarization which currently dominates our public discourse:

• Humility. We are finite, flawed beings and are prone to making serious mistakes. We need to enter into discussions and arguments with this at the very front of our minds — not only in being comfortable with someone challenging our point of view, but also reserving the right to change our mind when our argument is shown to be problematic.

• Solidarity with our conversation partner. This involves active listening, presuming that one has something to learn, and (if possible) getting to know them personally beyond an abstraction. Never reduce another's ideas because of their gender, race, level of privilege, sexual orientation, or social location. Similarly, never reduce them to what you suspect are their "secret personal motivations." Instead, give your partner the courtesy of carefully responding to the actual idea or argument that she is offering for your consideration.

• Avoiding binary thinking. The issues that are seriously debated in our public sphere are almost always too complex to fit into simplistic categories like liberal/conservative, religious/secular, open/close-minded, pro-life/pro-choice, etc. Furthermore, it sets up framework in which taking one side automatically defines one against "the other side" — thus further limiting serious and open engagement.

• Avoiding fence-building and dismissive words and phrases. It might feel good to score these rhetorical points, but doing so is one of the major contributors to our polarized discourse. Let us simply stop using words and phrases like: radical feminist, war on women, neocon, limousine liberal, prude, heretic, tree-hugger, anti-science, anti-life, and so on. Instead, use language that engages and draws the other into a fruitful engage of ideas.

• Leading with what you are for. Not only is this the best way to make a convincing case for the view you currently hold, but this practice often reveals that we are actually after very similar things and simply need to be able to talk in an open and coherent way about the best plan for getting there.

Charles C. Camosy is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University in New York City and author of "Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

On Not Bearing False Witness

"If Luther’s interpretation is correct, the eighth commandment is an epistemic principle: it has to do with figuring out when we have found the truth about our neighbor. When it comes to the assessment of our neighbor’s words and deeds, we should ‘find ways of excusing him, speak well of him and make the best of everything’ – or as it is often rendered, ‘put the best construction on everything (Small Catechism I.16). This is not just a rule of etiquette. We cannot keep this commandment by first discovering what we suppose to be the hard truth about another’s words and deeds, and then politely keeping quiet about, or softening up the rough edges. The commandment not to bear false witness surely cannot be an injunction to dissemble. Rather, obedience to this commandment has to enter into our very effort to discern the truth about our neighbor in the first place; we cannot suppose that we have got the truth about our neighbor’s words and deeds until we are sure we have put the best possible construction on them. In just this sense, presumably, the apostle Paul enjoins us to speak the truth in love, and warns against ‘evil talk,’ namely that which fails to build up and give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:15, 29). If we sense a conflict between what we want to say about our neighbor and that kindness and tenderness of heart without which we grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30, 32) we have a sure sign that we have so far failed to find the truth, and have fastened onto falsehoods of our own invention."
-- Bruce Marshall, quoted by Eugene Rogers in Sexuality and the Christian Body, p. 33

See also: Interpreting One Another with Charity

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Embracing Wrongness

In this brief lecture, Kathryn Schulz, poses the question, “How does it feel to be wrong?” We all know the feeling. It is usually unpleasant – embarrassing, shameful, etc. It is a feeling we try to avoid. But, Schulz points out that that feeling is not the feeling of being wrong, but the feeling of realizing we are wrong. Before we realize we are wrong, being wrong feels just like being right.

She goes on to point out that while we all acknowledge that we could be wrong in theory, we mostly avoid thinking about the possibility we ourselves might actually be wrong.

It is unsettling to concede that right now there are things about which I am convinced I am right but about which I am in fact wrong. Of course, if I realize I am wrong, I hope I will adopt a more correct view. But, at the moment I cannot think of a single thing I know about which I know I am wrong. Can you?

Schulz observes that we are, “Trapped in a little bubble of feeling very right about everything.”

Assuming we are right about everything is, of course, presumptuous. But, trusting too much in the feeling of being on the right side of anything is also dangerous. It is dangerous to our own spirits because it is an expression of the deadly sin of pride. And it is dangerous because attachment to our own rightness causes us to treat each other badly – a failure of charity which is also deadly to the spirit.

Given our habitual assumption of our own rightness – morally, politically, religiously, professionally, scientifically, or whatever – we are faced with a problem – how do we explain all those people who don’t see it our way?

Schulz suggests that we typically make three “unfortunate assumptions” about those who do not agree that we are right. We assume they are:

1. Ignorant – they don’t know the facts that we know

2. Idiots – if it becomes clear that they know the facts, but still resist our rightness, we assume they are not smart enough to draw the right conclusion from those facts.

3. Evil – if it is clear they know the facts and are actually quite smart, we resort to the assumption that they are deliberately misconstruing things for malevolent purposes.

I would add two more unfortunate assumptions that seem pretty common:

4. Fearful – those who disagree with me are afraid of what it would mean for them if I am right.

5. Biased – informed, bright, and well-meaning though they might be, those who don’t see things my way must be blinded by biases that prevent them from coming to the proper conclusion.

It is not hard to find examples of these unfortunate assumptions. They are pervasive in our political discourse. And each of them shows up regularly in church debates. The problem is it is always easy to see how those with whom we disagree make these assumptions. It is harder to acknowlege the same assumptions in those with whom we agree. And it is almost impossible to admit them in ourselves.

The truth is (unless I am wrong) some configuration of all of these assumptions is true of each of us all the time.

If we want to resist pride and cultivate humility, we will accept the reality that we are wrong. We will look to our own ignorance, lack of intelligence, maliciousness, fear, and prejudice. And confess them. We will take to heart John Calvin's warning, “There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence.“

If we want to live in charity, we will resist the temptation to bear false witness against our neighbor. Rather than making the “unfortunate assumptions” about those with whom we disagree, we will begin by assuming the opposite of those assumptions.

And we will embrace with sincerity the possibility that we are the ones who are wrong.

I suggest that Christians are both bound to practice such humility and charity and freed to do so. We are bound by the commands of our Lord to do so. We are freed to do so by the fundamental reality of grace that frees us from the obsession with being right and the fear of being wrong.

Perhaps this is what it means to speak the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15).

The truth – as best I understand it and sincerely confessing that I could very well be wrong

In love – with gentleness and reverence toward those who I am trying to persuade (1 Peter 3:15). In love – which, by any Christian account, is more important than being right.
"Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge" 1 Corinthians 8:1-2